I recently posted a watercolor palette option that uses only four colors, and though this setup can work very well for most nature sketching activities, like any extremely limited palette, it won’t work for everything.
In my opinion, it lacks a couple of things to make it perfect... like a really rich red to paint birds and barns and other really red things, and a way to mix a larger range of greens and blues which are good to have around when painting natureish and landscapey things.
By adding only 2 colors to the 4-color palette (creating a 6-color palette, just in case it's early in the morning when you are reading this and way too soon for math), these limitations are completely eliminated. Yet this palette is still highly portable, affordable, and seems to work for every color possibly found in nature— and then some!
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6-Color Watercolor Palette
The links above are the brands that I used for this post (either Daniel Smith or M. Graham), but these are all extremely common pigments. However, names vary per manufacturer, so always check pigment numbers.
For example, Winsor & Newton labels Phthalo green or PG7 as Winsor Green. Depending on the manufacturer, PY97 is called Hansa Yellow, Hansa Yellow Medium, Hansa Yellow Deep, Indian Yellow, etc. The names mean nothing. Again, just look for the pigment codes.
All of the colors in this palette are (mostly) transparent, single pigment, non-granulating colors. Four of these colors are the basics in my recommended 4-color palette, and you can learn more about those colors and how they work together at the link.
6-Color Palette Mixing Chart
Boy howdy do these colors mix! I can't show a full range without making this blog post massive, but the chart above along with the swatches below give a general idea. You can find instructions on how to read this mixing chart plus a free printable to make your own at this post.
Adding Pyrrol red and Phthalo green completely opens up the palette and increases the mixing range by a third, or more!
For example, compare the mixes below. By adding Pyrrol, I gained warm, deep reds and dusky blues. And wow, that's a lot of colors! And we haven't even started adding in the other colors yet. (And I won't, because you know, massive blog post.)
Now imagine what you can get with this palette if you decide to mix three colors. Below is a very small sampling of possibilities using of two and three-color mixes. With this palette, I really don't think there's a limit to possible colors.
There are also more examples of possible mixes using these colors at my post on the 4-color palette.
To Phthalo or Not to Phthalo
A word about these colors: a little goes a long way! Most of these are highly staining pigments, especially those Phthalos. They can be weapons of mass destruction or your BFF.
How to make friends with Phthalos: Don't be intimated by them.
Like the playground bully, they really are just begging for you to put them in their place. If you give them a chance, they will reward you with undying loyalty. And you might just love them back, especially in the field when there is no time to build in layers and quick, strong marks are necessary.
Though these colors prefer a strong hand, I still recommend them for beginners. There are quite a few reasons for this.
Say it with me: WYSIWYG (pronounced "why-sea-wig" = what you see is what you get). There are no surprises when these colors dry. No massive fading. No weird granulation settlements. They are honest pigments. In a world full of deception, I value their candor.
Though they aren’t lovely straight from the tube (and I don’t think too many watercolors are), they mellow beautifully in mixes without losing strength or muddying easily. Again, totally a characteristic I admire.
Because of their saturation level, a little dab will do, making them highly economical and perfect for travel or field sketching when you might be out of range of a refill. They had me at economical.
They are clean, crisp, and vibrant colors. They look beautiful on a page. Enough said.
Yes, staining pigments can be a bit of a pain. Not only do they permanently discolor synthetic brushes along with enamel and plastic palettes, but they can also leave you with green fingers, blue elbows, and pink splatters in weird places that defy all explanation. (My white desk chair knows all about this.)
However, they mean no harm and the discoloration is easily ignored… at least by me.
6-Color Watercolor Palette Options
If staining pigments are too much for you to handle, I totally understand. Also, I’m a huge proponent of using what you’ve got or what you can find easily. All of the watercolors in this 6-color palette should be available in nearly any art store and/or online, but if you don’t want to splurge on 6 new colors, below are alternate suggestions that can help you create a 6-color palette to fit you.
In case you need or prefer an alternative, here are some other color options.
Azo (PY151) or Benzi (PY154) yellow could be used instead of Hansa. They're both a touch cooler than Hansa but clear, clean, and good mixers. However, most yellows on the market are well behaved so feel free to substitute your favorite.
Cadmium red is a classic beauty that’s nonstaining, but it’s also semi-opaque and can be a muddy mixer. Nearly any bright red could be substituted for Pyrrol. I also like Daniel Smith’s Perylene Red (PR178).
Several of the quinacridones like quin magenta or quin violet could be substituted for the rose. I also like permanent Alizarin Crimson (M. Graham makes a very pretty PR264 and I also love Da Vinci which is PV19) but it produces more muted mixes.
There are a number of earthtones that could be substituted for TRO (PR101). Some like quin burnt orange or quin burnt scarlet, but all the quins are staining and I've had trouble with some in mixes. Burnt Sienna (usually PBr7) is a also a fine option. It can be highly granulating but granulation varies between brands.
Phthalo blue green shade could be used instead of the red shade. You can see the slight variation in mixes here. Some love Prussian blue, a dark, warm, transparent blue with lovely green undertones that is excellent in mixes. However, all of these blues are staining. If you want to explore nonstaining blues, I’ve showcased some great options here.
For a nonstaining (or less staining) option for Phthalo green, substitute a convenience green. Many convenience greens contain Phthalo green, but because it's already diluted in a mix, it can be easier to handle. (I have an extreme fondness for M. Graham's Sap Green but Da Vinci Hooker's Green Light is also lovely; you can view a few mixes with HGL here.)
6-Color Palette & Sketchbook Giveaway [CLOSED]
I'd love for you to try this palette out for yourself... for free! I'm giving away generous sample sizes of all 6 watercolors featured above along with the metal travel palette pictured, plus there's still room in the palette to add your favorites.
I'm also including a 5x8-inch Pentalic Aqua Journal that's filled with 140-lb watercolor paper. These are the tools that I use the most when sketching, and maybe you'll enjoy them also!