Have you heard of a limited palette and wondered what that meant? Does it imply that you don’t have many colors to choose from? Or that you’re choosing not to use all the colors you have? And why would it matter?
What is a limited palette?
A limited palette simply means using a minimum number of specific colors, rather than a wider range of whatever is available. It most often refers to using just the three primary colors plus black and white.
The primary colors (red, yellow, and blue) are the colors that can’t be made by mixing other colors. A secondary color (orange, green, or violet) is the result of mixing two primary colors together. Mixing all three primary colors results in a tertiary color.
When adults paint, a “limited palette” typically relates to oil, acrylic, gouache, or watercolor paint in tubes. Artists will often use a “warm” and a “cool” version of each primary color, plus black and white. (Adding black to a color creates a “shade” of that color and adding white to a color makes a “tint”.)
For teaching children though, a limited palette usually refers to just one each of red, yellow, blue, black, and white. “Warm and cool colors” can be a difficult concept for kids (and even adults) to grasp.
Some kids’ watercolor sets (like the Prang OVL-8) have pans of color you can pop out, but most sets don’t. That’s why a limited palette for kids usually refers to bottled tempera paint.
Why teach with a limited palette?
While there are many reasons to teach with a limited palette, these six really stand out for me:
1. Colors made from a limited palette will harmonize well
When the colors you mix are all made from the same red, yellow, and blue, harmony will result. All the colors you mix from the same core group of colors will work well together.
For example, a green made with blue and yellow will harmonize well with a purple that contains that same blue. When all the colors in a painting are made from the same small group of colors they will coordinate well and be pleasing to the eye.
2. A limited palette is more efficient for storage and reordering
When I first started teaching, I inherited a random mish-mash of tempera paints. It was impossible to organize them in a way that I could tell what I had and what I needed.
That’s when I made the switch to teaching with a limited palette. Then I could line up the bottles in 5 rows by color, and quickly tell what I was running low on and needed to reorder. And it required less space to store it all.
3. A limited palette will save you money and time
Keeping only 5 colors in your supply cabinet means you’ll have fewer colors to maintain a stock of. This saves you from spending money on colors that are used only occasionally.
in addition to saving money, you’ll also save time through increased efficiency. With fewer colors to maintain, you can tell at a glance what needs to be ordered and by when.
4. A limited palette makes prep and distribution easier
To prep student palettes, you can dispense an equal amount of red, yellow, blue, and white onto each paper plate. Then add a smaller amount of black in the center – a little black goes a long way!
A “quarter size” amount of the primary colors and white is about right. Students can ask for more of a color if they need it, but they won’t all need more at the same time. You’ll also end up throwing away less unused paint at the end of class.
With fewer colors to distribute (and refill) the process becomes fast and easy. If you’re lucky enough to have parent volunteers, they can quickly catch onto this procedure and do it for you.
5. Kids will have no choice but to learn color mixing when using a limited palette!
When you give kids colors like pre-mixed green, orange, violet, and brown, it becomes too easy for them to paint with only the colors you give them. This leads to boring, predictable paintings. Using a limited palette will force kids to mix the colors they need.
Then, with every secondary or tertiary color they mix, your students’ color mixing skills and confidence will grow.
Let’s face it, most kids won’t mix their own colors if they don’t have to. Even after you teach them all about color mixing, most students will still gravitate to a bottled orange (if it’s available) before they will mix their own.
6. A limited palette results in better paintings
This is my favorite reason of all to get kids mixing their own colors. The variety and nuance of color in your students’ paintings will increase dramatically when they mix their own colors.
For example, two kids mixing blue and yellow to make green will not end up with the exact same green. The green they make will depend on the ratio of blue to yellow they use. This will result in a much greater variety of color within each individual painting as well as between them.
The new range of colors available to students who understand color mixing will instantly improve their paintings. Students’ confidence will grow along with their skills. They’ll also be encouraged by the positive feedback they receive from their peers and adults alike.
To achieve these benefits for your own students, make sure you’re using a quality tempera paint. Always buy a small amount and test it first before buying enough for your whole class.
an inspiring quote:
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
~ Leonardo da Vinci
Spoken like a true minimalist! Leonardo da Vinci was way ahead of his time with his praise of simplicity.
Da Vinci’s idea of simplicity describes an uncomplicated clarity and refinement where nothing is added beyond what is essential.
Simplicity results in healthy stewardship of our resources of time, space, money, and attention. It helps us avoid wasting these resources on things that aren’t necessary… like bottled paint colors kids can mix on their own!