Four Reasons Why Artists Use Limited Palettes


If you’re new to making art or if you’re an artist, then seeing art that uses a more limited colour palette can be slightly confusing. After all, why would an artist stick to using 2-6 colours, or a very small number of paints or markers when they can have pretty much any colour they want at their disposal these days?

Well, as strange as it might look at first, there are very good reasons why artists sometimes use a more limited palette. Here are four of them:

1) Complementary colours: Complementary colours are pairs or groups of colours that go really well together. A famous example of this is how a lot of film posters tend to use blue and orange together a lot.

Each complementary colour pair contains a “warm” colour (like orange) and a “cool” colour (like blue) and they are usually found by getting a Red/Yellow/Blue colour wheel and drawing a straight line across it. The colours at each end of the line are a complementary colour pair. If you want to find a slightly larger group of complementary colours, then draw an equilateral triangle over the colour wheel and look at the three colours at the points of the triangle.

Complementary colour pairs look striking, dramatic and visually harmonious. So, using 1-3 complementary colour pairs in your artwork can be a quick way to make it look more dramatic or to create a particular mood. This is one reason why art can sometimes include a fairly small number of colours.

Likewise, you can do all sorts of clever things when you understand how complementary colours work. For example, you can give your gothic, cyberpunk or horror artwork a slightly “unsettling”, “creepy” or “dystopian” look by using a blue and red colour scheme. Like this:

"Dance Of The Orbs" By C. A. Brown [2016]

“Dance Of The Orbs” By C. A. Brown [2016]

But, why does it work? It works because blue/red is fairly similar to the blue/orange complementary colour pair, but just different enough to look strange, then it tends to create a slightly unsettling atmosphere when used in gloomier works art.

2) Old-school art: In the olden days, if you wanted to print a comic, then you only had three or four ink colours, which were added as separate layers (but could also be printed over each other to make a couple of other colours). Likewise, more traditional art printing styles tended to limit the number of colours that could be printed.

But, you might say, modern printing doesn’t have these limitations! This is true, but quite a few artists have been inspired by things that were printed in the past or by things that were inspired by things that were printed in the past.

So, an artist choosing to use a more limited palette might just be a sign that they’ve been influenced by something that had to use a smaller palette for practical reasons.

3) For the challenge: Put simply, making cool-looking artwork with a limited number of paints, pencils or markers can be a fun challenge. It can teach you a lot about things like colour mixing, lighting, shading and how to use colours.

It’s also like a more visually-interesting version of making monochrome black and white drawings. Like with limited palette artwork, these types of drawings can look simple but, until you’ve had some practice, they can often be much more challenging to get right than colour artwork can be:

"Aberystwyth - Haunted Hill" By C. A. Brown [2015]

“Aberystwyth – Haunted Hill” By C. A. Brown [2015]

If you don’t believe me about any of this, then go over to Youtube and type in “three marker challenge” and you’ll be greeted with numerous videos of artists trying to make interesting works of art using three randomly-selected marker pens. And, like any other type of challenge – it’s both a fun test of skill and an educational experience.

4) For time reasons:
Once you get used to using a more limited palette, then it can be a real time-saver. Having a more limited number of paints, pencils, markers etc.. at your disposal means that you can’t spend ages selecting a colour. It also just feels more efficient too.

Plus, when you get good at it, you can create relatively complex-looking artwork that only uses a small-medium number of colours in a shorter amount of time. For example, here’s a reduced-size preview of a digitally-edited painting that will be posted here in December:

The full-size painting will be posted here on the 15th December.

The full-size painting will be posted here on the 15th December.

I was in a bit of a rush when I added colour to this painting’s line art, so I used just five watercolour pencils (dark blue, yellow, red, purple and black) before adding the violinist’s skin tone digitally. Yet, thanks to some colour mixing and knowledge about complementary colour schemes, I was able to include a prominent red/green colour scheme (with smaller orange/blue and orange/purple) in this painting without thinking about it too much.

So, yes, limiting the number of paints, pencils etc.. you use can help to speed up making art, if you know what you are doing.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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