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Where do I start?

Building a basic watercolor palette

In previous posts we’ve talked about how to mix different shades using primary colors, and about the basic properties of watercolors and pigments. I’ve promised to also give you some tips on how to choose paints for your own watercolor collection, and this is what we’re getting to now.

This post is for those of you who feel like their watercolor tin is missing something basic but can’t quite figure out what. Or those of you who want to upgrade from craft or student grade paints to artist grade watercolors and are wondering what to start with. If you have hundreds of watercolors already and feel sort of lost when facing all the options, I’m here to help you boil it down to a portable sized, versatile palette of basics. Or you might be doing perfectly fine on your own already, and just want to read about colors and paints while sipping your coffee.

A few notes before I start listing paints and colors:

  • Pigments are the colorants added to paints to give them their specific colors and properties. Paints are the finished products containing pigment and binder.

  • I have listed every pigment number and color name, as well as brand (WN = Winsor & Newton, DS = Daniel Smith, Sch = Schmincke) that I have used to illustrate this article. You do NOT have to use these pigments or brands; they are simply what I have in my personal collection. I will note which types of colors they are, and you can find colors with similar hues in your own favorite brands (including handmade/artisanal paints!).

  • The swatches might vary in color depending on your screen and settings. I implore you to research and compare colors using real samples and swatches to get a better idea of how they look and behave.

  • At the end of the article I’ve included a section of alternative colors, to give you more ideas on how to expand your palette

I have written this article around the principle of building your palette from scratch. Often, we find that we have a limited budget and can get only a few colors to start with. In that case it is especially important to pick colors that are actually useful and won’t sit untouched in its pan while you long for other paints. I’ll try to give you an idea of how to gradually add more colors to expand your collection in a sensible way. But I mainly want to encourage you to think for yourself: “What colors do I actually need for my artwork?”. You’ll probably find that your answer is “All of them!” but unless you’re loaded with money, that won’t happen instantaneously... Sadly.

The first three colors

If you only were to get three colors, you should try to find colors that will give you the most bang for your buck. You probably know where I’m going with this. Those pesky primaries.

Here’s my go-to primary trio for the tiniest three-color palette:

A middle toned yellow, a cool red, and a cool blue. You can check out the post on Primary Color Mixing if you need inspiration. With these colors you can mix a lot of bright colors. And if you introduce small amounts of the third primary color to a secondary color you can get earthy tones as well. Example: Tiny amounts of red will soften the bright green you might get from mixing blue and yellow. Adding yellow to purple will potentially result in rich browns.

I specifically chose Quinacridone Rose for its softness, but if I had more colors and could include both a warm and a cool red, I’d probably choose Quinacridone Magenta for the cool red instead.

Expanding to six

You’ve bought your primary colors, and now you want to expand. Or perhaps you are able to buy six colors at once, in which case I’d still include the primary trio. Depending on your style and preferences, there are a few different ways you could go at this point. If you want to stick to color theory, you could add a warmer primary trio, to get more control over your color mixing. Here is an example of how that might look, now with Quinacridone Magenta in place of Quinacridone Rose:

I keep using Phthalo Turquoise for my primary palette, but you might want to use the more popular (and slightly warmer) Phthalo Blue (PB15) if you wish. Lemon Yellow is also a good alternative for a cool yellow, and there are several other warm yellows you can use instead of PY153.

However, you might find it more exciting to ditch the rest of the primaries and go for some convenient secondaries instead. This will allow you to skip some of the mixing and get straight to painting, only adding small amounts of this or that to tweak the colors. Here’s an example:

Do some research and select a combination of green, orange and purple that fits your style. Keep in mind that Sap Green and other convenience greens often differ from brand to brand.

Lastly, I’ve included a set of earthy colors to support your bright primaries. If you’re painting animals, landscape or other neutral colored subjects, these additional colors will make it easier to soften any color mix. Gold Ochre could also be a good substitute for Quin Gold, and indigo for Indanthrone Blue. Any warm brown will do the job of Permanent Brown, but this is one of my favorite earthy reds.

The twelve color palette

Depending on which colors you already have, and the style you paint in, you might just keep adding the colors I’ve already mentioned. I’ve also put together a set of colors that I’d personally choose among all my paints, if I could only pick twelve, and I wanted to be able to paint almost anything. Here’s how that looks:

You’ll notice that I’ve kept the split primaries with warm and cool yellow, red and blue. I’ve also added a cool and almost unnatural looking green, instead of the lovely sap green from before. Phthalo Green is the perfect base color for almost any green, and with this selection of yellows and blues to choose from, you can mix all the greens you want. I’ve included the dark Indanthrone Blue, but you can swap this for indigo or another dark color if you feel like the palette is a bit heavy on the vibrant side.

