Limited Palette—Unlimited Color Harmony

By Jane Jones

This article is based on an excerpt from the Brushing Up column in the October 2012 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.

Pearls and Gold by Janes Jones

Pearls & Gold (oil, 26×18) by Jane Jones achieves color harmony by means of a limited palette of three colors.

With so many paint colors to choose from, why would a painter want to work with a limited palette? One good reason would be to create color unity or harmony in your painting. For example, I painted Pearls & Gold (at top) almost entirely with the three tube colors you see below.

Colors used in Pearls & Gold by Jane Jones

Left to right: Indian yellow, rose madder genuine, neutral tint; Using a limited palette of three paint colors creates color harmony in Pearls & Gold.

I chose each of the above colors to correspond to a main element in the painting; Old Holland neutral tint for the background, Winsor & Newton Indian yellow for the drapery, and Winsor & Newton rose madder genuine for the roses. These colors are within the color families of the three primary colors—red, blue and yellow—from which all other colors are mixed. With this primary color scheme, I can mix more colors than I would ever need, and because all the paint mixtures in this piece contain at least one of these three colors, the effect is harmonious.

 Student Experiment in Color Harmony
Using too many different tubes of paint to make a painting can be overwhelming and can easily lead to chaos and frustration. One assignment I give in my color classes is to create a picture using paint from only four tubes—one tube of each primary color (red, blue and yellow) along with a tube of white. Exact primaries aren’t necessary; for example, cadmium red light works for red or turquoise for blue. When you know how to mix colors, you can get an amazing number of hues out of just four tubes of paint!

One of my students, Jeannette Nickelson, got so carried away with the assignment that she created 13 paintings of the same image using just cadmium lemon yellow, quinacridone magenta, French ultramarine and titanium white. You can see eight paintings from her Cowgirl Series below.


This Cowgirls Series shows how student artist Jeannette Nichelson easily achieved color harmony with a limited palette of three primary colors.

Speaking of the assignment, Nickelson said, “I got more colors out of those three tubes of paint than I’ve ever before got out of all of my other tubes of paint.” She was not consciously adhering to a specific color scheme in any of the paintings, yet each painting has color harmony, and, even as a group, the paintings are harmonious with each other.

Another comment that I hear about this project is that the artists feel “safe” when working with a limited palette, as if they couldn’t go wrong with the color in their paintings. You won’t be able to get every color possible out of four tubes of paint, but the color possibilities are still endless, and the colors that you get will all work together.

Your Turn
Try it! Pick up a yellow, a red and a blue, along with a white to create a couple of studies. Find out how easily you can create color harmony when you use a limited palette.

Cover of Classic Still Life Painting by Jane JonesJane Jones is the author of Classic Still Life Painting; Watson-Guptill, 2004; available at and a popular teacher in workshops and on DVDs. Visit her website at



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