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The portrait palette for oil painting.

Updated on May 7, 2012

Back off. Don't tell me what do do! I am an artist...

Palette choice is very personal. This must be made clear. However, there are trends for certain kinds of subjects, and this article collects together some palettes that are typically used for portrait painting.

Remember also, that the choice of palette is influenced by your budget and the local availability of brands. Some of the cadmium paints can cost $80. That's a lot of cash for a starving artist. So if you are on a budget, choose the most pure colours you can find that are cheaper. Buy artist quality paint because they are cheaper in the long run simply because they have a lot more tinting and covering power. It's perfectly ok to use paint labelled as 'hue'. This just means that it is a modern substitute. In many cases, a hue could have better characteristics than the original (including price).

The most important advice is "Don't get too hung up on technicalities". It does no one much good to dogmatically argue the virtues of a particular palette when in reality there is no correct solution. It is however, important that you experiment and internalise the mixing characteristics of your chosen palette. To use a more or less consistent set of colours will give you an intuitive feel for colour mixing, and better repeatability because there are fewer starting points. It's a great idea to make and record colour swatches or charts with your standard chosen palette. Record the names of the tube-colours used, and mixes.

Only by DOING will you get to find out things like the power of Cadmium red or the Phalos. Only by experimenting, will you get a feel for how much white to put in a mix, or how hues can move one way or the other around the colour circle and by how much as you mix with another hue.

Only be DOING will you learn how easy it is to make a dull muddy uninteresting colour... and when that might be just what you need.

Other considerations.


Opaque colours powerfully obscure what's underneath. These are great for foreground and things that 'stick out' of the composition into the viewer's presence. Transparent application tends to recede.

Read the tubes or manufacturer's specifications to determine the opaque/transparent characteristics. Cadmium based pigments and Titanium white are strongly opaque.

When diluted, most phthalos, quinicridones and perylenes exhibit transparency and will stain.

Ultramarine blue and burnt sienna mix to a great range of darks so these two are probably a good choice, especially if you choose to omit black.

Saturation cost.

An Orange that you mix is not going to be quite as intense as one purchased in a tube, assuming that the purchased colour is as bright as possible. Even if you have a very highly saturated red and yellow, when mixed it will be slightly dulled. You can imagine why by considering that complimentary colours when mixed will give a very dark, almost black colour, or at least grey. So as you pick two colours from around the colour circle: at first pick complementaries, then near complementaries, and so on until you reach adjacent colours, it makes intuitive sense that this dulling effect will gradually reduce. Of course the logical conclusion is that any two colours when mixed not only changes the hue, but also dulls it.

In practice this is one of the reasons why picking a colour palette is: a) a personal choice and b) dependent on what you want to paint.

For example if you are painting a bird of paradise that has really high saturation secondary colours, then it makes sense to choose a palette that includes those colours. But if you are painting a moody overcast landscape, then there is little need for highly saturated colours.

This dulling effect explains why mixing 'mud' is so easy! All you need to do it slap three colours together and there you have it: Mud. Of course it's worse if the colours are further apart in wavelengths.

Some experimentation with six colours and Titanium White.

Record your experiments for future use. Always record the manufacturer as well as the colour.
Record your experiments for future use. Always record the manufacturer as well as the colour.

A typical base palette - general starting point

  • Cadmium Red,
  • Light Yellow,
  • Cerulean Blue,
  • Cobalt Blue,
  • Burnt Umber,
  • Alizarin Crimson,
  • Titanium White,
  • Black,
  • Yellow Ochre,
  • Burnt Sienna,
  • Viridian Green

A typical portrait palette

  • Titanium white,
  • Ivory black,
  • Ultramarine blue,
  • Raw sienna,
  • Yellow ochre,
  • Cadmium yellow medium,
  • Cadmium red light,
  • Alizarin crimson,
  • Burnt sienna,
  • Burnt umber,
  • Raw umber,
  • Viridian green
  • Pthalo green.

