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A Beginner's Color Palette: Limited vs Semi-Limited

How many oil colors an artist should have at the ready is an oddly hot topic of debate across the internet. Do you have a severely limited palette? Or do you just get it ALL! Maybe something in between, semi-limited? I personally fall into the semi-limited camp, but before I get to the why, let's quickly define some terms.

Limited Color Palette:

A truly limited palette will consist of four to six colors. It will always include a yellow, red, blue, and white, and on occasion a brown or black will be recommended to round out the palette. Black is usually a rare addition as you can easily mix it using about equal parts of the three primaries.

Pros: A limited palette forces the artist to practice color mixing, reduces the chance of over mixing or "mudding" your colors, and helps maintain a visual color harmony.

Cons: The primary idea behind a limited palette is that you should be able to mix any color you want with just red, yellow, and blue. This would be true, except that physical pigments are part of what is called subtractive color. There is no true yellow, red, or blue that you can use to mix all of the colors you might need or want.

A limited palette also does not address a paint's transparency or color temperature, which can lead to frustrations when rendering light and shadows.

Semi Limited Palette:

A good semi-limited palette will still restrict the artist, but help to ease beginning frustrations by providing a warm and cool color option for all primaries. To see my recommendations click here.

When to add a New Color:

If you find yourself consistently mixing a specific color over and over again, see if you can find it already pre-made. You will be able to save yourself time and money by just purchasing it.

Why I recommend a Semi-Limited Palette:

I didn't start using oils until college. When I first started my professor only allowed us to use a limited palette consisting of cadmium yellow, quinacridone red, pthalo blue, burnt sienna, and titanium white.

While a useful palette, I also got so angry using it. Let me show why:

This was one of the first paintings I did in oil. It is a copy of a Caravaggio, maybe? I think we had to create our own composition using his fruit? Anyways, those damn cherries made me so angry. I hated them and I still hate them a little bit.

For the life of me, I could not get my red to stay bright and advance towards the foreground without it turning pink. I could not figure out why. I asked and asked and I did not get an satisfactory answer.

So I went looking and a couple of years later found the answer myself:

Quinacridone red is transparent. Transparent paints will always recede. I needed a full-bodied, opaque red to get those cherries to pop (ha! did not intend on that little inappropriate paint humor).

This is also why I write my blog, for anyone who needs fast painting help without having to pay for it or spending months trying to find it. Got any questions for me? Thoughts about your own palette preferences? Let's chat in the comments!

This post is a rewrite of a post from my original blog: Color Palettes: Limited vs Semi-Limited.


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