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Home » Challenge #3 Explore a limited palette

Challenge #3 Explore a limited palette

Vinciane Lacroix, Result of this challenge applied to photography (CC-BY-SA)

If you like colors, you will be tempted to combine them in numbers, whether to decorate your living room or to make a canvas. Or else, you will not know where to start, and, for fear of making a mistake in taste, you will stay with blacks, greys and whites, in short, with neutral colors.

In the first case, you would take too many risks, because the more different shades there are, the more difficult it is to manage their interactions. In the second case, you wouldn’t dare enough, you would remain in the comfort of neutrality.

The solution is to start with a limited palette and explore all the harmonies it offers; this is the purpose of this third challenge.

You now know the GORC recipe: Getting inspired-Observe-Reproduce-Create.

Getting inspired

When we look closely at the color palette in works of art that seem especially harmonious or in places where we feel particularly comfortable, we can see that they are often built on a very limited range of shades. To be inspired, we will therefore be spoilt for choice; also, to channel our research, we will impose a palette including a given color.


Aren’t the painters the best guides in this search?

Let’s start with a palette where yellow would be dominant. A painting by Turner, for example.

On the internet, various reproductions of the “Norham Castle, sunrise” let us see sometimes a palette in blue-yellow, sometimes in violet-yellow. The first one rather evokes the watercolors that Turner made on colored paper during his travels. The second seems to me more representative of his oil paintings, which is the case of this painting. Whatever the truth, the palette remains limited and…magical.

Turner, “Norham Castle, Sunrise”, oil painting (1845). Two reproductions available on internet.

Note that even though the feeling of yellow is there, much of the painting is relatively neutral: Turner uses a lot of colored greys. We shall see in challenge #17 that although grey seems dull, it is a magical color.

As for a restricted palette where green dominates, Gustave Klimt’s gardens offer us some fine examples, and in particular this painting entitled “The Park of Kammer Castle”.

Klimt, “The Park of Kammer Castle”, oil painting (1909)

Note that while the greens occupy almost the entire painting, a white “breath” gives openness and structure to the composition.

Graphic design and digital photography

Graphic designs, whether for posters or cultural programs, are also an interesting source of inspiration.
The one shown below, on the left, illustrates a page from the program of the College Belgium. Here, the palette is very small since only one color is present. Nevertheless, the image has a different impact from the original black and white photograph. This process lends graphic coherence to the whole program: the illustrations at the beginning and end of the chapter, each devoted to a different conference venue, are thus made up of an architectural photo of the venue combined with a different color.

To illustrate a limited palette in cyan blues, I have associated this image with a photo by Antonio Giustini; the photograph is treated with a Hipstamic filter, a little in the same spirit, except that it leaves a black and white area of the image without chromatic alteration.

On the left: Palace of the Academies, inside. Photo: © P. Molitor; graphic design: L. Buscemi, Royal Academy of Belgium. Right: photo Antonio Giustini (@giustonio61).


Xylography is the technical term for woodcutting. Its principle is based on the production of a series of matrices (partially hollowed-out wooden plates), which are coated with ink and then printed by contact with the support. Only the remaining flat surfaces – and possibly a few traces of gouge – are transcribed on the paper. Depending on the transparency of the inks and the order of printing, new shades of color will appear or disappear.

This process is both very old and very contemporary.

Japanese prints are xylographic prints. A great master in this field is Hokusai, a specialist in ukiyo-e, a Japanese artistic movement of the Edo period (1603-1868).

Hokusai, “Mount Fuji on a clear day” from the series Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji, woodcut (1823-1829)

Only two shades are present on this print: blue, in different shades, and red, in light and dark versions. The white of the paper and a blue grey again balance the whole.

Although he sometimes used five or six passages in the press, Gustave Marchoul (1924-2015) created woodcuts with relatively restricted color harmonies, as shown in the two engravings below.

Gustave Marchoul, two woodcuts. Left: “Heaven and Earth” (1985); right: “Rape and golden drizzle” (1985).

By its very nature, xylography offers a limited palette of colors. It also allows to explore different palettes: one only needs to change the ink over the matrices.

Textile design

African textiles, often very graphic, whether velvets from Kasai or more generally textiles from the Kingdom of Kuba, or Bogolan fabrics from Mali present magnificent palettes in earthy colors. Once again, more neutral areas lighten the composition and give rhythm to the whole.

The “earthy” palettes of African textiles: three examples of Kuba textile
Earthy palettes of African textiles: Bogolans

The fifties were also very rich in terms of graphic motifs created in restricted color palettes, especially for textile production.

Lucienne Day, whose “Calyx” pattern, created in 1951 and shown below, was one of Britain’s most influential textile designers. As with most of her screen-printed fabrics, her palette is limited; here, lemon yellow, bright red and dark brown have been applied to a light brown background and some white geometric shapes, sometimes plain and sometimes speckled, animate the whole. The, two other examples in other limited palettes.

