Reader Request: Working with a Limited Color Palette

An anonymous reader popped this question into the suggestion box:

A lot of advice on wearing color assumes that one uses the whole color wheel. People recommend choosing opposite colors for contrast, or choosing a triad of 3 colors evenly spaced around the color wheel. However, what about those of us who only wear colors from one half or one third of the color wheel? I wear green (cool green) to blue to purple to pink. I’ve applied the advice on contrasting colors in a limited way by pairing green with purple or pink (i.e., the opposite ends of my color range), but it seems difficult to wear more than one color at a time if choosing from the center of my color range. So if I wear blue, I’m stuck with only blue because my other colors seem too close to it. And then how many shades of blue to wear simultaneously?

Monochrome and near-monochrome looks have been trendy for several years running, and yet there’s always some pushback. Since each human eye perceives color differently, outfits that combine colors that are close but not exact may look lovely to some and jarring to others. If you’re working with a palette that contains only related colors – or even a very small subset of the available colors – it can quickly become frustrating to attempt assembly of outfits that work, color-wise. I can’t say as I have any foolproof tips, but here are a few ideas.

Incorporate patterns


If you’re worried about wearing colors that seem too close in value to work with each other, adding a pattern can ease the tension. Patterns that include the colors in question are fabulous, but even totally neutral patterns can work as bridging pieces. Black and white prints are huge this season, though they’ll work best with cool bright colors as shown here. Colorful prints and patterns with warm undertones will work best if you’re doing warm shades.

Do three shades to a monochrome mix


There’s no one right way to do monochrome, but in my own experience I’ve found that three distinct shades make a mix feel intentional. Just two may look like the shades are mismatched, though more than three can definitely work. So if you’re going for blues, do bright, mid, and dark shades. Adding a print or pattern in your chosen color can liven up the mix.

Watch your undertones


Most colors have warm (red) or cool (blue) undertones. Mixing colors with different undertones can work, but I find it to be challenging. The pairing above seems a bit off to me because the chambray has different undertones than the colors in the blazer: It is warm, while the blazer and pants are cool. (Yes, it’s chambray so may read as a neutral to some, but since it’s paired with other shades of blue here its blueness is hard to overlook.) Cool brights mix well with each other, warm dusty colors mix well with each other. Wedging cool brights and warm dusties into a single outfit can look not-quite-right.

Be on the lookout for pairing inspiration


I adore color, and am constantly searching for new and different color pairings. Anyone who is wondering about how to wear color-on-color can rely on cheat sheets: Look at magazine photos, Pinterest (I’ve got a whole board dedicated to color pairings), existing patterns in clothing and cloth, logos, flowers and other elements of nature, home decor, absolutely anything that mixes colors. See if you can re-create those mixes using solids or prints in your own closet, and sticking to your chosen subset of colors.

If you’re interested in working with a subset of colors but not sure where to start, check Ashe’s fabulous post on developing a color palette for your closet.

What other tips would you share for wearing and mixing colors within a confined palette? Do any of you do this already? How do you make it work?

Images courtesy Nordstrom.

**Disclosure: Actions you take from the hyperlinks within this blog post may yield commissions for See Already Pretty’s disclosure statement for more details.

Originally posted 2013-05-29 06:23:23.

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20 Responses to “Reader Request: Working with a Limited Color Palette”

  1. LinB

    In theatrical costume design classes, we were taught that a monochromatic color scheme consists of: a particular hue, the two hues that are on either side of that one hue, AND the hue directly opposite on the color wheel. Good design demands contrast. Therefore, you may certainly use small amounts of hues from the warm side of the circle to help you make similar shades and hues play nicely together. A tiny zot of orange or mustard might be all you need in a print, or scarf, or belt, or piece of jewelry, to pull together a sophisticated monochromatic look.

  2. Sonja

    I think my advice would basically be not get stuck on this colour-wheel-thing. The typical recommendations like the triad etc. may be good for inspiration, but I find that they should not be a restriction. The reader mentions green, blue, purple and pink. Personally I don’t wear pink, but apart from that I would wear any combination of these colours. Not every top might go well with every bottom, but I would just try out all possible combination of items in your wardrobe and see which ones your like. Gochichorgohome is a very useful website for this kind of proyect, and generally taking photos of your outfits is helpful

    • Molly

      I feel essentially the same. I wear mostly only olive green, purple, blue, and occasionally fuchsia as non-neutrals, and I’ll mix them with each other into my black and grey outfits. I don’t always love the combos, but they’re usually decent.

  3. Osprey

    I wear mostly cool neutrals and jewel tones, although I love seeing creative colour combinations on other people. In addition to patterns, highly textured items and accessories in warmer shades (tan and gold) do a lot to liven things up. The thing that nobody tells you about a limited palette is that everything does not in fact go with everything. Even (especially?) plain black items. But you do get a lot more freedom to play with structure, once colour is out the way.

  4. SKP

    Another idea is to think of neutrals as part of the color mix. I am often wearing only one or two actual colors but with several different neutrals (e.g. red+tan+black+brown, purple+white+blue+taupe, blue+black+brown+cream).