In this palette I’ve also made room for more earth colors, and you should go ahead and choose your own favorite browns and golds, since there really are a ton to choose from. It all depends on your preferred texture and transparency, and how warm or cool or saturated you want them to be.

Keep building

At this point I feel like you can afford to add more specialty colors, to suit your preferences. I personally love Green Gold for mixing; and Cobalt Teal Blue is wonderful for blue skies.

Finally, I’ve put together a complete 24 color palette, that includes all the aforementioned colors, resulting in a palette that is very versatile and rich in possibilities.

This palette contains

  • A cool and a warm yellow

  • An orange

  • A warm orange-red, and a “true” red

  • A darker, more muted red

  • Both Quinacridone Rose and Quinacridone Magenta as cool primary reds

  • A dark violet

  • Two dark and muted blues

  • Cool and warm primary blues

  • A sky blue/light teal

  • A mixing green

  • A convenience green

  • Earthy, glowing yellows for mixing

  • A yellow ochre

  • An opaque red earth color

  • Transparent browns, both warm and cool

  • A neutral grey, almost black color

But what about brand?

You’ve probably noticed that most of my colors are either Daniel Smith or Winsor and Newton. This is based on the availability of these brands in my country, and what I’ve been exposed to and wanted to try. You should choose colors from your own favorite brands, and research the range of colors and pigments they offer.

Handmade brands – including Stakiwi Colours! – will also offer good alternatives to these colors, either making their own versions of these pigments, or using different pigments and mixes. If you’re unsure how to spot quality paints and pigments, look through the previous post on basic paint properties, and don’t be afraid to ask the maker what their paints contain or how it behaves.

Testing new colors

I would like to strongly advice you to get dot cards to test the colors you want to buy – especially if the paint is expensive. Several big brands offer dot card collections of their range of paints, and most makers of handmade

paints will have samples of their paints for sale. You can test how the paint handles and how the colors look in real life.

I also recommend checking out the forum on, where Stacey has initiated the exchange of art supplies! If you have paints you no longer use, and want to try others, you could ask if anyone wants to swap with you. There’s also the possibility of asking the forum, or your friends, for small samples – dot cards – of their tube paints, to allow you to test more colors before buying them. Simply squeeze a tiny amount of paint onto a piece of sturdy paper, allow to dry, put them in an envelope, and mail them across the world!

Alternative colors.

Any of the “extras” – meaning the colors you add to the basic primaries – can be exchanged for paints that fit your style more closely, and these might be:

  • Darker, moodier colors, like Perylene Green and Perylene Violet.

  • Different convenience greens

  • Purples and pinks like opera pink, lavender, Quinacridone violet, cobalt violet etc.

  • Mixing colors like Nickel Azo Yellow (PY150) and Quinacridone Burnt Orange (PO48)

  • More teals and blues

  • More earth colors, like Raw Sienna and Raw Umber, or maybe Caput Mortuum

  • Potter’s Pink

  • Specialty colors like the Primatek series, shimmery micas, or separating colors like the famous Moonglow.

  • White or buff titanium

  • Black

Finally, I want to repeat this:

You could always look for alternatives to all the colors I’ve mentioned, as long as they are “warm blue” or “cool red” or “neutral yellow”, or whatever role they are going to play in your palette.


Up next week, all about Handmade Paints!

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9 commenti

This is great advice. Thank you. I tend to just get whatever paint sparks my fancy. lol usually the sparkly ones. But it would be nice to mix my own .

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Thank you so much, Jenna 😊

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Jenna Robertson
Jenna Robertson
23 feb 2020

Love this post! Whenever I try out a paint maker I like to get some semblance of a primary set to start with. Such great advice packed in here. 🎉

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Theresa J you are not alone 😂 I think we all feel this at some level. I encourage you to get all the paints if they make you happy! But there's been a couple of times when having only a limited palette has actually sparked my imagination more than having my huge box of tubes available 😊🎨

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Theresa J
Theresa J
22 feb 2020

Thank you for another lovely and informative post! I found it incredibly helpful, because despite having experience in color theory, I often find myself unable to get past the "ooh pretty I want it!!" voice in my head and really think about if it's necessary to my collection from a practical standpoint. (example: I have SEVERAL dark muted blues in my collection even though I know they would all be pretty much interchangeable as the 1 or 2 needed in a 9+ color comprehensive palette)

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