Saturday, April 20, 2013

My version of a basic Palette - UPDATED!

This posted has been updated 17.May.2103 - scroll down to the end to read the adjustments.

I have just prepared a basic palette in preparation for my upcoming sketching class … and as this is something that I have been meaning to post about for ages…thought I would share now with everyone…warning this is a long post!

A couple of general comments first:
- When I started painting in Jan 2007 I bought the small cotman sketchers box and started using it. I got rid of the white and add cerulean blue (as a blue to use of the sky) and had no idea how complex watercolours were …but I was aware of making many muddy mixes! (refer below to my comment about Cotmans)
- A book that influenced me strongly in the early days was "transparent Watercolour Wheel" and ever since then I have eliminated very opaque colours (like the cads) from my palette. I probably have too many staining colours but do manage to control them and rarely have a problem with their staining properties.
- Also HUGELY influential is the handprint website- I have spend hours and hours reading and comparing pigments. It is the most comprehensive resource for watercolours!
- I also found the blogs of Cathy (Kate) Johnson and Roz Stendahl when they talked about their palettes extremely helpful!
- I try not to make brand generalisations but focus on the pigments (I compare pigments not colour names) Some pigments are best in one brand rather than another brand.
- Sometimes I have a certain brand because it is readily available. Winsor and Newton is available in every art store in Australia but I have to go into the city to buy Daniel Smith over the counter or save up and make a big online purchase. Schmincke is not as easily to be found…  etc etc
- Choosing colours that go in your palette is a very PERSONAL choice. You will find some pigments work better for you.
- I LOVE colour!!!! There are some pigments that I just fall in love with and I just want them to be around- so reducing my colours to 12 for this palette was a big exercise.
- I love vibrant colour and so am looking for colours that are intense and easy to give me 'juicy' washes
- SOme of my choices have been influenced by the way that I work (ie. fast spontaneous watercolour) I need to ensure that I can mix a colour quickly and also recover a mix if I accidentally mix the wrong colour in (ie. transparent colours are more tolerant of mixing 3 colours together than opaque which are more likely to give you mud with more than 2) and I have convenience colours to make my mixing easier.
- I try to use single pigment paints always (sepia is an exception) so that my colours are brighten and clearer.
- I LOVE granulating colours!!!!
- You just have to get to know your paints!!! How do they mix with other colours and react in different situations. How versatile are they, what mixes you will typically use them for. I will post below all my working pages that I did to decide on the best colours for this set… I keep revisiting mixes!
- My palette is designed for the bright light of the harsh Australian light so might not be the best selection for people that live closer to the poles.

This basic palette follows more or less a standard approach of a warm and cool version of the primaries, and a few earth tones.
1. Cool Yellow. Lemon Yellow of some sort. I is hard to get a transparent cool yellow I use Daniel Smith Hansa Yellow Light PY3, but Winsor Lemon is ok too. There is a good schmincke yellow PY3 as well. I use this for mixing bright greens a lot.
2. Warm Yellow. I used to use a warm yellow like Hansa Medium but fell in love with New Gamboge PY158  (a darker yellow) during my visit to Lisbon and it hasn't left my palette since.
3. Warm Red- DS Pyrrol Red  PR 254 is the best that I have come across. Quin Red is too pinkish for my liking, Winsor Red is ok, Scarlet Lake too staining… I use this colour for bright reds and oranges.
4. Cool Red - lots of discussion about this one on FB last week. I think my favourite is DS Quin Rose but I also have used WN Permanent Rose for years. Both of these colours make a great mixed orange with my cool yellow. Also makes a great pink and purple..and add to a neutral to add some warmth. Really this is one of the most important and versatile colour in the palette so essential to get it right. I found a spare pan of permanent Al. crimson so am using it but Quin ROse will be my pick.
5. Warm Blue - can't go past a French Ultramarine! (although I have been using Cobalt Deep Blue for the last few years instead- just to be different) I don't have a firm opinion of which is the best brand… I am not sure that there is a bad FUB out there! So reliable! Mix for purples, greens AND all my warm greys and browns, blue greys! Total addiction!
6. Cool Blue 1 - Cerulean BLue (WN is the best - no other brand I have tried is anyway as nice!) Great for skies, and lovely neutrals!
12. Cool blue 2 - primary blue. (my numbering system is a little wacky!)Typically this would be a pthalo blue but I just don't like the colour and it is normally way too staining! I had done a lot of testing lately and had stuck with Winsor BLue Red shade for the time being as it is the best pigment of rate AUstralian blue sky and I had a spare tube. I use this to make bright greens.
7. "Green" - In a standard palette this would be a green…but I don't feel like I need a green as prefer to mix them. DS Quin Gold is one of my favourite colours. Very much needed for the gold around teacups but mostly for mixing beautiful greens- Australian greens!
8. Raw Sienna - I prefer Raw Sienna to a yellow ochre as it is more transparent and the colour of Sydney sandstone. I use DS Monte Amiata Natural SiennaPBR7  which is just a bit nicer than WN Raw Sienna
9. Burnt Sienna - Can't live without this colour- browns and neutrals mixed with FUB. I use DS Burnt Quin Orange PO48 which is a more intense version of the WN Burnt Sienna PR 101. Many brands of Burnt Sienna are more opaque.
10  Dark - various options for this…something that you can use to make a really dark colour. I prefer Sepia - mx it with FUB to get my blacks. YOu can get a nice black with FUB and Burnt Sienna but you have to work hard and load plenty of pigment in the mix. I am too much of a rush to do this.
11. Finally… the spare spot for a quirky colour that you love. My two contenders are Cobalt Turq Light or Potters Pink. In the end I am going for PP as it makes lovely muted colours and great for cream (as in scones, jam and cream)… oh! but I will miss the CTL!

