View Full Version : Limiting palette

07-24-2013, 06:29 AM
Hi all
I'm fairly new to pastels and art in general, about 2 years. I play with many different mediums, so I suppose it's possible that my question is related to the fact that I probably don't know any particular medium well enough to judge. However, here is my issue:
Whenever I go to paint a picture (animals, mostly) I wind up with heaps of pastels in front of me. Yet when I see how few colours other people use and yet still achieve range of value and hue, and stunningly realistic results (eg Lesley Harrison) I am astonished. I'm aware that 'less is more' and that a limited palette can be more visually appealing, but how do I do this?

When I begin a picture, I select what I 'think' I'll need, but because I'm not entirely sure (this may be the familarity thing coming in), I'll choose, say, 4 light greys instead of maybe one or two. I seem to to do this for just about every colour or value I see in the source pic. and then wind up with 20 or even many more in front of me. All for animal fur!

It makes for disorganised painting, yet I still achieve my result in the end, it just seems like using all these pastels makes it longer to get there.

How do artists know what to choose, and then able to choose so few? I think I am second-guessing myself with each choice, maybe that's the problem?

How do I limit my palette -and do I really need to or this just me being a bit of a prima donna artiste who happened to read somewhere that a limited palette is better? Or will the ability to use fewer pastels come naturally with time when I am more familiar with my pastels and what each one looks like alone/in combination etc?


07-24-2013, 08:48 AM
I would say 20 pastels for a painting is a normal number -and quite limited compared to what many others would use. (I seem to recall seeing a Daniel Green portait video where he used between 50 and 75 pastels.) Choosing 3 or 4 values for each "general" color is definitely appropriate. That is, after all, one of the benefits of pastel - that you don't have to mix all the intermediate values and color gradations. However, it is still possible to do some mixing, so if you want to limit your number of pastels, you can choose only 2 (maybe 3) values for each color and mix the in-betweens. It is really a matter of personal preference, but again, 20 is a limited number in my book!

And yes, as you gain experience, you will almost certainly find that your ability to choose the "right" color will improve! Alas, the one thing about experience is that it takes time to acquire!


07-24-2013, 11:41 PM
Thanks, Don, you've made me feel a lot better about it!

07-25-2013, 12:48 AM
:) You are thinking and painting so you will get to where you want to be, Just keep experimenting, Try not to do a painting the same way each time you paint.
For one painting, set out your pastels---then have a plate or tray close by---as you use each pastle , place it aside on the tray--each time you use it, replace it here instead of in the set--then when you are finnished you will see how many pastels you used for the painting. You can also see how many values of each you chose---
Read many books and study your favorite painter's work-----Mike Beeman is great with animals. there are many here on this forum---also read Jackie Simmons's books, or Debra Secor about limited palette work. Study also the color wheel. And good luck, paint alot.

07-27-2013, 05:30 AM
It might be because you say you select what you think you will need when you start a painting - remember every colour is relative to what it is next to - might be easier to pick one colour and use that on the painting and place it in your working palette and then pick the next colour once you see the first on the support.

Something else I saw recently was artist Robert Dutton who, every time he chooses a colour, uses it everywhere he can see that colour. This helps with a) working on the painting as a whole and not having various elements done to different levels of completion b) unifying the painting and c) leaving less blank spots where you can add random non-unifying colours :)

I have been trying this approach and it is surprising how it helps you to see colours where you wouldn't necessarily think they would be...

Hope this helps!


07-27-2013, 01:29 PM
Donna, when I started I needed to use a lot of colors all the time. I think it's natural for a beginner to use almost the entire box on every painting, then gradually as your personal style emerges, develop a personal palette.

With animals, I can see why having a large palette of earth tones in different values is important. Part of learning to use a limited palette is getting used to different methods for mixing color optically. Colorix taught me stick blending in "ESP: Still Life the Colourful Way" (http://www.wetcanvas.com/forums/showthread.php?t=527268) and it made all the difference in the world. I had a big jump right around then in how many different sticks I used in a given painting.

It's a good class - there are lots of other good classes in the Soft Pastels Learning Center. But there are animal artists who still use a large palette for all the good reasons you do. The subtle differences between values and hues in earth tones can give a lot of richness to fur. The violet-grays, pinkish-grays, golden browns or redder browns, slightly more muted reddish browns, colder browns that are near grays all make a difference.

It's odd, but it's easier for me to use a limited palette on a human face than it is with animal hair because certain effects like agouti take that kind of precise color use. I usually get by with two tints per color but with animals having three tints and a shade or two makes sense.

I would suggest trying color mixing on still life subjects or on background objects in a posed animal painting. It's easier to see the effects with subjects that start from a bright color.

The other thing that's fun is to just plunge in and use what you have with a short palette chosen at random. Two or three years ago a challenge came up around the Terry Ludwig Mystery Box sale, folks were posting paintings done just with the contents of their Mystery Box. So when I didn't have one, I closed my eyes, waved my hand over my pastels box and chose 14 colors at random.

