Sunday, January 6, 2008

Limited Palettes

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.


Brian said...

A great post James.

Some of my favorite watercolor paintings have come from using a few colors I had left on the pallet and seeing what I could come up with. It's a fun challenge and forces you to experiment and see things differently.


Patrick Dizon said...

So, when you're using limited palettes you're not really aiming for the actual color you see, but the correct value relationships.

Thanks again for this informative post!

Anonymous said...

Actually both. When I use super-limited palettes in plein-air work (like the storefront with the EAT sign), I'm trying to stretch as hard as I can to get colors that are impossible to match. In that painting, the purest "green" you can get is blue plus burnt sienna.

With a palette like that it's impossible to match what you see, but the effort of trying forces you to work very cleanly with your color mixing, more so than you would do with a full palette, where you are always greying down the components.

Dean H. said...

Ultramarine blue and burnt sienna have had an honored spot on my palette for many years. I may get away from the combo for awhile, but I always enjoy returning to it. Great for darks and graying. I have really enjoyed your discussion on limited palette today.


Anonymous said...

i love thise sunday´s posts

Anonymous said...


so does this mean that if i like glory lane i'm a fool? haha, because i think that painting is awsome!

is that for another book? or is it already out?

indiaartist said...

Great posting! Informative as usual. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. This is something I've been considering.

Michael Lukyniuk said...

As a 'colour-challenged' painter, I find this series very interesting. I still rely on a few greens and blues in my general pallet as a sort of security blanket, but I may try to go without some of them and see what happens.
I also like the idea of using only two or three colours for a nearly monotone effect. This can have some stunning results as you have shown us.
Thanks once again for a stimulating series.

Christopher said...

I loved that Glory Lane painting! It was one of my favorite books as a kid too.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Gator and Christopher: I had fun with Glory Lane. It was the cover for a great novel by Alan Dean Foster in the 1980s. The scene shows a punker named Seeth from Albuquerque arriving on another planet, completely outclassed by the weird alien life there. The fish aliens on the left are carrying the box for the UPC code.

Maybe there's an aesthetic principle here: whether good taste or bad, if you push any visual idea to the extreme (in this case lots of detail and loud colors) it almost works somehow.

Frank Gardner said...

I like Glory Lane too.
I work with a limited palette and it works for me.
I really think about what color I need and how to get it instead of guessing which color is closest to what I need and like you said, graying it.
I have really enjoyed the last few posts James.
Just wish commentors would use their name and not anonymous. Have been trying to find a nice way to say that and this is the best I could come up with.

Frank Gardner said...

I see you have started using anonymous too.
(comment 11)

Linda said...

I really enjoy working with a limited palette - for me, the colors are french ultramarine, burnt umber, and titanium white.

While a limited palette unifies the entire composition, it also allows for a splash of color to make a dramatic impact. (For example, a red bow seems a lot brighter when it's the only strong color in the composition)

I really enjoy reading these informative posts! :)

-- Linda

Anonymous said...

Yes, that Anonymous (#11) is me, but it was an accident. I just forgot to type in my name.

Linda, I'm glad you brought up that point about dropping in a splash of contrasting color outside of the range of the limited palette. The risk with limited palettes is dullness, and those little tasty accents are the cure!

ZD said...

Your examples are always great.

I like doing portraits with 2 or 3 colors, but I've never tried it with landscapes. I should try that.

After your last sunday post I cliked on one of the links one of the commenters posted, and the website they linked to said the real primary colors are a certain shade of cyan, yellow, and magenta. They said red, blue and yellow are outdated. I was wondering what you think about this theory.

Kevin Hedgpeth said...

Great Sunday post!

Franz Hals did some incredible paintings with a very limited palette; especially later in his career.

ZD said...

Also I just noticed the last picture is not showing up. (The one done with black, white, and burnt sienna)

Anonymous said...

You reminded me about Hals, Rembrandt, and Velasquez, who did some of their greatest masterpieces with amazingly few colors. Does anyone know the exact pigments they used?

As you may already know, the basic primaries of red, yellow, and blue apply to paint pigments, but not to printing inks, which are a little different. And the primaries of light itself are different altogether.

