Making Good Art with Only 12 Colors

Making Good Art with Only 12 Colors

Jana Botkin joins us today to answer the question, is making good art with only 12 colors really possible?

Most artists coming to colored pencils automatically think they must have a full set of pencils before they can start drawing. But budget constraints are a fact of life for a lot of us, so this is an important question. Can you really get by with only a dozen colors?

Making Good Art with Only 12 Colors

by Jana Botkin

Art is my full time profession, beginning with nothing but pencil. Graphite pencils, to be exact. My drawing students pushed me to learn colored pencil. But I couldn’t sell those drawings for price that would pay the studio rent, much less fill my gas tank (back when gas was only about $1/gallon).

In 2006, an article by Jack White in the art/business magazine Art Calendar explained that there is a hierarchy of marketability based on medium: graphite pencil is at the bottom, and oil is at the top. After some heavy thinking, I began learning to oil paint. I find this quite ironic when compared to our friend Carrie, who switched from oil painting to colored pencils!

Even yet, colored pencils still pull me. I love the lack of clean up, lack of mess, and slow build up of color and shapes. In spite of the initial fear that they don’t erase, I find them to be forgiving.


Yes. You can lift color in multiple ways and then correct the color by layering over the top.

The “need” for 240+ colored pencils seemed excessive, especially given my bent toward simplicity. After learning to oil paint with a double primary palette (2 reds, 2 blues, 2 yellows and white), I wondered if it was possible to make a full-color drawing with one of those starter sets of twelve colored pencils.

The 12-Color Experiment

Prismacolor, Polychromos, Staedtler, and Blackwing carefully chose the 12 starter colors, believing that those were adequate. Or were they just tempting us with a gateway drug to the need for more, more and still more? (I know there are other companies, but these are the brands I owned.)

I initially thought colored pencils were childish was because I used 12 colors like a child. It was time to figure this out, both using layering techniques that I learned from the Colored Pencil Society of America and my experience mixing oil paints from just the primaries.

Since I was accustomed to the double primary palette, twelve colors felt both extravagant (TWELVE? such abundance!) and inadequate (I need both reds!!) I also kept wishing for Indigo Blue, Tuscan Red, Dark Green, and Sepia, but had to occasionally break the taboo against using black. This reminded me of Ann Kullberg’s answer in a workshop: someone asked her if it was okay to use black, and she responded with:

“If you aren’t supposed to use it, why do they manufacture it?”

Ann Kullberg

It wasn’t easy, but it was great fun to work those 12-color sets to their fullest. They had to work, because why would they be sold as a set if they wouldn’t work?

Here are the results:

Making Good Art with Only 12 Colors
Pumpkin: Drawn with 12 Blackwing colors
Pomegranate: Drawn with 12 Polychromos colors
Sunflower: Drawn with 12 Prismacolor colors
Bridge: Drawn with 12 Staedtler Ergosoft colors

Making Good Art with Only 12 Colors

So you see, it is possible to create beautiful artwork with only 12 colors. As Jana has shown, it doesn’t matter what brand of pencils you buy.

Many thanks to Jana for a great article.

About Jana Botkin

Jana credits her 6th grade teacher at Ivanhoe Elementary School with teaching her to draw. She spent several years in college in San Diego, changing schools and changing majors, until she realized she belonged back in her native Tulare County. After drawing her future husband’s cabin, he told her that other cabin owners would also love drawings of their cabins. That was the beginning of Cabin Art. Now she also paints in oils, paints indoor and outdoor murals, and teaches people how to draw, with hundreds of happy students since 1994. Jana works from her studio at home in Three Rivers, with her 3 cats stopping by for occasional visits. You see her work and browse her lessons on her website and read more of her articles on her blog.


  1. Ann Hardcastle

    This is a very good article! I have always been interested in limited palettes. I had not heard of the Blackwing brand. Are they lightfast? Which brand do you like best? The pumpkin picture is my favorite! Thanks for the article.

  2. I am now beginning to wonder if Blackwing: A. is still manufacturing colored pencils; B. has a working website; C. is even in business!! Sigh. I’m sorry to not have found an answer about their lightfastness.

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