Limited Palette Portrait Painting

Abbreviated steps of this tutorial

The painting featured for this tutorial was a two-part demonstration I did for the Georgetown Atelier on the subject of Limited Palette Painting. Much of the terminology and conceptual framework used here is covered in previous tutorials. If you find yourself puzzled, I’d recommend working through the other tutorials first and then returning.

To view a high resolution version of this painting, click here.

Working with a Limited Palette

Working with a limited palette is a great way to learn painting in color while still prioritizing temperature relationships. It’s the logical next step after working with ‘trois crayons’ (black, red, white chalk drawing), and warm-cool palette painting. The limited palette encourages student to work more strategically, solidifying their understanding of color temperature relationships, and avoids overwhelming them with a multitude of colors.

Recommended Paints

The two brands that I purchase most of my paints from are Rublev and Williamsburgh. Both are excellent paints and have ‘longer’ properties than the majority of brands that use more stearates/stabilizers, which, while they help prevent the separation of pigment and oil in the tube, ultimately have a deleterious effect on the handling properties of the paint. If you find a paint that has separated some in the tube, don’t necessarily write it off as poor quality; it’s usually an indication of less or no stabilizers used.

Both Rublev and Williamsburgh paints tend to come on the ‘stiff’ side. After laying out the paint on my palette, I add a few drops of linseed oil to each color as needed to’activate’ the paint. I find this method preferable to working with paints that come too loose; it’s much easier to loosen a paint than stiffen it. If you do need to stiffen a paint, add a small amount of marble dust. Be judicious here; adding too much marble dust will change the transparency of the paint.

Recommended Palette

Above are the colors I typically use for a figurative limited palette painting. From left to right they are:

Ivory Black (Williamsburgh): This color is essential for achieving dark values as well as ‘blueish’ cool colors.

Turkey Umber (Williamsburgh) or Italian Green Umber (Rublev): This is a greenish dark-brown umber. It’s very useful for cooler dark half-tones often found on the figure. Used with Cad Red/Vermillion, it achieves a very full range of umber and red earth colors such as raw and burnt umber, burnt sienna, and pompeii red. I’ve noticed however that the recent batches of Turkey Umber have been tipping a little too much on the green side, closer to a ‘green earth’ then umber. To offset this I’ve been adding a little burnt umber to it.

Alizarin Crimson/Permanent: I’ve read that alizarin crimson can be fugitive; as an alternative, there are several alizarin crimson approximations available. I currently use the Windsor Newton alizarin permanent. This color functions as a way to warm darker values or cool reds in the lighter range.

Cadmium Red/Vermillion (Robert Doak): This is an intense red-orange. Cadmium Red Light is a similar color in some other brands, and will also work. This red functions to warm other colors when used in smaller amounts and also provides intensity in appropriate areas (commonly found in the ears, hands, nose, etc).

Raw Sienna (Williamsburgh): This is a brown/gold yellow often useful in the half-tone range on the figure. Since it’s darker than the other yellows on this palette it can be used to lighten darker half-tones while retaining warmth, or used in the reflected light of a warm shadow.

Naples Yellow Italian (Williamsburgh): This is a warm, lighter yellow, and not overly chromatic. I frequently use this color while modeling in the half-tones into the lights, and when I want to lighten an area while retaining warmth. Using white to lighten an area usually will cool the temperature. This is sometimes fitting, but often times results in a ‘chalky’ look. The term ‘chalky’ describes when certain areas are unfittingly cool, usually in light.

-Lead Tin Yellow (Rublev), or Nickel Yellow (Williamsburgh): This is a very light, cool lemon yellow. Note that while this color was not on my palette for the painting used in this tutorial, I’ve included it in this list because it’s on my palette more often then not. It’s very useful when modeling in the lights; I often use it over white when I want to get both lighter and cooler, but not as cool as white.

Lead White #1 (Rublev), and Titanium White (Williamsburgh): The lead white from Rublev is a terrific white with long, stringy properties. This is my favorite white, and quite useful when modeling because of its properties and weak tinting strength. I use titanium white when I need the strength of a high tinting, opaque white.


