Monday, October 26, 2015

Limited palettes

 Limited palettes are useful but which colors do you pick? You really can use just 3 colors with watercolor and tackle a lot of subjects (in fact you can paint some subjects with 2 colors...really!). In oils it's a LOT harder (in fact you need at least a 4th color, white). For this post we'll address watercolor and maybe hit oils another time.
Ease of mixing and reproducing those mixes.
Harmonious color

Limitations :
The darkest color in the triad is the darkest value you can mix - in fact adding one of the other colors will  lighten it to some degree. It's necessary to match your triad to your subject for it's value range. Usually the blue is the darkest component, so a triad with cerulean wouldn't be ideal for a subject with strong darks.

With any triad you need the primaries or their rough equivalents to mix secondaries. Regardless which 3 colors you choose, at least one secondary will be dull; that is, not a true orange, green or purple. Often 2 will be dull and all 3 will be dull if you select a low chroma triad, like ultramarine, burnt sienna and yellow ochre. It's also necessary to match your triad to your subject for color chroma. The bias of your components will affect your mixes: A violet bias red like alizarin makes clear purples but dull oranges. Cad red makes better oranges but earthy purples. Prussian or pthalo blue bias toward green so that's their strong suit in mixes. Ultramarine has the edge with purples.

Some triad palettes with their strengths and limitations:

Ultramarine, burnt sienna and yellow ochre
: Good natural earth tones and greys. Very dull orange, no real purple and your greens will be medium to low chroma. Darkest color is ultramarine  + burnt sienna which can go nearly black. A very traditional palette and surprisingly versatile despite its limitations. All 3 colors lift easily if that's a requirement.

Ultramarine, alizarin or equivalent and cadmium or hansa yellow: Vibrant purples. Vibrant greens except in the blue green range. A slightly dull orange which can almost mimic burnt sienna. Strongest dark is purple-ish. Good earth tones can definitely be mixed from all 3 components but requires care.

Prussian blue, alizarin and hansa yellow: Very vibrant greens including the bluish greens. Good purples, same orange as above and similar purplish dark. Substitute pthalo blue and quinacridone rose for a highly transparent looking palette. Again great earth tones are possible but tricky to mix.


  1. Does the limited palette help with keeping the colors from getting muddy? It's amazing the range of color and values you achieved with each of these limited palette combinations. I think I have been so focused on which pigments are transparent, which opaque - that I have not paid enough attention to value and have been frustrated that a lot of my watercolors don't have enough value variation. So these last three posts have been very helpful. I get the concepts - let's see if I can apply. Thanks!

  2. No, mud is its own problem so I'm addressing it in its own post.

  3. I agree it is amazing the range you have with the limited palette. I often start with a limited palette but give in to frustration. Thanks for sharing.

  4. They definitely seem to work better for watercolor than oil. Not quite sure why that is, though I suspect it has something to do with white lowering the chroma and cooling the mixes.