3 Color Palettes for the Serious Oil Painter


3 color palettesAre you an artist and need help selecting colors for your oil painting color palette?

Are you confused by the many color selections made by various artist oil paint brands and their claims?

This blog post will seek to clear up any confusion about color palette choices by reducing all the options down into 3 simple choices.

One of the most fun and satisfying aspects of oil painting is setting up your color palette and preparing your tools.

This process really helps define who you are becoming as an artist, and what direction you will be taking.

3 Color Palettes

It took me years of study, trail and error, being mentored by other artists and teachers, to finally settle on my set of artist tools and color palettes.

Color palettes, though challenging, can be great fun to figure out on your own or with the help of teachers.

Just to let you know, all of the product links in this article are Amazon affiliate links. That means I get a small commission if you buy anything from Amazon, but it doesn’t cost you any extra. Don’t worry, I’m always honest, open, impartial with my reviews – I only recommend the good stuff – but this affiliate income helps keep the site running.

1. Simple or Limited Palette (11 Colors or Less)

This is the palette that I use. It consists of 11 colors or less.

The Old Masters used limited palettes. The basic idea of this palette is to have a warm and cool of each primary, white, and a couple of earth tones.

The colors that I use in my limited palette are:

  1. Titanium white
  2. Ultramarine blue (warm blue)
  3. Cerulean blue (cool blue)
  4. Cadmium Red Light (warm red)
  5. Alizarin Crimson (cool red)
  6. Cadmium Yellow Light (warm yellow)
  7. Lemon Yellow (cool yellow)
  8. Cadmium Orange (secondary)
  9. Dioxiane Purple (secondary)
  10. Yellow orche (earth tone)
  11. Burnt umber (earth tone)

This palette gives you all the basic colors to build secondary or tertiary colors. You need to have a good understanding of color theory to use this palette successfully.

I purchase Cadmium Orange as a secondary color in tube form because its brilliance cannot be matched by mixing red and yellow on your own.

2. Average Palette (12 to 14 Colors)

color palettes
The earth tones are good choices to add to your color palette. These colors are by Gamblin oil paints, the brand I use most.

This takes the simple palette above and expands it.

The idea with this palette is to take a couple of shortcuts and rather than mixing a secondary, just go ahead and buy it in the tube.

One secondary color that you will probably want to purchase at some time will be Dioxiane Purple. This is a wonderful color that makes beautiful violets and has great tinting strength. I use it in my color palette to same time mixing this much-used secondary.

I always mix my own greens. So my suggestion to you is to never purchase a tube green, as you can mix all the greens you need with the colors you have. Also, tube greens always seem a bit artificial to me.

The last category you want to add from here will be the earth tones. Burnt sienna, raw umber or raw sienna are good choices here.

3. Elaborate Palette (15 or More Colors)

The elaborate palette takes the average palette one step further.

At this point you begin to add colors that speak to your own personal taste as a painter. Or you could add more colors in the secondary or tertiary range that will save you color mixing time.

But be careful here and don’t go overboard.

Paint manufacturers have to constantly make a large selection of new products to stay in business. But you really don’t need all the colors that they make. They will be redundant in your paint box once you become highly skilled at mixing colors.

And mixing the exact color you need is half the fun.

Every time I see a painter open their box and it has 30 tubes of paint with names like Azure blue or Turquoise green, I know that I am in the presence of a novice, someone who probably just started painting.

Let us know about the colors you use in your color palette in the comments below.

This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. mazemangriot

    Im starting to get into painting. I think my biggest problem given my style of art is choosing colors and the more choices I have the harder it is for me to just create.

    1. Gary Bolyer Fine Art

      If you are just starting out, I recommend that you start with the Limited color palette. You can mix every color that there is from the limited palette. Learn as much as you can about color theory and color mixing. As you experiment, you will become clearer on the colors that suit you best.

  2. Katleenj

    I’m never organised when I’m painting, I start with some colours, than need another one and so on and on, my palette grows while painting and also the colormix on my hands and face…….
    The search for the colourfield or -variations is for me a very nice experience, but I’ll try to keep in mind what I read above.

    1. Gary Bolyer Fine Art

      Thanks so much for your comments. It sounds like you have a lot of fun when you paint. I can totally relate to what you are talking about. As you paint, the colors mix and blend and form a kind of growing presence and character of their own. And the paints always seem to find their way to your jeans and shirt and face as well. I generally start off with all my colors laid out very specfically on my palette. But it isn’t long until everything on my palette no longer is quite that organized, as I work very quickly and sometimes very chaotically.

    1. Gary Bolyer Fine Art

      I did take a look at your online portfolio. I especially liked the piece entitled “Free” dated 2006. I like the way it incorporates the twigs onto the paper surface. Nice!

  3. Michael Warnock

    Hi, The color palette that I given was by my art teacher has really served me well.She claimed that it came from Gericault.Cadmium red medium,Alizarin crimson,Cadmium lemon, and Cadmium yellow medium,Viridian,French Ultramarine, Cobalt blue,Cobalt violet, Raw, and burnt Sienna,Raw umber and Pozzuoli red -all up 12 colours if you do not include the titanium/zinc white.I did add a few colours to this,but it was never when my teacher was around.

  4. Lee

    Ive recently started to use the CMY pallet and through my old colour wheel out the window. Mixing with Cyan, Magenta and Yellow acheives such a rich vibrant secoundary and tertiary colours i cannot beieve i was taught RYB theory in the first place. CMY gives such beautiful greens its great for landscape painters

    1. Gary Bolyer

      Thanks for your input. I know my readers will appreciate your ideas on this subject.

  5. Nancy D

    Your basic color palette is very similar to mine except I do not use lemon yellow. I am happy to see that you added two of my favorite colors, cadmium orange and dioxane purple, both of which I use often. Neither of these colors can be adequately duplicated by mixing. To this palette, I added burnt sienna and raw umber. I do not use raw umber often, but still find it useful. I was taught not to buy a green, but to mix one. However, I do use sap green at times but always find myself mixing it with something else..

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