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Limited Palette

Watercolor at it's Simplest

It is amazing just how little equipment you really need to enjoy painting on location.


After a recent workshop in Italy I decided to lighten my load and post the bulk of my painting gear back home. I kept out a tube of Burnt Sienna, a tube of Indigo, some white Gouache and 2 small brushes, just enough to make some small, quick limited palette sketches.

The restrictions imposed by such a frugal selection of gear were far from limiting and very liberating not to have a bag full of painting gear constantly weighing me down.

Small limited palette watercolor kit


A cut down plastic water bottle was used to make the palette and water container. Three tubes of paint two brushes, two bottle caps and a piece of old towel. The “bare bones” travelling painting kit.

how to make a small watercolor limited palette painting kit


Almost pocket sized – everything packs neatly into the plastic water container. This little kit takes up hardly any room in a backpack and delivers 90% of the fun for 10% of the bulk.


The bottom third of a plastic water bottle made a good water container and a flattened piece of plastic, cut from the side of the bottle, served as a palette. Two water bottle caps were used for pans to squeeze the paint into.


The tubes, pans and brushes all rolled up in a piece of old towel and fitted tightly into the water container.

Rather than cart an A4 watercolor pad around, I tore out a few pages and cut them in half to fit in the pocket on my camera bag.

Working with an extremely limited palette like this can at first feel restricting, but once you are used to it it’s great fun. Painting becomes quick and simple when color is removed from the equation. The importance of correctly arranging tonal values becomes much more critical.

What did I miss most?

A bigger palette would have been nice, but the thing I really missed was a larger 1″ flat brush. The 1/4″ brush struggles with large washes. (Not that you can do a very large wash on half an A4 sheet!) Perhaps next time I will add a piece of sponge to the kit. This would help replace the 1″ brush without the weight or bulk.

Limited Palette  Painting Materials

1/4″ Flat Taklon
#2 liner or rigger

I cut sheets from an A4 size Arches 300gsm (140lb) watercolor pad in half. Not pocket sized, but small enough to fit in a camera bag or backpack.

Burnt Sienna
White Gouache

The only thing I didn’t bother to carry was a bottle of water. There always seemed to be a tap, a lake, a puddle or a shop close by.

limited palette sketches - Burnt Sienna and Indigo


Over a Tuscan fence. This old stone building with it’s terracotta roof makes a great subject set against the dark backdrop of pine trees. Keeping pure Burnt Sienna and maximum tonal contrast at the centre of interest focuses attention. The path of light through the sky helps guide the eye down to the focal point. Most of this sketch was done very wet then the sharper detail was added after everything dried.

It’s not easy to find a quiet spot in Venice, but I managed to find an out of the way bridge over a sleepy little canal to do this sketch. Warm Burnt Sienna is a great color to evoke the weathered surfaces of Venice. Most of the mixtures in this sketch include the two colors.


The only place containing pure Burnt Sienna is the Bridge at the centre of interest. To hold attention at the centre of interest, pure Indigo (as dark as possible) was put under the bridge and into the foreground boat.

Limited palette watercolor sketch of Paris

This sketch of late afternoon storm clouds over Paris uses mainly Indigo with a wash of White Gouache flooded into the wet sky. A little Burnt Sienna was worked through the foreground to bring it to the front. White Gouache and Indigo blend to make fantastic feathery edges where they meet – ideal for a big stormy sky.

 Limited Palette Painting Demos from the Workshop

These are larger 1/4 sheet sized demos done with access to a full compliment of brushes and colors, but still employing a limited palette.


Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna were used for this demonstration painting of an old church in Pienza. I also had the luxury of Burnt Sienna ink and some bigger brushes to work with, but resisted the temptation to dip into more than just two colors.

Limited palette painting of Pienza, Italy



This demonstration painting was done in Chioggia on the Venice lagoon. I used a larger, 1/4 sheet of paper and had Burnt Sienna Ink and a full range of brushes. The palette was limited to Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna plus a couple of splashes of Alizarin towards the end – couldn’t help myself.

limited palette painting of Chioggia, Italy

Back in the studio, the discipline of two color limited palette forces you to consider the importance of tonal contrast, line and shape in the establishment of a focal point. Your subject can be anything that interests you. It’s a lot of fun to squeeze as much character as possible out of inanimate objects with this simple two color approach.

This old felt hat is given a solid three dimensional character and lots of impact by exaggerating tonal contrast. The rough texture of the background echoes the old hats hard and busy life.

limited palette painting of a hat



Sharp contrast, hard, aggressive lines, weather beaten texture and simple compressed color hint at the brutal nature of this old rat trap.

limited palette painting of a rat trap

Try out this limited palette technique at home. Once you are hooked, put together a small kit of paint and brushes and have some fun doing some of these lively little two color sketches on location.


Author: John Lovett

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