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Limited palettes

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.

Posted in art materials, color, painting.

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  1. Hal Wilcox says

    thanks, Jan. I will exper­i­ment with the lim­ited palettes approach. As a rank begin­ner, I had hoped to learn more paint­ing tech­niques in a more struc­tured class for­mat. There is so much to learn, it is easy to feel at sea. I would have pre­ferred focus­ing on a cou­ple of tech­niques at each 2 hour ses­sion, which you could cri­tique, but per­haps you had already done that ear­lier in the year or such basics would have been wasted on your more advanced students.

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