Three Skills You’ll Need If You Want To Paint Or Draw With A Limited Palette.

2016 Artwork Limited palette painting article sketch

A while back, I started experimenting with making some paintings/drawings using a limited colour palette. This is something which I’d seen artists on the internet do numerous times before and I’m surprised that it’s taken me this long to try it myself.

These are really fun types of paintings to make for a few reasons. Not only do they look like something from a comic book, but they’re also an enjoyable challenge to make too. In addition to this, they have a kind of minimalist simplicity to them that you don’t really get when you make art using a large variety of colours.

Still, in case you missed my series of horror-themed limited palette paintings, here are three of them:

"Zombie Facility" By C. A. Brown

“Zombie Facility” By C. A. Brown

"To Perdition" By C. A. Brown

“To Perdition” By C. A. Brown

"Late Return" By C. A. Brown

“Late Return” By C. A. Brown

All of these paintings were made using only 3-4 watercolour pencils and a waterproof ink pen. But, how did I learn how to do this? Here are the three essential skills that you need to know:

1) Learn How To Make Art In Black & White: The most important skill for learning how to paint with a limited palette is knowing how to draw in black and white. I’m not talking about greyscale pencil drawings, I’m talking about drawings where the only colours in the whole picture are black and white, like this:

"City Atrium" By C. A. Brown

“City Atrium” By C. A. Brown

In fact, virtually all of my limited palette paintings tend to start out as B&W drawings. If they work well as a B&W drawing, then I’ll think about adding colour to them. But, why is this so important?

As well as teaching you a lot of cool shading techniques that can come in handy when you’re making limited palette drawings/paintings, learning how to make B&W art is a great way to learn about colour balance and contrasts too.

A good piece of B&W artwork usually needs to contain a good mixture of dark areas, shaded areas and light areas throughout the drawing or painting. If there are too many light areas, the picture won’t really stand out much. If there are too many shaded areas, the picture will look like a confusing mess from a distance and, if there are too many dark areas then your picture might look a bit too minimalist.

If there’s a good balance between light, dark and shaded areas, then these parts of your picture will contrast with each other in all sorts of interesting ways. You’ll have to experiment with this yourself, but you can create some really interesting artwork if you get it right.

Learning where to place light, dark and shaded areas in your B&W picture is a skill which will come in very handy when it comes to deciding how to use the small number of colours that you’ve chosen for your limited palette painting.

2) Learn Colour Theory: Another skill that you need to have if you want to make art using a limited palette is a good working knowledge of colour theory.

In other words, you need to know the difference between “warm” colours (like brown, yellow, red, pink, orange, etc..) and “cool” colours (like blue, green, dark purple, grey etc…).

Your limited palette should contain at least one “warm” colour and one “cool” colour.

But, more than that, you’ll need to use complimentary colours. If you don’t know what these are, they are certain combinations of “warm” and “cool” colours that just go well together.

The classic example of this is orange and blue, but there are a lot of other possible combinations too. To work out which colours are complimentary, just look at a traditional colour wheel and either draw a line across it or draw an equilateral triangle on top of it. The colours at the ends of the line or next to the corners of the triangle should be complimentary colours.

3) Learn How To Mix Colours: It goes without saying but, if you’re only using a few colours, you’ll also need to learn how to mix colours too.

One clever trick that I’ve done in many of my limited palette paintings is to make sure that the colour scheme is as close to red, yellow and/or blue as possible (although I’ll often substitute light brown for yellow). These are, of course, the three primary colours – which can be used to create any other colour.

But, even if you don’t use these three colours, you’ll still need to know how your colours work when they’re combined with each other. So, make sure to practice and experiment before you make your painting.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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