Tuesday, December 11, 2012


If you are just beginning to paint in watercolor, you will want to get off on the right foot by choosing the right paint for your palette.  And, if you've been painting for awhile, you might just want to start a new palette with new paint, every now and then.

QUALITY -- I am definitely an advocate of using good supplies -- especially good paint!  Please don't sacrifice quality for the sake of economy.  I know!  Watercolor pigments are expensive, but consider how long they last.  Watercolor pigments are used up at a much slower rate than oil or acrylic colors.  So, don't worry -- you won't be racing through your tubes of paint as you might in an oil painting class.  With proper care, your paints will last a long time, which makes them economical to use after all.  Scrimping on paints is generally not worth it.

As a child, you probably played with watercolors -- most likely using the paints that came in the little metal box with a lid, containing the 6 round or square little cakes of paint.  Our early, sometimes-unhappy, results in watercolor usually stemmed from using this small set of paints and a crappy little brush.  Now, it's time to upgrade to watercolors in tubes, that produce brilliant colors, and a palette with room for mixing large washes of color (and a not-so-crappy brush).

The pigments you use will make a difference in your work.  Avoid the student grade paint (Cotman, Grumbacher Academy) -- they just don't have the brilliant color or strength of the professional-grade pigments.  The higher quality paints tend to be more brilliant than the lower grade -- especially when mixed together.  Lesser grades contain less pigment and more filler, resulting in less vibrant colors.
Fine materials also give longevity to your work -- inferior paints are guaranteed to fade.  Today's professional-grade paints are more lightfast than ever.

PALETTE -- You will also need a palette for your paints.  I prefer a round, plastic palette, with at least 12 wells, a large flat mixing area in the middle, and a snug-fitting lid.  I use a big, heavy porcelain palette in my studio, which I love, but a plastic palette is fine and more portable, which is nice.


I use only transparent watercolor in 14-ml. tubes.  They do come in smaller tubes, but try to invest in the larger tubes -- they last longer, and you won't feel bad about squeezing ample amounts of paint onto your palette.


My choice of colors has changed over the years.  After buying, using, and discarding many different colors, these are the 12 that I think are the best colors to start with:

1 - Aureolin Yellow (a cool yellow)

2 - New Gamboge (a warm yellow)

3 - Quinacridone Gold (a beautiful earth color)

4 - Quinacridone Burnt Orange (an earth color workhorse)

5 - Permanent Red (or Winsor Red, or Cadmium Red) -- (a warm red)

6 - Quinacridone Rose or Permanent Rose (a cool red)

7 - Alizarin Crimson (a cool red)

8 - Quinacridone Magenta 

9 - French Ultramarine (warmish blue)

10 - Phthalo Blue or Winsor Blue

11 - Cobalt Blue

12 - Sap Green

With these 12 transparent colors, you will be able to mix almost any color, including black.  (That will be another lesson).  There is really no need for black, gray, or white on your palette!


There are many fine brands of paint on the market:  Daniel Smith, Winsor & Newton, Rowney, Holbein, DaVinci, Rembrandt, to name just a few.

You can order your paints from art supply catalogs & online art supply retailers, or buy them from your local art supply stores.  Shop around for the best price or special deals.


Once you've bought your paints, you'll need to arrange them in your palette.  I like to set up my round palette like a color wheel, somewhat.  With these 12 particular colors, it won't be an exact color wheel, but it will still be helpful.

Start with the yellows at the top, and work your way, counter-clockwise, around the color wheel (with the 2 earth colors between the yellows and the reds.

With the tube colors, I usually squirt about 1/2 the paint from a 14-ml. tube into each well of the palette, spread it with a palette knife so it fills up the bottom of the well, and then allow it to dry.

When I'm ready to paint, I activate it again and again, day after day, with a spray of water, before working.  In this way, I have all my colors in "cake like" form on my palette at all times, plus a liquid reserve still in the tubes.

You might find it helpful to label the wells with the names of the pigments, using a permanent black marker, like a Sharpie.


Your washes might tend to "bead up" on a new palette, but -- no worries -- after several uses, they will mix more smoothly.

At the end of each painting session, add a few drops of water to each well of color and close the lid.  At the beginning of your next painting session, just mist your paints to wake them up.


After painting for awhile, you may find yourself wanting to try some more colors.  You could easily add a few more paints to this kind of palette, with the extra wells in the corner.  

Some colors you might want to add later -- Raw Sienna, Quinacridone Violet, Cobalt Turquoise, Cerulean or Manganese Blue, Winsor (Phthalo) Green, Quinacridone Maroon, Quinacridone Coral.