My recommended minimal watercolour palette

October 23, 2014 | 31 Comments



I have been wanting to put together a very basic palette together for ages…and well finally here it is. I have listed the paints in my daily palette in my current tools section and discussed all the principles behind my basic palette of 12 colours that I use for my local classes.
But this is even paired down to 3,4 or 6 Daniel Smith paints and I have also found alternatives in Winsor & Newton and Schmincke.

The advice to “buy the best quality materials you can afford at the time” is very sound. When it comes to watercolour, the quality of the paints you use has a HUGE impact on what you can do from Day 1. Therefore spending money buying a few artist quality tubes of paint early on is certainly worth it (if you can afford it – I am VERY much aware of many of my readers that have very tight budgets and as always, my advice is, do what you can!)

Disclaimer why my very basic set is 6 not 3 colours:
I am not a huge fan of only using 3 colours for on location sketching. You have to know your paints SO well and put a lot of homework time in working out exactly how to mix the colour you want (the right proportions and order of paint) or else you spend more time mixing than painting! Not to mention the danger of over-mixed washes and getting your water very dirty very quickly. I also miss the granulation of certain pigments. For me, using watercolour is more about pigments suspended in water than it is about mixing colour.
And ok… I know, I can’t count. Yes…there are 7 tubes there. That is because there is an option for the burnt sienna selection!

The idea behind this selection is
– a vibrant lightfast transparent primary triad
– burnt sienna to relieve some of the mixing for earth colours and grey (colours I use a lot)
– two additional very useful colours that form an ‘earth’ triad. Cerulean Blue and a Raw Sienna.

So you could choose only
1-3 and have a primary triad,
or 1-4 with the addition of burnt sienna,
or all 6 colours.

I have included some common mixes on the side. You will not be able to mix every hue with these paints but they form a very solid basis for any palette. But you can always add more to suit your personal preference.

UPDATE: I no longer use DS Burnt Sienna

Listing the colours
1. Hansa Yellow Medium
2. Quinacridone Rose
3. Ultramarine Blue – I use this one not French Ultramarine
4. Burnt Sienna – experienced watercolour users might like to try Transparent Red Oxide. See this post for more details
5. Cerulean Blue Chromium –  this is a brighter version of cerulean and perfect for Australian light and sky. I do not recommend the DS Cerulean Blue as it is too weak. The WN version(below) might be more suitable for people in northern hemisphere
6. Monte Amiata Natural Sienna – a lovely transparent single pigment alternative to raw sienna.

And here are two alternatives in Winsor & Newton and Schminke.
Please note: I have used these WN colours in the past but the Schmincke selection have been tested in the studio only – I do plan to make a little set and test it out on location.
Winsor & Newton
1. Winsor Yellow
2. Permanent Rose
3. French Ultramarine
4. Burnt Sienna
5. Cerulean Blue
6. Raw Sienna-   this is not a single pigment colour but is preferred over yellow ochre which is opaque

1. Pure Yellow
2. Ruby Red
3. Ultramarine Finest
4. Translucent Brown
5. Cobalt Cerulean Blue
6. Raw Sienna – same note as above: this is not a single pigment colour but is preferred over yellow ochre which is opaque

I hope you appreciate my attempt at neat colour charts!!!?! This photo shows the way I was testing the colours earlier in the day. Random brush strokes, splashing, varying water ratio etc etc. Having fun playing with paint …these pages summarise my findings in a sharable format.

Finally: for SketchingNowers. 

These paints are NOT a requirement for the Foundations course! There is absolutely no need for you to go out and buy new paints – it is not going to be a ‘how to watercolour’ course. But for the art supply junkies that are desperate for new goodies… this is the selection. Full materials list will be emailed in the next few days.

SketchingNow Online Sketching Courses:

Self Directed – develop essential skills for sketching
Watercolour Self Directed – become confident with your use of water and colour and develop your our style of watercolour sketching.

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  • Daniel says:

    As a complete beginner I was confused by the choice of a rather pinkish red choice, but I trust you and got it anyway. I wonder how you go about mixing intense reds or perhaps you don’t at all. We’ll see how it goes!

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Daniel. This minimum palette can’t mix every hue that you might need, but the pink ‘red’ is the best single pigment I have found for mixing both purples and oranges-red. In my expanded palette I use trans pyrrol orange witht he quin rose to mix my primary reds.

  • Trina Myers says:

    I love this class! Trina

  • Jen_32 says:

    Hey, I just wanted to ask you which one would you recommend for beginners. I’m a fashion student and I’m a bit confused on which brand to buy and which one will be suitable.
    Thank you

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Jen, I recommend that you start with the best quality you can afford – so my favourite is Daniel Smith. The better quality the paint the better results you can achieve right from day 1

  • Paul says:

    Can you please green. I like landscapes so will be using green a lot. In gear pthalo green is a good one for mixing but could use some advice. Thanks.

