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Painting with a Limited Palette: How and Why

by TJ Cunningham

“Color is my daylong obsession, joy, and torment.”

Claude Monet

TJ Cunningham, Along the Way

Eleven years ago, I was beginning my young career as a professional artist. Having just graduated from college, I had spent the last four years surrounded by my classmates and teachers. Suddenly, I felt like I had been launched into outer space. Until that point, I had focused solely on drawing correctly, but I slowly realized that all of my paintings had a greyish-brown tint to them. Despite having at least 12 different pigments on my palette, my paintings still had a cataract tint to them.

In a desperate attempt to improve my colors, I did the things I was taught to do; I made color charts, painted daily, and painted from life, but progress was slow. After a couple of years of painfully sluggish growth, a good friend lent me a demonstration video by Scott Christensen. In the video, Scott demonstrated how he created his beautiful landscapes with just three colors! He used lemon yellow, cadmium red, and ultramarine blue, plus white. I loved the idea of simplifying and limiting myself until I could understand what I was doing. Immediately, I did away with three-quarters of my paint tubes and set to work with just the primaries plus white. For me, the growth in my color sense was instantly noticeable. I spent the next twelve months working with Christensen’s limited palette before cautiously adding a few colors back to the roster.

So, what are the benefits of limiting your palette to just three colors? (Note: white isn’t a color.)

Here is what I found…

TJ Cunningham, Winter Break

1. Painting with a limited palette harmonized my paintings.

If you have one of each of the primaries, you can mix any color you need, BUT the range of colors will be limited. For instance, you cannot get the same yellow-green with ultramarine blue plus cadmium lemon as you would if you mixed cadmium lemon with viridian. Still, you can mix a sufficient yellow-green. The fact that your range is limited produces harmony because all of the colors are related to each other. Using a limited palette instantly unified my colors and helped me learn to avoid making paintings with disjointed and jolting colors.

2. Painting with a limited palette teaches you about color.

The reason my paintings all had a brown tint to them was that I did not understand color. More succinctly, I did not understand the color wheel. Just in case you haven’t seen one before, a color wheel is a circle with the three primaries evenly spaced and the tertiary colors between them. Painting with a limited palette helped me see each color as either a yellow, a red, a blue, or a mixture of two or all three. For instance, I no longer think of viridian as viridian or even as a green, but better as a blue with yellow in it! Simplifying my thinking on color really helped me learn to understand how to use my pigments in harmony, especially once I started adding more colors back onto my palette.

3. Painting with a limited palette helped me learn to avoid using “crutch” colors.

What is a crutch color? It is a color that you dip into repeatedly because it seems to work here, there, and anywhere throughout your painting. Depending on one or two colors can make a painting pretty dull. It’s a mistake that I got into when I had a multitude of pigments on my palette, but it wasn’t an option that I had on a three-color palette because almost every mixture contains a little of each. I could no longer use yellow ochre for everything!

4. Training with just three colors also makes you a “clever mixer.”

This piggybacks on the crutch-color idea, but limiting myself to only three colors forced me to think through my color mixtures more carefully. Learning to succeed in the face of limitations always teaches you to be clever. I think that this is a universal principle. Think about it- time limitations, budget limitations, physical limitations all encourage creative problem-solving. After limiting myself to only three colors for a year, I became more confident than ever as I matched the colors I saw in the landscape.

TJ Cunningham, Owl's Song, 12x16", oil on panel

In conclusion, if you’re struggling with colors and looking for a breakthrough, give a three-color palette a try.

Here are a few recommendations for which three colors to use:

· Lemon Yellow, Cadmium Red, and Ultramarine Blue

· Hansa Yellow Light, Naphthol Scarlet, and Ultramarine Blue

· Yellow Ochre, Alizarin Permanent, and Ultramarine Blue

· Indian Yellow, Quinacridone Red, and Prussian Blue

· Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red, and Cobalt Blue

In the end, all you need is a strong yellow, a red and a blue. So, go experiment, have fun, and grow!


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