This is beyond the scope of what I can deal with on my blog, but I'll recommend "," specifically the link: for a thorough and technical discussion of primaries.

SeBentley said...

Titanium or Zinc white, plus Alizarin Crimson, Hansa Yellow light, and Ultramarine blue are a glorious color combination. Especially if you're having trouble getting colors to relate to each other, these three primaries correspond really well with each other. Though I feel like I've used with Hansa yellow medium instead, depending on my mood and the subject matter.

Hansa is a good substitute for cadmium if you'd like to buy less expensive and less toxic paints, and was recommended by a teacher. And by recommendation, I mean, I had to buy it for class.

But yes, limited color palettes, I've found, can save a beginners life if you start to get off track wtih color. Especially skin tones.

jeff said...

Great thread James.
The so called Zorn palette of Flake white, Yellow Ocher, Cad Red Lt. and Ivory black. Zorn is the one who got into using black a lot for his blues.

17 century colors:

Lead White.

Yellows: Lead Tin Yellow, Yellow Ochre, Orpiment, Lead Antimonate (Naples Yellow)

Reds: Vermilion,Earth Reds, Red Ochre, Cinnabar,Minium (Red Lead),
Hematite(kind of like alizarin)

Blues: Azurite, Lapis Lazuli(Ultramarine Blue),Blue Ochre (Vivianite), Indigo, Smalt, Blue Bice.

Greens: Malachite, Green Earth (Celadonite), Cold Green Earth (Glauconite), Verona Green Earth, Green Bice.

Earth colors, Ochres from blue to orange, Sienna's, Umbra's.

Bone Black(Ivory), Mineral black,
Vine Black.

The old masters had more colors than we think, the idea of limited palettes that are being talked about here are from the 19 century
when painting outside became possible. Turner and Constable painted out of doors but it was not that easy as they did not have tubes yet as we know them.

You can find all the colors mentioned at:

For those interested:

Constable’s metal paint box c.1837; Containing eleven paint bladders, a piece of white stone and a glass phial of blue pigment.

According to this information and our research, the oil palette of John Constable most likely consisted of the following colors:

* Lapis lazuli (lazurite) Constable thought artificial ultramarine inferior to the natural pigment, and it was little used following its invention in 1826-8. It was therefore unlikely to have been used by Constable during his lifetime.
* Cobalt blue This pigment became available to artists at the beginning of the 19th century, and so it may not have been used in his earliest works.
* Emerald green
* Chrome yellow
* Vermilion
* Madder lake
* Lead white

Of course, it is likely he used umber, Sienna and ochre pigments as there is evidence of these colors in his work. Other colors that were available at the time Constable was working include:

* Prussian blue
* Cobalt green
* Brunswick green
* Scheele's green
* Chromium oxide green (opaque variety)
* Indian yellow
* Patent yellow
* Chrome orange

Anonymous said...

Yes, yes, thank you. I find your how-to comments very helpful, and I love reading your blog. Any comments on drawing would be a bonus for me! Judy

Marc said...


Great post. I have been reading blog for about 60 days and love it!!!

I have two relative "newbie" questions on limited palette. I am sold on concept, but have confusion in details:

1) Do you vary base colors depending on medium (oil v. watercolor)?

2) How about transparent v. opaque? I like layered transparent washes, but also want opaque sometimes. . . I am thinking of around 8 colors for watercolor box with Cad yellow/Transparent Yellow, Cad Red/Aliz Crimson, Winsor Blue, Ult Blue, Burnt Sienna, and White. Or am I just over complicating things?

3) I like almost none of the greens on the market; the exception is Winsor green in waterscapes. Besides permanence issues, I think Hooker's green, sap green, etc. make predictable and flat foliage. I would be interested in hearing your view.

Anonymous said...

Watercolors do have a slightly different set of colors. My wife, who watercolors more than I do, swears by gamboge, for example.

Whether you're using oil or water-based media, all colors change when you go from transparent to opaque. Generally they get cooler, duller, and flatter.

So it takes some work to get opaque passages to sparkle the way transparents will do automatically. You can experiment with this either with oils or with watercolor and its opaque cousin, gouache.