I did try to move my hand a lot to be sure to have both lights and darks and warms and cools. My box is organized with warm to the left and tints at the top so it wasn't completely random, but it was a very rough sorting. If you try something like that and then choose a subject based on the colors you get, you might surprise yourself.

12-27-2014, 02:00 PM
:heart: I am glad to know that others have this same difficulty. I struggle with this also. The responses to your query is very comforting.

water girl
12-27-2014, 03:27 PM
I am probablly the most disorganized and scattered of the bunch. I begin with pulling a few colors I believe I'll need, but that plan changes many, many times as I paint. I never worry about too few or too many pastels.
So...if you find you can't settle in on a limited palette, maybe you weren't meant to.:angel: I hope to prossibly become organized some day, but probably won't. Just have fun!

12-27-2014, 05:29 PM
Actually, 20 colors is a limited palette more or less. It's very common. Don't worry about that. It's if you're using 60 to 100 pastels every time that you're spreading out maybe too much.

There are different ways to do a limited palette. One is to restrict the hues, go for predominantly a complementary pair and then several values in it. Or a triad arrangement - maybe an earth yellow, a warm muted green and a violet, all together, with values. Limited hues will help unify a painting even if you have 10 gradations of value per hue.

I think you've already reached a comfort level with it. Pushing it farther than that may help in an exercise but it's just that. It's not necessary.

Barbara WC
12-27-2014, 09:48 PM
Donna- I agree with the others, 20 pastel sticks in a painting is limited, especially if you are selecting gradations of the same color- for instances, if your grays are all the same blue-gray base, just darker and lighter, then they are essentially the same color. The only other way to limit the number, say in the gray case, is to start with a dark gray and mix in white in varying amounts- but that is essentially what the gradations of pastel sticks we have are. If you are using gradations of the same base color, in reality then, you may be using even fewer "colors" in your animal fur than you think.

One thing I like to do though, especially in something like hair or animal fur, is to be sure to use the same stick color around in the fur in different areas. This helps unify the fur or hair. Not sure if I'm making myself clear- like if you pick up a middle gray stick, put some of it in the forehead, on the ears, on the stomach- move your stick around the painting- even if it's just a few strokes. This also will keep your stick number down.

I think in my human portraits, I probably use around 15-20 sticks, so I don't think that number is excessive for an animal portrait!

05-25-2015, 11:24 PM
Hi Donna:

I'm not a pastel artist, per say, but have done some pastel pencils. Pencils are my life's joy for artwork. I'm teaching a class in June on simple color theory/mixing. So, I wanted to find a subject that had quite a bit of secondary colors in the photo for the class to have to mix on the paper as they did a prescribed subject, and after learning some things about theory and mixing.

The only colors we are using in this class are magenta red, blue, yellow, black (used sparingly) and white. You may not want to limit yourself quite this much, but I did find it interesting just how many colors you can mix yourself to make a pleasing piece of art.

While I don't always do the very piece of art the class does in each month's project, I felt I had to do this one to better know how to organize the class. Enclosed is a picture of a pencil/painting from a photo from the Paint My Photo website rendered in Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils on Clairefontaine Pastelmat using odorless mineral spirits to blend colors. This was truly fun, challenging, and informative. I'm hoping the class thinks so, too.


05-26-2015, 08:17 AM
Your painting is great. I can see how that'd work in pastels, though it gets frustrating mixing every tint and shade. You've got very pure hues and a gorgeous harmony with those chosen primaries. Love the intense mixtures!

05-26-2015, 09:24 PM
Sue, that's a gorgeous painting! And very impressive, considering the limited palette.

05-28-2015, 03:21 AM
Hello Donna :) If you are choosing, for example, four light grays before you get started because you aren't sure which you'll need, at some point you get started and identify the one that works best, yes? So why not put the others back (or set them aside somewhere else) at that point so you are only left with the light gray you are actually using in your painting?

06-01-2015, 10:06 AM
Donna, I have that problem too. I know, in theory, it's a good idea to choose the right colors from the beginning and stick to that choice, but whenever I do that I end up looking for colors in both places - in my limited colors tray and the main palette. So in fact limiting colors in the first place makes me spend more time. I gave up on doing that and I think it works for me just fine. The only time I do put the colors aside it's when I'm already in the middle on a painting and found that exact shade of color that works, I put it aside so I don't have to look for it again. It's easier when I have the basic colors in the painting, now I know that it's the color that works with the ones around it, while in the beginning it's mostly a guesswork for me. I'm not sure if I explained any of it clearly.. It's such a complex subject! I do hope that with time it will get easier to pick that right color from the start.
Good luck with your painting! I think the main thing is that we enjoy it no matter which way we get to the end result :)