Sharpen Your Ability to Judge Color Tone and Value

Girl in Limited Palette by Ignat Ignatov, oil, 12 1/2 x 12.

In a past post featuring artist-instructor Kerry Dunn, we explored some of the opportunities and challenges that an extensive color palette offers. On the flipside, Bulgarian-born painter Ignat Ignatov understands how an artist can benefit from the use of a limited palette for a better understanding of color theory and practice. For a time Ignatov pared down his palette to include just four pigments: titanium white, yellow ochre, cadmium red, and ivory black.

“This palette is associated with the one Anders Zorn used in some of his works,” says Ignatov, who took up the same handful of colors as the Swedish master to perfect his ability to evaluate color and color harmony. “It was a great way to push myself to mix as many color nuances with only four colors. You only had four options to dip your brush in, so it really gets you to decide precisely about color temperature.”

The four colors used in the Zorn palette create a muted color spectrum, as it incorporates the three primary colors, with black standing in for blue. Ignatov describes it as similar to looking through a color filter in which certain colors are suppressed. The closest a painter can come to blue is gray mixed with black and white; the greenest green is a mixture of black and yellow ochre; purple is a mixture of black, white, and red. The palette limits the saturation and intensity of several colors, yet the subdued tones often help artists recognize complimentary colors and strengthen their understanding of the structure and formulations of the color wheel.

“When you place orange next to the gray, the gray looks blue in comparison because orange is its compliment,” says Ignatov. “The muted purple looks more saturated next to yellow; the muted green looks greener next to red. That’s how the palette works–you must be aware of complimentary colors to get the most out of the few colors you are using.” It isn’t an easy exercise, to be sure. One of the biggest hurdles with using this particular quartet of colors is their lack of transparency. “These color mixtures are very opaque and it’s easy to get mud,” the artist says. Ignatov combated this susceptibility by keeping his brushes scrupulously clean and separating each color mixture on his palette.

Seated by the Window by Ignat Ignatov, oil, 19 1/2 x 15.
Seated by the Window by Ignat Ignatov,
oil, 19 1/2 x 15.

But limited palette oil painting does have its benefits. Color harmony can be taken for granted and is assured no matter the subject matter or genre a painter works in. There’s also a certain atmospheric quality created from the use of a muted palette. Ignatov considered this as an asset because it allowed him to imbue mood through color, or lack thereof.

Ignatov spent a year working with a limited palette. Eventually he switched to a fuller palette of 14 colors because he wanted to accurately match, not mute, the intensity of color any subject matter or chosen composition might present him. However, the time spent working solely with the Zorn palette gave Ignatov a deeper, more experienced understanding of how to mix colors and, therefore, how color develops.

Understanding value is a fundamental in both painting and drawing. If you are interested in sharpening your skills with a limited painting palette, one of the best ways to start is by working through value studies in pencil or charcoal. You can gain an appreciation of how to use gradation to suggest mass and form, which is also essential with a limited painting palette. The DVDs of Graeme Stevenson are ideal resources as well because they are devoted to fundamentals of color and tone with step-by-step instruction. With Put Some Colour in Your Life, you’ll go through the entire painting process with an enhanced assessment of color and value, so that whatever colors you decide to use on your palette, you’ll be more than ready to paint with confidence.


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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.   

6 thoughts on “Sharpen Your Ability to Judge Color Tone and Value

  1. I have painted with a Zorn palette since March of 2009. I use a true “blue/black” which you can get from Winsor-Newton. Or you can get “carbon black” from Classic Artist oils. Just a little “bluer” than Ivory black.

    The Zorn palette by definition almost insures color harmony. This is great for painting in the midwest because of the extended fall colors and rather muted and drab late winter/early spring colors in nature. I like to paint plein air, and using this limited palette gives you “less to take care of.”

    This is a plein air 9″X12″ of a marsh near Green Bay, WI.

    Chase the light!

  2. I really like this article! I consistently strive to improve my use of color & temperature. I feel both encouraged & confident through the comments I receive from my audience, while my own eye says there’s a long way to go! “The elevator’s broke!. . . use the STEPS !!” !

  3. Agree, the only way to properly judge tone and value is limit you palette. It is very difficult, almost impossible for me to make a tonal painting with saturated colors or use too many colors in general.
    Anyway, regardless of the initial palette used, once the value of the painting works fine, it is possible to use whatever color over some areas and make the paint more interesting, always respecting the value.