What If You Only Had Four Colors?

Working with a Limited Color Palette | Color Wheel | Mel Leipzig | Artist Daily |
Audrey Flack by Mel Leipzig, acrylic on canvas, 36” x 60”. Images courtesy Gallery Henoch, New York, New York.

Color Wheel Redux

The idea gives me chills. For me, painting is all about color schemes and giving the color wheel a workout. It is the kaleidoscopic chroma that draws me in, and I usually spend more time entranced by the colors I’ve mixed on my palette than actually applying paint to my surface.

Color wheel: Fred Schwartz, New York Architect by Mel Leipzig, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 52. Images courtesy Gallery Henoch, New York, New York.
Fred Schwartz, New York Architect by Mel Leipzig, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 52. Images courtesy Gallery Henoch, New York, New York.

When I found out that nationally renowned artist and professor Mel Leipzig creates his large-scale figurative paintings with just four colors I was surprised.

I’d seen Leipzig’s works before and never noticed that his palette was limited—likely because his skill as a colorist enables him to use each color in a multitude of ways.

Working with a Limited Palette

Leipzig has always worked with a limited palette. He started with eight colors, but in 1990 cut that number in half to just Hansa yellow medium, cobalt blue, quinacridone crimson, and white.

Given the color wheel deficit, you’d think Leipzig would choose subjects that fit his palette’s capabilities, but he doesn’t. The artist doesn’t seek out low lighting or label his works as “moody” to coincide with the colors he has available.

In fact, he paints solely from life, often leaving the controlled environment of his studio for locations where he has no say over the objects in the scene or the lighting available.

In his painting, Fred Schwartz, NY Architect, Liepzig’s use of a limited palette offers an effective counterbalance to the busy scene. The view stretches back across several bays of windows and into the far expanses of a loft filled with papers, books, and furniture.

Despite the visual cacophony, the whole scene is harmonious, largely due to use of a concentrated few colors.

Working with a Limited Color Palette | Color Wheel | Mel Leipzig | Artist Daily
Urban Word by Day by Mel Leipzig, acrylic on canvas, 42 x 67.

The viewer’s eye travels through the space, touching on the yellows in the left foreground’s wooden model and brick buildings out the window to the middle ground where the subject, in a warmer-toned shirt of the same color sits against a wall of the same color.

The blue in the posters on the right wall is repeated throughout the scene as well, in the ceiling, support beams, and even the shadows along the surfaces of the objects throughout the painting.

The cohesion in the vast space could have been lost if the artist hadn’t put the palette’s variety to good use, and in the same way the painting could have been boring if Liepzig didn’t create a rhythm with color that leads you through the painting.

I identify with Leipzig’s use of color more than most others who use a limited palette because it really shows the range of possibilities available. His works are rich in design and color, and that is something all of us aspire to in our art.

Your ability to work well with a limited palette starts with understanding what color can do and how design and composition can enhance it. Simplifying Design and Color for Artists is a great resource for doing just that. This e-book approaches color, shape and space together with an emphasis on understanding how the three influence one another rather than on formulaic rules to paint by.

The book also includes 18 step-by-step projects to hone your abilities and adapt them to your own creative practices. If you’re interested in expanding your knowledge of color or invigorating your painting process, Simplifying Design and Color for Artists is a great place to start.


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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

14 thoughts on “What If You Only Had Four Colors?

  1. Only using 4 colors does sound insane and it would definitely give any painter a good challenge. It would be a good idea to go on a streak of limiting yourself in terms of color. I’d like to do some paintings this way. It may not be great at first, but practice and effort eventually fill in the gap.

    1. Technically, there are only 4-colors that we work with daily; in pigment: CMYK is cyan, magenta, yellow & black. We use these colors to create “new” ones. Mixing pigments gives us new colors to work with. Red, Blue & Yellow are the only colors that we cannot mix to create; they have to be “pure” pigment. So, technically, there are only three that we actually use. And white, except white isn’t considered a color. It’s a tint.

  2. What if you only had two fingers to hold a paintbrush?
    The pinky finger is just for balance anyway and you really don’t need the ring finger at all. The middle finger is more —optional.

    Sorry Leipiz’s work doesn’t impress me as being outstanding in color. I’ll take a few more colors on my palette. thanks.

