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Painting with a limited Palette using the three primary colors.  By Don Finkeldei:  Using a limited palette to paint has many advantages.  Learn how I paint using only the three primary colors (and a couple variations when needed).

The paints used on a palette vary greatly by the preference of each artist.  Some use very few and some use 10 or more different tube colors.  I personally believe in a very limited palate for several reasons.   Scott Christensen and  Ned Jacobs use this principle also.

  1. Color harmony will be easier to achieve.

  2. Learning to manipulate and mix a few colors is easier than trying to master a wide range of colors.  It's easier to arrive at a desired color, hue and value.

  3. You don't need to lug around as many tubes of paint when traveling.

  4. palette preparation is quicker.

  5. Mixing gray from the three primaries is easy.   The color harmony of the gray paint is consistent --  it contains all the tube paints on your palate.  Mixing lighter grays (both cool and warm)  from the same gray gives quick options for adjusting paint.  You'll  arrive at  the exact  hue, value and color / temperature you need much quicker.  Having a "flat neutral" background on your palette (see below)  also helps you to arrive at the "flat neutral" gray you should be mixing. 

I use Cadmium Red Light, Cadmium Yellow Medium, Cadmium Lemon Yellow, Ultramarine Blue and Titanium White.  Cad Yellow Medium is a warm yellow and Cad Lemon Yellow is cool.  Having a warm and a cool yellow helps me adjust the color temperature of my mixed paints.  Sometimes I add Alizarin Crimson and Viridian although I can get by without them.  Purchasing paint (and grade) from the same manufacturer is important.  I'll explain why later.  I use Utrecht 150 ml. tubes. or

From these colors, I mix my gray's.  Two parts Ultramarine Blue with 1 part each of Cad Yellow Medium and Cad Red light mixes to a very neutral dark gray (All Utrecht paints, because they are balanced in intensity,  will consistently result in what you expect).  It works exactly like I expect  every time.  I've seen people spend a lot of time trying to get a neutral gray.  I've seen the pool of gray grow  from a teaspoon sized pool to 40 tablespoons in size because people are continually adding this and that color trying to achieve a neutral.   If you follow the parts rule described above exactly, you'll hit a neutral gray in seconds.   From that pile of paint, I add some white to make higher keyed grays and modify these by adding more blue or more red/yellow so I have a good variety of warm and cool grays.  These grays are then used to modify the intensity, color and value of the pure paints.  It's all an adjustment process and having these pools of paint ready to grab makes arriving at the color/value you need a lot quicker -- and more exact.  In the end, it's all an adjustment process.  If I have Aliziron and Viridian, I'll mix a little of them in the grays for harmony purposes.

A big palette helps.  I use a 16 x 20 glass surface, painted on the back side with auto primer gray to tone down the palate a little.  You can buy spray cans of auto primer at any hardware/auto store.  Auto primer is always FLAT NEUTRAL.  Neutral gray because it's "NEUTRAL AND DOESN'T  BIAS YOUR COLOR PERCEPTION".  Also, having a flat neutral gray background on your palette will help you mix a neutral gray.  Adding the exact amount of white to the dark gray you've mixed, should result in a perfect match with the background of your palette.

Paint on the palette is laid out  in a logical order going from Warm to Cool.  The viridian and alizarin you see on the palate are what I call "accessory" colors.  I don't use them much, but if I do, I mix just a touch of them into the grays... NOT MUCH, just a touch.  If I use alizarin and viridian, I put them on the palette in a different location than my primary to gray line... it keeps them separated and reminds me they are only "accessories" to be used sparingly.  They are transparent and can be useful in shadows effectively. 

 A Limited Palette

For related articles see " Limited Palette Methodology" and "How to Mix Grays for use with a Limited Palette".


# Mary Lang 2013-02-24 20:30
So helpful. Getting started is my most difficult task.
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# Charles Wang 2013-02-24 20:29
This is really helpful!!!
Thank you for sharing!
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