My Colour Palette

written by Sophie | Oil Painting

My palette. Some artists can talk about the colours on their palette for hours. Many people ask me which colour I used for a certain area in a painting, a question I can rarely answer. I often mix colours so much I have no idea how the final colour on the painting came about. But the colours you start out with on your palette do vary enormously from artist to artist. In the olden days many artists were taught black was  forbidden, others swore by using the palette of the old masters. I use what feels most convenient and natural to me. ​​

Vincent van Gogh, “Self-portrait,” A self portrait in which he shows us his palette. c. 1887-1888. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Old Masters Palette

Many impressionists did not use black. That makes sense because they were keen to find colour and light in everything, even the darkest shadows. The old masters, however, used black extensively, keen as they were on dramatic lighting (chiaroscuro). In general most artists’ palettes contain the primary colours (red, blue, yellow), white, black and brown. It is usual to have a warm and a cool version of each colour, so for example a warm yellow ochre and a cool lemon yellow. Some artists have become famous for a limited palette. Anders Zorn, for example, famously only used yellow, red, black an white. This is a great palette for portrait work.

Anders Zorn, Self-Portrait With A Model, 1896.A self portrait with the colours clearly visible on the palette


Limited Palette

For a beginner artist it is very useful to use a limited palette. Whether it is the Zorn palette, the primary colours, or a different combination, a limited palette will teach you to mix colours correctly and learn about values, chroma and hue. These are the three basic principles of colour painting and learning about their characteristics will dramatically improve anyone’s painting skills.I learned a lot of my colour mixing skills by working with pastels. I had a limited set of pastels to work with and pastels cannot be mixed on a palette. So I was forced to experiment with colours on the painting itself. Layering and combining colours taught me how they work and interact. Seeing values on the painting directly taught me much and missing certain colours forced me to create colour harmonies that sing, even if they did not correspond with real life.

A detail of a commissioned portrait, Paul, oil on linen, 40x30cm.

Nowadays I still sometimes play around with a limited palette. It keeps painting skills fresh. Even working in just two colours (which is what I do for my underpaintings) will force me to concentrate on values and composition. But I love colour as well. It helps to not put every available colour on your palette but limit yourself to just a few. It makes things simpler for a start.  My painting will remain harmonious (the blue in the sky comes back in the shadow of the skin, creating a harmonious whole) and ‘work’. But I have adapted my choice of colours to the way I paint and the subject matter I paint most.

Vasari Bice

​A Personal Palette

Many of my painting subjects are natural in colour and I like to express the colour subtleties as finely as I can. My work is not bold and loud and so my palette colours are not either. Although most artists work with bold cadmium red and yellow, I have removed them from my palette. They are not only toxic but too ‘loud’ for my style of painting. If I use cadmium red in my paintings I would spend a lot of time and paint trying to tone it down. It makes much more sense for me to choose a calmer red which I do not need to change or tone down so much. So my red is a transparent and light-hearted red. This illustrates that the choice of colours is often very personal. What works for me will probably not work for somebody else. Every artists has their own preferred palette. Often it is chosen because of style and subject matter, education or preferred masters, inspiration and practicalities. ​

An area of mixed skin colours on my palette.

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My Painting Technique

I paint in many layers that are indistinguishable. I do not move from the first layer to the second layer, it all happens and continues all the time. If an area of paint has dried, I layer over it. If another area has not dried, I mix paint into it. Paint is layered and mixed continuously and although this technique grew out of necessity,  I love the effects this has. Layering and mixing on the canvas creates an open structure where colours peep and shine through, creating variety and texture. ​


I mix my colours with a brush on my palette, and then some more on the canvas. I never pre-mix and I never get the same mix twice. I often don’t know what is in my mix and I don’t make a note of it. All mixing happens intuitively and by sight. Many artists work much more methodically (and perhaps more efficiently). I work on the whole painting at once, going from big shapes to small shapes, until I am painting tiny details. My first colour is usually Burnt Umber (dark brown), which I use to set up a painting and create an underpainting. I add Titanium White for the lighter areas. When I am happy with my sepia underpainting I move onto adding colour. I block in large areas with the general overall colour and then move onto the smaller areas with colour variations.

​My palette, therefore, always has a large space for burnt umber. It is an incredibly useful warm brown that I can use throughout my painting.


No White

I only use Titanium White sometimes for the underpainting. I do not use Titanium White in the rest of my painting as I find it very thick and sticky and not pleasant to work with. I have tried many different brands, looking for a more fluid one, but have not found one I liked.  So instead of white I now use Brilliant Yellow Extra Pale, which has a much nicer consistency and is a warm creamy white which suits my paintings very well. If I need a cool white I use a very pale blue.  Only rarely do I grab my Titanium White for the odd highlight.


​My Colours

​Other colours which generally feature on my portraiture palette are a skin colour (Bluff), a very light yellow (Brilliant yellow light) and a very light cool pink (Rosebud). Together with my ‘white’ (extremely light yellow) these are my lightest colours.My yellows are usually a cool Dutch Yellow and a warm Yellow Ochre or Raw Sienna.


My reds are a rosy Brilliant Scarlet from Mussini, and a darker wine-red such as Vasari’s Ruby red or Harding’s Alizarin Claret.

Sometimes, depending on skin tone, I add an earthy red such as Vasari’s Terra Rosa or Old Holland’s Red Ochre.

My blues are the light grey-ish Bice (one of my favourite colours) and the dark Ultramarine Blue. Sometimes I use the milder Indigo Tone by Mussini.