I use filbert Bristle Brushes for the majority of the painting process. For softening edges, ‘sculpting’ tiles of paint already placed with the bristle brushes, and delicate glazing, I use Sables (usually round). Covering in-depth the topics of brushes and handling of them, mediums, paints, paint to medium ratios, and substrates are beyond the scope of this tutorial. Perhaps I’ll create a tutorial in the future on these topics.

Have a Plan

For this painting/demonstration, I wanted to create a setup and design similar to Sargent’s Portrait of Eugenia Errazuriz. When posing the model, I kept the abstract relationships of Sargent’s painting in mind.

On the other hand, I’ll often find compelling abstract relationships and compositions in unexpected places. When you stumble on such relationships, be sure to record them. Then, when creating your setup, you have a template as a springboard. Also keep in mind that when you discover a ‘compelling abstract relationship set’ you don’t have to keep the same subject matter. For example, one of my figurative paintings (Thistle), was based on an abstract relationship set of a vase, rose, cast-shadow and saucer. Thumbnails Studies are also great tools when composing works in their early stages. By ‘thumbnail’ I’m referring to a small drawing (around 2-3 inches) where only the broadest relationships are considered.

In terms of color, if you have time (more then a few sessions) doing a Poster Study is helpful. Poster studies are slightly bigger than thumbnails (3-5 inches) and consider color on a broad level. In addition, before painting I find it helpful to map out a color/value ‘strip on the palette before jumping in to a new piece.


Let’s get started with the painting documentation. Steps 2-4 were done in the first demonstration, and 4-9 the second. The block-in and color wash (1) were done in prior sessions.

1) The Panel used here was a ‘recycled’ painting that I sanded down and then applied a few semi-transparent layers of white. I completed the drawing block-in on a separate sheet of paper, enlarged it to a fitting size via photo copy, and transferred it to the panel. If I only have 1-2 sessions total to work, I usually do the block-in straight on the canvas with thinned paint. I used workable fixative to fix the drawing. Take care to not overspray when doing this, otherwise it will create a glassy, overly slick surface that is terrible to paint on. I usually take a clean brush dipped in Gamsol and scrub a non-essential area of the drawing to see if it lifts off in order to tell if its ready. Alternatively you can trace your transferred drawing with ink (walnut ink a good option) or paint, and allow to thoroughly dry. I then toned the panel with a color wash: a mix of vermilion, turkey umber, and raw sienna thinned with Gamsol, and allowed to dry. I toned the panel this color in anticipation of the warm red/orange flowers in the hair and jacket.

Plate 1, the transferred drawing and color wash (click to enlarge)

2) I began painting by first working in the hair and darker areas of the jacket. This provided a way to establish the darkest darks as well as ‘frame’ the face in order help judge color and value relationships for the following stages. I usually approach areas such as hair, grass, fabric folds ect. in a slightly different manner then when modeling the face or most of the figure. I first place the darker shapes, then a step for the dark half-tones, and then an average of the mid-tones covering the rest of the area. Next I work back the other direction by building the lights one ‘wave’ at a time. By ‘wave’ I’m describing the process of applying lighter paint, then pushing it out inot the half-tones with a soft brush; as it mixes it becomes darker so I repeat the process until the lights are ‘built’ to the appropriate range. I used primarily black and white in order to achieve the relatively ‘blueish’ temperature of the hair and jacket. In the very dark areas I mixed a little alizarin into the black. The cool temperatures in the jacket read as such because of the warms they’re next to.

Plate 2, Painting the hair and shadow shapes of the jacket (click to enlarge)

3) I continued working in the jacket and finished with the broad placement of paint ’tiles’. I find it preferable in areas such as this to work broadly and not get too detailed. The face is going to be the main ‘star of the show’, so we don’t want the jacket to detract from it. This doesn’t mean you can sloppily gloss over areas like this;In fact its the opposite as painting both broadly and accurately is particularly difficult. Perhaps because artist’s are so often advised to ‘squint’, it’s not always taken as serious advice. Squinting to get a glimpse of the ‘big picture’ is essential in painting broadly. I often close my left eye and then squint with the other.

