I have been watercolor painting for more than a year now, and it is time to overhaul my palette! I mentioned in this post that I had collected far too many watercolors with too little knowledge about how they all worked together. This has become a mess across multiple palettes and even at my desk.
So far, setting up my watercolor palette has been extremely educational, and I wasn’t expecting that. I thought I already knew my favorite colors, so my plan was to do more of a "reset" by simplifying. However, I hated to get rid of any colors unless I was absolutely sure, so I did a little research on watercolor pigments.
The more I read, the more fascinated I became. I took notes and experimented with mixing, which quickly turned into a mega watercolor experimentation that has now completely taken over my 8-seater dining table. (So sorry, family! Mama will be done soon. Maybe.)
I’m discovering new joys in the colors I have, and yes, discarding some I thought were favorites. I’m falling into love with colors that I thought I would never use, but most importantly, I’m learning how to be a better artist.
When I first began watercolor painting, I wish someone had told me all I’ve learned these last few weeks. However, better late than never! So in no particular order, here are the top 5 things I wish I had known when first setting up my watercolor palette. May my ignorance be your bliss!
Ignore color names; focus on pigments.
This is something that I learned from Bruce over at Handprint, and it’s brilliant! You know those watercolor names like Turquoise Sea and Cadillac Red? For the most part, they are just marketing names and the colors inside the tubes vary from manufacturer to manufacture. Yep, even common colors like Sap Green and Indian Yellow are not consistent between companies.
When I first began sorting out my palette, these inconsistencies were driving me mad. However, when I learned to look at the pigments that are in the color, not the name of the color itself, it was a game changer.
Every artist-grade watercolor has a series of letters and numbers listed on it or with it, like PR178 or PBr7. Since each one of these represents a pigment, some tubes may have more than one listed. These are the actual pigments that are in that brand’s particular color, and you can see an example of this listing in the photo below.
For example, if I look at a tube of M. Graham’s Sap Green (located at the link), I can see that it contains two pigments— PG7 and PY110. However, Daniel Smith’s Sap Green contains three pigments— PG7, PO48, and PY150. When I know this, it's easy to see that even though these colors are both named "Sap Green," they are not the same. This can be extremely helpful!
Let's look again at the makeup of M. Graham's Sap Green. PG7 is a common pigment that is also known as Phthalocyanine green, or Phthalo green for short. PY110, the other included pigment, is Isoindolinone Yellow, which is also the pigment in M. Graham's Indian Yellow, or Daniel Smith's Permanent Yellow, and also in other manufacturers' watercolors possibly listed under different names.
This is great information because now I know that if I have PG7 and PY110 on my palette, I can easily mix M. Graham's Sap Green myself. Or if it is a color I use every day, I can just buy it and save myself a bit of trouble. (More on "convenience" colors in a minute...) Or if M. Graham quits making Indian Yellow, I can substitute Daniel Smith's Permanent Yellow for my "sap green" mix.
This wonderful information can help you simplify your palette and avoid color duplication. These pigment numbers are on every tube of professional-grade watercolors, and most manufacturers and many retailers have this information on their websites.
I encourage you to explore what these letters and numbers mean and gain a bit of pigment production knowledge. (For example, many of the earth tones are made only with PBr7, but the resulting color depends upon how the pigment was treated.) However, it's not totally necessary. If you ignore color names and pay attention to pigment numbers, you’ll begin to see what the true “colors” in each paint really are, saving yourself a lot of confusion in the long run.
Choose a balance of cool and warm shades.
This is a fantastic bit of advice from Jane Blundell. Filling your palette with a balance of warm and cool colors is a great way to expand your mixable palette and create a beautiful feeling of depth in your paintings. After all, cool colors tend to recede visually in a painting, while warm colors appear closer. A combination of cool and warm shades gives artists a great manipulation tool!
An example on how to have a balance of cool and warm shades: If you love Yellow Ochre (PY43), balance this warm yellow in your palette with a cool yellow like Azo Yellow (PY151). Same with the blues, greens, and so on. You can see more examples at Jane’s post here.
Another interesting way to set up a palette is to also choose a mix of lights and darks. For example, if you prefer Ultramarine blue, which is a medium warmish blue, balance it with lighter, cooler Cerulean.
Of course, as water is added to a pigment, it will appear lighter. And “warm” and “cool” are arbitrary terms. The easiest way to tell if a color appears warm or cool is to look at it. Traditionally, cool colors have bluish or clearer undertones, while warm colors have yellow or more muted undertones. It may help to compare the color to others in the same family, but always choose colors based upon how it looks to you. After all, it’s your palette!
Don’t feel pressured to be a purist.
In regards to pigment, there are basically two types of watercolors: single-pigment shades, otherwise known as “pure” colors made with only one pigment, and multi-pigment shades, often called “convenience shades.”
Some watercolor artists hate “convenience shades” and prefer to only work with single pigmented colors. They aren’t being snobbish— well, not usually— because single pigment watercolors tend to be more vibrant and can reduce the chance of mud on the palette or painting.
However, single pigment shades may get a bit bland after a while. Think of single-pigmented colors as individual fruits and veggies, and convenience shades as being berry cobbler, ratatouille, and shepherd’s pie. And there are also granulating, iridescent, and other "designer" shades out there that are fun to explore. All are delicious and made to be enjoyed!
So embrace the single-pigment shades— they can even be staples on your palette— but don’t get caught up in the purist clique. There is a plethora of paints out there that can open up entire new worlds of color opportunities.
Plus, when the wind is whipping 15 mph and you are trying to watercolor sketch a tree, I’m totally convinced that you will be thrilled to have a palette filled with “convenience” earth tones and greens.
Mix, mix, and mix some more.
Unless you plan to carry 200+ watercolors with you always, you are going to want to understand some basic mixes. Not only that, mixing is the absolutely best way to choose colors for your palette and figure out which ones are keepers and which ones just won’t work (no matter how much you love the individual shade).
You can see my massive mixing experiment going on in the photo above. By doing this, I learned more about color in one afternoon than I have in a year of painting. Really.
Mixing is fun because, one, it will shock you the amount of colors you can make with only a handful of pigments. I felt like a rock star the first time I (accidentally) mixed a gorgeous black all by myself! Two, you will learn how each color reacts with others in your palette, not only ON your palette, but also on your painting.
Seriously, I can’t stress this enough: Experiment with mixing.
Even if you think you have no desire to ever learn anything about mixing and have made it your goal to own 200+ colors, watercolors will thwart all your 200+ plans and eventually mix without your permission. Trust me. It will be helpful to know why that blackbird wing all of a sudden went puce green when you added blue.
Keep what speaks to you.
I saved the best for last, because this is such a good tip and I totally came up with on my own. (Pats self on back.) The first few days I began culling my palette, I kept setting aside Winsor & Newton's Olive Green, a crazy convenience mixture made with three different pigments.
Because I couldn’t find any artists who recommended it. Because I already had two greens, a warm and a cool. Because I wanted to "simplify." Never mind that Olive Green was the most used green on my palette. Never mind that it mixed beautifully with all of my other colors. I knew it wasn’t what most “real” artist would choose, and I oh so want to be a real artist.
Ah, forget it. I'm using it anyway. Because I love it.
Again, I want to remind you: This is your palette. Choose colors that speak to you, even if it is the weirdest. color. ever. You’ll probably naturally gravitate toward colors that work with what you love to draw and sketch. If not, you’ll figure it out pretty quickly.
Once more, just in case you didn’t get it: This is your palette.
Have fun, and go forth with confidence!