painting with a limited palette is easy and it creates harmony and cohesiveness

  • Why should we be painting with a limited palette?

There are so many gorgeous paint colors available. Why not just squeeze the beautiful colors out of a tube instead of mixing them?

why use a limited palette?

  • Many of today's professional artists use a limited palette.

Their paintings always have automatic color harmony and cohesiveness.

It simplifies things because you only have to be concerned about keeping a small number of paint colors in stock.

Also, it's very handy when you are going to a paint workshop or painting outside on location. You only have pack a few tubes to carry with you.

Painting with a limited palette is excellent for budding artists who are learning how to use colors.

A quick, easy goldfish painting with a limited palettePainting a "Fun Fish" from a limited palette

history of limited palettes

In centuries past many artists were known for using a limited palette. Many times they did it out of necessity because they had to grind pigments and make their own paint colors.

old masters palettes

Old masters during the renaissance used a four color palette; yellow red, blue and green.

Then in the 1800s synthetic colors came into use for the printing process; red (magenta), yellow and blue (cyan).

Today painters use the same color theory based on the color wheel to select colors for their limited palettes.

the Zorn palette

Anders Zorn, an artist from the late 1800s is well known for painting with a limited palette; yellow ochre, vermilion, ivory black, with white.

Ivory black contains blue, mixed with yellow ochre makes muted greens. Most of his paintings were indoor scenes, so he had no need for landscape greens.

Monet's Palette

Monet also used a limited palette. He was noted for doing his paintings on location, outside.  The use of a brighter green enhanced his paintings.

He said he used flake white, cadmium yellow, vermilion, deep madder, cobalt blue and emerald green for many of his paintings.

what colors do you use?

  • A limited palette does not mean boring! It does not mean your paintings will have only a few colors.

You can get many additional colors from your limited palette by mixing. The colors will always harmonize and give you a cohesive color scheme because they based on just a few original colors.

It's easy to learn how to mix colors.

primary limited palette

  • Cadmium Yellow Light
  • Cadmium Red
  • Ultramarine Blue

This palette with the addition of white will give you a wide range of mixed colors. The secondary colors are easy to mix; yellow and red for orange, yellow and blue for green and blue and red for purple. The purple however is a bit muddy, not a real clean color.

There is a simple solution, double your primary palette.

double primary palette

Use a double primary palette that includes a warm and cool version of each of the primary colors.

  • Cadmium Yellow and Cadmium Yellow Medium
  • Cadmium Red and Alizarin Crimson
  • Ultramarine Blue and Phthalocyanine Blue GS

This still is only six tubes of paint. Mixing the colors and the addition of white will give the artist all the colors they could ever want or need.

painting with a limited palette

Let's paint a quick, colorful, fun and easy painting with a limited palette.


  • 8x8 canvas
  • Cadmium Yellow
  • Cadmium Red and Permanent Alizarin Crimson
  • Phthalo blue
  • #10 round brush

You will find the basics of oil painting here.

Block in the background colorsUnderpaint the background

Casually lay in the background colors individually using all of your palette colors. Paint them thinned with your solvent, so the colors will dry fast. Don't blend the colors.

This painting is done with alkyds paints. They dry fairly fast, so in about an hour we will soften and blend them. If they are blended now, it will make mud.

When you are painting with a limited palette, you don't have to be concerned about which colors to use. Any and all of the colors will harmonize and work well with each other.

Paint the orange scales on the goldfishPaint the orange spot

Paint the orange part of the fish with cadmium red and cadmium yellow mixed. On the bottom part away from the light, blend in the darker, cooler permanent alizarin crimson.

Please note, cadmium colors are associated with a health hazard. I use Winsor Newton colors and their Winsor reds and yellows are made without the use of cadmium.

My favorite palette colors

Continue painting the fish colors into the fins.Continue painting the red areas

While you are painting, add yellow to the red on the top of the fish where the light is hitting.

Carry some of the red color out into the fins.

Paint blue in the shadow areas of the fish.Underpaint the shadow areas

Paint the shadow areas of the fish with blue that has been softened a bit with red.

It is difficult to paint dark oil colors into white. So we paint the dark shadow color first before we add white.

Paint the white areas of the goldfish.Paint the white parts of the goldfish

Now paint the white areas of the body. Gently blend the white into the shadow paint. Add yellow to the top of the fish toward the light.

Paint the dark eye mixed with a combination of red and blue. More blue makes it darker. Paint a red ring around the eye. Add blue on the shadow side the eye ring.

Blend the background colors together.Blend the background colors

Use a soft, dry brush to blend the background colors. Then we can pull the fin colors out over the background. The blending was done with about a 1/2" flat brush.

It you are painting with oils, just pull a soft, dry brush gently over the background colors to blend them.

Since this is a small canvas, I like to pick it up and turn it when I am painting. So I left one corner unpainted to keep my hands clean. It will be filled in later.

Paint the fin colors out into the background.Paint the fins

Using white, paint the fin colors out into the background. It is your option, you may want to add a bit of yellow or blue to the white.

Blend the white into the red of the fins.

Oops, I forgot to make the fins darker where they attach to body. So I added a bit of blue. (Next image) Either blue or alizarin crimson would be fine to darken the fins where they attach to the body.

The background is dry enough to add some other paint.Have some fun!

The thinly painted background is fairly dry now. So here comes some fun!

Dab on colors that are thinned down with your mineral spirits. Then blow the thin colors with a soda straw to make them look like sea grasses.

Since we are painting with a limited palette, any of your colors will harmonize well with the painting.

Finish the details on the Finish the details

Finish the background around the goldfish. Use any of the colors from your limited palette. They will all harmonize.

Paint a light highlight on the eye with a tiny touch.

Pull a clean, dry brush along the outer edges of the fins to soften them into the surrounding water.

Up to the finished "Fun Fish"

painting with a limited palette is fun and easy!

You might enjoy these pages

  • How to Oil Paint

    Answers to frequent questions about how to oil paint. What you need to oil paint, how to use oils, best paints, brushes, colors, drying time, cleanup and more …

  • Painting Color Schemes

    Master your painting color schemes with the secrets of color selection. Learn how artists take the stress of choosing the paint colors for their art paintings.

  • How to Mix Paint Colors

    Learn how to mix paint colors, mix your colors, don’t buy them. You will save money at the paint store. Create color harmony in your paintings by mixing colors.

  • Choose Paint Colors for each painting

    How do professionals choose colors for their paintings? Learn how to choose paint colors for each painting. Create beautiful paintings with only 3 or 4 colors.

share with others