Plate 3, Painting the jacket broadly (click to enlarge)

4) Next, I built the lights in the jacket and scarf in the same manner as the hair. After placing the broad ’tiles’ of paint, I usually take a soft round brush and ‘sculpt’ those tiles in accordance with the rhythm of the form. Before doing this, it helps to scrub just enough paint into your brush so it doesn’t act as a ‘sponge’ and pick up the paint when sculpting, but not so much that it applies paint. At this stage, I also took a look at the Edges of the jacket and hair. Edges are a very important aspect of painting that are often overlooked. Carefully compare the difference in edges between stage 3 and 4. In order to paint ‘wet-into-wet’ (which is important when working with edges) between the jacket and background, I first applied a translucent layer of paint/medium into the necessary areas bordering the jacket. I then used a soft round brush and pulled the paint back and forth to soften the edges needed. It can be daunting trying to figure out which edges to soften and which to accent…


I have three guidelines I can recommend for working with edges:

1) If you squint and find that one side of an edge is close in value to the other, completely loose that edge and make it an area of ‘passage’.

2) If you squint and look at your painting (not the model), and you find any edges that are distracting and/or compromise areas of higher importance, soften those edges.

3) Accent the areas you want your eye to travel in the painting. On especially important focal areas, you can also place a high chroma note of color on that edge as an additional accent.

Plate 4, Building the lights in the jacket and working edges (click to enlarge)


I then painted the broach and two flowers, marking the end of the 1st 3 hour painting session. Its a good idea when painting items of this nature to ‘nail it’ in one pose before the model breaks; because of how much they change from pose to pose. The alternative would be to set up the jacket and items on a mannequin and work on them separately from the model. Similar to the hair and jacket, try not to get lost in the detail and focus on accurate placement. I placed an average color/value and then pushed the darks and built the lights. Many classical works, when viewed close enough look like extremely well executed impressionist paintings. Don’t be fooled by how ‘tight’ they look: this is a function of their expertise, as they only read ‘tight’ when viewed from a distance or in reproductions.

Plate 4b, painting the broach and flowers (click to enlarge)

Here are some examples of how classical paintings are not as ‘tight’ as they may seem. The first is an Ingres painting, and the second a Vermeer. Click each thumbnail to enlarge.

5) This stage marks the beginning of the second painting/demo session. In the last session, I painted the areas surrounding the face and set up those relationships. Having those in place made it easier to judge the values and colors in the face.


Because the areas that were painted in the previous session were dry, I first oiled-out the the areas surrounding the face (about a 1 inch thick perimeter). Why oil out? There are two reasons for this:

1) Depending on the absorbency of your ground and the medium you are using, the paint will usually ‘sink-in’ as it drys. This means your mid-tones and especially your darks will dry a few steps lighter and more matte then originally applied. When oiled out or varnished however, the original values and luster are restored. Earth tones and dark values are especially prone to sinking in. As it’s important to judge value and color relatively in your painting, oiling-out allows you to see the ‘real’ values/colors, opposed to them in sunken-in. If you find your whole painting is too sunken in and feel compelled to oil-out the entire thing, I’d suggest not doing that. Oiling-out too much/too many layers without pigment in the film can create some surface problems and a potential lean over fat problem. In those cases I usually use dammar varnish thinned with turpentine (not gamsol!) as a retouch varnish, and put a thin layer across the entire painting. Again, make sure it’s dry beforehand. There is debate if this practice may create any archival issues or makes life more difficult for a restorer to replace the top layer of varnish on a painting. However, there’s also evidence that many artists who created very long standing work used this practice (Rembrandt for one). The important part is to keep these layers as thin as possible while achieving coverage, whether that be oiling-out with medium or thinned varnish across the whole painting.

2) Oiling-out creates a surface quality that’s easier to paint back into previously painted areas. Not oiling-out yields a more scumbled/chalky look where new paint is applied. This is appropriate in some cases (such as with wood surfaces, chalkboards, etc.), but not usually so in the figure, unless it’s meant to have that stylistic intention.

