This post is a follow-up to Awareness of Value

I often use only 3-5 colors in each of my paintings, although not necessarily the same colors for every composition. Limiting your palette can bring your paintings harmony as all mixes are related, and the colors your choose depend on personal preference, mood, and desired quality of paint (such as transparent vs. granulating pigments). Experimenting with triads–sets of three colors–is a good place to start. Begin with pure (or close to pure) primary colors such as: Daniel Smith’s Hansa Yellow Medium, Pyrrol Red, and Phthalo Blue (red shade). Mix all three together, varying the intensity of each, and see the resulting range of neutrals.


Choose variants on the primary colors to explore other triads such as Daniel Smith Quincridone Gold, Quinacridone Rose, and Indanthrone Blue. This set creates deeper greens as well as a near black. Once you’ve done some free mixing, try painting small compositions with different qualities of light. If you’re interested in trying these colors out, they are all included in my Pocket Color Guide.

Triad 1 studies: Hansa Yellow Medium, Pyrrol Red, Phthalo Blue (Red Shade)
Triad 2 Studies: Quinacridone Gold, Quinacridone Rose, Indanthrone Blue

As you add colors to expand a triad, consider mood, light, and tone. For example, granulating and opaque paints such as Lunar Earth, mineral pigments, and Cerulean Blue, will be give more muted and textured earth tones. My palette choices come predominately from my field sketches, where I mix and sketch freely, as well as make notes about the colors I observe. You can read more about my limited palette choices for the following paintings:

  • Hummingbird sketchQuinacridone Gold, Phthalo Blue (red shade) and Carbazole Violet
  • Aspen Series, Hansa Yellow Medium, Phthalo Blue (red shade) and Deep Scarlet
  • Spring GreenFive color palette with Hansa Yellow Medium, Quinacridone Rose, Phthalo Blue (red shade), Phthalo Green (blue shade), and Quinacridone Gold
  • Storm Front, Four color palette with Raw Sienna, Deep Scarlet, Cerulean Blue, Indanthrone Blue
  • Windswept, Five color palette with Cerulean Blue Chromium, Deep Scarlet, Raw Sienna, Phthalo Green (green shade), and Indanthrone Blue