My version of a basic Palette – UPDATED!

April 20, 2013 | 14 Comments

This post has been updated 20 June 2014. I have tweaked the colours slightly but the principles are the same. Lots of people come to this post so I thought it best to amend the original.

You might also be interested in my recommendations for a  Minimal Palette or 3, 4 or 6 colours in Daniel Smith or Winsor&Newton or Schmincke which I posted 23 Oct 2014

This the palette that I use for my sketching classes (12 half pans in a small folding metal tin made by Art Basics and available at my local art store Artscene.

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 am totally indebted to the advice of my great friend Jane Blundell – ‘color Jane’ (sometimes we agree sometimes we differ!) Her site is a MUST VISIT!
– 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.
– For many years I was using 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… but in recent years it is nearly all Daniel Smith. I find them so much more vibrant than WN.
– 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…but with a few personal quirks.

All colours Daniel Smith unless noted otherwise.
1. Cool Yellow. Hansa Yellow Medium. Rather than a Lemon Yellow I have a middle yellow. It is hard to get a transparent  yellow and this is a truly beautiful all-rounder.A beautiful bright transparent mid yellow that mixes beautiful greens as well as oranges and just stunning on its own.
2. Warm Yellow. DS Quinacridone Gold. I l love New Gamboge PY158 in this spot but I just can’t fit it into a set of 12. Quin Gold is a lot more versatile. Combined with HYM above it makes New Gamboge. Very much needed for the gold around teacups but mostly for mixing beautiful greens- Australian greens!
3. Warm Red.  DS Transparent Pyrrol Orange. A colour that I really love (I say this about a lot of colours!) and it is more of a dark orange than a warm red but works the same. Makes lovely primary reds with Quni Rose.
4. Cool Red. My favourite is DS Quinacridone Rose. Makes 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.
5. Warm Blue – can’t go past a French Ultramarine…but in fact I prefer DS Ultamarine Blue over the French version(this is another thing I discovered thanks to Jane)  I find the Ultramarine makes better greens and a more neutral grey with Burnt Sienna than the slightly cooler French Ultramarine. Mix for purples, greens AND all my warm greys and browns, blue greys! Total addiction!
6. Cool Blue 1 – Cerulean Blue (Chronium) Great for skies, and lovely neutrals!I use the Chronium version as it is brighter and more suitable for Australian skies.
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. So another blue – Pthalo Blue Red shade – it is not as staining as a green shade and it makes lovely bright but natural greens when mixed with Quin Gold.
8. Earth Yellow ‘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
9. Earth red Burnt Sienna – Can’t live without this colour- browns and neutrals mixed with Ultramarine. (Please note: My class palette includes Burnt Sienna but in my personal palette I use Transparent Red Oxide. It is more transparent but highly reactive pigment and very crazy – not a good option if you are beginning.)
10  Earth Brown – DS Raw Umber is a lovely dark cool colour. Quite different from other brand’s version of raw umber.
11. Personal Colour 1 – I just love Cobalt Teal Blue (or the WN version Cobalt Turquoise light)No other real justification for it except I love it and it makes me happy
12. Personal Colour 2 Potter Pink (I use WN as the DS one runs too much!) It makes lovely muted colours and great for cream (as in scones, jam and cream)…

These last two colours are VERY personal… the idea is that you can substitute them for any particular colour that you feel you NEED to have.

Now the reality is that I rarely use a 12 colour palette. My standard palette has a few more (16) and changes slightly from time to time. I find that it is good to have a few more choices when you are working quickly on location…. but these 12 colours are the foundation.

Final word:
Start using the paint that you have…there is no other way …. you have to get to know your paints like friends… and have LOTS of fun doing it!

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  • Miguel Franco - April 20, 2013 reply

    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.

  • Carol Lee Beckx - April 20, 2013 reply

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

  • Plonk - April 22, 2013 reply

    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

  • Liz Steel - April 22, 2013 reply

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

  • Liz Steel - April 22, 2013 reply

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

  • Liz Steel - April 22, 2013 reply

    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!

  • Linda - May 2, 2013 reply

    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!

  • Linda - May 2, 2013 reply

    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!

  • Jane Blundell - May 13, 2013 reply

    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.

  • hfm - May 25, 2013 reply

    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)

  • - May 15, 2014 reply

    Your work is fabulous! I've switched from Moleskine Watercolor Journals to the Pentelac Brand - much less expensive, and really thick delicious paper that takes paint well. I'm going to make some little travel palettes in Altoids boxes - I finally found empty half-pans in a local art store. Keep posting, your stuff is sooooo inspiring!

  • Barbra Joan - August 26, 2015 reply

    Just found this very informative post.. I have a similar story about discovering color. Transparents are the way to go with me, but a few new ones along the way.. I use WN , but have always wanted to try the DS paints. You are very convincing. Lol !

  • Martha Means - March 18, 2017 reply

    I recommend the book "Powerful Watercolor Landscapes" by Catherine Gill (available on Amazon). She's my watercolor teacher and superb with color. She's an outdoor painter, so knows the value of a no-fuss approach. She shows you the value of opaques--that's where to juiciest color is--but she has tricks and tips on how to avoid the mud that can result. I've tried other color approaches and always come back to this book. The charts for mixing grays and greens alone are worth the price of the book. Cathe knows her stuff. She is one of the major painting teachers in the Pacific Northwest part of the US and teaches around the world. She has painted in Australia--I think the painting on the front of the book was done plein aire in Australia. Full disclosure: the writer of the book is my sister, Beth Means. She a painter and a professional writer--they spent five years laboring over this little beauty--but I read and reread it because it is so helpful.

  • Vivienne Chew - June 4, 2017 reply

    Hi Liz, How do you come up with the really dark almost black colour? I mixed all three primaries and all I get is dark brown. If I add more blue it may turn into slightly bluish dark gray but never get really black looking colour like yours. I completed your Foundation class and are going back to watch the materials for the second time and I found that I am absorbing more information in the second round, it's amazing! I plan to sign up for Edges class soon, once I built up more confidence, need it badly :)

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