The word palette can refer either to a selection of paints or to the surface they are mixed on. I will talk about both.
When I started painting with watercolors I researched available pigments and made a selection aimed at distribution around the color wheel (basically the spectrum of hue). The best single resource for this is Bruce MacEvoy’s handprint website, though I also consulted a number of other sources.
Of course, distribution around the color wheel is only one way of constructing a palette. (Distinction could also be made between a project palette and a collection of paints as a potential resource. My color wheel palette provides a good selection of paints from which to choose perhaps three of four as a palette for a particular painting.) Some artists prefer to work from a palette of primary colors, others like to have warm and cool versions of each of the main hues. Classical palettes of the 17th and 18th centuries emphasized earth colors, with a heavy emphasis on yellow ochre, raw umber, burnt sienna, ultramarine blue.
Watercolor artists, like those in other specialized fields, tend to have points of pride that might not occur to outsiders. Many artists scorn preliminary drawing or — heaven forbid — ink line work. Others insist that you should use no green pigments and always mix your greens from your yellows and blues. Fortunately, these prejudices are nonsense and can be ignored. Erik Lundgren, for example, in a post called Is Green Paint Unnecessary?, points out several uses for green pigments (“Green paint can be used for so much more than painting green,” he says. “It is a very good color to mix with others to achieve color tones that would otherwise be very difficult to achieve.”)
In any case, the color wheel palette has served me well, and it is still the bones of my system, although I have added several more pigments to fill gaps and just to play around with. My one requirement in choosing pigments is that they must be lightfast.
As for physical palettes for storing and mixing paints, I am not fond of pans (though I recently set one up for travel). Tubes seem to me more convenient. I do squeeze out colors into seven-bay palettes however. I prefer small, lightweight palettes that I can easily carry and move around. These palettes are used to store colors and bring them readily to hand. Some say that it is better to squeeze color directly from the tube, but I have not seen issues with rewetting dried watercolor paints. Working from palettes makes it easier to locate colors and is less wasteful than working straight from tubes (some watercolors are expensive), since unused unmixed color is always saved for later. (Still, for a large work with a limited palette like my San Marco painting shown below, I may squeeze colors directly from the tubes onto a porcelain plate for mixing.)
My colors are arranged by hue, and each is assigned a number (or letter for earth tones) for quick location on the palettes. For mixing, I have a small white porcelain plate that works very well.
I often work in an ink and wash style. Here is one of the first paintings I did, along with a more recent one.
For ink I use a fountain pen. Many line and wash artists use micron pens or similar, but to me these lack soul. I often use a fine or extra fine nib filled with Platinum Carbon Black fountain pen ink, which is quite impervious to water when dry—don’t spill it on anything that shouldn’t be black!—yet it won’t gunk up your pen. Other times I use a fude nib, which is bent at the tip, enabling variation in line width. Recently I have been using a dark brown waterproof ink called Lily from Rohrer and Klinger, as in the San Marco image above.
I have twenty-eight colors in my basic starter set. Richeson makes a seven-well “flower palette,” which suits my purposes and means that four palettes will hold all my base colors. It’s made of “sturdy plastic that mimics porcelain” — a little cheap feeling compared to porcelain, but lightweight and probably good enough. I divided my colors among the palettes according to my color wheel. A nice feature of these palettes is that they stack without the bottoms touching the paint below.
When thinking about watercolors it is helpful to think in terms of the actual pigments used to create the colors rather than the names that the manufacturers give them. Pigments are identified by a combination of letters and numbers. These are industry standardized and printed on the tubes sold by major manufacturers, Some colors are made of a single pigment and others are a blend of pigments. In general, single-pigment colors are better for mixing. Some say that colors get murky when they are made up of more than three pigments. I do have one color, Daniel Smith’s cadmium yellow medium, that is made up of three pigments, PY53, PY151, and PY 83, so according to the principle of limiting pigment mixes I should be cautious about using this in combination with other colors, but in practice it seems perfectly well behaved. Still, by default I favor single pigments.
A few thoughts on these colors:
PALETTE ONE (yellow to red)
1 Winsor & Newton Winsor Yellow (PY154 H3G, benzimidazolone yellow)
A light but intense warmish yellow that mixes well and is very light fast. More transparent than cadmium yellow. A popular alternative to Winsor Yellow is the similar Hansa Yellow, which to my eye is a little cooler (greener). In fact, W&N describes Winsor Yellow as “part of the Yellow Hansa group of modern pigments.”
