What Is a Limited Palette?
Painting with a limited palette means restricting the number of colors available for painting. While it might feel intimidating at first, be reassured that you can mix pretty much any color starting from a limited palette of three primaries plus white.
The main colors you'll need are blue, red, and yellow. There is no need to use black from the tube: You can mix your own (see below).
What Colors Should I Include in a Limited Palette?
When I set up my limited palette to paint any painting, I like to include a warmer and a cooler version of each hue.
For blue, I squeeze out two different blues, one warmer and one cooler, like ultramarine blue and cerulean blue, which are also lighter in value.
For the yellow, my warm color is cadmium yellow deep and my cool yellow hue is cadmium lemon light.
For the red, I like cadmium red light as warm red and quinacridone magenta for my cool red.
For whites, you can go more opaque or transparent. An opaque white (i.e. Titanium White) will make the mix flatter and less translucent. A transparent white (i.e. Zinc White) will require more white to lighten the color, but it would retain the hue better.
You can mix your own black from the three primaries: I get my black by mixing a little red and a little yellow with ultramarine blue. Another shortcut to get black is mixing ultramarine blue and burnt umber or burnt sienna.
Making Brown From the Three Primary Colors
The bottom line is that to mix brown from a limited palette you need to mix the three primary colors. For a lighter shade of brown, you can add white.
I usually don’t like to use black, because black flattens the paint too much, and in nature pure black hardly exists. However, you can use it to darken a color if you so want.
Brown From Green and Red
As they teach you in primary school, to get brown you need to mix green and red. That sounds simple enough, though the shade of brown you get depends on what green and what red you mix, and in what proportions.
BROWN = GREEN + RED
As we all know green is achieved by mixing blue and yellow.
GREEN = BLUE + YELLOW
That means that brown is the mixing of the three primaries, in different proportions.
BROWN = (BLUE + YELLOW) + RED
Green is a very tricky color to mix. Depending on what hues you are mixing and in what proportions you get totally different greens.
Brown From Orange and Blue
In a similar way, you can make brown from a mix of orange and blue.
BROWN = ORANGE + BLUE
Now we know that orange is yellow with a little bit of red
ORANGE = YELLOW + RED
So if brown is obtained by mixing orange and blue, that means that brown is a mix of the three primaries.
BROWN = (YELLOW + RED) + BLUE
Blue is the only color which maintains its own character in all its tones . . . it will always stay blue; whereas yellow is blackened in its shades, and fades away when lightened; red, when darkened, becomes brown, and diluted with white is no longer red, but another color—pink.
— Raoul Dufy
All Shades of Browns: Step by Step
You can mix and match different reds, blues, and yellows, and get all kinds of shades of brown.
Depending on the kind of primaries that you are starting from, you can get greenish browns, golden browns, reddish ones, etc.
Darker starting colors will result in a darker brown mix. Starting from lighter primaries will give you high-value mixes.
Add some white for even lighter shades.
Tips on Mixing Brown From Primary Colors
Mixing blue, yellow, and red is like mixing orange and blue, or green and red.
It does not matter which colors you mix first. In the example, I started by mixing a dark orange, obtained by mixing red with a little yellow.
How to Mix Brown
- Mix a beautiful red-orange using the palette knife. Avoid mixing a big quantity of paint with your paintbrushes because you may ruin the brushes and create streaks of color in the brush that come out unexpectedly while painting.
- Once you have your orange, add a little bit of blue, mix it in and see what happens.
- The more blue you add, the darker your brown.
If you start from a lighter orange, adding a little blue you get a light greenish-brown, kind of a golden color. This is a great starting for skin tones when you are painting portraits.
A painting requires a little mystery, some vagueness, and some fantasy. When you always make your meaning perfectly plain you end up boring people.
— Edgar Degas
Muddy Up With Purpose
It is not so difficult to get brown by mistake.
When painting, always keep your colors clean. If you don’t clean your brush in between colors, you end up involuntarily creating a muddier version of the color you are painting.
The same thing happens when you are painting two complementary colors next to each other, the area where they mix or overlap becomes muddy. This is particularly evident when using watercolors, for their transparency.
Here is an example of paint set you could buy. It comes with naphthol crimson, ultramarine blue, phthalo green, titanium white, cadmium yellow, and burnt sienna
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: What colors do I mix to get golden brown?
Answer: Brown is really nothing else than a dark, dull orange.
You can think of golden brown as a dull, dark yellow-orange.
To achieve that color from a limited palette of three primaries, start with yellow.
Add small quantities of red and blue, very conservatively, mixing at every step to see how far you've gone in one direction or the other.
Add a bit of red to get you closer to orange; with a bit of blue, you move toward greens or blues.
To get golden brown, get some pure yellow and add a little bit of red. Be aware that it's hard to make a dark color lighter; move slower from light to dark.
Once you have a nice golden orange, add a tiny bit of blue or violet to the mixture; this will make it duller. Be aware that some colors are ultra strong, for example, any green or blue with phthalo in them are very opaque, and a small quantity goes a long way.
In short: to make a golden brown start from yellow, mix it to a light orange, then dull it down a bit.
Question: In the early stages of a realistic painting, how much paint should be on the brush? Should the brushstrokes be thick or thin?
Answer: The first layers of a painting usually have the thinnest layers of paint, especially if you are after a realistic effect. Scoop up little paint, thinned with some odorless spirit. A lot of people working realistically work thin and wait for the paint to be dry, then add glazes or more thin paint. The last details can be thicker.
Some other people start with a thin drawing, then apply thick brushstrokes, and do not paint over them, preserving the freshness of the strokes.
It's all about what style suits you best.
Question: Is Winton oil paint good for beginners and can it produce a good-quality work?
Answer: Winton oil colors are great for beginners and for professionals that go through a lot of paint. They are made with slightly cheaper pigments but don't have all the fillers that lower quality the student paint. It's a high-quality yet economical oil paint.
Question: When painting with watercolor what color should be avoided when used next to yellow so you don’t get a muddy color?
Answer: Well, yellow is a pretty light color, and pretty much any color used wet on wet will end up taking over the yellow and changing the hue.
Mud is more common when a color is mixed in with its complementary, in the case of yellow it's violet.
Violet and yellow mixed together will create a dull gray or muddy color. Similarly, a blue that has red in it, like ultramarine blue, will create a dull green, and a red-violet, like an alizarin crimson, will create a dull orange.
© 2013 Robie Benve
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on June 30, 2018:
Hi Kelvin, those are great questions! I thought they would be very interesting for many, so I turned them into self-standing questions and will appear at the end of the article. Check them out.
kelvin zangata on June 20, 2018:
this is amazing information i appreciate you, but i have two questions with me,?
1: how much paint should be on the brush in the early stages of painting realistic?.
2: is winton colours good for beginners and can it produce good quality of work ?.
your response will be highly appreciated.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on March 04, 2013:
Carol, unfortunately muddy colors is one of the ways painters get to know about mixing browns, isn't it? The positive side is that there is a lot to be learned from muddying up the paints too - there I go: gotta see the positive always! ;)
Thanks a lot for your support and comment. :)
carol stanley from Arizona on February 28, 2013:
Some good suggestions here...and I know about muddy colors. However I also stay away from black and mix my own browns. Great job here for painters to follow. Pinning.