  • Rhomany says:

    Finally an answer to my issue with yellow ochre! It’s always the opaque one and takes over everything. Swapping it for raw sienna right now!

  • Iwan Paul says:

    Hi Liz, I’m trying to put together a (minimum) basic palette for me too. I’m still a beginner, so to choose few basic colors out of so many colors there are, is a bit too confusing for me. I can refer to your 6 basic colors recommendation, but I think I’m missing green color there. As for trees and plants I’m gonna need a lots of green variation, that’s gonna be hard to generate only from those 6 colors, isn’t it? Do you have any suggestion? Maybe some extended version to 8-10 color max would be fine for me. Thanks.

    • Iwan Paul says:

      Well, I know I can generate some greens by mixing blue & yellow, but are those 6 basic palette enough to produce variety of green?

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi iwan. Yes you are right – you can’t mix a bright green using these 6 colour. Depending on where you live will effect which green is best but I like Daniel Smith sap green.

  • Debra Sullivan says:

    Hi Liz!

    I’m putting together my very first pallette and wanting to keep it simple. My thoughts are a cool and a warm version of the three primaries plus Burnt Sienna and Sap Green. So, eight pigments in total.

    1. Can you recommend a cool and a warm pigment for yellow, red and blue?

    2. Am I missing any important pigments?

    Thank you very much!

  • Kellie Stapleton says:

    What is 1+2+3 above in the mixing of a 6 color tin?

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Kellie, not sure exactly what you are asking about … but 1. Hansa Yellow Medium
      2. Quinacridone Rose
      3. Ultramarine Blue.
      Does that help?

  • Kate Steel says:

    Hi Liz, I am travelling on the Ghan in July and was wondering if you could suggest colours that I should have in my palette? I normally use AS Watercolour paint as it is easier for me to purchase.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Kate, off the top of my head… can’t say. What I normally do is to look at some photos of the area and try a few test mixes to see if you can get a close enough match with your existing colours. Of course the colour in real life is always different but it will give you a good idea.

  • Ruthie Dever says:

    Hi, there! I just came from Teoh Yi Chie’s article/ YouTube video.

    I’ve found your article very helpful, especially since I don’t have Daniel Smith paints in my area and to get them would cost more than is reasonable to spend- so the Schmincke alternatives are beyond helpful!

    Some of these choices are ones I’ve already roughly decided I would get. It’s a very big job as a beginner!
    The colour set I’ve had in the past was very limited in mixing ability- purple’s and greens were 9/10 mud. I’ve come to the conclusion that of the many paints I do have, I must be lacking the blues and reds of the right warmth to create the vibrant colours I desire without just using one of the convenience mixes I already have.

    I really wanted to improve my colour theory and mixing abilities. I want to be able to create more Harmony in the pictures I paint, because only recently have I realised how disjointed my colours look. Lord have mercy if they touch each other and mix because while those colours certainly have their place, their place is not the entire picture thank you very much.

    So, my question, do you have a similar post for a slightly larger set of paints? I was thinking a maximum of 12, but I really did want a few more choices.

    Even if I don’t end up with the exact same colours, I really just need some guidance so I can feel secure I’m going to get colours that can do what I need them too!

    Thanks so much!

  • Sharon Matthews says:

    Dear Liz,
    I bought a fountain pen that is listed in your supplies(the white Joy Pen. and it comes with black ink that is not waterproof. I expected ink that is waterproof so you can watercolor over the ink lines without getting a smear. Do you use the waterproof ink?
    Thank you, Sharon

  • MariaB says:

    Yes, this comes years after you posted this, but wanted to say Thank You! for helping out a beginner with the basic palette. Recently began tinkering with watercolor using just the basic $3.00 children’s set (cakes in a plastic box), an d felt the urge to branch out a bit, but reluctant to be oversold on “beginner sets”.

  • Rachel Hilton says:

    Hi Liz,
    Thank you for all the colour information you have provided, it has helped me a lot.
    I was especially interested to see your personal colour experiments because all we usually see on the internet is perfect neatly painted charts. I don’t think you see the full potential of mixing although they are beautiful. I have a question; could you tell me what paper you experiment on? Do you use top quality or a cheaper option?
    Many thanks,

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Rachel. Yes neat colour charts don’t explain enough for me – don’t show the pigment party that I want when I work wet-in-wet.
      I only test on the paper I use as paper has the greatest impact on the result – so Stillman and Birn Alpha and Moleskine Watercolour

  • Robbin Diciacco says:

    Serendipity when I was looking up which colors you have in your sketch palette and I wanted to enroll in the Foundation’s course now that I am retired.
    Imagine my joy when I saw that I enrolled a couple years ago but sadly never started the course.
    Making art and sketching a priority now.

  • Heather Kembel says:

    Curious as to why Ultramarine blue and not French Ultramarine? I see you have had French ultramarine in an earlier palette.

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