How Less Can Be More: Limited Palette Oil Painting

When you walk into the paint section of an art store, you are presented with every color of the rainbow, and some you’ve probably never even heard of. I know that I have spent a good chunk of my life (and my income) trying to get a tube of every possible color. Yet sometimes the most effective paintings are the ones that do a lot with only a few colors. These are called limited palette paintings, and you might be surprised at just how many successful paintings use only a minimal palette. Let’s take a look at some examples.

Analogous Color Palettes

Analogous color palettes are groups of colors that are found close together on the color wheel. For instance, a painting using only orange, red-orange and red would be said to have an analogous color palette.

Color Wheel
The analogous color range doesn’t have to include only three colors, but the wider the range, the less likely the palette can be described as analogous. The values may range from light to dark, and even include pure blacks and whites, but the limited color range is most important. Thomas Eakins’ Sailing from 1775 is an example of an analogous color palette, using a range consisting of almost entirely desaturated warm yellows and oranges in different values.

Sailing Painting

As demonstrated above, an analogous palette can be especially effective at establishing a mood or tone. Eakins’ palette adds drama and atmosphere to an otherwise unremarkable and common painting subject.

In Picasso’s Mother and Child from 1902, the viewer is almost overwhelmed by soft blues and blue-greens. Picasso’s intention with this deep, cool analogous palette was almost certainly to create a feeling of quiet peacefulness.

Mother and Child

Complementary Color Palettes

By drawing only from opposite ends of the color wheel and not the colors between, you are using a complementary color palette. Artists have understood for centuries that, for whatever reason, the relationship between complementary colors can create a strong visual dynamic. Blue and orange, red and green, yellow and violet are all striking combinations that draw the viewer’s eye, even when the colors are muted rather than saturated or intense. Degas’ A Roman Beggar Woman from 1857 is an excellent example.

A Roman Beggar Woman

If not for the cool blues and grays in the woman’s kerchief and scarf this would simply be an analogous palette. But the blue range serves to emphasize the warmth of the rest of the woman’s clothes and the background, just as those elements set off the blues. This visual dialogue makes Degas’ painting even richer and more powerful.

Paul Gauguin takes this same palette and intensifies it further in his Self-Portrait from 1894. Here the colors are highly saturated and almost fight with each other for the viewer’s attention, yet are balanced enough that the result is still pleasing to the eye, if not as harmonious as Degas’ painting.

Degas' Self-Portrait

Color Plus Neutrals

In this color relationship, there are typically one or two predominant saturated colors in the palette surrounded by desaturated neutral colors that can range in value. Manet’s The Fifer from 1866 is an excellent example of this type of limited palette. Manet’s nondescript background of mostly cool grays set off the rich saturated reds and yellows. The sharp colorless black of the jacket, hat and shoes serves as a perfect counterpoint to the red pants, which instantly become the most memorable element in the painting.

The Fifer

Despite the name, there are countless examples of limited palettes, and there are an infinite number of color relationships to explore even in a small corner of the color wheel.

What are some of your favorite color combinations? What kind of limited palette would you like to try next?

  • (will not be published)

No Comments