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?

If you want to capture the colors in your subject, 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 further down). 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 of the range of his limited palette, he would add the appropriate colors to his palette. Evidently, Zorn had "fun" colors too!

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Portraits & Figures In Oil

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Choosing the perfect color palette one thing. Creating a compelling painting is quite another! In my online video course, I'll show you how I communicate the beauty of portraits and figures from start to finish. You can start the course today for FREE! For more information, please click the button below.

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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:

See you next time for Fun Colors & When to Use Them!


  1. Oo my gosh, Are these paintings? I thought they are the real photographs. I never know that somebody can paint in that much great way. Your paintings made me astonished. Great work

  2. loving your course and your blog posts.



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