Five Benefits of a Limited Palette

Dan Schultz

For the majority of my painting sessions, I use a palette of between 8 and 13 colors. I usually have two versions of each primary color available (one warmer and one cooler in color temperature), plus a few “convenience” colors like cadmium orange, yellow ochre, etc. (They can be mixed using other colors but are nice to have so that I don’t have to spend time mixing them.) But sometimes I opt for a more limited selection of 3 to 5 colors — a “limited palette.”
Generally, a limited palette works best when a version of each primary color is used, plus white. My favorite limited palette is titanium white, cadmium yellow, cadmium red and ivory black (which works as the blue primary since it’s so cool in color temperature). This palette is a variation of the Zorn palette, which I’ve mentioned before.

When I’m using these four colors and I need to change the value of a color mixture, I have two lighter options (titanium white and cadmium yellow) and two darker options (cadmium red and ivory black). When I need to adjust the color temperature of a mixture, I have two warmer options (cadmium yellow and cadmium red) and two cooler options (titanium white and ivory black). Having just two choices in those situations greatly simplifies color mixing, which I think is the best reason for using a limited palette.

There are of course many other color combinations for limiting your palette. Sometimes I limit my palette even more by using just two tube colors plus white. I’ve had good results with transparent oxide red and ultramarine blue plus titanium white. The transparent oxide red is basically a dark orange (yellow + red). So all three primaries are present in this combination too. My painting pictured above (Turning, 12×9 inches, Oil on Linen Panel) was done with this limited palette.

So why might you want to limit your palette colors?

1. To simplify color mixing. When you have fewer colors available, it’s easier to choose the best color to add to any given color mixture.

2. To better understand how your colors work together.

3. To achieve color harmony. Fewer colors means fewer color variations.

4. To more easily recognize and control values and color temperatures.

5. To reduce the weight of supplies in your portable painting pack. Always a plus!

What’s your favorite limited palette?

Apply Your New Knowledge