Pastel is not a medium that you often think about mixing colour or limiting your palette. I have even heard it said, “You cannot mix colour with pastel.” I beg to differ. In reality, pastels are the same pigment you find in all other mediums. We just have the tone mixed for us already. When you see those oil painting exercises having a limited palette of complimentary, split complimentary, triads, tetrads and more, there is nothing to stop you using the same theory with pastel to produce amazing results.
What does limiting your palette mean?
Limiting your palette just means selecting only a few colours from the colour wheel to use throughout your painting. I can limit my palette to only using a few colours of pastels I just have to use a range of tones as my tone is already mixed for me. Limiting your palette will create amazing harmony in your work. The same blue can be used to create the greens throughout the painting as well as be in the sky. This unites the work without having to think about it. If I limit myself to just using one temperature of blue, red and yellow, I can mix my greens, purples oranges and greys. Let me show you an example sketch of a simple landscape using a limited palette of only red, blue and yellow. Remembering our tones are already mixed in pastel so I had to use a range of tones in each colour.
Before we get too far….Let’s understand colour mixing a little better.
Let’s start simple. Red, Blue and Yellow. You should be able to mix green violet and orange. Right? But this will lead to problems if you don’t understand basic colour theory. If you randomly pick a red a blue and yellow it could mix something like this:
The first step to understanding colour is to know: Why didn’t this wheel go so well? The answer is red is never just red. It leans either to the blue side or the yellow side. Yellow is never just yellow. It is either on the red side or the blue side. The same with blue it is never just blue, it leans to the red side or the yellow side. So with the colours I chose the red had a little.
The solution is a split primary wheel. You never thing of red as just red, but think about what other colour is influencing it. Blue is not just blue, it is either on the red side or the green side. And of course Yellow, It is either on the red side or the blue side. When you divide your colours this way it is called a “split primary wheel.” Then if you mix the red that is on the yellow side with the yellow on the red side – you will get a very intense orange.
So now we understand why the influence of the temperature of your limited colour counts. It will decide if your colours mix intense or grey. Knowing ahead of time what is going to happen with your colour intensity helps decide how you want to limit your palette. The variety of combinations are endless. With just limiting to red, blue and yellow as a triad (and using the split primary wheel theory explained above) you can create many different variations. By limiting my palette in the samples to a particular temperature of blue, red and yellow, it has created a different mood and almost a different season to each of the landscapes. But they all have a sense of harmony in them. If you think about WHY each of these limited palettes create the colours they do, you will start to understand colour a lot more. All of these sample landscapes were created using only 15 pastels each time. Each choice has made one colour dominate. It is a really great exercise to do to help you understand colour.
What if I Limit myself even further?A project I worked on recently was limiting my palette to just 2 complimentary colours. Blue and orange). This combination creates beautiful warms, cools and greys. But you cannot create green, violet, red, or yellow. Here is the palette:
And here is the painting:
Painted on Uart black paper 500 grit. Step by step with images. (step1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and final work)
1. Starting on the sky using lots of light blues and burnt Sienna’s of similar tone, I created a sky that warms as it reaches the horizon.
2. The back hills were mostly blue with a little orange to grey it down. Again, these tones were similar. Darker than the sky but still very light. Each layer of mountains got slowly darker and slowly warmer until they started to be more a grey orange rather than a grey blue. This brought the hills slowly closer and closer.
3. The foreground hills became stronger in texture by having lights and darks bumping up to each other creating contrast. Shadows stayed cooler and lights stayed warmer.
4. The foreground rocks are a strong contrast of oranges against the cool background.
5. The girl looking out to the horizon, even the skin colour and hair colour is mixed with just the ultramarine and burnt sienna.
6. Final work – Major thing to remember – you must work within your tone or you make mud.
There is also a timelapse video of this painting you can watch on YouTube.
I am hoping you can see that the potential of limiting your palette is so vast it is endless. This is just one way to control colour harmony in your work. It has been used throughout history in many master’s paintings in every medium that uses colour. If you work in other mediums it is also a way to link a lot of the colour theory you know from experience that can carry over to pastels. For those who are new to art it is a great exercise to help you understand colour and how it mixes. If you are interested in understanding colour on a deeper level especially how to mix colour easily in pastel visit my website playingwithpastel.com I have an online course that goes deep into understanding colour. All unison community members get a 10% discount by using the code: UNISON10