I often enjoy painting with a limited palette. A while ago, I limited my palette to only complementary colors using the ancient 5000 year old Chinese philosophy, the ‘balance of opposites’ or yin/yang.

©Lori McNee, A Bit of Summer 16×20

After reading  a favorite book – The Yin Yang of Painting I was so inspired by the artist, Hongnian Zhang, I decided to give this approach a try. I was pleased with my first attempt and wrote a blog post about the process: A Unique Approach to Improve Paintings Using Color Harmony
Here’s a crash course:
Everything in nature has its opposite. For example:

  • moon/sun
  • black/white
  • day/night
  • sunrise/sunset

Every color has its opposite too! Each ‘primary’ color or hue (red, yellow, blue) is directly opposite a ‘secondary’ color (green, purple, orange).
These complementary colors are always found opposite each other on the color wheel:

  • Red – Green
  • Yellow – Purple
  • Blue – Orange

In the chart below, you can see each primary color is opposite its complementary color.

"complementary color wheel"

Getting started:
I took this photograph near my home at the end of winter. It is May now, and I have to admit that I am tired of winter and because of that, really didn’t feel like painting a winter scene….but, the natural complimentary colors of this scene drew me in…


For this painting I could have chosen any of the three primary/complementary  limited palettes, but for this experiment I chose, the natural compliments –yellow and purple.

For the yellow pigments I used:

  • cadmium yellow medium – warm
  • cadmium yellow light – true
  • cadmium yellow pale – cool
  • yellow ochre – softer yellow
  • raw umber – softer yellow

For the purple pigments I used:

  • magenta – warm
  • alizarine crimson – true
  • ultramarine blue – cool
  • dioxazine purple – softer purple

and ivory black & titanium white.

winter up trail creek sun valley idaho

©2010 Lori McNee Winter up Trail Creek” 12×24 oil/board

You can vary the above colors with your own choices, but it is best to always have a warm, true & cool representative for each complementary color.

Believe it or not, I am able to achieve an incredible variety of rich colors and muted grays that are found in nature using the limited palette. I am happy with the results…

I started to get the hang of painting with this palette so while the paints were fresh, I painted another. You can read more about this painting here: Snow Flurries Above the Big Lost.

winter cow painting in idaho

©2010 Lori McNee Snow Flurries Above the Big Lost” oil/board

The last of the three complementary yin/yang palettes I will tackle, is the red and green palette. I will let you know how that goes when it is complete!

If you enjoyed this article you might like to read:

Use the Hidden Meaning of Color to Improve Paintings

The Importance of Value & Tone in Painting

A Unique Approach Using Color Harmony to Improve Your Paintings What do you think about this method of painting?

~ Lori

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