    • Thursday

      This is good advice – in terms of colours, I actually only wear three: blue, green, red. By the time you account for black, cream and grey, you’ve seen my entire wardrobe palette. By considering a neutral which adds visual contrast to your base colours, you can create interest and balance whilst sticking to your comfort zone.

      And if a tone doesn’t look so great next to your face, you can try it elsewhere – belt, shoes, bracelet…

  5. Anneesha

    Great to see the curvy gals represented in the examples!

  6. Rebecca S.

    A great post for lots of reasons, but I particularly appreciated the photos you chose to illustrate–I love seeing examples of women who actually look like me! Thanks.

  7. Kristen

    I’d say make sure to pay attention to saturation, too. A range of cotton-candy pastels can look interesting together, or a group of jewel tones, and can make you pause for a minute to take in the details of the different colors in the outfit. Incorporating neutrals and using “your” colors in the accents can be a good way to work with them, too, and can sometimes feel easier to mix and match that way. Personally, I like blue with green or pink with purple better than yellow + purple anyways. Sometimes those severe contrasts are too jarring – but that’s personal preference, and there are always exceptions. I think it’s EASIER to mix colors when your palette is a little more limited however, as long as it’s a cohesive palette.

  8. Emily

    The content of this post aside, don’t you think you’re being a little biased by posting only plus-sized white models? For someone who preaches diversity, this sure doesn’t seem like a good representation.

    • Amy M

      That argument is a bit of a black hole isn’t it? You have five pictures, but oops, though you’ve covered all ethnic groups, where are the people with physical disabilities? Where are the (insert any and everything here)? There is no winning with this argument.

      Sal might not be able to cover the whole spectrum of diversity in one post, but throughout the whole blog she does pretty darn well!

  9. Not quite anonymous

    Thanks for all the tips! (I was the one who’d posted the question.) In particular, I’ll definitely try three-shade monochrome mixes, which I didn’t think of before but definitely have the pieces to do. I also hadn’t thought of neutral patterns, since I think of them as boring and not “me,” but now I’ll try to envision them with my colorful pieces instead of alone.

    In response to LinB, I actually have tried the tiny bit of contrasting color, mainly with necklaces. I was surprised at how unflattering it looked on me. Oranges and yellows are colors that need to stay far away from my face.

    • LinB

      I, too, try to keep anything yellow-based away from my face. Yellow is not a happy color for everyone. Still, a small amount of a warm tone in a cool-colored print, worn below the waist, is usually safe. Think of zippy shoes, or a bracelet or ring — rather than a necklace or earrings. Even contrasting buttons against a field of a flattering color can be enough to enliven a look.

  10. b.

    Echoing thanks for the plus sze models. not “about” plus fashion, just a normal post with ladies who look like me!

  11. Melissa Wallace

    This is amazing fashion advice! I myself am having trouble combining different colors in my outfits because I don’t know which colors mix well with one another. Because of this, I end up choosing safe colors and prints then just spice up my attire with accessories. I actually want to try wearing some nice prints or combine various colors and give contrast to my clothes. These tips are a great help for me, thanks for this.

  12. Jane Allen

    Of course as a Colour Consultant I would definitely suggest to everywoman to have their colours coded. Shopping with your colour swatch is such a great tool to use in your style kit bag when selecting colours for your complexion
    You do have to consider the intensity, the value and the temperature (warm or cool) of the colour. Also you need to consider your personal contrast. high, medium and low as not everyone looks good in high contrast or low contrast but everyone does suit medium contrast..
    There is a real science to it, and having your colours coded is the quickest way to update your image by being introduced to some new colours that you thought you couldn’t wear!

  13. Sue

    About the size of models – actually to me its s refreshing change to see real people wearing clothes rather than 6 ft anorexic models we are more often exposed to. i want to look good in something that fits me now, not what might have looked good on me when I was a teenager!
    As for diversity – the only thing missing is men!

  14. Claire

    I started using a limited color palette alongside a Project 333 “capsule” type wardrobe experiment last year, and it kinda revolutionized my dressing process. I removed brown and most earthy tones and identified my core neutrals, colors, patterns, accents, silhouettes. It’s amazing how much it narrowed things down while still leaving me plenty to work with. Anyway, I observed that some of my Favorite Outfits shared an easy, core “color formula” and thought I’d pass it along:
    FO = light neutral + dark neutral + one color
    I’m not super-rigid on what shades qualify for each of these components, it’s more about how they look relative to each other, if that makes sense. I just use this basic template, and any shade could count as any one of these components, which produces lots of variation while still using a limited color palette theme. Hmmm, maybe the formula is better expressed:
    FO = light shade + dark shade + other shade
    That seems more encompassing as to how I use it. Level of accessorization depends on taste, I suppose. I find the core formula quite strong on its own. Come to think of it, I can find this pattern in most of the examples Sally used above – and taking a second look, very few accessories indeed! Neat. 🙂

  15. Kellie

    Sal — love that even though it wasn’t specifically related to the post, you chose to use some plus-size photos from Nordstrom. Refreshing.