Read more: How to Paint a Portrait in Oil Paints |

According to Richard Schmid

  • Cadmium Yellow Pale,
  • Cadmium Lemon,
  • Cadmium Yellow Deep,
  • Yellow Ochre Light,
  • Cadmium Red,
  • Terra Rosa,
  • Alizarin Crimson,
  • Transparent Oxide Red,
  • Viridian,
  • Cobalt Blue Light,
  • Ultramarine Blue Deep,
  • Titanium White.

Or FEWER (never more). Note there is no black.

Another opinion

To make it easier to read, this is condensed from Published by Pam Gaulin - Featured Contributor in Arts & Entertainment and Lifestyle

Essentials - Base colours for underpainting:

  • Cadmium Red Light
  • Yellow Ochre


For pale skin:

Under painting (pale skin):

  • Cadmium Red Light
  • Yellow Ochre,
  • plus something else like Cadmium Yellow Light, Naples Yellow or Zinc Yellow.

Flesh tones (pale skin):

  • Phthalo Rose Red
  • Light peach from: Phthalo Rose Red, White and Naples Yellow.

Flesh tones - (pale skin) - darker mid values:

  • Add Creulean Blue

Flesh tones - (pale skin) - deeper values:

  • Add Burnt Sienna


For dark or tanned skin

Under painting (dark skin):

  • Cadmium Red Light
  • Yellow Ochre,
  • plus something else like Burnt Sienna and Burnt Umber.
  • plus Alzarin Crimson.Cobalt Violet and Permanent Blue.

Flesh tones on top of underpainting (dark skin):

  • Alzarin Crimson + White.
  • Light peach from: Phthalo Rose Red, White and Naples Yellow.

Flesh tones - (pale skin) - deeper values:

  • Add Ultramarine blue or the Burnt umber.

The Zorn Palette

Anders Leonard Zorn- a famous Swedish painter is purported to only use three colours:

  • Yellow Ochre,
  • Cadmium Red Medium,
  • Ivory Black

(and White.)

Some think he added Vermillion, Viridian, and/or Cerulean Blue.

How could only an earthy yellow, red, black and white produce enough colours to make a great portrait?

I think this is because Ivory Black + white reads as blue, and black + yellow certainly makes green, and there you go, all the basics are there. Of course this results in a restricted gamut but obviously he made it work well.

Go HERE to make an experimental, systematic grid of mixed colours from the limited Zorn palette. You will be surprised at the possible range.

Some random other's convictions

"There is no substitute for Winsor & Newton's brown madder... or caput mortuum which is a perfect colour for lips, tongues and nostrils..."

Perhaps... perhaps.

"Mix magenta and cyan paints in equal parts, and you will get blue"

"Mix equal parts magenta and yellow and get red"

"Mix 2 parts magenta, 1 part cyan for a far more vibrant purple (compared to red and blue)."

Well, I suggest you try it. Whether it works or not will depend on your choice of tube paints.

Another thing to try is called 'optical mixing'. In this technique, don't mix the paint on the palette. Instead, apply pure dot's or strokes next to each other on the canvas, then stand back and observe the optical mixing magic.

A limited three-colour palette of Cyan, Magenta and Yellow could therefore give you a much better range than Red Blue and Yellow. (Apparently! - So try it).

  • Permanent magenta.
  • Phthalo blue green shade.
  • A balanced yellow.

...could make a useful primary group but magenta is too blue to mix a good orange with any yellow.

Maybe consider a six-colour-palette that includes the three above, plus

  • Cadmium or Pyrolle Red.
  • A cool yellow.
  • A warm yellow.
  • French ultramarine blue.

A background idea

Sometimes these colours work well in the background...

  • Thalo Greeen,
  • Alizarin crimson
  • White
  • Pale grey

Don't mix them. Dab them about in individual blobs, then blend - e.g. with a flogging brush to remove texture. (Texture tends to come forward). If done right, this will give a feeling of airy-space behind the subject. The colours should recede on average.


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