Monday, September 17, 2012

"Limited Palettes"

"Red Bandana", 4&1/2 x 4&1/2 oil on linen

The subject of palettes, open or limited, seems to eventually come up again and again in classes, workshops, or conversation. Yesterday afternoon, I decided to paint two small studies with a limited palette of five colors. I generally always squeeze out a full open palette on a daily basis. This is how I learned, and I have always started with an open palette. That does not mean that I always use every color that is before me…..and as a result, I waste, or scrape off a lot of unused paint. If one checks out the pigments that are being used, generally it comes down to a very limited palette. It isn’t a conscious thing, unless I intend to use a limited number of colors from the beginning as I have done in the two small paintings in this posting.

Limited palettes can be any combinations of colors one chooses. There are traditional limited palettes like the well known , and probably most famous, Zorn palette. The Zorn palette is Ivory Black, White, Vermilion, yellow ochre. This is a very limited palette. I believe from studying his work that some of his paintings must have included some kind of blue….which would still make this a very limited palette. The point here is that it doesn’t matter. Experiment and choose a palette that suits your needs. A limited palette will give one a more harmonious color balance, and the unity of color seems to always be more reasonable and acceptable. An open palette is great if some restraint is used….if not used properly, it can get out of control colorful….and that is one’s personal preference. Some folks like very colorful, saturated work. I tend to be drawn to a more naturalistic sense of color. I certainly know from experience, and have painted my share of these types of failed paintings, or what I consider failed efforts. My storage is jammed with good quality linen with bad images on them that need to be sanded down and re-primed.

"The white Robe", 7 x 4 &1/2 oil on linen
These two images were painted with an intentional limited palette. The pigments used were, Indian red, ultra-marine blue deep, yellow ochre, Titanium white, and Cad red medium. I think as long as one has the capacity to make warm colors and cool colors, it really does not matter….it is one’s personal choice. Color in my opinion is not as important as value and proper temperature. Matching color can be a huge waste of time. One could spend all of a class time trying to match color, and never quite get it, so why do that….the integrity of the color of the subject is all that is required if drawing is good, value is right, etc. I’m sure most have probably tried, or use a limited palette, but if not, definitely give it a try. If nothing else, it might take you out of your comfort zone….which can sometimes be a very positive thing. It will also help to learn more about mixing colors, rather than just dipping into a color that is part of your palette. Thanks for listening to my ramblings.


  1. Here here my friend. I agree whole-heartedly.

    1. Hey Peter, great to hear that from you. It is always nice to be on the same page with artists whose work one admires and respects. Thanks my friend!