To oil-out, take a brush with medium and scrub it over the areas needed. Then use your fingers to work it in/even out in a circular fashion. When Oiling-out, keep it as thin as possible while still achieving coverage, and make sure the layer beneath is dry (otherwise you’ll smear the work you already did). Too much medium used while oiling-out will create an overly slick surface that is difficult to work on. If you find that you applied too much medium, simply use a non-linty paper towel and lightly remove the excess.


After oiling-out the areas surrounding the face, I began working in the shadow shapes of the face. As there was warm reflected light coming from the right side, these shadows were relatively warm. I painted them primarily with Turkey Umber and Vermillion. Along the side edge of the face however, there was a cooler reflected rim-light leaning towards blue, so I added more white and a touch of black there. In the very dark/warm accents I used a mix of alizarin and black.

The dark half-tones of the skin on the face were cooler then most of the shadows and the mid-tones, and leaned towards green. While painting this area (turning the form out of the core-shadows), I used mostly Turkey Umber and a touch of Naples Yellow. I first placed the paint ’tiles’, and then took a softer round brush and sculpted the paint along the rhythms of the form and softened certain edges (such as the corner of the mouth).

Plate 5, Painting the shadow shapes in the face and working out from there (click to enlarge)

6) Climbing up the value scale out of the dark half-tones, the color temperature became warmer leaning yellow/red. As I modeled I added more Raw Sienna, Naples Yellow, and Vermillion. In certain areas that were particularly warm (such as on the cheek), I used more vermillion. As this is a very strong color, a small amount will go a long way. I also added the highlight on the nose as a value placeholder so that I could more accurately judge how light to model the cheek.

Plate 6, modeling into the half-tones (click to enlarge)

7) Continuing in the half-tones I worked towards building the lights in the face. This light area leaned cooler then the supporting half-tones. To accomplish this, I added more white then Naples Yellow, until reaching the lightest lights which only white was added. I also took care to ‘link together’ areas of the face. For example, it’s easy to unitentionally isolate features of the face and create artificial value boundaries between the eyes, nose, cheeks, etc. Click on the image below and examine how there is a very soft transition between the eye socket, across the zygomatic, into the side of the face.

Plate 7, working in the lights and refining transitions (click to enlarge)

8 ) After modeling the side of the face and bridging its elements together, I moved back to the nose as well as placed the lashes of the eye. The reason I waited until this point to place the lashes is I wanted enough paint surrounding them in order to ‘whisp’ them into. It’s very important that areas such as the eyelashes, or border of the hair or beard etc, interact with the surrounding paint. Otherwise they will read like artificial lines that symbolize hair rather then appear like it. The high-resolution file (found at the top of this page) illustrates this better. While working on the nose I compared the value of the lights against other light areas and re-confirmed it was the lightest area in the face. When painting the nose or similar areas (ears, lips, hands, feet), pay special attention to anatomical plane changes. Make sure you place ‘steps’ where they are needed. For example, between the nostril and the side of the nose above, there is a small but important step between. Again, this can be best viewed in the high-resolution file.

Plate 8, Returning to the eyelashes and nose (click to enlarge)

9) I had been planning on finishing the face by the end of the 2nd painting session, but ran out of time and wasn’t able to get to the ear. The model (who is also a friend/fellow artist in the building) was generous to come back in order to finish it. On this topic, it’s better to figure out a way to schedule additional time if you can than sloppily paint in a rush. Before painting the ear I first oiled-out the surrounding areas. Similar to the nose, when painting the ear it’s important to articulate appropriate plane changes. Also similar to the nose, exceptional warmth can usually be found in this area. Notes that need to be both dark and warm, alizarin and black is used. Areas that are lighter and warm, more vermillion is used. After finishing the ear, I stepped back and looked for any areas that could be ‘punched’ or adjusted in order to finish the painting.

I oiled out the appropriate areas and did the following to wrap up the painting:

– Added warm note to shadow shape in the eye and left of nose.

– Glazed warmth on cheek and flowers.

– Glazed cool notes similar to those found in the jacket into the background

– Added additional subtle highlights into the hair and face.

Plate 9, The finished painting (click to enlarge)

To view a high resolution version of this painting, click here.

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