the fastest way to color harmony is painting with a limited palette

  • 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?

Many professional artists use a limited palette.

Their paintings always have perfect color harmony and cohesiveness.

A limited palette simplifies things because you only have to keep a small number of colors in stock.

It's very handy for paint workshops or painting on location. You only have to pack a few tubes.

Painting with a limited palette is excellent for budding artists. Instead of relying on store-bought colors, they learn how to mix colors.

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

history of limited palettes

In centuries past many artists were known for using a limited palette. It may have been out of necessity because they ground the pigments to make their own paints.

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; magenta, yellow and cyan blue.

Today's 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 and white.

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

Monet's Palette

Many times Monet used a limited palette. He was noted for doing his paintings on location, outside.  So he used a brighter green to enhance his paintings.

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

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painting with a limited palette

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

You can add many additional colors 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

A limited palette is made up of some version of the primary colors.

  • Cadmium Yellow
  • Cadmium Red
  • Ultramarine Blue

This palette with the addition of white will give you a wide range of mixed colors.

  • It is easy to mix orange from yellow and red. Use white or blue to vary the oranges.
  • Ultramarine Blue and Cad. Yellow Light make some lovely greens.  Adding red or orange to the greens gives you a wider variation.
  • Red and blue mix to make violet. However, the violet from Ultramarine Blue and Cad. Red Light is a bit muddy, not a real clean color.

There is a simple solution, double your primary palette.

double primary palette

A double primary palette, also called a split-primary palette includes a warm and cool version of each of the primary colors.

  • Cadmium Yellow Light and Cadmium Yellow Medium
  • Cadmium Red Light and Alizarin Crimson
  • Ultramarine Blue and Phthalocyanine Blue GS (Thalo Blue)

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.

You can get nice violet colors by mixing Alizarin Crimson with either of the blue colors.

Thalo Blue mixed with either yellow gives you some nice bright greens.

painting with a limited palette

Let's do a colorful, fun fish painting with a limited palette.


  • 8x8 canvas
  • Cadmium Yellow Light
  • Cadmium Red and Permanent Alizarin Crimson
  • Thalo Blue
  • #10 round brush

Find the basics of oil painting here.

underpaint the background

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.

start painting the body of the fish

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
  • Add more 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.

shadow the body

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.

finish the body, including the eye

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.

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

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 painted in later.

paint the fins

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.

have some fun on the background

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.

detail and finish the painting

Finish the details on the Finish the details
  • 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.

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

Up to the finished "Fun Fish"

painting with a limited palette is fun and easy!

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