Following the advice of a mentor and friend, I began using a 3-color palette several years ago. Through the years I have experimented with different combinations for the 3 colors, supplemented other colors for convenience, and changed paint brands. It seemed time to update the color charts and give a more thorough explanation of WHY.
3-color palette plus White using
Laying out a 3-color palette. With the exception of white, all of my warms are on one side and my cool colors on the other. Imagine bending my mixing palette in a complete circle and you have the color wheel.
It is important to always lay your colors out in the same order. That way you will not be fumbling around grabbing a bit of violet thinking it is blue!
Using a basic 3-color plus white palette for mixing accuracy. Working with the same colors day after day has helped me achieve quick and reliable color mixing. I never panic if I mix a color and then run out of it and have to remix it. There is no guessing which green I mixed with which blue to get a certain color. It has become so natural to me that I never even have to think about it. I can even paint nocturnes in the dark because, much like playing a musical instrument, I rarely need look at what I am doing.
Mixing with a 3-color palette. Even though I use only 3 colors (the primaries), I go to the trouble of mixing my secondaries (as in the photo above). This is not necessary, but it does speed the mixing time for me. I find that most of my world is neutral... nothing 'straight out of the tube' color. At the end of the day, it is amazing to me how little of these secondaries are left on my palette. I use them more than the primaries. That is because almost every color you see in nature has all three of these colors in it. So why not start with a secondary, and then 'bend' it to the proper primary? Bending a color simply means it is no longer in its original state, but has had something added to adjust it. The degree to which you 'bend' your color is dependent on how chromatic (intensity of color) you want it to be.
Color harmony and neutralizing with a 3-color palette. Artists learn to use complementary colors to neutralize mixtures. Complementary colors are those that are directly across one another on the color wheel like the one shown below.
The problem arises when too much of a complement is added. This is a typical problem with beginners. With a 3-color palette, all of this is easily avoided. By continually scraping together your "mud," and keeping it available, you can neutralize colors simply by adding just a touch of it instead. If your mud has been made by the scraping of colors used in earlier passages of the day's painting, this also lends color harmony to your painting because every color you put down has a bit of the overall color of the painting in it.
Making a 3-color chart. Recently I switched paint brands to Blue Ridge Oils and I have to say that I LOVE them. Working with the company's owner, Eric Silver, I have found the most beautiful 3-color palette. Cadmium Yellow Medium, Pyrol Red, and Ultramarine Blue (plus Titanium white) will produce 99% of any color you will ever need. Below is a color chart I have made using these colors, along with the key to what I mixed to achieve it. I suggest, you make one too!
Abbreviated color chart using Cad Yellow Medium, Pyrol Red, Ultramarine Blue, and Titanium White.
Imagine what you could get if you tinted each of these colors out with more and more white.
Here is a chart just showing my primary and secondary colors tinted out 10 steps using white.
Added advantage for plein air painters. Working with a 3-color plus white color palette means your painting gear is not as heavy. It is amazing how much each tube that you decide to add to your basic kit increases the weight of your backpack or bag. Put the colors you typically use every day in your studio in a canvas bag. Now, put just 4 tubes in a separate canvas bag. Pick them up and feel the difference. After walking to the perfect spot to paint, sometimes several times in one day, the exhaustion of added weight will certainly make you want to cut your day short. I never want to miss painting another sunset just because I am worn out.
Another little experiment for you. Often times I hear from students who have difficulty mixing greens. Living in Tennessee, I am no stranger to the dozens of different greens needed to successfully capture the great outdoors. Here is a little color mixing experiment for you. Start with your green (remember, this is mixed with my cad yellow and ult marine mixed to make the secondary), and bend it with each of the other colors on the palette, making a small color swatch each time (like the squares on the color charts above); then make two tints, using white, of each of those neutralized greens and make more squares. Now, mix all the contaminated color from your mixing area, and make a nice, neutral gray. You may need to add a touch of white to get it to a mid-value. Mix a touch of this neutral with all of those greens... more squares. At this point in the exercise, you will have no less than 36 different greens!
Honestly, the possibilities are amazing with just 3 colors and white. I use this color palette every day. I hope you'll give it a try too.