Tracy Algar

Why paint with a limited palette?

What are the reasons to use a limited palette? And what limited palette can I use for landscapes?

My limited palette of Zellen artists’ oil paint.

Firstly, I’m a plein air oil painter, so I don’t paint in a studio very often. I carry my studio on my back, which is one reason why I use a limited palette.

I like to travel light when I’m out en plein air

I like to keep my plein air painting kit light so it’s easier to carry, so I only carry eight tubes of paint with me when I’m out and about.

Unless you are going to be driving right up to where you are painting, you don’t really want your plein air painting set up to be too heavy.

I choose to keep my kit to a minimum (I still have all the important stuff)

See the end of this blog post for a video showing everything I carry in my plein air painting backpack.

Using a limited palette naturally allows the colours that you use to harmonize in your painting

Secondly, using a limited number of colours and mixing the other colours you need from the choice that you have means that your painting will have colour harmony. It all just works from a colour perspective when you limit your use of colour.

Pushing the boundaries

Thirdly, constraints help open up our imagination and experiment more. While I think I’ve always had a tendency to push the boundaries, there are also times when I play it safe and the limited palette has helped me to overcome some of those fears to really push the colour, because the likelihood is high that it will work.

My limited palette

  • Titanium white – the biggest tube you can get your hands on
  • Arylamide lemon yellow – a good alternative to Cadmium yellows which are very expensive
  • Cadmium yellow medium – for those rich, high-chroma yellows
  • Yellow ochre – a desaturated, earthy yellow
  • Alizarin crimson – a cool dark red, one of the workhorses of this palette
  • Burnt sienna – one of my favourite grounds and it makes an excellent black/grey mixed with Ultramarine blue.
  • Ultramarine blue – another workhorse of note, perfect for skies, water and mixing blacks and purples
  • Phthalo blue – although I rarely use this blue, I keep it in my backpack

There are times that I bring along an extra colour if it seems like I’m going to need it, a warm red for example. Or a purple, although I can mix an excellent purple with Alizarin crimson and Ultramarine blue.

When I occasionally work in the studio I will sometimes use the odd bit of Chrome oxide green, or Magenta, or Scarlet. It depends what the project demands. Very, very occasionally I might use some Viridian.

Plein air palette box
My plein air palette box after a painting session. Ready for scraping out and cleaning.

The type of paint I use

I choose to use the best locally produced artist quality oil paints that I can get my hands on. That way they have a smaller carbon footprint. I use these Zellen oil paints (see image above) that I can buy from my “local” art shop in Hermanus, or delivered right to my door in Stanford via Art Savings Club (not an affiliate link).