One way to put together a palette is to deliberately use just a few colors of paint. A limited palette is any group of six or fewer paints (plus white) chosen for how harmoniously they mix with each other, as opposed to a color theory palette selected for a wide range of hues and the highest possible chroma. Limited palettes often focus on earth colors, since they harmonize well together. They usually include paints from the warm side and the cool side of the hue circle (although the cool may just be a black) and often make use of mixing complements.
Any small grouping of paint colors will do. Here are a few useful limited palettes:
- Burnt sienna and ultramarine blue.
- Raw sienna and ultramarine blue.
- Yellow ochre, alizarin crimson, and black.
- Yellow ochre, alizarin crimson, burnt umber, and black.
- Yellow ochre, alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, and black.
- Cadmium red and black.
- Black (and white).
- Black and burnt umber (and white).
(Note that you can substitute a more lightfast pigment for alizarin crimson, such as pyrol ruby.)
As you can see, with these palettes there are hues and chromas that can’t be mixed, only suggested. Often, by using warm/cool contrasts, you can create the impression of colors that aren’t actually there. The classic example is creating the illusion of bright blue eyes using only a mixed grey from black and white, by placing warm yellows, reds, and oranges nearby. Many master figure painters juxtapose warm flesh tones with colors that look cool, but are actually warm/neutral. In doing so they often make deliberate use of a very limited set of paints. Because you are using so few colors, you become intimately familiar with how each of your few paints mixes with each of the others, and how various mixtures work when set against each other.
The lessened range of hue and chroma that are characteristic of a limited palette create a sense of harmony. Each part of the painting is consistent with every other part, and a group of paintings made with the same limited set of colors makes a series that is obviously related. It is harder to achieve realism with a limited palette, but once you are comfortable with a certain set of colors it can be surprising how seldom that seems like a serious limitation.
When selecting the particular paints to use, be aware that not all “raw siennas” are the same. Paints labeled identically by different manufacturers can have radically different masstone, undertone, color mixing, transparency, or other characteristics. That is particularly true with earth colors, which are often really synthetic oxides these days. So if you get used to having ultramarine blue and burnt sienna work beautifully together, you may find that if you switch brands (or even get a different batch) that wonderful balance of color isn’t quite so perfect. If you find a perfect paint, you may want to get an extra couple of tubes, because that perfection may not be available forever.