Keep It Simple! Using a Limited Palette

"Garapatta Spring" by Kathleen Dunphy OPA 24x18

“Garapatta Spring” by Kathleen Dunphy OPA 24×18

When I first started painting, I’d walk into art supply stores and spend hours looking at all the different pigments and brands of oil paints available, and drool over all those luscious colors: aureolin yellow, cinnabar green, quinocradone rose (just the names alone made me buy them).  I’d load up my basket with dozens of tubes of paint and head home thinking that at last I had found the color that would make me a better painter. Age and experience are wonderful teachers, and I finally came to the conclusion that no special pigment would be the key to my success. In fact, the more choices I had on my palette, the gaudier and less-realistic my paintings looked.

In 2003, I had the good fortune to study with Scott Christensen, who at the time was using a very limited palette that he had his students use in his workshops. At first, I was baffled: how could I get a true yellow ochre using only 3 primaries and a couple of grays? How could I get a wide variety of greens when there were no green tube pigments on my palette? But after sticking with this limited palette for a while and experimenting with these colors, I came to see that I could mix just about every color in nature using only 6 tubes of paint. Using this palette also helped me to see and understand color temperature better by simplifying my choices: if the color needed to be warmer, I added yellow; for cooler, I added blue. And I found that the colors I was mixing were so much closer to the reality I was seeing than when I used a broader palette. When there are 20 choices on the palette, I find it’s much easier to just say “oh, that’s close enough” and dip into a color straight out of the tube , but when I have to mix my colors from the primaries, I get a more accurate representation of my subject matter. Of course, there are certain local colors that I can’t duplicate exactly with this palette, especially if I’m painting man-made objects. But I can always get the correct value and the correct temperature, and when those are right, the color reads correctly.

"Tahoe Bliss" by Kathleen Dunphy OPA

“Tahoe Bliss” by Kathleen Dunphy OPA

For example, the color of the water at Lake Tahoe is an incredibly intense blue-green. I may not be able to get that exact local color, but I can mix the right temperature and value, then surround that color with more muted grays and the color of the water will feel more intense and believable.

Over time, I experimented with adding and subtracting pigments from my palette and settled on the selection of paints that I’ve been using since about 2005. This is the palette that I use for all of my paintings, both plein air and in the studio:

Titanium White (any brand)
Cadmium Yellow Lemon (Utrecht)
Permanent Red Medium (Rembrandt)
Ultramarine Blue (any brand)
Naples Yellow Deep (Rembrandt)
Cold Gray (Rembrandt)

(Please note that the brands of the paints are very important as colors vary widely between manufacturers)


Although I use a limited palette for my paintings, I always start out by mixing puddles of several colors before I start the actual painting. Doing this accomplishes two things: it helps me to slow down and analyze the color before I dive headlong into painting, and it allows me to have an expanded choice of colors when I begin to paint.  I always mix the secondary colors (orange, green, and violet) regardless of what I’m painting, and the rest of the puddles of color are close approximations to what I’m seeing in the subject matter. Pre-mixing takes some time at the beginning of the painting, but it really saves time once I start to paint: I already have so many colors figured out and can concentrate on the subtle shifts in temperature and value that I’m seeing. Also, I don’t break the rhythm of painting to drop my brush, get out my palette knife and mix new color.

Here’s a shot of my palette before I start a painting:

And here’s the finished painting from that palette:

"The Italian Store" by Kathleen Dunphy OPA 12x12

“The Italian Store” by Kathleen Dunphy OPA 12×12

There are certainly countless artists out there who use extensive palettes and get beautiful results, and my selection of pigments is just one way to approach painting. But if you have never used a limited palette, give this a try- you might be surprised with the results and be able to bypass all those rows of paint next time you’re in the art store.

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  • Nice article Kathleen!

    • Kathleen Dunphy

      Thanks you, Leah!

  • Joanne Corbaley

    Thank you. I’ve been working toward this limited palette. But you didn’t mention Alizerin Crimson… It often seems to be the basic red/; is it one you have eliminated?

    • Kathleen Dunphy

      I took Alizarine off my palette because the Permanent Red Medium is more in the middle of the temperature spectrum and Alizarine is a cooler red. But it’s a personal decision–experiment with several different reds and see which one works best for you!

  • Lisa Nielsen

    This seems like a great thing to try. I like that you listed the brand names. It removes so much guesswork. I’m curious…do you mix in the grey to dull down colors that are too bright or saturated looking?

    • Kathleen Dunphy

      Sometimes I use the gray for that, Lisa, but also to mix more natural-looking colors from the start. For example, the gray + cad lemon makes a beautiful muted green and the gray + permanent red makes a lovely violet.


    Great article! I too love to go to art stores and buy different colors. I think what your saying really makes since, but in some ways it’s more a choice of deciding to be mature

    • Kathleen Dunphy

      Interesting way of looking at it. I think it’s fun to play around with different colors, especially as you’re starting out as an artist. There’s no “correct” palette, so find what works for you.

  • Susan Abma

    Nice article Kathleen. Beautiful work.

    • Kathleen Dunphy

      Thank you, Susan!

  • Gloria E. Moses

    Wonderful article, thanks for naming names and your work is truly beautiful! I recently started plein air painting, and I find the limited palette does make you pay attention to the values more.

    • Kathleen Dunphy

      It sure does, Gloria. And it means you’re carrying around a lot less stuff when you go out to paint!

    • Kathleen Dunphy

      It sure does, Gloria. And it means you’ll be carrying around a whole lot less stuff when you go out to paint!

  • Jeff

    Alizarin Crimson is not a red, it’s more violet, just mix a light grey with it and you can see the violet. It can also be mixed with a true red like cad red light to achieve a darker and more violet red. It can also be mixed with viridian green to make a grey for the underbellies of clouds, but you can make greys a thousand different ways.

  • Chuck Rawle

    Well said, Kathleen. I also noticed an immediate improvement in color temperature and harmony when I switched to a palette with just the 3 primaries and white. I find it difficult to persuade some students that a limited palette is more liberating than restrictive. I have been surprised many times by some of the beautiful mixtures I have come up with. That’s not something that one learns without using a limited palette daily for at least 6 months.

  • Judy Stach

    A very good article from one professional to another. It is about how they all relate to each other and what combinations can be achieved in this manner. Well Done ! Judy Stach

  • Linda Rogers

    Thank You. I enjoyed your article. I will give it a try.

  • Allen Rodgers

    Great Blog Kathleen. Love your work and have had experience with surprising my students with “Well today we are only using the primaries and white”. They weren’t happy but by the end of class I was happy to hear from all of them that it made things easier. Not as many choices to make. I have a pretty limited palette but at least once a year I go native. Red, yellow, blue and white.

  • joyce snyder

    As always when I read your lessons…I learn. You are a great and generous teacher.

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  • Anthony Vella

    Hi Kathleen,

    Greetings from Malta! Having just read your article and seeing the brand names that you have mentioned, what brand of Cad Yellow Light other than Utrecht would you use?

    We cannot get Utrecht here in Malta, and seeing that the pigment used by Utrecht is PY37, would any other Cad Yellow Light using PY37 be OK?


    Anthony Vella

  • Vaibhav

    I liked this article very much. If I want to purchase Winsor and Newton Artist Oil colour, which exact 6 colours should i purchase. Please guide me.