How to Paint with a Limited Color Palette

A questions I’m often asked is; “How do you choose colors/make stuff so colorful??”

how to use limited color palette watercolor painting

I figured I’d finally address this where I can write a lengthy explanation that I can direct people towards. So if you really want to know specifically, keep reading. TLDR? Very carefully.

(Also, I made a video explaining it too! I do drop some f-bombs, though, so be warned!)

I have always loved bright and colorful things and art or objects with a pleasing color scheme. Especially analogous color schemes with the one offbeat color that stands out real nice. I was also mystified for the better part of 10 years on how to use colors in such a way. I want all the colors, but am then immediately overwhelmed by them. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m far from mastery on this and will likely never achieve it, but I’ve finally found a good starting point to work from.

Pick 3 colors and stick to them.

I mean it. No others until you’re confident with those 3 together.

Pick three colors you really like and force them to play nice. Easy route? Primary colors. Easy route with a slight twist and totally different aesthetic? Pink, yellow and blue. I find these the easiest to start out with (like how they teach you primary colors in kindergarten). But don’t mix them and make extra colors just yet. Try using these colors alone in different ratios on a painting. Pick one thing to paint and replace all the dark colors with blue, for example. The mid-tone values can be replaced with pink, and the lighter tones with yellow.

Once you get a sense of how the colors are working, you can start darkening/lightening or saturating/de-saturating each shade. Then slowly incorporate more colors as you go. For this piece, I ended up mixing the pink and blue to make a purple color for the rocks and shadows. I also added Payne’s grey to get a much darker, but still harmonious, blue tone for the darkest parts of the fox (eyes and nose). Don’t be afraid to try again a few more times if it didn’t turn out well the first time.

There are sooooo many different looks you can achieve based on different proportions of just those three colors alone. Maybe try dialing one color back a bit and adding more of another. Choosing colors becomes more and more intuitive with each piece you make. Trial and error is the name of the game here. Once you become super comfortable (like, uncomfortably comfortable) with this trio, start adding different colors or swapping one out for something totally different.

I filmed the painting process of this piece and narrated it. Once I’ve finished editing & uploading the video, I’ll link it here. Just in case you want to hear my rambling instead of reading it.

Video Process

I’ll be making a follow up video and blog post in the future about how to choose weird colors and force those to be friends later (featuring acrylics). Hopefully I’ll get better at explaining things, too. If there’s something I missed or I can improve on, or if you just have more questions let me know!

Materials used in this painting:

  • Winsor & Newton Watercolors (Cotman series) in Permanent Rose, Yellow Ochre, Cobalt Blue and Payne’s Grey.

  • Strathmore 400 Series watercolor paper

  • Winsor & Newton Cotman Brushes (the blue ones) and Princeton Elite (?) brushes (the black ones)

I hope this was helpful to you, and thank you much for reading! 🙂

Now go forth and make shit colorful!

4 thoughts on “How to Paint with a Limited Color Palette

  1. Pic Happy says:

    I’m glad I found this post Caitlin. I love that idea of 3 colors! My color sense is pretty weak and I’ve started addressing that, so I’m happy to get all the ideas I can get to try them out.

    Like

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