I love my browns and besides my staple colour of Burnt Umber I often use Shale (a cool dark brown), Red Umber (warm reddish brown), and Raw Umber (a duller, greener transparent brown).

Although I don’t like white I have many greys such as Paynes grey and Dove Grey. Mussini’s greys especially are very nice.

I do not use green much (as it is easily mixed) but I sometimes grab Vasari’s grey-ish forest greens such as Jasper and Cedar.

My black is the very popular all-rounder Ivory Black, but sometimes I use the more transparent Charcoal Grey and Vine Black or the more matt Lamp Black. (See also my blog post on Black)

​In a nutshell my palette usually consists of:brilliant yellow extra palebrilliant yellow lightDutch yellowraw sienaBluffRed scarletRuby redBurnt UmberUltramarine blueBice blueIvory black

​Extra Colours for Special Purposes

I add or remove colours depending on what I am painting. You can see a big blob of orangy yellow on my palette (below) as I needed that colour for the clothing in one of my portraits. But it is not generally a colour I use. You can also see a lot of red on my palette. These are remnants of my huge painting of a red velvet drapery for which I used a variety of reds. These do usually not feature on my palette either.  So besides my staple colours I add colours I need, often specifically for a certain painting. Of course I have many more colours then my staple palette colours as I like trying out new colours and regularly buy a tube of a colour I fancy but never tried. Sometimes the new colour is an instant hit, sometimes the tube gets forgotten about.


My palette as it looks today. I will soon start with a clean palette. Top left are my light colours, in the middle my yellows, at the bottom the reds for the drapery painting. On the top right is a big area of blue for some paintings I am currently working on which have blue backgrounds. Below that are some blacks. Middle-right is Burnt Umber and below that a lighter blue.

I hope you found this blog post interesting. It explains a little bit more what is in my paintings and how I create them. The palette you see in the pictures is what I am using now. Do let me know what you think, what you use or if you have any other comments or questions.  Thanks for reading!

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Published: July 21, 2016

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  1. Hello Sophie! I just found you and read many of your posts, very interesting! I painted with acrylics last year (I started just a year ago but I love it!!!), now I felt like I had to try oils, I needed this challenge but also I wanted an easier blending 🙂 especially for portraits…I always used a limited palette but I also want to paint solvent-free and without toxic paint like cadmium or cobalt. I have kids and I care a lot about the environment. I’ll be more careful with acrylics too. Vasari seem a beautiful paint but maybe too expensive now for me. May you suggest some correspondent colors with a brand like Winston and Newton? especially to avoid the cadmiums and the titanium white…thank you for your help!!

  2. For me palettes are horses for courses…high chroma, low chroma, transparent, opaque, smooth,gritty are the 6 basic ways I look at paint. Pick the right tool for the right job. It does help if you do colour charts to see how any paint from any brand performs in tint_tone_shade_viscosity. My absolute holy grail of burnt sienna is the french burnt sienna from rublev. Sometimes I just look at my paint samples on my wall and move them around and visually compare them. In colours of the same name there is huge variation. You can only see the difference when you have different paint in the same light. I’ve bought 800 tubes of oil paint over the last 10 yr. They are all different. It has really trained my eye, albeit rather expensively. You can actually see the nuance between the colors…I dont have a mortgage or a wife…something had to go …hahaha ! !

    1. Yes indeed, as I recommend in my article, the same colour name from a different brand often gets you a different colour. Brands vary enormously and only trying and testing will get you what works for you. I must admit the thought doing a colour chart makes my brain fall asleep… but I know it can be hugely informative and useful for artists. Just not me..

    1. Hi Larry, thanks for your kind words. I am glad you found my blog post useful. Yes, the paints I like are fairly expensive but if you can afford it they are so worth it! There are some affordable colours in the Vasari range to you can alway start (and stay) with those. I also use Michael Harding and Mussini as well as Winsor & Newton. All great brands. Happy painting!!

  3. Hi Sophie,
    Thank you for sharing all the info.I am just starting and appreciate it very much.Especially as I am coming from watercolour and had to learn the hard way about fugitive paints etc.Can I ask what make or brand are the paints you listed from?Thank you and best wishes

  4. Hi Sophie,
    It is a great relief for me to see that you don’t pre-mix colors and values. I just got thru a couple weeks of intesive studying of another artist who does that and got too hung up on that as if it were “the way”.
    If you’re painting skin such as the face, you’re still using the palette you describe and mix as you go?
    i’d like to think that i can paint better than i have been for years by not having to resort to strict mental discipline by have to mix strings of values…that is not me at all!

    1. Hi Patrick. I don’t really believe there is such a thing as ‘the way’! Well, roughly speaking that is. Of course there are clear ‘wrong ways’ but you know what I mean. You can see in the picture of my palette how messy it looks. No strings of values to be seen. But I do know my way around my own palette, and of course value ranges do appear. I just don’t pre-mix them or put them in a neat line. They get mixed during the painting process as and when I need them. I often also mix on the canvas; just adding a colour here to warm things up or cool things down. The wet-in-wet paint will mix by itself. Plenty of artists don’t use value strings. Just go with whatever feels best!

  5. Great information about colors and I love your explanation of how and why you use colors…especially the elimination of white. I sometimes find my colors too chalky because of white. I will try alternatives to see if I can alleviate that problem. I also love that you don’t have formulas or pre mix. Thanks!

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