This article contains my recommendation for a small palette of 6 colours. This is the palette that I use for my very popular SketchingNow Foundations online course.
This palette can be further 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!)
Note: This article was last updated in August 2023
Why my ‘minimal palette’ 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 into 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.
The idea behind this selection is:
- a vibrant lightfast transparent primary triad
- a burnt sienna to make the mixing for earth colours and greys (colours I use a lot) easier
- two additional very useful colours that form an ‘earth’ triad. Cerulean Blue and a Raw Sienna.
So you could choose:
- 1-3 and have a primary triad,
- or 1-4 with the addition of burnt sienna,
- or all 6 colours.
My 6-colour palette
These are all colours by Daniel Smith:
- Hansa Yellow Medium PY97
- Quinacridone Rose PV19
- Ultramarine Blue PB29
- Monte Amiata Natural Sienna PBr7
- Transparent Red Oxide PR101
- Cerulean Blue Chromium PB36
Thoughts on the colours in this palette
Primary Yellow: Hansa Yellow Medium PY97
It is hard to get a transparent yellow and this is a truly beautiful all-rounder. HYM is a beautiful bright transparent mid-yellow that mixes beautiful greens as well as oranges and is just stunning on its own.
Primary Red: Quinacridone Rose PV19
This is a pinkish red that makes a great mixed orange with my yellow. Also makes a great pink and purple and if mixed with a neutral will add some warmth. Really this is one of the most important and versatile colour in the palette so essential to get it right.
Primary Blue: Ultramarine Blue PB29
Many people use a Phthalo Blue as a Primary Blue but I don’t like that it is a highly staining colour and would prefer a granulating blue. I use it for purples, greens AND all my warm greys and browns, blue greys. This palette used Ultramarine Blue rather than French Ultramarine but both work well.
Earth Yellow: Monte Amiata Natural Sienna PBr7
This is a lovely transparent single pigment alternative to raw sienna. I prefer Raw Sienna often over yellow ochre as it is more transparent and closer to the colour of Sydney sandstone. Monte Amiata Natural Sienna is the most gorgeous earth yellow I have found.
Earth Red: Transparent Red Oxide PR101
This is my version of Burnt Sienna. I can’t live without this colour – browns and neutrals mixed with Ultramarine.
‘Earth’ Blue: Cerulean Blue Chromium PB36
This is a brighter version of Cerulean and is useful 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 the northern hemisphere. Great for skies, and lovely neutrals!
Alternatives – Winsor & Newton and Schmincke
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
Mixing with this palette
But you can also do more sophisticated mixing with three colours and achieve an even wider range of hues. To find out more about these mixes check out this series of articles.
As mentioned at the start of this article, the 6-colour palette is the one that I use for my SketchingNow Foundations course.
This course is perfect for beginners and will help you build a solid foundation for your own sketching journey by learning fundamental observational skills and the basics of urban sketching.
And as always let me know in the comment section below if you have any questions about this palette or my online courses