Using a limited palette in oil painting

I was watching a video recently of a young artist who was painting en plein air.  The narrator commented that he uses 37 different oil colors.  Wow, I thought, that’s a lot of tubes of paint.  Doesn’t he know anything about mixing colors?

As a young artist, I remember the allure of all the wonderful tubes of colors that dazzled my eyes when I visited an art supply store.  How tempting it was to stock up on every color.  I didn’t because I couldn’t afford to but will admit that I knew little about the individual properties of the colors and paints.  Now, after 30 years, I probably know a bit more than I did then (but there’s always room for improvement.  For instance, other than just the medium, oil colors are often quite different from watercolors.

Over the years I have pared down my oil palette to just seven colors plus white.  Some of this was necessitated by hiking or biking with my art gear; i.e., to cut down on the weight and bulk.  But I arrived at much of the limited palette as I became more accomplished in color mixing.

Limited palette: Clockwise from Titanium White, Cerulean Blue, Cobalt Blue, Alizarin Crimson, Cad Red Med, Burnt Sienna, Cad Lemon, Naples Yellow

For instance, here in the Ohio Valley of the Midwest, we are blessed (or cursed) with an infinite number of greens, which change for the seasons.  From the pinky or yellow spring greens to the rusty fall greens, the hazy blue/purple greens prevalent during the hot summer months, to the cool dark greens of deep shadows and autumn.  I can mix any shade of green with my limited palette.  The colors I use are  warm and cool shades of blue, red, and yellow, plus burnt sienna and white.  The exact palette is:

  • Cerulean blue
  • Cobalt blue
  • Alizarin crimson
  • Cadmium red medium
  • Cadmium lemon
  • Naples yellow
  • Burnt sienna
  • Titanium white

That’s it.  Although I have a passion for Cobalt Violet, I try to restrain myself from using it very often.  With this limited palette, I can mix any shade of flesh color, greens for landscapes, brilliant colors for still lifes, darks for those areas that need darks.  I also find that using a limited palette gives my work a much more cohesiveness than if I dotted it with many different colors.  Below is an example of a variety of paintings all created with this set of colors.

A Walk in the Big Woods 20×24 oil

Behind My Studio, Summer Day 11×14 oil

East Field in Spring 11×14 oil

Other artists may use slightly different colors but you will find that professional artists also find a limited palette best.  For some more information about color mixing, I recommend Richard Schmid’s book, Alla Prima – Everything I Know About Painting.

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One response to “Using a limited palette in oil painting

  1. Pingback: Using a limited palette in oil painting | my90acres

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