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Apelles Palette 101: A Guide to Painting with a Limited Oil Paint Palette

Updated: Jan 20

Classical Oil Painting Color Theory Via Nic Thurman on Youtube

What is the Apelles palette?

The Apelles palette, also known as the zorn palette (slightly different), limited oil paint palette, or four color palette, consists of White, Black, Yellow, and red. It is named after the renowned painter of Ancient Greece, Apelles. Today it is famously used by Odd Nerdrum and likeminded kitsch painters. The purpose of using a limited palette is to reflect the harmony and limited colors of nature.

The best colors and substitutes to use for the limited palette:

There are only four colors: White, black, yellow, and red. The colors that I have found to work the best are Titanium white, Mars Black, Yellow Brown, and Chinese red vermillion. It is very important that your black is a mars black. The mars black is what contributes the necessary blue to the palette.


Something to look out for is the toxicity of the paints you are using. If you intend to sand your painting then you should be aware of what paints you are using and what they are made of. Because of the toxicity you should not use cadmium or lead colors if you intend to sand your painting. Cadmium yellow can be substituted with yellow brown or yellow ochre. If you want an extra punch of brilliant yellow try finding a tubed brilliant yellow that doesn't contain cadmium or toxic substitutes. Cadmium red can be substituted with Chinese red vermillion.

What is the purpose of using the Apelles palette?

Using a limited number of colors actually makes it much easier to reflect nature and create harmony. The simplicity makes it easier to gain a grasp over the colors that you are using. All of the colors on the palette blend together to make gray. This is a clear indication that they are well balanced. It is a simple and practical method for creating flesh and earth tones that do not become too vibrant.

What's the problem with a complex palette?

The complexity of a palette with many vibrant colors poses two major problems for any painter:

1. It is complicated to balance bright and vibrant colors - especially when they are in a large variety. This causes many unintentional flaws in the palette and makes achieving harmony WAY more complicated than it needs to be. Why would you make it more complicated for yourself? The shorter route is the superior route, is it not?

2. The second major problem with a copious color palette is that the colors usually break away from nature and ultimately dissatisfy the viewer. On the human body bright and vibrant colors are not present - so why should they be on your palette? If you want to paint the human body sincerely and paint flesh that glows with life then you should use the Apelles Palette. It will make it much easier to achieve life-like qualities.

How do you mix the Apelles palette to get lifelike colors?

I start by mixing an orange out of the yellow and red. This orange is the base for all of the warmer colors in both the light tones and shadow tones. I blend the orange with black to make a gradient warm brown. This will be used for the majority of the shadows. I wipe off my palette knife on the palette allowing for a small amount of the warm brown to be left on it. I blend that little bit of brown back into my base orange and mix in a lot of white. This makes the base light flesh tone. All that’s left to blend is a small range of cooler tones. I start by mixing a gradient apelles blue by blending mars black and titanium white. Lastly I create gray by blending together all four colors. This is done by mixing the base orange with apelles blue. This gray will be useful for creating further gradients in the future and toning down any color that needs to be more neutral.

Get the Apelles palette color mixing cheat Sheet: Click here

How To Quickly Mix Skin Colors With The Apelles Palette via @nic.thurman on Instagram

Why not use blue or other bright colors?

Many traditionally used blue pigments are far too vibrant for lifelike paintings. The blue often becomes a distraction rather than a benefit to the painting. The same is true for many bright colors. The blue that you can get from mars black is blue enough to imitate and even surpass nature. Using bright colors often results in the painting equivalent to breaking the fourth wall. That is to say that you remind the viewer that they are merely looking at painting and not at life. If your goal is to emotionally grip your viewer and make them feel as if they are looking into a window then using bright colors will only be to your detriment.

Why Not Use Bright Blue? Via @nic.thurman on Instagram

A complete guide to the Apelles palette:

The colors I recommend to use for the Apelles palette:

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