Lucienne Day, “Calyxs”, silk-screen printed upholstery fabric, (1951)
Lucienne Day, fabric design


In the inspirational subjects mentioned above, I have already drawn your attention to the presence of more neutral tones, such as the colored greys of Turner, the white of the paper on the Hokusaï print, those of some textile motifs. All these tones that one would forget to name in a description, either because it is difficult to qualify them or because they are not visible, play an important role in color harmonies. We will come back to this in a future challenge (i.e. challenge #17).

Xylography, like silkscreen printing, proceeds by successively passing colored prints. Can you identify on Marchoul’s engravings the different colors of ink used?

There are certainly two yellows: a lemon yellow and an orange yellow. Two blues: a pale blue-green and a dark blue. The latter is in the form of a gradation: a fairly dark blue that becomes almost black halfway up the engraving. Marchoul probably made this gradation directly on the matrix, as Japanese engravers did to represent the sky in their prints. See how Hokusaï used this process in “Mount Fudji on a clear day”, not only for the sky, but also for the mountain.

There is no changeover to green ink. In fact, the perceived spring green is the result of a superimposition of yellow-orange on the pale blue-green. Detect the other colored areas that correspond to a superimposition of inks.

Observe Marchoul’s engraving: the inks, their superimpositions, the rhythm.

See also how the rhythm of the engraved gesture influences the perception of color. At the top of the image, the rhythm of the yellow-orange on the denser rhythm of the pale blue-green gives the illusion of a new color.
All these colors harmonize perfectly, all the more so as they result from a mixture of inks: a “subtractive” mixture (by superimposing layers of ink), or an “optical” mixture (by juxtaposing different color rhythms).

A practical mixing exercise

You can practice making simple harmonies by mixing varying amounts of gouache in two different colors. The rest of this section describes this useful exercise, but it may seem boring to others. If this is the case, skip to the next section.

For example, take a yellow (lemon or yellow-orange or ocher) and a blue (or purple). Make a grid of small squares that you will fill from left to right, or from right to left, or alternately, with mixtures of varying amounts of paint.

Subtractive mixtures based on gouache

In the extreme columns – yellow/ocer on the left, violet/blue on the right — the tones are as they appear in the container (Talens) or in the tube (Dalbe). Here the Dalbe gouaches have not been used for several years; they have not dried, but the binder is no longer homogeneous in the tube, which is why I have continued the exercise with Talens gouache in the pot, which is more recent.

As you move towards the central column, you add color from the other color container. Try to make samples where the color difference is constant. My first attempt on the first line is inconclusive; I proceeded alternately by working two mixes in parallel, one from yellow, the other from purple; as I reached the same mix color before completing the line, I left two squares blank. In fact, the gap between the third and fourth square is too great, I should have introduced other shades. The second try, on the next line, is already better, even if the first yellow squares are too close now. Practice a few lines and then change one or both colors.

By attacking the mixture of ocher and blue, you can see that I have made great progress: you can clearly distinguish the shades from one square to another and I don’t have enough squares to make all the shades: on the first line I started with blue, and on the next, with ocher.

Note the “natural” harmonies of the samples produced from the same two colors. Harmony that is broken if the two colors are changed as when changing from the ocher – light ultramarine blue to lemon-yellow – phthalo blue mixture.

Look at the shades of green that can be produced from yellow (lemon, orange or ocher) and blue (ultramarine, phthalo).

Each line goes from a light to a dark shade. Sometimes a dark color from the container can be made even darker by adding a light color. This sounds counter-intuitive, but this is the reality of subtractive complementary color mixing. This is the case on the penultimate line of the table. To darken a color, painters often prefer this technique to mixing color with black.

Ideally, in order to know your material, you should set up this type of exercise for all the different pigments you have. It is essentially the nature of the pigment and not the name of the color that is decisive in a mix. Dalbe does not give the name of the pigment on the tube whereas Talens does.


In the watercolor below I have attempted to reproduce the palette of a watercolor by Turner, “Ehrenbreiststein 1841”.

According to Turner “Ehrenbreiststein 1841” (V. Lacroix)

I recommend that you also make copies, whether they are made from reproductions found in books or on the internet. If you have original paintings, it is even better. In our western culture the formative aspect of making a copy has been denigrated, as Fabienne Verdier recalls in her book “Passagère du silence” (Passager of silence).


Abandoned places where rain and weather have added their patina are filled with textures and color surfaces with limited palettes.

Below, the bottom of an abandoned swimming pool has inspired me for a series of abstract photographs, presenting a palette close to that of Klimt’s garden paintings.

Abstract photographs (V. Lacroix)

To make the woodcut below, only two shades were used: a sky blue and an orange; to balance the whole I used the white of the paper left blank in a few places, a medium grey and finally black; I created a matrix for each shade. The first one was printed with a sky blue; it is shown on the left below while all the passages are visible on the right.

Vinciane Lacroix, Wood engraving, “Lofoten”, On the left: first state; on the right: final result.

Go ahead!

Which artist inspires you in his use of limited palettes? What color choices will you start with? Explore limited palette and enjoy the process!

Feel free to comment below and share your discoveries.

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