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Limited Palettes Doing more with less
Throughout ancient times and until 200 years ago artists always used a limited palette because that was all that was available. Since the beginning of the 19th century colors have come onto the market with such speed that now we are faced with almost too much choice. As a general rule artist's tend to love colors and find it difficult to resist all those gorgeous colors. As a result much art is an inharmonious and garish hodge podge of colors that in many cases might have benefited from being left in the tube. The gluttony of colors is not the artists friend.

Here are some limited palettes that work. They are not the only possibilities, but are meant to stimulate thought about the sort of colors you want to use to make paint, Paint making is a laborious task, you do not want to be making dozens of different colors, it is impractical.

Each of these has their strengths and weaknesses as is explained. The first is of particular interest to the artist who makes his or her own paint as finding beautiful earth colors is within everyone's reach, and it opens up the possibility of making the pigment as well as the paint. In today's world of highways roadside cuttings often expose clays of tremendous delicacy of color. Just remember to be judicious as some of the more exotic earth colors often come from impermanent organic impurities. Experience and time will teach what to look for and value for your palette.

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Find info on traditional and historic palettes here

Ackermann's Color list from 1801

Ingredients of paint

Paint characteristics


Earth's only Natural harmonies
It is simply not true that restricting the palette to earth colors only makes for dull brown paintings. Take a look at the work of Greg Hansell here. Greg's work demonstrates the  advantages of working in this way. The work is naturally harmonious, and the simplicity of color encourages an appreciation for the subtle nuances of every color. He finds his colors as he is out painting, then brings them back to the studio to make his own art materials. Equivalents for all of these colors can be found naturally occurring
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Terra Cotta
  • Red Ochre
  • Raw and Burnt Sienna
  • Raw and Burnt Umber
  • Green  Earth
  • Mars Violet (Caput Mortuum)
  • Venetian Red and Indian Red
  • Various dusky rose and bluish grays can be found
  • Off whites (kaolin) and chalk


The 2 color pick The colors that dance together
If you had to choose just 2 colors, what would they be, and why? Here is my suggestion: Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna. Together these 2 colors sing. They make the most delicious range of neutrals, the Sienna is fleshy enough for figure work, the Ultramarine perfect for the fleshy grays of shadows, and full strength they interact as complimentaries that remind you of summer days. 2 colors:
  • Ultramarine Blue
  • Burnt Sienna


The primaries palette How to make theory work
In theory the primaries should mix all colors. They don't, due to the limitations of pigments. However careful choosing of the primaries used plus the addition of 2 other colors gives a very wide range of colors. The extras are White to lighten, and a Green that is dark enough to make good blacks when mixed with the Red.

The secret to a primaries palette is to choose the cool versions of each color. Cool colors mix together to make more colors than warm colors are capable of. Thus the Red is a cool red, crimson or alizarin in shade.

This palette makes many more colors than you would expect, but it lacks subtlety with flesh tones and colors. 5 colors:
  • Permanent Alizarin
  • Pthalo Blue
  • Cadmium Yellow Light
  • Pthalo Green or Viridian
  • Titanium White


Warms and cools More options
If a warm Red and a warm Blue is added to the primaries palette then color mixing becomes almost limitless. Flesh colors are richer and more varied and landscape is a breeze. Note that only the one yellow is needed. 7 colors:
  • Permanent Alizarin
  • Cadmium Red Mid or Light
  • Pthalo Blue
  • Ultramarine Blue
  • Cadmium Yellow Light
  • Pthalo Green or Viridian
  • Titanium White


The Johansen palette Warms, cools, and earths
I find that by increasing my palette to 10 colors I can include the most useful earths and I have the best balance between small enough, and yet big enough. I actually have many more colors but find time and time again my paintings are almost exclusively made with these 10. I use the same colors for acrylic and watercolor. 10 colors
  • Permanent Alizarin
  • Cadmium Red Mid or Light
  • Pthalo Blue
  • Ultramarine Blue
  • Cadmium Yellow Light
  • Pthalo Green
  • Titanium White
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Burnt Umber


Luxury extras The beauty of extra colors
If I had to choose 2 extra I would in watercolor choose Cerulean Blue and Cadmium Orange. In acrylic I would choose Cobalt Turquoise Light and Cadmium Orange. These 2 colors usefully extend the range of subtle colors for both landscape and figures, and also have the ability to mix together nicely to make very soft grays and neutrals. 2 extras to make a palette of 12:
  • Cadmium Orange
  • Cerulean or Cobalt Turquoise Light


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