2 Daniel Smith Cadmium Yellow Medium (PY53, nickel dioxine yellow; PY151, benzimidazolone yellow; PY83, diarylide yellow HR)
A bright warm yellow tending slightly toward orange. Semi-transparent. Daniel Smith suggests mixing with Cerulean Blue. A nontoxic update on the traditional color. Daniel Smith has worked some sort of alchemical magic here. Despite being a blend of three different pigments the color behaves perfectly well well in mixes and in washes.
2.1 Winsor & Newton New Gamboge (PY150, PR209)
New Gamboge is a transparent, warm, orangish yellow. The name comes from the pigment’s place of origin, Cambodia, (In a curious twist, the word Cambodia is derived from the Latin word for pigment, gambogium.) The pigment is derived from the resin of the garcinia tree. W&N says, “First brought to Europe in 1603, it was also used as a cure for rheumatism, high blood pressure and as a purgative cleanser. But as even a small dose it was lethal, it quickly lost popularity.” Winsor & Newton stopped its production of genuine gamboge in 2005 due to its toxicity. It was reformulated in 2005 and again in 2013. According to W&N, the new formulation is close to the original color used by Asian artists, as well as by Rembrandt, Turner, and others. It can be used to mix muted greens.
2.2 Winsor & Newton Winsor Orange (PO62, Benzimidazolone orange)
A semi-transparent, very intense orange. Good in wet applications. Artists such as Cezanne and Van Gogh favored orange in combination with blue–according to Van Gogh, “there is no orange without blue.”
2.3 Daniel Smith Pyrrol Orange (PO73, diketo-pyrrolo pyrrole orange)
This is a semi-transparent intense red-orange, darker than Winsor Orange. A similar color was a favorite of DaVinci. Bruce MacEvoy of Handprint says, “I have very high regard for this pigment; it is everything modern pigment chemistry should be. Provided you use the transparent single pigment brands, this makes a very versatile and reliable paint, worth trying for florals and other brilliant painting styles, and splendid as a warm, almost pinkish tint or blush color for caucasian flesh tones.”
3 Winsor & Newton Cadmium Scarlet (PR108, cadmium sulfoselenide)
Intense, opaque, very light-fast orange red. According to Bruce MacEvoy, the W&N cadmium scarlet is “the farthest orange of any orange red [from PR108, cadmium sulfoselenide], a distinctive and very useful color,”
3.05 Daniel Smith Cadmium Red Medium Hue (PY53, PR254)
This one doesn’t appear on the color wheel, because it is a recent addition. I felt the lack of a bright red between Cadmium Scarlet and Perylene Maroon. Daniel Smith says that this formula is less toxic than the traditional cadmium red but has many of the same qualities — “Our hues are virtually identical in color to their namesakes, but cleaner in mixtures and stronger in tints.” It mixes quite well. It’s an extremely bold hue — a little goes a long way!
3.1 Winsor & Newton Perylene Maroon (PR179, perylene maroon)
A transparent, deep, dark red. A useful alternative to alizarin crimson, which is not at all lightfast. The W&N take on this pigment gives it a somewhat brownish cast.
PALETTE TWO (red to purple)
4 Winsor & Newton Quinacridone Magenta (PR122, quinacridone magenta)
It’s harder than you might expect to find a red that can be used to mix both satisfying oranges and purples. PR122 is one of the best. It’s s strong but semi-transparent, fairly dark, intense violet red.
4.1 Winsor & Newton Opera Rose (PR122, quinacridone magenta)
Somehow W&N makes this bright warm pink color from the same pigment as above. Bruce MacEvoy says that “It’s remarkable that the entire color span from middle red to red violet, formerly represented by a shoddy gang of fugitive organic pigments, has been handsomely replaced by different shades of a single modern and lightfast pigment: quinacridone.”
5 Winsor & Newton Cobalt Violet (PV14, cobalt phosphate)
Semi-transparent and very lightfast. This expensive pigment was introduced in the 1860s and was quickly adopted by artists such as Monet and Seurat. Joan Blundell says, “This gentle granulating pigment is often used in traditional English landscape palettes. Easily overpowered, but lovely with other quite pigments such as PY53 yellows and PG18 (Viridian).” Bruce MacEvoy says, “Although some artists disparage this pigment (Michael Wilcox calls it “gummy and weak”), genuine, high quality cobalt violet is a spectacular paint in broad wash applications — morning skies and magnified florals — and evocative in flesh tone shadows.”
