Working With A Limited Palette of Colors

by Neadeen Masters on July 31, 2011

Why work with a limited palette of colors?

Whether you are painting with acrylic paint, painting with oil paints or watercolors, limiting your palette of colors means you make a conscious decision to use only a few colors on your palette at one time. There are several reasons why artists choose to do this. Traditionally a limited palette of colors meant that you used 2 or 3 colors alone. Technically, with 3 colors you could mix all the colors of the spectrum.

In theory that is correct, but in reality it is not so. In the 19th century, the invention of modern pigments has changed the way we look at a limited palette. We have much more choice than artists did over the last thousand years. However, with choice comes confusion. Today we need to be more savvy when it comes to selecting our oil and acrylic pigments based on a specific characteristics of each pigment. The choice of acrylic and oil paint colors is amazing and for any artist it is like eye candy!  For the new artist that is learning to paint, it can be downright overwhelming!

Understanding a limited palette of colors - Learn to paint - Art Apprentice Online Art School

Limited palette of colors – Three Primary colors plus Black and White

Some artists chose to include black and white as well as the three primary colors of red, yellow and blue. It may seem simple, but which blue, which yellow and which red do you choose? The best selection will take some serious thought, and a little understanding so that each of the 3 primary colors provide a wide enough range for interest and punch! It is very difficult to work with only 3 colors. White can be mixed with each color to create many tints and black used to create the tones of darker hues. But if we like brilliant color, this limits our ability to create vibrant results in our paintings as both white and black will dull and tone color.

Most artists do not choose to include black. Instead black or very dark values are suggested through the mixing of colors. Doing so will give us a more complex black with hints of other shades rather than using a flat black that comes from a tube or bottle. Some artists replace black with the addition of a deep green pigment, as green and red will also make interesting dark colors. Experimentation with pigments is the only way to learn the subtle nuances that come with each pigment.

Primary Pigments - Art Apprentice Online Art School

Earth Pigments and your palette of colors

Some artists choose to work with only earth pigments. Limiting their palette of colors to the subtle nuances and differences of hue that come from the burnt and raw umbers, ochre, oxides and sienna’s. Each artist will have a different reason for selecting a specific range of hues for their limited palette.

Several things to consider with a limited palette

If one does go this route with a limited palette, there are several things to consider…this means selecting pigments that will give the artist the ability to mix adequate dark values, provide mixing convenience, and won’t reduce our mixes to boring drab colors. We need to select colors that possess enough saturation and brilliance to avoid monotonous results when mixing paint colors. An artist can include upwards of six colors and still be considered using a limited palette of colors. Usually for the greatest success, the artist will choose a warm and cool red, a warm and cool yellow and a warm and cool blue. Temperature contrasts in each hue family provide excellent mixing results, especially when the addition of a warm and cool blue is added to a primary red and yellow. However it must be noted that there is no such thing as a true primary red, yellow or blue. Color is always relative, so there will always be color shifts one way or the other when two colors are compared to each other.

The palette may relate to the painting method – select palette colors wisely!

With the invention of modern pigments, today many artists choose to work with a much wider range of pigments beyond red, yellow and blue. However they still limit their palette to just a few colors. The pigments they choose may be directly related to the painting method they use. For example direct painting versus indirect. The difference will lie in the opacity of the pigments chosen. Direct painting methods rely on more opaque color while indirect painting methods include transparent applications.

Some artists also like to include their favorite pigments, and they like to use convenience colors. The purists might frown at this, however having a great color that works for your needs is simply good practice. This shouldn’t be looked down upon. There are many wonderful pre-mixed greens, and blues that serve us well. Certain shades and hues simply cannot be mixed from the small range of 3 primary colors.  Anyone who knows paint, will tell you, it all depends on the specific pigments and their mixing properties such as chroma, temperature and opacity.  At the end of the day, a limited palette of colors simply means that we are working with pure pigments, we mix most of our colors and we limit the numbers of paint families or hues to just a few artists pure pigments.

***The main reason for working with a limited palette of colors…it is easier to create color relationships with a limited palette of color. Good color relationships results in good color harmony.

To learn more about pigments, color mixing and color relationships… the Art Apprentice Online Art School offers many online classes where color is explained. If you are painting with acrylics you can choose from a wide range of color classes and open your eyes to the amazing world of color!

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