A Limited Palette That Won't Cramp Your Style

Would it surprise you if I told you I painted the portrait above with only 4 colors? Can you guess which colors?

Like I said last time, the very best color palette isn’t necessarily one with many colors (See "The Very Best Color Palette"). Rather, the very best color palette is the one that will help you mix the colors in your subject most efficiently. So how do you know which colors these would be?

Well, it's normally a good idea to have at least a red, a yellow and a blue on your palette* (plus the ever-essential white).

*Disclaimer: That is, unless you wish to interpret your
subject non-literally, (e.g. a monochromatic painting).

To determine which red, yellow, and blue, look at your subject and ask yourself these questions:
  • What is the strongest red present?
  • What is the strongest yellow present?
  • What is the strongest blue present?

If you have a red, yellow and blue on your palette that can represent the intensities and general colors of the strongest red, yellow and blue in your subject, you probably have all the colors you need to paint your subject convincingly.

But to mix your subject's colors more efficiently, you may certainly add colors to your palette as necessary. For example, I like having an earth tone color on my palette. Sure, I can mix earth tones with my 3 primaries, but it’s so much quicker (more efficient) when I already have an earth tone on my palette.

You might be thinking, "But I don't want to just add plain ol' earth tones to my palette. I want to add some 'fun' colors!" I get it—really, I do. I like "fun" colors too. But most of the time, I only use them when they're necessary (more on that in a sec).

Now, let me tell you which 4 colors I used for the portrait at the top (as well as the girl above and the girl with the hat below). I used the color palette made famous by Swedish painter Anders Zorn (1860–1920), which consists of only yellow ochre, vermillion (like cad red light), ivory black and white.

At first, this limited palette might seem very limited indeed, but look at the wide range of color possible with this palette (below)!

In the image above, you'll notice a very surprising effect. Remember how I said that you normally need at least a red, a yellow and a blue on your palette? Well, even though the Zorn palette doesn't call for a blue paint, mixing the black and white together produces a cold gray that looks blue compared to the other colors!

I learned just how efficient this Zorn "blue" can be when I used it to paint Andrea in blue jeans. To my astonishment, mixing just black and white almost perfectly matched the color of Andrea's blue jeans! If I had tried to mix the jean color by starting out with blue paint, I would have had to spend a lot of time graying down that blue with other colors. Thus, in this case, the Zorn palette was more efficient than a palette without black, because it enabled me to mix the proper color more quickly.

In art school, I didn't understand why a painter would want to use a limited palette. Why would anyone want to have "limits," especially with something so wonderful as color? To me, a limited palette seemed like a shortcut to make things easier.

What I didn't understand was this—artists like Zorn and Sargent didn't need to use limited palettes to make things easier. They could have made masterpieces with full color palettes as well. Rather, they used limited palettes because they are often more efficient for mixing the colors that actually exist in the subject. When Zorn's subjects required colors outside the range of his limited palette, he would add appropriate colors to his palette. Evidently, Zorn had "fun" colors too!

Personally, I think all colors are "fun." But there are some paintings that call for really "fun" colors. Next time, I'll share specifically which "fun" colors I used in these 2 paintings (Read "'Fun' Colors and When to Use Them":

See you then!

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The Very Best Color Palette

Do you feel like a kid in a candy store when you gaze upon the seemingly endless options of paint colors at the art store? Sooo many beautiful colors, but alas—so little room on one's palette (and often, so few bucks in the art budget). And to make things even more difficult, each time you take a workshop with someone new, you're required to buy several new colors. That was fun in the beginning, but now you have a "31-flavor" palette with no room left to actually mix paint. You're left wondering, "which colors do I really need? What is the very best color palette?"

To start answering these questions, I'll share which colors I typically have on my palette.

Note: All paints are the Rembrandt brand unless
otherwise noted. My wife, Andrea, and I like Rembrandt
paints because of their high quality and affordable prices.
 However, we continually try and experiment
with various brands and colors

My Essential Palette

If I had to choose only 4 MVP's (Most Valuable Paints), they would probably be these.

(L to R):

  1. Cadmium (or permanent) lemon yellow
  2. Cadmium (or permanent) red medium
  3. Ultramarine blue deep
  4. Titanium-zinc white (Gamblin)

These 4 colors provide a huge range of color that I find more than sufficient for most subjects. Many artists use some variation of the 3 primary colors (yellow, red, blue) plus white, because these colors can be mixed to represent every other basic color. The moral of the story? You don't need many colors on your palette.

That being said, I admit I usually have quite a few colors squeezed out…

My "Convenience" Palette

(L to R):
  1. Cadmium (or permanent) lemon yellow
  2. Cadmium (or permanent) yellow medium
  3. Yellow Ocre
  4. Cadmium (or permanent) orange (Rembrandt or Utrecht)
  5. Cadmium (or permanent) red medium
  6. Permanent Alizarin Crimson (Gamblin)
  7. Transparent Orange (Gamblin)
  8. Transparent Oxide Red
  9. Viridian
  10. Cerulean blue (Utrecht)
  11. Cobalt blue (Lukas)
  12. Ultramarine blue deep
  13. Ivory black
  14. Titanium-zinc white (Gamblin)  
Note: I only use cerulean and cobalt blue occasionally,
as I usually find ultramarine sufficient for representing
most blues I encounter in nature.

Although my Essential Palette provides a huge range of color that I find more than sufficient for most subjects, my Convenience Palette often makes color mixing more convenient. Here's an example:
Let's say I need to make a color greener.
With my Essential Palette, I would need to add both yellow and blue.
But with my Convenience Palette, I might only need to add viridian.
Reaching for one color instead of two can save time.

Furthermore, my Convenience Palette allows me to reach some highly saturated (intense) colors that are beyond the range of my Essential Palette. Having these colors can be helpful, but only if my subject calls for them. Otherwise, they tend to take up space and make color mixing more complicated than necessary.

Learn to Paint Dynamic
Portraits & Figures In Oil

Choosing the perfect color palette one thing. Creating a compelling painting is another! In my online video course, I'll show you how I communicate the beauty of portraits and figures from start to finish.

The course will launch in Fall 2018, but you can start the course today for free! For more info, please click the button below.

Learn More About Online Video Course

The Very Best Color Palette

So what is the very best color palette? Well, it may or may not be one of the palettes I mentioned above. 

Like I said, the very best color palette is not necessarily one with many colors. Rather, the very best color palette is the one that will help you mix the colors in your subject most efficiently. How do you determine which colors these would be? That's what I'll share next time in A Limited Palette That Won't Cramp Your Style.

See you then!