A limited palette simply means that we restrict the colors used to a small number of predetermined paint tubes. You can mix most of the paint you need with only 5 basic colors. Add the 3 optional colors and you can paint any subject and get good realistic color.
I recommend the following Basic Colors:
Cadmium Red Medium
Cadmium Yellow Medium
These colors can be useful but are optional:
If you paint a lot of landscapes you may wish to add Sap Green, Pthalo Green and Prussian Blue to your palette of colors. For floral painting I find Magenta and Permanent Rose are essential, and when painting a portrait I like to add Venetian Red to my choices.
I limit my selection of paints for several reasons. First I want to have good color harmony. This is easiest to achieve if I use just a few colors. Also I want my students to learn to mix paint. With only the 5 basic colors it’s a simple matter to learn to mix almost any hue and repeat the mix later. I believe almost anyone can learn to mix by eye just as a musician can play by ear.
There is no need to memorize complicated formulas. It’s simple to remember that red and yellow make orange. Yellow and blue make green and so forth. Looking and really Seeing do the rest. For example to make a particular green, mix one part each of yellow and blue. Look at the color you just mixed. Is it too blue? Too yellow? Is it too bright or too dark? Too green? If the color isn’t right, divide it in half and push one half aside. This is so you won’t have a huge mountain of one color that you don’t need. You’ll probably find uses for the in-between shades you’ll mix trying to get that perfect green.
Now look at your palette. What color looks closest to what you are trying to mix? Add a little of the new color to half of the color you just divided. Take some of the color on your palette knife or brush and hold it up next to the color you are trying to match. Don’t try to judge the color on your palette. The distance and the color of the palette itself will throw you off. Is it right? Closer? If it still needs some adjustment divide it again and add more of the color you think will fix the problem. Maybe it’s too bright green. Just add a little burnt sienna, red or black to dull the color. Or try a different yellow. Yellow ochre gives you nice natural greens. Divide the color in half again each time you add another color. That way if you make a mistake you still have the original color and all its variations to try again and the extra shades will be useful in other places in your painting. (Remember to spray water on your palette often if you are using acrylics.)
Keep trying till you get it just right. With practice you’ll get just the right shade and value without wasting a lot of paint. It won’t take as long as you think either. Eventually you will mix color without having to think about what you’re doing. It will be almost intuitive.
Because you are only using a few tubes of paint you will quickly learn how all your colors work together. When you are ready to add other colors to your palette, do so one at a time. Experiment to see just how the new color mixes with all of your other paints. Create a few pictures with the new color before you add any others.
Here are a few Guidelines to mix by:
1. Red, Yellow and Blue are Primary colors. You cannot mix them. If you are having trouble getting the color right, switch to a different primary. Cadmium Red instead of Alizarin Crimson is a good example.
2. Green, Orange and Purple are Secondary colors. You have to mix these. I’ll discuss the Color Wheel in a future lesson.
3. Yellow + Blue = Green.
4. Red + Yellow = Orange.
5. Red + Blue = Purple.
6. Black + Yellow = Green.
7. Red + Black = Brown.
8. Burnt Sienna + Ultramarine Blue = Black. You can make a wide range of rich, beautiful Darks by varying the amounts of each color.
9. Use Black or Blue to darken other colors (except yellow).
10. Use Burnt Sienna, Blue or Black to darken Red.
11. Use Burnt Sienna or another Brown to darken any Yellow. If you try to use Black you will get Green.
12. Use White to lighten colors.
13. Use Complementary colors to dull or gray down colors. (I’ll go into that more completely in a future article on colors and their complements.)
14. Use a minute amount of yellow to brighten white. White is the lightest color you have but it is not the brightest. White with a hint of yellow can look brilliant in your painting. Remember that any color looks brighter when placed next to its complement and lighter next to a darker color.
15. Divide your mound of paint in half each time you add a new color so you don’t have too much of any one shade.
That’s all there is to it! The rest is just practice and training your eyes to see color accurately. Practice is the key to your ultimate mastery of color.