  3. I only use 4 colors as well. This is what my mentor taught me, and she has been painting with a limited 4 color palette for 20 years. Originally it began as an experiment to use only 4 colors for about a year to see if I could learn better color mixing skills. That was 10 years ago and I still use those same colors in my studio every day. It brings a great deal of color harmony to my work. Also, when I paint en plein air, my backpack is so much lighter to haul around than most of the others artists I paint with. I’m not opposed to a whole myriad of colors… but keeping just one thing simple has truly helped me focus on more difficult aspects of painting.

    Lori Putnam

  4. I only use 4 or 5 colors ever. The point is, at least for me, that I make all the colors in between with the other colors. It’s a challenge as well as a way to harmonize the entire piece. I feel that every piece I do has it’s own look or mood even though most of them are painted with the exact same colors.

    Another good color theory book is Color Choices. It focuses a lot on watercolor.

  5. A hdtv uses only 3 colors and painting reproductions are printed with 3 colors. More colors on the palette is easier for me, I would rather limit my struggle to the canvas.

  6. Hi Courtney – I’ve been painting with four colors for nearly 30 years, and like Mel, I only paint from life. My palette has Cobalt Blue, Cadmium Yellow Medium, Cadmium Red Medium, and Titaniam White. My paintings are full of light and have no particular color distortion. I found discarding the variety of other colors that used to crowd my palette liberating.

  7. I totally agree – 4 colors makes for a wonderful palette. I use the Georgian brand of oils and use: Crimson Alizarin, Cad Yellow, Cobalt Blue, and Titanium White. Once in awhile I throw in Richeson Oils’ Brilliant Yellow Light or Grumbacher’s Thalo yellow Green for just a bit of highlight. See what that does: http://fineartamerica.com/featured/st-augustine-lighthouse-roberta-hayes.html
    (no, that’s not black in there, it is the 3 primary colors mixed … pretty amazing, huh?)

  8. What 4 colors would be on my pallet?
    Black and White for sure Blue and an Earth tone like Burnt umber, with these colors I have painted many pictures!
    Have a nice day all!

  9. I worked like this throughout college and mixed on the canvas/media as I went. Red, Yellow, Blue, Black… and White. I found it helpful as I have a bit of color deficiency; not true color blindness, just very close tints & shades. So breaking it down forced me to expand my color theory knowledge.

  10. Quite a few watercolor artists work with just the primary colors or the primaries along with the addition of an extra color or two. Most of them do this to produce brilliant color by using only the most intense, transparent versions of the three primaries.

    Mixing all the colors you need and mixing any color you want are two different things. The human eye can detect from 7 to 10 million colors. The colors attainable with CMY (Cyan, Magenta and Yellow) are about 100,000. There is quite a difference there—even if we are not in the business of matching all of the colors in the world right on. The fact is that a tremendous number of colors are out of the gamut of primary colors alone. This is ture regardless of what science may have to say—we are using paint not light beams.

    There is also another factor to consider. It can be pretty hard to hit some darks and some neutrals with primaries alone and not have results that are somewhat on the muddy side. However, it can be done.


  11. I learned 4-color process in college (technical communication major). Saw a “process color” set on special on Dick Blick and thought I’d try the brand. Met a painting group and took the set to keep my painting kit light (as in, inside one collegiate backpack). Ended up defining my painting style (Since I also don’t pack a big palette, I tend to mix colors in brush or by building glazes on canvas, which tends to give my paintings a more saturated palette). Although I will use other colors, particularly if a tube color happens to be already close to the color I want., the process colors remain 60-100% of what’s on my canvas, especially when working pleine aire.

    After all, what to you think all your gloss and slick magazines are created with?
    (Answer: process yellow, process magenta, process cyan, and process black)

  12. Hi Courtney,

    Lovely article.Mel Leipzig’s palette has all the three primary colors. So the entire range is actually present with him. But I do agree that its really difficult to master the limited palette.
    Aarti Sharma

  13. Greek orators used to practice speaking with pebbles in their mouths as a way to improve their diction. If people want to work with a limited palette, it can be a way of improving color discipline and color awareness. It can also set a mood or dramatic effect in a painting. There are a host of other good reasons for working with a limited number of colors—not the least of which may be that an artist just likes to work that way.

    Regardless, we should be aware that there are a lot of color variations that are out of the attainable range of the three primaries alone.