Color Palette for Plein Air Painting

When we first start painting, our color palette is like the rainbow, or even several rainbows. Our child-like pleasure in the luscious range of possibilities makes us feel quite giddy with anticipation.

The opportunity to indulge our visual senses is given full range. Initially, this is pleasing to us.

After a while, we realize that having such a wide range of options is actually confusing and may even make our works of art look like a chaos of too much of everything. Too much color of all kinds, too much busyness, and too much mental confusion as a result.

We discover that adding yet another hue to a painting that isn’t working, doesn’t solve the problem – if anything, it makes it worse.

The Limited Color Palette

As with composition, the solution to chaos and busyness of the color palette is to simplify. Create a Haiku of color – a Tweet with color. A reduction of possibilities adds up to a world of subtle passages that can be infinitely more beguiling that being bludgeoned with screaming pigment all over the place.

The purpose of this page is to give you some starting points for experimenting with the Limited Palette. A playful jumping off point – you can then begin to realize what an amazing variety of colors can be created with just 3 or 4 to start with.

#1 – Cadmium Yellow Light - Fire Red – Phthalo Green/Blue + White & Black

#2 – Yellow Ochre – Alizarin Crimson – Ultramarine Blue + White & Black

#3 – Hansa Yellow Orange - Quinacridone Violet (Red-Violet) – Phthalo Green/Blue + White & Black

#4 – Ultramarine Blue, Cadmium Yellow Light, Permanent Red Medium + White & Black.

#5 – Cadmium Yellow Light – Alizarin Crimson – Carbozole Violet – Cobalt Blue – Sap Green - White.

#6 – Yellow Ochre – Cadmium Yellow Light – Cadmium Red – Alizarin Crimson – Ultramarine Blue – White.


More Information and Theory

Most artists establish a selection of colors that they favor over time. It seems to come down to mixes that appeal to our particular eye – what we see when we look out at the landscape differs from person to person.

For excellent information on color theory, we recommend reading the following article:

Navigating Color Space.


Painting Techniques for Shadows
Pick the Right White Oil Paint for your needs

How to Paint in Layers

Monochromatic Under-Painting Technique for Plein Air Oil Painters

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