The Limited Palette and Some Theories

A limited palette of artists colors for oil, watercolors or acrylics serves a few purposes. One; it helps the artist hone in on color mixing skills. Two; it is easier for a beginner to get overwhelmed, and as such, juggling a handful of basic colors is a great way to start. And Three; having a few key artist paints is better for the frugal minded. 

Then there is the Prang Watercolors and Crayola Crayon Non-Toxic theory. It isn’t a bad start, actually.

Many people begin with the warm color and cool color theory. Basically that theory is the artist chooses two colors, one that leans towards the warmer colors of the spectrum, and the other that cooler colors. In other words, if you want a warm red and a cool red, you would have a Cadmium Red Light or Pyrrol Red Light for the warm red which leans toward orange; and you would have a cool red that leans toward blue, which is almost any of the Quinacridones such as Red, Magenta, or Violet. 

The purpose of the warm/cool theory is to easily figure out how to mix the other colors on the color wheel. For example. A warm red (Cadmium Red Light) and a Warm Yellow – Cadmium Yellow Light will make orange. Similarly, if you had a cool Yellow that leans toward green, and a cool blue that also leans toward green, you will get a bright clean green. 

A traditional warm/cool palette consist of these pigments:

Titanium White

Ivory black 

Hansa Yellow Light

Cadmium Yellow Light

Cadmium Red Light

Quinacridone Violet

Cerulean Blue

Ultramarine Blue

I don’t quite agree with those colors. Cerulean Blue has a color shift, specifically in oil paints. It begins as a beautiful blue, but will dry a bit darker and greener. Hansa Yellow Light has a lightfast rating that is sub par to the other colors in the palette. Furthermore, since Cadmium Yellow Light is in the palette, and is one of the only pigments that is near true yellow, so you can get beautiful greens, as well as beautiful oranges without the need for Hansa Yellow Light. For those who are sensitive to the toxicity of pigments, Cadmium Red Light, Cerulean Blue, and Cadmium Yellow Light are all toxic. 

Other people will give you the theory of CMYK which is the printer colors of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black. The white obviously being the paper in the printer’s eyes, so this works well with watercolors. Add Titanium White for acrylics and oils. 

The CMYK palette:

Phthalocyanine blue 15:3 (there are subtle hue differences in the numbers)

Quinacridone Magenta

Hansa Yellow Medium

Ivory Black

Titanium White

While the CMYK palette is a lovely thought, it is EXTREMELY difficult to mix colors that way. Purples, browns and other earth tones are the worst! The amount of paint and the ratio to mix a color is so subtle that is easy to add too much or too little. You WILL spend most of the day trying to mix your colors.

Then there is the Prang Watercolors and Crayola Crayon Non-Toxic theory. It isn’t a bad start, actually. But it isn’t a very limited in the palette either! Black, White, Yellow, Orange, Red, Blue, Purple and Green. Great for watercolors, but you will need to add Titanium White for acrylics and oils for a total of nine colors.

For this palette (and keeping true to the non-toxic family friendly fun), you will need:

Mars Black

Burnt Umber (Golden acrylics has a CA warning label. All other mediums are labeled as non-toxic)

Hansa Yellow Medium

Pyrrol Orange

Pyrrol Red

Phthalo Blue

Dioxazine Violet

Phthalo Green 

Keep in mind that Winsor & Newton calls those colors by “Winsor”. So to find those colors, in the Winsor & Newton line:

Ivory Black

Titanium White

Burnt Umber

Winsor Yellow

Winsor Red

Winsor Violet

Winsor Blue

Winsor Green

They do not have a Winsor Brown, White or Black. Just FYI. 

Now, the major problem I have with the Crayola, Prang otherwise the Non-Toxic palette, with the exception of black and white, all of the colors are transparent! It is excellent in watercolors, but you cannot really do a successful oil painting having only transparent pigments to lay on top of your under painting or toned background. (Yes, burnt umber is transparent; some companies will add opacifiers to make it semi-transparent). 

The Opaque and Transparent Balanced Palette.

Having an opaque pigment and a similar transparent pigment will help make your palette more dynamic, particularly if you do not like to use additional mediums. This is also similar to the warm/cool palette.

Titanium White PW6 (semi-opaque to opaque (depending on the manufacturer) (cool)

Mars Black (opaque) (warm)

Hansa Yellow Light (transparent) (cool)

Cadmium Yellow Light (opaque) (warm)

Cadmium Red Light (opaque) (warm)

Quinacridone Violet (transparent) (cool)

Cerulean Blue (semi-transparent) (cool)

Ultramarine Blue (transparent) (warm)

Burnt Umber (transparent) (cool)

Red Oxide (opaque) (Warm)

There is really no opaque blue. There is one semi-opaque blue, which is Cerulean. You know how I feel about Cerulean. Ugh.

There is no perfect palette. But, there is a palette that is balanced for your personal needs. It is as personal as making a sandwich… well thought out food for thought with extra pickles, and hold the mayo. 

If you mix many earth tones you will want earth tones in your palette. If you use oil paint, and tone the background, you will want an earth tone. Most of the earth tones will dry in 24 hours in oil paint, so it is up to you which one you will choose.

Burnt Umber is a transparent warm deep brown.

Burnt Sienna is a transparent to semi-transparent warm reddish brown.

Raw umber is a semi-opaque dark brown, but is neutral, and is best of you do many blues in your picture.

Raw Sienna is a semi-transparent yellow brown, similar to Yellow Ochre, but darker.

Yellow Ochre while it is an earth tone, it takes longer to dry, so is not recommended for an under painting or toning your background. 

The limited palette for beginners or otherwise, should be well thought out and produce as many colors as possible. 

A balanced limited palette.

Titanium White (large tube)

Mars Black

Cadmium Yellow Light

Cadmium Red Light

Burnt Sienna 

Quinacridone Violet

Ultramarine Blue

Phthalocyanine Green

A touch of black to your Burnt Sienna will give you Burnt Umber. Quinacridone Violet and Ultramarine Blue will produce beautiful purples and violets. Mix bright greens with Pthalo green and variations of Cadmium Yellow light, Burnt Sienna and Ultramarine Blue. Mix yellow ochre with Cadmium Yellow Light and Quinacridone Violet.

I chose Phthalocyanine Green rather than Phthalocyanine blue for this palette because, if you choose the blue over the green, you will find yourself going through Cadmium Yellow Light way too fast. You need Cadmium Yellow Light to produce earth and skin tones with Burnt Sienna, Quinacridone Violet and Cadmium Red Light. Cadmium Yellow Light is definitely the biggest workhorse, next to Titanium white. Unfortunately it is expensive. So give it a break and purchase Phthalocyanine Green. I recommend the Yellow Shade because it is closer to grass green, and works well with the other colors. It is PG36 and not PG7. 

If expense is a huge concern, you can make this an even more limited with more affordable colors and omitting the black:

Titanium White

Hansa Yellow Medium

Pyrrol Red Light

Burnt Umber

Quinacridone Violet

Ultramarine Blue

Phthalocyanine Green (YS)

To make blackish color, mix ultramarine blue and burnt umber.

Eventually, you will find colors that you cannot live without. These are your signature colors. Go with it, be happy and keep painting!