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Color Palette: Are There Any Famous Paintings That Use Three Colors or Less?

When we think of paintings, we think of color – lots of color. Whether it’s realism, abstract, painterly, impressionism or expressionism, most artists use an array of colors in various shades to create their work.

It’s hard to imagine that any painter would use just three colors – or less – when painting, but some famous paintings have fewer pigments than you might think. 

Before we talk about these paintings, let’s take a closer look at color palettes, or color schemes.
Watercolour  Image by Callyl from Pixabay
Watercolour Image by Callyl from Pixabay

What is a Color Palette?

 A color palette, usually referred to as a color scheme, describes the overall color combinations used in artwork.  

Analogous

With an analogous color scheme, you choose colors that are right next to each other on the color wheel. For example, your painting may use purples and blues, or yellows and greens. Because they are next to each other on the color wheel, these hues have a close relationship with one another.

Claude Monet was famous for using analogous color schemes. He was particularly fond of blue and green, but he used saturation and value to create contrast in his work.

Complementary

Complementary color schemes include colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. When placed next to each other, these colors create a strong contrast for a vibrant effect. 

The gold and blue hues in Vincent van Gogh’s The Paris Sunflowers is a fine example of a complementary color palette. 
Colored pencil. Image from pixabay
Colored pencil. Image from pixabay

Split-Complementary

Split-complementary schemes include a base color and two secondary colors. For example, you may use green, yellow and purple in your painting if you wanted to use a split-complementary scheme.

Triadic

As its name suggests, the triadic color scheme uses three colors, and these colors are evenly spaced on the color wheel. For example, you might use yellow, green and purple with this type of color scheme.

Rectangular

A rectangular color scheme uses four colors on the wheel which are positioned in the shape of a rectangle. 
Vincent van Gogh’s The Arles Sunflowers painting is a good example of a rectangular color scheme, which includes blue, green, yellow and orange tones. 

Monochromatic

Monochromatic color schemes use one color with variations in saturation and value to add contrast. 

Famous Paintings that Use Three Colors or Less

Believe it or not, there are many famous paintings that use just three colors or less. 

Picasso Guernica: Picasso’s Guernica, one of his most famous pieces of work, was painted in grey, black and white.

Guernica from Pablo Picasso in the City Museum Netherlands via Wiki Commons

Vincent van Gogh Starry Night: Painted in 1889, Starry Night uses three main colors – blue, yellow and dark brown.

STarry Night by Vicent van Gogh

Picasso The Old Guitarist: During Picasso’s Blue Period, he created The Old Guitarist, which features different shades of blue and brown.

Picasso Old Guitarist a painting with 3 colors

Claude Monet Water Lilies: Monet was famous for using just a few colors in his work. Water Lilies is one of his most famous pieces, but it uses just three colors – blue, green and yellow.

Edvard Munch Scream: Munch’s haunting piece Scream features just two colors – blue and orange.

Claude Monet Sunset on the Seine in Winter: Another famous work from Monet features three warm colors – red, orange and black.

Johannes Vermeer The Milkmaid: An easily-recognizable work from Vermeer, The Milkmaid uses a triad color scheme with blue, orange and yellow.

Johannes Vermeer Girl with a Pearl Earring: Another iconic painting from Vermeer. This work features two main colors – blue and yellow.

When you truly analyze a painting and its colors, you’ll find that many artists use just a few colors with varying levels of saturation and value to create contrast. The use of limited palettes was popular with many famous painters, particularly impressionists like Monet and Vincent van Gogh. 
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