Working with a Limited Palette

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.

Working with a Limited Palette 1

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:

Working with a Limited Palette 2

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.

Working with a Limited Palette 3

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.

Working with a Limited Palette 4

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:

Working with a Limited Palette 10

And here is the painting:

Working with a Limited Palette 11

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.

Working with a Limited Palette 12

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.

Working with a Limited Palette 13

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.

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4. The foreground rocks are a strong contrast of oranges against the cool background.

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5. The girl looking out to the horizon, even the skin colour and hair colour is mixed with just the ultramarine and burnt sienna.

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6. Final work – Major thing to remember – you must work within your tone or you make mud.

Working with a Limited Palette 11

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 I have an online course that goes deep into understanding colour. All unison community members get a 10% discount by using the code: UNISON10

One of our associate artists at her easel

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12 Responses

  1. This was wonderful. I enjoyed every aspect of her lesson. With the limited she creates a beautiful painting and shows how powerful the palette is. I truly enjoyed this lesson. Thank you Tricia for sharing!!

  2. Tricia Taylor really is a Master of the pastel. A great tutor and very generous in sharing her expertise. A lesson with Tricia is memorable. Thank you.

  3. Really opened my eyes to what can be achieved with a limited palette so will definitely give this a try on maybe a simple landscape to see just what l can achieve.

    Thank you for this great blog

  4. Really enjoyed this and what a revelation on using a limited palette and the split primary wheel. Very thought provoking and inspiring, so I am looking forward to experimenting with this. Many thanks for such an interesting blog Tricia!

  5. Отличный способ рисовать ограниченной палитрой! Были случаи, когда я терялась от нехватки пастели какого-либо цвета, но можно было попробовать применить теорию цвета. Надо учиться у Триши! Спасибо команде Юнисон за новые знания!

  6. Very interesting. As a beginner I am still struggling with colour mixing and theory, this has definitely helped me tick some boxes. Thank-you.

  7. Hi Tricia
    What a fabulous blog / lesson. Thank you . I have recently bought the @unisoncolour full pastel set primarily to explore aspects of colour theory. Im not a pastelist as such but a painter / printmaker so Im not used o having so many colours premixed. I found that its been an interesting observation of ones mindset. Im scrutinising and “reading” colour in a very different way. Of course its tempting to use far too many colours when you have them displayed in front of you. As the characteristic of pastel hue is so vivid and intense, the work can often become “gaudy” insensitive or crude even.
    I note the phenominal light and glow of your sky in the example youve made. Im wondering if this is as a result of the black paper plus dark cool tone you use as a base leaving textured areas of contrasting dark flecks but also because you have a limited palette but using a broad range of light and dark values. I now want to go back and study Odilon Redon’s masterful pastels, I believe he uses a limited palette. I find his ability to create phenominal light almost wonderfully blinding !
    Thanks again.

    1. Thanks Jane,
      The sky glows as the tooth is very full in comparison to the front. Each layer that comes forward reveals more and more of the dark tooth of the paper. Its a great way to help the feeling of depth. But most of the glow is from the cool mountains against warm sky. then the sky transitions all the way from warm to cool again at the top. Form is made by tonal contrast – glow is made from temperature contrast.
      Yes the many fabulous colours we have in our pastel pallets are wonderful but can be confusing at the same time. I find this mindset of mixing colours and limiting your pallet helps many other artists who start with other mediums to get used to pastels. Pigment is the same no matter what medium you put it in so why not control colour the same way. Odilon Redon is a perfect example along with many many others from that era the not only learned colour theory from other mediums but also had a limited pallet due to the amount of pastels they had to choose from. Eugène Delacroix is also interesting to study. The way he used his pastels to plan his oil paintings. Using just warm and cool, light and dark he creates amazing studies. What an amazing world of pastel potential we have opened up. Enjoy your journey of discovery. Cheers Tricia.

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