Thursday, February 11, 2021

How do you choose limited-palette colors?

On Instagram yesterday, @leetheillustrator asked: "How do you decide on what colours to include when selecting a limited colour palette?" 

Leeds, oil, 11 x 14 inches

Answer: In my experience, a limited palette can be made out of almost any two or three colors, as long as they're separated from each other on the color wheel. Ideally at one should be cool and the other should be warm.  

In this case I often choose the colors that seem most important in the scene. In this case it was the red signs versus the blue of the sky. They're not complements (red and green would be), but they're warm vs. cool.

But when choosing colors, the goal is often not to select which colors you want to include, but rather which ones you want to leave out, for interesting color schemes result from what you've left out of them.
Catskill Roadhouse, East Durham, New York. Casein, 5x8 inches. 
Cadmium red scarlet, ultramarine blue, and titanium white over a yellow underpainting.

For this painting I used ultramarine blue and cadmium red scarlet, together with white, and I left out yellow and green. The red and blue colors are near-complements, and I'm painting over a surface primed with yellow. The yellow is about 95% covered up, but where it peeks through, it energizes the color scheme like a pinch of spice. 

Here's a video that shows that painting in the works: Link to YouTube.

You might try orange + violet + white over a cyan underpainting, or yellow + cyan + white over magenta. You can also introduce black, either as an accent if you want to deepen the darks, or if you want to use it as a color of its own (such as black + orange + white over blue).

A two-color-plus-white palette has some advantages:
1. It's extremely fast to set it up and get it running. 
2. It's good for beginners because it reduces your choices to light or dark and warm or cool.
3. It puts you into realms of color that you would never think of if you had all the color choices available.
 TRIADS: Painting with Three Colors"  (plus white) is the subject of my recent Gumroad video


Adam Rex said...

Lately I've been thinking of red and cyan as truer compliments, based on a CMY-as-primaries color wheel. But you've given this a lot more thought than I have—do you think there's anything to that idea?

James Gurney said...

Hey, Adam, great to hear from you. You're right: cyan and red are true complements on the photoshop/digital/Yurmby color wheel. That wheel maps the perceptual complements, too, the ones that are paired up as afterimages. But they don't exactly correspond to pigment mixing complements, which might be closer to red and green. Here's a good deeper explanation of that idea: