Every Sunday I’ve been sharing some thoughts about color, and today I want to touch on limited palettes.
When we were in grade school we all envied the other kid who owned the giant-size Crayola set. In the art store we still ogle the all the delicious colors.
But it’s a good idea to limit the range of color pigments or the “palette” that you use on any particular painting. There are at least four good reasons to limit your palette.
1. If you have all the colors squeezed out around the edges of your mixing surface, you might tend to use them all in a single picture. I present my own book cover illustration, called “Glory Lane,” as a negative example. I did this painting as an experiment in bad taste. This is what happens if you use every color in the spectrum and fill the whole canvas with details. Visual cacophony!
2. If you construct a picture out of fewer colors, the resulting mixtures are more likely to be unified and harmonious—and more interesting. Every color you mix is automatically related. It’s easier to convey a mood or to explore strange realms you wouldn’t normally choose. Magazine illustrators in the 1920s and 30s were often required to paint in two-color palettes, like the black and orange painting above by Mead Schaeffer. The two-color discipline made those old illustrators into very resourceful colorists.
I painted this head study in a sketch group with just a blue and black and just a hint of warm. I wouldn’t have tried this color scheme if I weren’t forced to by a limited palette. Below is the actual color of her forehead, the warmest the colors ever get in this scheme:
3. The third reason to limit the palette is to force yourself away of color mixing habits. If you have colors called “flesh tone” and “grass green,” you’ll probably reach for them when you’re painting skin or a lawn.
It’s a good idea every once in a while to leave of all your browns and greens in the cabinet and mix them from the primary colors instead. The legendary background painter of museum dioramas, James Perry Wilson, never used browns or black because he wanted to keep his mixtures more pure. There’s nothing wrong with black or brown or green, but you should know how to mix color without them, too.
You can make color wheel tests to preview the range of possibilities with limited palettes. Click to enlarge and see their component colors. Painting from one of these limited sets is like writing music for a string quartet instead of for a symphony orchestra.
4. The final reason to consider limited palettes is that they’re portable and you can save money. In fact you can paint almost anything in nature with just four or five colors. There are a lot of limited palettes that still give you a full range of mixtures. Below: a plein-air painting I did in Windham, New York.
One simplified palette that I particularly like for landscape painting in oil is from John Stobart in his excellent book, “The Pleasures of Painting Outdoors.” He recommends:
Cadmium Yellow Light, Winsor Red, Burnt Sienna, Ultramarine Blue Deep, Permanent Green (optional), and Titanium White.
You can get a good “black” from Burnt Sienna and Ultramarine. This is a good palette to use in miniature plein air kits, like thumb boxes. You can paint almost anything in nature with Stobart’s six colors.
Sometimes, like a madman on a crash diet, I like to jettison even more colors from this already spartan palette. Here’s a painting that I did with just White, Ultramarine Blue, Burnt Sienna, and Winsor Red. Doing without green or yellow was a challenge, but I enjoyed pushing the limits.
Here’s another painting with just black, white, and burnt sienna. I starved myself from blue, yellow, and red. The reason was that I just wanted to think about form, not color.
There are lots of other formulations for limited palettes, both for oils and watercolors, but that’s enough from me. Your turn. Please chime in.