Student Grade (Cotman watercolours???)
I am a firm believer in buying the best quality materials that you can afford… but I also don't think that people should rush out buying expensive art materials if they will never end up using them. I therefore don't condemn using a cotman kit as the starting point- as soon as you know that this is something that you want to use… upgrade the colours to artist quality and I can assure you that you will never look back .Also some of the Cotman kits have great lightweight compact boxes! In setting up the following basic palette I came across my very first cotman kit which I haven't touched since Apr 2008 and did the following test. I am pleasantly surprised that you CAN get nice strong mixes from the Cotman paints but you have to work them a lot harder (ie. pick up a lot of pigment) but of course you miss out on a lot of the lovely granulation etc etc.They are not lightfast but in a sketchbook on a shelf it is not that much of an issue normally.

And finally… another long post .... Here are all my working pages - all in my colour sketchbook which is a messy working book! As I said earlier.... you have to get to know your paints like friends... and have LOTS of fun doing it!

UPDATED 15May2013:
slightly modified from the other day- out goes the Winsor Blue Red and in comes CTL!!! I love that colour. Also Sepia has been replaced by Burnt Umber so all single pigments.

I normally use a few more colours in my everyday palette so it is hard to trim down to 12 and I still feel that it might need more refinement. I am thinking of whether it is possible to replace pyrrol red (which is the only really scary heavily pigmented colour in the mix) with transparent orange (a pigment I absolutely love....either Schmincke or DS Trans Pyrrol Orange which I only discovered this week) everything in my art I like to evolve and refine. All still the same principles but slightly adjusting over time.

 The change to the blue came about after this little exploration  trying to match the amazing blue sky colour that we get in Sydney.

The most glorious autumn weather imaginable in the last month... SO warm and sunny. This photo has of course darken the colour of the sky - so hard to show you how much of a match it is. Our sky is still a little warmer than my mixes.

I made an interesting discovery today....looking up for some pigment information randomly came across a statement claiming that you can match a pthalo blue by mixing cobalt turq light and a french ultramarine. Now I have winsor blue (red) shade in my palette for two reasons - it makes a good(well good-ish!) match for our blue skies (this is the top splash of colour) and also makes some nice bright greens when mixed with quin gold. The middle splash of colour is W&N Cerulean Blue - it is just not the right shade for our intense blue sky on a day like today.
The bottom mix is French Ultramarine with CTL and it is indeed a close match for the top one but with much nicer as you have pigment interaction and granulation (this is just a 105 gsm cartridge paper not serous watercolour)
I am excited as I have no found a way to get CTL into my basic palette... I just simply ADORE that colour. You have to have a few 'I just had to have it in there' colours in your palette - friends that just make you smile!


  1. Liz,
    First of all, I felt obliged to congratulate you for this post that is really instructive and, as usual, pushes us a little further.
    Second, I would also avail myself this opportunity to recommend you to test Naples Yellow to mix in your pallete while sketching ice creams or similar textures.

  2. A great post and thank you for sharing all your experience. I am falling in love with watercolour all over again !

  3. Thanks so much Liz. You have saved some us hours and hours of trial and error
    Love the blog
    Hope to join you one at least one of your sketching days.... Being thousands of miles away makes it difficult

  4. thanks Miguel ... naples yellow- never tried that one at all! Don't tempt me!!?!

  5. thanks Carol ... falling in love with watercolour all over again is a lot of fun!!! enjoy!

  6. thanks Plonk! I am glad it has helped ...though you know that those hours and hours ARE fun... and in a way you have to put some effort in to really bond with the pigments yourself- how is that for a lecture!
    Yes, would love to meet you at one of my sketching days one day... I am thinking of online course down the track.... or even better trying to work out how to travel the world with my sketching class!

  7. Thanks so much for sharing this! I'm just beginning my sketching/watercolour journey, and the color choices can be overwhelming! Of course I want all the pretty colors when I see them in the art supply store. You have inspired me to play with my pigments to find out which work best for me. I do hope you decide to travel the world with your sketching class! If you make it to California, I will be sure to sign up!

  8. Thanks so much for sharing this! I'm just beginning my sketching/watercolour journey, and the color choices can be overwhelming! Of course I want all the pretty colors when I see them in the art supply store. You have inspired me to play with my pigments to find out which work best for me. I do hope you decide to travel the world with your sketching class! If you make it to California, I will be sure to sign up!

  9. Hi Liz. I always include Buff Titanium (Daniel Smith is the only one to make it) in my sketching palette - so useful for all the sandstone, beaches, rocks- and cream! And I pre-mix Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna (PBr7) to make a dark grey or Bistre that is also extremely useful and time saving.

    I totally agree about finding the right cool red. I am tossing up between Quin Rose PV19, Quin Red PV19 (in DS it is a lovely paint to use), Permanent Carmine (more of a crimson but washes down to the essential pink and mixes cleanly) and Quin Magenta PR122. Permanent Alizarin doesn't make the bright purples and pinks that you just MAY need while sketching. I've settled on Old Holland Quin Magenta for now, but the experimenting continues.

    Another favourite is Goethite (Daniel Smith) - a gorgeous granulating earth. Beaches and rocks just paint themselves with that little beauty and Buff Titanium.

  10. Hi Liz, only today have I come across to this magnific post that taught me a lot. Thanks for of this. Hope to see you at Barcelona

    Helena Monteiro (HFM)


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