Technique Tuesdays: Limited Palette

Technique Tuesday limited palette

What is it?

This week we’re taking a look at a method that some artists use to help enhance their work by creating color harmony and balance–the use of a limited palette. This is pretty much just what it sounds like. Thanks to the advances made over many centuries, artists today can go into an art supply store and choose from a vast plethora of paints in every imaginable color. This may at first seem like an advantage, but many artists in fact extol the virtues of using a very limited color palette. Working with only a few basic colors not only teaches beginning artists to explore mixing colors on their own, but also has a beautiful effect on the finished artwork. A limited palette often involves (though it does not necessarily include) the use of white and black, as well as one or two additional paint colors. All the varying values and tones resulting from these base palette colors end up having a harmonious flow to them thanks to those shared base colors. The choice to not use a large number of colors in a painting can also add to the sense of balance, increase the drama and mood, and even enhance the composition of a work by avoiding the distraction of too many colors and instead focusing on value, line, and form.

Examples from art history:

In a way, artists throughout history have necessarily worked with a limited color palette in comparison with the options available to artists today. But there were certain artists who experimented with a specific and very limited range of colors, to a lovely effect. Picasso’s “Blue Period” became an iconic part of his painting career, as he eschewed the full range of colors to focus on what he could communicate and emote through the spectrum of blues alone. Perhaps the most well-known proponent of the concept of a limited palette was notable Swedish painter Anders Zorn, whose unique palette of white, black, cadmium red, and yellow ochre has come to be known as the Zorn Palette and is still widely used by artists today. Edgar Degas, too, often experimented with different limited palettes to enhance the visual interest of his paintings.

AH Collage
(left) Pablo Picasso, “Mother and Child”; (middle) Anders Zorn, “Hins Anders”; (Edgar Degas) “Place de la Concorde”

Examples at Principle Gallery:

As is the case with many of the techniques we talk about on the blog, you’ll spot a good variety of our artists who sometimes incorporate the technique of a limited palette into their work. Next time you notice one of these artworks, take a minute to really look at the work and think about why the artist might have chosen to limit themselves to just a few colors. Does it give an interesting overall harmony to the colors? Does it bring the focus instead to the composition, or perhaps the lines? Does it seem to enhance the mood or atmosphere of the work?

Here are two great examples of the way some of our Principle Gallery artists play with a limited palette. On the left, you can see two works by California painter Felicia Forte, who enjoys working with and exploring the possibilities of the iconic Zorn Palette. Another great example of a limited color palette can be seen in the great majority of paintings by one of the artists from our upcoming two man show, Tempo and Pause (opening April 17th!), Valerio D’Ospina. Check out his works (seen here on the right) to see the way that Valerio’s limited palette brings amazing focus to the energy, line, and composition of his dynamic cityscapes.

PG Collage
(left two) Felicia Forte, “De Young Fountain” and “View to Alcatraz”; (right two) Valerio D’Ospina, “Looking Back” and “Warehouse at the Navy Yard”

Keep an eye out, because the preview for the Tempo and Pause exhibition featuring Valerio D’Ospina and Greg Gandy will be available very soon! Shoot us an email at if you’d like to be on the list to see the digital preview as soon as it’s available!

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