Limited Color Palettes for Plein Air Painting

Limited color palette of Lemon Yellow, Alizarin Crimson, Cobalt Blue with tints and neutral hues
Limited Color Palette of Lemon Yellow, Alizarin Crimson, Cobalt Blue, and Titanium White. Photo by Lisa Marder

Plein air painters use a variety of different limited palettes and some even vary their color palettes  depending on their location, weather and conditions, or overall desired effect. For some painters the choice of color palette is just a personal preference. In fact, it is worthwhile trying a number of different color palettes to determine what is, in fact, your favorite palette to achieve the variety of hues visible in the landscape and effect you want to achieve.

Be aware that, when painting colors from nature, unless you are painting something like a flower garden, birds with bright plumage, or a brilliant sunset, most of the actual colors we see are not highly saturated, so you will be using more neutral colors and not generally be using colors straight from the tube. Of course, as the artist, you always have the option to heighten a color, or like the Fauves, make a whole painting in more saturated colors. 

Plein Air Painting With Limited Palettes

When painting plein air it is wise to work with a limited palette. This enables you to pack and keep track of fewer things, carry less weight on the trail, and make the painting process more efficient by keeping your color choices within a contained space and more manageable. Using a limited palette makes your decisions much simpler. You know the colors you have, and you're not choosing from a multitude of other colors that may have other pigments in them and other color biases.

 

Whereas you have all your supplies and tubes of paint in your studio and can reach for the exact color you want, choosing the colors to use when painting plein air with a limited palette is an important decision, requiring you to pare down and think more about color relationships. What colors will mix well together to produce the hues you want?

What does one color look like against another? For example, the water that appears blue to you in real life may actually look blue in your painting when made using a mixture of Mars Black and Titanium White and placed next to a  Raw Sienna. This phenomenon is an example of local color versus the perceived color. The perceived color appears blue in relationship to the adjacent color.  It can often be quite surprising to discover the hue that actually does create the effect of the color you desire.

Choosing the right colors for your limited palette becomes important when you only want to carry a few tubes of paint. What kind of day is it? Will cool colors or warm colors dominate? These are some of the questions that will influence which paints you choose. The range of hues that can be achieved with a limited palette of colors plus white is truly amazing. 

Warm and Cool of Each Primary Plus White

The most common and traditional color palette for plein air painters is one that consists of a warm and cool of each primary color. The primary colors are the three colors that can't be mixed from other colors and that create other colors when mixed. These primary colors are red, yellow, and blue.

From these colors, plus tints, tones, and shades (adding white, gray, and black, or darker colors)  a vast array of colors can be produced, not only for landscape painting, but for any genre of painting.

See the article, Color Wheel and Color Mixing, to see how to set up a color wheel with the warms and cools of the primary colors and how to mix them in different combinations to produce a variety of secondary colors

This palette is the common palette for the 19th century French Impressionist painters. Claude Monet (1840-1926) used a palette of Ultramarine or Cobalt Blue, Cadmium Yellow, Vermilion and Alizarin Crimson for reds, Viridian and Emerald Green for greens, Cobalt Violet, and Lead White. He never used colors straight from the tube.(1) 

Although it is generally agreed that black is not necessary for a landscape palette many landscape artists mix black with yellows to create an array of landscape greens.

 A true black, such as Ivory Black, against a light color will really make it pop and also can be used selectively.  You can also make a chromatic black by mixing the three primary colors together, or mixing Burnt Sienna and Ultramarine Blue.

Specific colors to include in a palette of warm and cool primaries are:

  • Cadmium Yellow Medium, Cadmium Yellow Light or Lemon Yellow;  Thalo Blue or Cerulean Blue, Ultramarine Blue; Cadmium Red, Alizarin Crimson; Titanium White; Ivory Black or Mars Black. From these 6 colors, plus white you can mix the secondary colors and an array of earth tones and rich grays by mixing colors with their complements.

Three Primary Hues Plus White

Many colors can be mixed from just three tubes of paint - one of each primary - plus white. You can do most of a painting with these colors, supplementing your colors as needed for unusually intense areas of color, but you will find that most colors in nature are not highly saturated. Earth tones and grays can be mixed from these three primaries. 

Specific colors to include consist of: 

  • Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Yellow Light, Ultramarine Blue, plus Titanium White (cooler palette)
  • Cadmium Red Light, Cadmium Yellow Light Ultramarine Blue, plus Titanium White (warmer palette)
  • Alizarin Crimson, Phthalo Blue, Cadmium Yellow Light, plus Titanium White
  • Alizarin Crimson, Cobalt Blue, Cadmium Yellow Light, plus Titanium White

Paint with any three primary colors plus white. Try different combinations. Depending on the combination you use, you might want to supplement it with the secondary color that can't be mixed as purely. For example, in the warmer palette consisting of Cadmium Red Light and Ultramarine Blue it will be harder to mix a pure violet, so you might want to have a tube of Violet handy. Also, in the cooler palette it is hard to mix an intense orange using Alizarin Crimson and Cadmium Yellow Light, so you may want to bring along a tube of pure Orange. 

Note that Phthalo Blue is extremely saturated with great tinting strength and will quickly overpower another color, so you might want to use Cobalt Blue or Cerulean Blue instead.

