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GLAZED OVER: How to choose a basic oil palette

Updated: Oct 18, 2019

There are so many delicious oil colours to choose from it’s easy to get carried away. But, as with so many things, less is more. Here are a few suggestions starting with a popular palette for beginners:

1. A starter for 12: Choose a warm and cool hue for each primary colour; add white and black (though black is often best made by mixing burnt sienna and ultramarine blue). This palette also gives a mix of transparent colours (needed for glazes) and opaque colours (useful for underpainting and toning your support).

  • ultramarine blue (warm, transparent)

  • cerulean blue or turquoise (cool, opaque)

  • cadmium yellow medium (warm, opaque)

  • cadmium yellow light or lemon yellow (cool, semi transparent)

  • sap green (warm, transparent)

  • viridian (cool, transparent)

  • cadmium red (warm, opaque)

  • alizarin crimson (cool, semi transparent)

  • burnt sienna (warm, semi transparent)

  • dioxine purple or ultramarine violet (cool, transparent)

  • ivory black (opaque)

  • titanium white (opaque)

Popular additions to this basic palette are yellow ochre (warm, opaque), raw sienna (warm, semi opaque); burnt umber (warm, semi opaque or transparent).

2. Restricted palettes:

  • Two colours can be enough for an entire painting. Choose a hue and its complement (i.e., the opposite colour on the colour wheel) and then extend light to dark.

  • A variety of coloured greys can be made by mixing the two complementary colours together in different ratios. Place these alongside touches of the two colours in their unmixed form.

  • Use tints, shades and tones together: tints are made by adding white; shades are made by adding the complementary colour; tones are shades that are lightened with white.

  • Three to four colours gives an enormous range but beyond that you risk losing control and colour harmony.

  • It’s fun to experiment with opaque-only or transparent-only palettes; warm-only or cool-only palettes.

3. Specialist palettes: Different painting styles and subject matter call for specialist palettes, e.g.: impressionist, old masters, high key (with bright tints), transparent glaze (with intense pigments), landscape and floral still life. Dedicated oil colour manufacturers, Gamblin, offer a range of specialist palettes and excellent colour advice. Go to

I chose a traditional restricted palette for these pomegranates

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