• Michael Skalka

What's The Limit of Your Limited Palette?


Selecting Colors

A number of years ago when I lived in the New York metro area, I listened to a FM station that had a program called “Desert Island Disks.” It was a simple concept to embrace. If you were stranded on a desert island, (and had electricity and a turntable?) what record albums would you want to have with you.


I want to apply the same concept to paint selection. What paint colors would be “must haves” during your confinement to a desert island. We won’t go into where you would obtain surfaces to paint on in this exercise and also let’s avoid dealing with the whole thing of trying to desperately survive. To make it a bit more palatable, (pun intended) focus on what colors would you absolutely need to bring on a trip where you were certain that NO art materials store would be available in case you forgot something. This actually happens more than you might think.


While I won’t bog this essay down with my selection of colors since everyone’s painting style and vision dictates what colors to select, I want to focus on the dichotomy involving the large range of colors that are available that clash with the multitude of articles in magazines, social media posts, instructional videos, etc., attempting to convince artists to use a very limited palette.


The most common selection with variations that I keep coming across is Cadmium Yellow, Cadmium Red or sometimes Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue, Raw Umber, green (usually phthalocyanine) and White.


This group of colors is flexible and useful for sure. The primary colors are covered and dark tones and greys are made with Ultramarine Blue and Raw Umber. The Phthalo Green is added to make up for the rather dull greens that Ultramarine and Cadimum Yellow make because the red/violet bias of Ultramarine Blue negates the creation of a high chroma green.

OK, so this led me to the question: Why do paint manufacturers makes so many other colors? On average, paint makers have about 90 to 110 colors in their lines of paint common to nearly every other manufacturer’s paint inventory. Add to that is the number of manufacturers that make “signature” colors employing some less often used pigments. As we known, the art materials industry does not drive the wide selection of pigments available. They merely piggy-back on the existent pigment manufacturing industry that offers colors for a huge variety of applications. Many of them focus on the plastics industry that uses colors extensively. Think, plastic containers, children’s toys, lawn furniture, plastic car parts, etc.

This also got me thinking about some existing art materials that I never see recommended as must have items in either a limited palette or an extended one. Who uses Cadmium Red Deep, Cadmium Yellow Deep, a bunch of nearly similar red earth tones, and Prussian Blue? I would also question the need for Indanthrone Blue, any natural earth green pigments and Mars Violet. I am sure a few artists use these less mentioned colors and I am certain that paint companies would quickly drop these colors if nobody purchased them. I am merely uncertain how having some of these lesser discussed pigments help artists.


For every color added to a palette, an artist needs to learn how that color interacts with the other colors they have on their palette. While mathematically, the combinations and permutations grow substantially as more colors are added to a palette, the buffering factor is that some colors are infrequently mixed together and for the ones that are mixed frequently, an artist has experience and an expectation of the outcome of the combinations so that the target color falls within the “ballpark” of the hue desired. Minute adjustments can be made to fine tune the hue.


However, adding a new color, let’s pick on Indanthrone Blue again, results in relearning how this hue differs from Ultramarine Blue so that desired target colors can be achieved. It becomes a real-world lesson in understanding color bias, the underlying propensity of a color to have undertones that influence mixtures with other colors.

Do not misinterpret this discussion. I am glad art materials manufacturers create a wide range of colors. I am guilty of squeezing out 10 to 15 colors or more when doing a painting, many of them being convenience hues. I also don’t see the need to mix brown colors out of expensive cadmium pigments. I love experimenting with unusual combinations to see what hue they will achieve, thus uncovering each pigment’s inherent color bias. Sometimes you get lucky and other times you get mud.


The interesting thread to study focuses on how many colors are available to artists that are derived from the quest to introduce a substitute for colors from nature that no longer are available. Examples: Indian Yellow, Permanent Alizarin, Earth Green, Cadmium Red Vermilion, Jaune Brilliant, Naples Yellow, French Ultramarine Blue, Phthalocyanine Blue.


Further, how many colors are derived from complex chemistry that have no historic relationship with ancient colors? Examples: Pyrrole Red, Quinacridone Magenta, Cobalt Turquoise, Interference and Iridescent colors.


Happy color mixing to all. Please consider adding a comment on your palette color choices, interesting mixes and perhaps include colors you would never use. Your suggestions will help to inspire color mixing experiments and exploring new color combinations.


Syntax of Color

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