The temperatures of these blues are different, with Phthalo Blue and Cerulean Blue being warmer, Cobalt Blue more of a medium temperature, and Ultramarine Blue being cooler. Read The Temperature of Blue: Which Blues are Warm or Cool? to find out more about blues. 

Three Primary Hues Plus White Plus Earth Tone

Some artists choose to include an earth tone in their palette of colors, rather than mixing it from the primaries. Generally artists choose to include either Burnt Sienna (reddish), Raw Sienna (yellow-reddish), or Yellow Ochre (dirty yellow).  

Many plein air artists tone their canvas or other support first with one of these earth tones. This helps to unify the painting as well as to take away any reflection or glare off of a pure white support. 

Two Hues Plus White

In his  article for Artist's Magazine, David Schwindt writes about using only two tubes of color for his painting, New Mexico Cloud in acrylic - Raw Sienna (Liquitex) and Ultramarine Blue (Golden) plus white. He premixed a range of colors from those two tubes of paint and used the white to lighten a few of the mixtures, and was able to do the whole painting with only eight colors created from those original tubes of paint.(2)

The Zorn Palette

The Zorn Palette is a very limited palette of only four colors, named after the internationally known Swedish artist Anders Leonard Zorn (1860-1920), whose color palette consisted primarily of four earthy colors, supplemented sparingly by more chromatic and intense colors as needed. The four colors in this palette are: Yellow Ochre, Vermilion Red or Cadmium Red Deep, Ivory Black, and Flake White. These colors are the earthier versions of the three primary pigments yellow, red, and blue. With these four colors you can get an amazing range of color. For more intense green you might want to add a Cobalt Blue to the palette.

The Geneva Palette

The Geneva Oil palette consists of five colors from which all but the most intense colors can be made. They are: French Ultramarine (blue), Pyrrole Rubine (red), Burnt Umber (brown), Cadmium Yellow, Titanium White. `Geneva Black can also be added to that if you don't want to make a chromatic black. 

Watch the video, The Benefits of a Limited Palette for Oil Painting, with Mark Carder, to see how to use this palette to match most of the colors that you see in the world. For the most intense colors you would use your "power colors" such as Phthalocyanine Blue. 

Limited Palettes of Some Contemporary Artists

Kathleen Dunphy: In her blog, Keeping It Simple: Using a Limited Palette, Dunphy says that she has been using this palette for all of her paintings, both plein air and in the studio, since about 2005. It consists of: Titanium White (any brand), Cadmium Yellow Lemon (Utrecht), Permanent Red Medium (Rembrandt), Ultramarine Blue (any brand), Naples Yellow Deep (Rembrandt), and Cold Gray (Rembrandt).

James Gurney: In his blog, Limited Palettes, Gurney says that he likes to use the palette of John Stobart in his book, The Pleasures of Painting Outdoors (Buy from Amazon). This palette consists of: Cadmium Yellow Light, Winsor Red, Burnt Sienna, Ultramarine Blue Deep, Permanent Green (optional), and Titanium White.

Kevin McCain: In his blog, How to Plein Air Paint: What Oil Paint Color to Use, McCain says that he has used many different palettes but uses mostly a palette of warm and cool primary colors. He can paint color schemes that lean either toward warm or cool with this palette and can use it not only for landscape, but also portrait and still life. The palette consists of: Cadmium Lemon Yellow or Cadmium Yellow Light, Cadmium Yellow Deep, Cadmium Red Light, Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue, Thalo Blue (Winsor Blue Green in Winsor Newton), Ivory or Mars Black, and Titanium White.

Mitchell Albala: In his popular book, Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice (Buy from Amazon), Albala says "there is no such as the perfect landscape palette" but recommends the following: Phthalo Blue (warmer blue), Ultramarine Blue (cooler blue), Alizarin Permanent Crimson (cooler red), Cadmium Red Light (warmer red), Cadmium Yellow Medium (warmer yellow), Lemon Yellow or Nickel Titanate Yellow (cooler yellow), Yellow Ochre (neutral yellow), Burnt Umber (warm neutral), and Titanium White.

Conclusion

Next time you're painting en plein air, or even in your studio, try a limited palette. It will make it easier to carry your supplies if painting outside, and it will help you refine your color theory knowledge and color mixing ability wherever you are painting. Soon you will be able to create a complete harmonious painting with variations of value and temperature with no more than four tubes of paint, and perhaps even fewer! 

Further Reading and Viewing

Plein Air Palettes, by Holly Davis, Artist's Network:  This article shows the same painting done using four different limited palettes. 

The Contemporary Outdoor Painters' Palette, by Thomas Kitts: This article includes the specific plein air palettes of several  contemporary painters. 

Color Mixing Secrets for the Plein Air Painter, by John Hulsey

A Guerrilla Painter's Notebook, by Carl Judson 

Painting Roadside Architecture with a Limited Palette,video with James Gurney 

Limited Palettes: Doing More With Less, by Tony Johansen: This article suggests several more limited palettes.

_________________________________

REFERENCES

1. Januszczak, Waldemar, Consultant Ed., Techniques of the World's Great Painters, Chartwell Books, 1984, p. 102.

2. Schwindt, David, Less Is More, The Artist's Magazine, Dec. 2010, www.artistsmagazine.com, p. 14.