The colors you suggested look great, but I'm told that alizarin crimson is not too permanent. Also, I think you're better off without greens at first until you're really used to mixing them from primaries.

chuck pyle said...

James, I am recommnding this blog as a discussion topic for my faculty.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Wonderful post -- limiting the palette is one of my favorite subjects. I work in colored pencil, so mixing is a bit harder because even the different values of the same color is a different pencil, but I use a fairly limited palette with them. I have students who have the basic 120 color set and use all of them . . . I probably use 15 colors on most of my portraits.

Jason Waskey said...

I saw Glory Lane in a Society of Illustrators show in New York a couple of years after I had read the book (it was the cover that attracted me).

I remember being blown away by the painting in person.

The 'every color possible' was perfect for the subject matter portrayed in the book.

Another stellar post!

vrkaya said...

Just found your site during the past week and all this info you pass on is just great. Even went out and bought your newest Dinotopia - excellent reproductions and love the brushwork.

I really enjoy these plein air and limited palette topics because I've been wanting to do this with oils.

For your palette, do you mix it before you go out to paint?

When painting, are you starting with the same underpainting washes that you show in your dinotopia demos?


James Gurney said...

Thanks so much, and I'm glad you're enjoying the book. Here are the quick answers, though I hope to give more detail in a future post about plein air methods.

I choose a limited palette on the spot, or premix the colors I'll be using. And my plein air method is different from what I do in the studio. I don't use pencil at all, but just dive in with paint on an oil primed board. The post from October 26 shows the palette for a given painting.

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James Gurney said...

Note to commentators: I've been removing spam comments. That's why you see the deletions above.

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Patrick Dizon said...

Hi, James! What colors make a limited palette? Can you just choose any random colors and just use that as your limited palette?


James Gurney said...

Pat, yes you can! They don't have to be what we think of as primaries. Some can be high in chroma, like cadmium orange, and some can be dull. It's a matter of experimentation. You can start with three colors and white and just see what range of colors you can come up with.

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Julia Lundman said...

Hi James,

I am painting something for my Christmas card this year and decided to try a limited palette of red and green. However, I'm finding it a bit challenging. have you ever tried this palette? If so, do you have any tips on specific colors?

Thanks for the awesome blog. I read it all the time!


James Gurney said...

Hi, Julia, I think the key is to use the red and green in lots of variations of hue, value, and chroma, plus a little warm (yellow ochre) here and there for variety. There is a great example of a red-green painting by Harry Anderson in the new color and light book.

Schnider said...

Sir, Is there a proper way of arranging and mixing colors in a palette?

James Gurney said...

Schnider, that's a big question. The quick answer is no, there's no proper way, but many choices depending on what you want to accomplish. There's more on both palette layouts and color mixing on the blog and in my book. My own methods vary from painting to painting. Sometimes I only squeeze out three colors and free-mix them. Other times I set out a wide range and carefully mix color strings.

Schnider said...

sir, is it true that a gray palette is better than a white palette? why?

Fred Fields said...

Thanks Jim,
I've done a couple of paintings with the Zorn palette lately. I'd not heard of the Stobart palette. I want to try it!


James Whitehurst said...

This will most likely go unnoticed....But is there a color similar to Winsor red in Casein?

James Gurney said...

James, look for any pigment that says PR 188 (napthol) or PR 254 (pyrrole). However, I'm not aware of Richeson casein having any warm, opaque, high-chroma reds other than caseins.

Cathy said...

Great info on limited palettes! Would a limited palette of Gamboge, PY150, Quin Red, Scarlet, Ultra, Cerulean,
Yellow Ochre and B Sienna work? I've bought so many paints and used so many other artists paint selections but my paintings do not look cohesive. Thanks for your help!

James Gurney said...

Cathy, yes, you could. That palette has a lot of chroma in all the primaries, so you might need to gray down two of the primaries and just let one color go full strength. Think of that one color as the soloist in the concerto and the others as backup orchestra. And don't forget to have a strong value design for the picture, and some intermediate grays. Save your bright color for important accents.

Unknown said...

Thanks a lot! Probably my question is supid, but did you use white in your color wheels? If not how did you manage to make the hues lighter?

Unknown said...

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