How to Use and Understand a Limited Palette

How to Use and Understand a Limited Palette

Becky Joy
I use a limited palette, the typical warm/cool palette, which includes cadmium yellow light, cadmium yellow medium, cadmium red light, alizarine crimson, ultramarine blue, cerulean blue and titanium white. Each of these colors has another additional color in it. Once you can identify the color, you will have better results when mixing. Following is a list of the paint colors with the additional color each has in it, also if it is cool or warm.
  • Cadmium yellow light--a cool yellow, tends to appear as if it has blue in it (at least in relationship to cad yellow med)
  • Cadmium yellow medium--a warm yellow, has some red in it, which makes it appear more orange
  • Cadmium red light--a warm red, has some yellow in it.
  • Alizarine Crimson--a cool red, has some blue in it.
  • Cerulean Blue--a cool blue, has some yellow in it.
  • Ultramarine Blue--a warm blue, red in it.

Let's take a look at the color wheel. I have labeled where all the cool and warm colors meet. Notice the 2 "w's" next to each other, that is the warmest spot on the color wheel. It's where red and orange meet. Now, see the 2 "c's" where the blue and green meet. That is the "cold spot" on the color wheel. What I'm most concerned about when mixing is that "other" color that is in each tube of paint.

I need to identify the additional color to know what will happen to my colors in mixing. To get the most vibrant colors when mixing, I mix colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. Once I introduce a third color into the mix I neutralize the color.

Whenever the three primaries are mixed together, you get a grayed color to some degree. Now, keep that in mind as I give you an example. We all know that if we mix red and blue we get purple. But how vibrant do we want the purple to be. The closer we keep our mixture to just blue and red the more vibrant it will be. If we introduce a yellow (which is the complement to purple)  into the mix, the purple will be grayed.

The choices we have with the limited palette are two reds, one with blue in it and one with yellow in it. The choices in the blues are one with yellow and one with red. So, to make the more vibrant purple, use the red and the blue that have only red and blue in them. That would be alizarin crimson and ultramarine blue. If I wanted a grayed purple, I have 3 choices:

  1. Cad red light and ultramarine blue---some yellow in the cad red light
  2. Alizarin crimson and cerulean blue--some yellow in the cerulean
  3. Cadmium red light and cerulean blue--yellow in both the red and blue, thus this color would be the grayest
Now, following this same pattern, if I want a vibrant green, I will use only blue and yellow. If red (the complement of green) is used the green color will be grayed. To get the most vibrant pure green, I will mix cerulean blue and cadmium yellow light. If I wanted a grayed green, I again have 3 choices:
  1. Cadmium yellow light and ultramarine blue--ultramarine has some red in it.
  2. Cadmium yellow medium and cerulean blue--cadmium yellow medium has some re in it.
  3. Cadmium yellow medium and ultramarine blue--Both have red in them, thus the color would be the grayest.
OK, following this same logic, I now come to the secondary color of orange using red and yellow. The brightest orange that I can mix would be cadmium red light and cadmium yellow medium.  Both colors have only red and yellow in them. If I wanted a grayed orange, I have three choices:
  1. Cadmium yellow medium and alizarin crimson--some blue in the alizarin crimson
  2. Cadmium yellow light and cad red light-- a little blue in the cad yellow light (not much)
  3. Cad yellow light and alizarin crimson--a little blue in both colors, making it the grayest orange.

Now following this logic, every paint color that you use, you need to learn to identify the properties. Does the color tend to lean toward another color. If so, what is that color?

And remember, that every time you mix all three primaries together, you will gray the color. Learn to mix these primaries together and understand their properties, then you will be able to mix any color or any brand of paint to get what you want. This same topic is covered in my video, Mixing Warm & Cool Colors

Add a comment

* Comments must be approved before being displayed.