Master Color in Your Paintings with a Limited Palette & “No-Fail” Color Schemes

July 13, 2018 4 min read 1 Comment

by  Annie O’Brien Gonzales
Santa Fe, New Mexico

There are many skills that must be mastered when learning to paint and use of color is at the top of the list. Learning to use color can seem overwhelming but it doesn’t have to be painful and you don’t need a chemistry degree to learn to use color effectively. Think of art as a language and color is one of its basic parts of speech. Painting with bold exciting color is the characteristic most associated with the expressive style of painting. In order to speak the language of expressive painting, a basic understanding of color theory is essential.


But where to start? From my experience teaching painting there are two approaches that I recommend to gain control of color in your paintings:

    1. Start with a limited set of paint colors until you master color mixing
    2.Pre-plan your color scheme by choosing a “no-fail” color schemes

Color Terminology Every Painter Should Know


But first things first. All languages have essential vocabulary and so does painting. You must understand the following basic color terms to speak and use the language of art.

Hue: basic color family (red, blue, yellow, etc.)
•   Primary Colors: colors that cannot be mixed from other colors (red, yellow, blue)
•   Secondary Colors: colors composed by mixing two primary colors (orange, green, purple)


Tertiary Colors: colors made by mixing a primary color with a secondary color (red/orange, orange/yellow, yellow/green, green/blue, blue/purple, purple/red) 

Tint: hue variation created by adding white to any color

Tone: hue variation created by adding gray to a color 

Shade: hue variation created by adding black to a color

Temperature: warm vs. cool color; [think water for cool colors-blue, green, violet & sun for warm colors-yellow, orange, red. Color temperature can be relative according to surrounding colors, i.e., a blue can look warm next to a cooler purple.] 

Value: lightness vs. darkness of colors regardless of their hue
•   Color Scheme: a color strategy chosen for a project
•   Monochromatic: colors which are variations on the same hue.

Analogous: colors beside each other on a color wheel

Complementary: colors directly across from one another on the color wheel

Benefits of a Limited Palette of Paint Colors

Now that you know the basic vocabulary, it’s time to start working with a palette. I recommend that you start with a “limited palette” of paint colors. Choose a warm and a cool of each primary color plus white. And grab a color wheel while you’re at the paint store. A color wheel will give you a reference on the relationships between colors and their mixtures and is an invaluable tool.


Limited Palette

A palette of the following paint colors will allow you to mix endless variations and gain color over color mixing

Ultramarine blue
Pthalo blue-green shade
Cadmium red medium (or Pyrrole Red, Napthol Red)
Quinacridone magenta
Cadmium yellow medium (or Hansa yellow)
Cadmium yellow light (or Hansa yellow light)
Titanium white


As you gain more painting experience, you will no doubt want to pick up other paint colors so let your tastes and budget be your guide. But remember, there are excellent, experienced painters who keep their palette of colors limited small mixing everything they need from very few paint colors.  


3 No-Fail Color Schemes

A “color scheme” refers to a plan of color chosen for a particular painting. Choosing a color scheme in advance helps to harness the expressive painter’s fervor to use every color on their palette on one painting! I recommend choosing one of the following three color schemes as a systematic way to gain control of color in your work.  

“No-fail Color Schemes”

Monochromatic schemes are composed of variations on the same hue. A monochromatic color scheme allows you to simplify color choice to one color and develop variations on that color by adding touches of other colors plus creating tints, tones, and shades of that color. You will be surprised how much fun it is to mix many variations on one color. A benefit of the Monochromatic color scheme is that it always works, is always cohesive and allows you to feature other elements such as texture or shape in your painting.


Analogous colors are those that sit next to each other on the color wheel. For an Analogous scheme choose three to four “neighboring colors.” Use all variations of the colors within the section of the color wheel that you have selected. This scheme is always harmonious if you stay within the chosen neighborhood.

Complementary color schemes give you the most “bang” because you choose colors opposite each other on the color wheel. These colors are referred to as “complements” and they create the most contrast. Check out colors used in advertising, sports teams or holidays and you see mostly complementary color schemes. The Expressionist painters such as Matisse frequently used complementary color schemes. Use this scheme when you want to shout with color.


After completing many paintings, color will become intuitive, but early on, it helps to control the variables. These three color schemes always work so when you are learning to paint give yourself a head start by choosing one guaranteed to produce great results.  Create a swatch of the color mixtures possible using your chosen color scheme. Label the paint mixtures with the colors used and save it in your “library” of color schemes.  Choose your color scheme in advance, make your swatch and discipline yourself to stick to those color mixtures and you will learn how to master “no-fail” color in your paintings.

Annie O’Brien Gonzales is a painter, teacher and author in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her work is represented by galleries across the US, shown in juried shows, collected by art lovers and recently was included in a museum permanent collection. She is a Docent at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and a Tour Guide at Ghost Ranch for the Georgia O’Keeffe Landscape Tours. She teaches painting workshops across the US and Canada and is a Certified Golden Art Educator.

She is the author of two recent books on Expressive Painting published by North Light Books:

”Bold Expressive Painting" and "The Joy of Acrylic Painting” and recently produced a course online titled “Floral Still Life Painting with Color & Feeling” at:

instagram:  @annieobriengonzales
facebook:  Annie O’Brien Gonzales Studio


1 Response

Pat Erickson
Pat Erickson

July 23, 2018

The warm, earthy colors and rounded forms take me back to interesting and fascinating days early in my painting “education”. Your work, to me, is both comfortable and exciting…thank you for shaking me out of my current doldrums!

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