Oil paint with 7 colors…yes you heard me right!

The title of this post says that I paint with 7 colors (plus white). Actually I paint about 90% of my pictures using only 3 colors.

Take a look at the painting, “Leonard Street Barn.” This was the first painting I ever did with just the 3 colors. As you can see, there is a wide variety of color, both in the lights and in the shadows. It took me only 1 hour to complete this painting on a 9″ by 12″ canvas board. Try counting the colors you see. I did this in a class taught by Jim Connelly. That was when I learned how to truly understand color and when I first began to have actual control over it. Let me explain.

Prior to limiting my palette of colors, I had a whole heaping basket of oil paints. I had several reds, yellows, blues, and of course the whole gamut of earth tones like Yellow Ochre and Burnt Sienna. It was so confusing to know which colors to grab, and it seemed like the more I used, the more I got confused and my colors failed to blend together well visually on the canvas. Color can be overwhelming.

But all you need is the ability to make black to be able to create the majority of your colors. How do you do that, you might ask?

Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue, and Indian Yellow (or something similar). I can make a perfectly balanced black with mixing just those 3 colors. Add white and you have a gray scale.

Take away a touch of the blue and you have something more brown. Remember brown is really a dark orange, so without the blue you are left with more red and yellow (red and yellow make orange). Simple as that. Take away a little of the red and you are in deep dark green territory. And of course, less yellow means you are in the purple area. Add some of that white and you get your colors. Forget buying Burnt Umber.  Make it.  In fact, a little Ultramarine Blue added to a Burnt Sienna makes the Burnt Umber.

As you can see, you have control now, while automatically allowing for some harmony. Think about it…if you are only using 3 colors, your painting will retain harmony no matter how crazy you get!

Now you might see the holes you have to fill with that palette. What you truly need is a warm and a cool of your blue, yellow, and red. So I have a Cerulean Blue to go with my Ultramarine. That is especially needed for skies near the horizon. Mix the two and you have a Cobalt Blue, so forget buying that one again. I have a cool yellow with a Lemon Yellow and a warmer red with a Cadmium Red.

What is the 7th color? I have a Viridian Green because that is just so unique and rich of a color (you simply can’t make it). Add the Ultramarine Blue to it and you have a great many more deep blues. A touch of Alizarin Crimson with them and you have crazy purples. This 7th color is only for very specific colors and I use it rarely. The main use is for the aqua colors of the Caribbean. Truly, I paint 90% of my paintings with just the 3 main colors.

I suggest you do what I did in the beginning. Put a swatch of paint from all your various tubes on a piece of paper and label them.  Then create all the colors you can from your limited palette.  Make all the greens, from dark to light with the addition of white, etc.  You will soon see that you found your Sap Green right there at one point. That means you do not have to buy another tube of that.

I did that with about 30 tubes of paint. I found each one on my color chart made from my 7 colors. I no longer needed to buy anything but my 7. Did I mention I am cheap?  So not only did it make it easier for me to find the right color, but it saved me money! To me, that is worth the effort right there. And along the way, you will find that you gain more and more control over you colors, and therefore your paintings.

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2 responses to “Oil paint with 7 colors…yes you heard me right!

  1. tried a limited pallete: need a warm and a cool of each colour plus white. Thats 7, Cad red, aliz crimson, colbalt blue, ultramarine, lemon and cad yellow. plus titanium white. Should work. you also suggest veridian green and burt umber using using yellow ochre, that makes for 9 colours, on most paintings you find around 5 tones to each colour so exclusing white that around 40 different tones to mix if they were primaries which they are not they are often secondary or tertiary colours, which then have to be greyed down using there complementery colour, often at different chromas depending on light conditions and atmosphere!

    So no wonder I spend 5 hours with my pallete in hand trying to mix utterly overwhelmed!

    You say you can paint from 3 colours – but dont say which or how!? please expand on this – how do you get a cool subdued yellow? if you only have a warm yellow, or a bright warm pink if you are only carrying a cool red? Im completely stuck and have turned to painting in black and white.

    any comments would be values

    Luke Manchester, Uk

  2. Luke,

    A few things. My main 3 colors are Ultramarine Blue, Alizarin Crimson, and Indian Yellow (warmer, deeper yellow). I paint 90% of my paintings with these 3 and white. Together, these 3 make a perfect black. Then if you remove one color bit by bit you can get great darks. Remove a little blue and you get more brown. Remove a little yellow and you have deep purples. Remove a little red and you get deep greens. It has to be an Indian yellow as there are very few other yellows that will work. Hansa brand paints have a deep yellow that works, but Cadmium yellow won’t typically.

    Remember, browns are just dark oranges, so as you add the Ultramarine Blue to your oranges, you will get your browns. Try mixing everything you need with Ultramarine, Alizarin Crimson, and Indian Yellow (plus white). If you need a brighter red, then and only then use the Cad Red. You need to make brighter yellows and therefore greens, then use your Lemon Yellow. And if you want cooler, lighter blues, like at the horizon of a sky then you can use your Cerulean Blue. I do not suggest burnt umber or yellow ochre, I make them with my main 3. The point of using only 3 colors is it should be easier, not harder. I used to paint in black and white simply color overwhelmed me. This limited palette gives you more control. Keep it simple and try as hard as you can to do your paintings with the 3 colors. Only when you are stuck and just can’t quite get a color you want, then bring in the other 3 (cad red, lemon yellow, cerulean blue).

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