6 Winsor & Newton Ultramarine Violet (PV15, sodium aluminium sulfosilicate)
A very lightfast, semi-transparent, rich purple. The W&N version of this pigment is bluer than that of some other brands. Does not mix very well with yellows.
7 Winsor & Newton Indanthrene Blue (PB60, indanthrone)
A deep, warm, transparent, lightfast blue, developed in the 1950s to mimic indigo. Raw umber is the complementary color. Eric Lundren emphasizes the pigment’s somewhat black aspect, while Tonya of Scratchmade Journal perceives some red in it. Jane Blundell says, “It makes wonderful greens with a range of yellows and is very effective for a night sky.”
7.1 Daniel Smith Ultramarine Blue (PB29, sodium aluminum sulfosilicate)
A lightfast semi-transparent, dark, intense violet blue (versions labeled “French” tend to be redder than ultramarines tout court). A modern replacement for the medieval artist’s favorite, lapis lazuli (which was worth many times its weight in gold). Good for mixing in the red direction, less so in the green direction. Eric Lundgren says, “If I could only have one blue color, I would, without a doubt, choose French ultramarine. It’s actually one of the most important colors for me”
8 Daniel Smith Prussian Blue (PB27, ferriammonium ferrocyanide)
A lightfast, semi-transparent, intense dark blue. Prussian Blue was discovered by chance by a German chemist in 1704—until then artists were dependent on the extremely expensive lapis lazuli (mined in small amounts in Afghanistan) for dark blues. Unsurprisingly, it caught on, even spreading to Japan, where it was used by Hokusai. This is the blue of Picasso’s “blue period.” Bruce MacEvoy judges the Daniel Smith version to have “an exquisite subtle texture and good lightfastness.” Daniel Smith advises to “float this color into a moist wash to add variety to shadows.” Prussian Blue has to some extent given way in popularity to Phthalo Blue. This is probably a dispensable color in my palette, one that I don’t use a lot.
PALETTE THREE (blues and greens)
8.1 Winsor & Newton Cerulean Blue (PB35, cobalt tin oxide)
I’m not sure what to think about the fact that cerulean blue was nominated by Pantone in 1999 as the color of the millennium. Pantone explained that “Psychologically, gazing at a blue sky brings a sense of peace and tranquillity to the human spirit. Sky blue is imprinted in our psyches as a retiring, quiescent color. Surrounding yourself with cerulean blue could bring on a certain peace because it reminds you of time spent outdoors, on a beach, near the water — associations with restful, peaceful, relaxing times.” Tonya of Scratchmade Journal says, “when partnered in a painting with other blues like standard Cobalt (PB28) or Indanthrone (PB60) or when charged with a bold color likeQuin Violet or Rose (PV19), I think Cerulean lends a nice contrast and softening feature that I’ve yet to find in any other blue.”
9 Daniel Smith Phthalo Blue Green Shade (PB15:3, beta copper phthalocyanine)
A lightfast, transparent, intense blue. There are different flavors of Phthalo Blue. 15:1 is redder, this one is greener (though the Daniel Smith version is not as green as the one from Winsor and Newton). Mixes well with yellows and with Venetian Red. Daniel Smith recommends it “for cool, clean staining shadows and reflected light on windows,” which seems an oddly specific recommendation. This paint has a fairly large drying shift, turning lighter and less saturated. It’s highly staining (it can’t be lifted off).
10 Winsor & Newton Cobalt Turquoise Light (PG50, cobalt titanium oxide)
A lovely, delicate pale gree turquoise. According to Bruce MacEvoy, “The tinting strength is weak; the best mixing complements for cobalt teal blue are quinacridone maroon (PR206), pyrrole orange (PO73), pyrrole scarlet (PR255) or perylene scarlet (PR149); mixed with cadmium red (PR108) it makes a lovely warm silvery gray.”
10.1 Winsor & Newton Winsor Green Blue Shade (PG7, chlorinated copper phthalocyanine)
A brilliant transparent green with a blue undertone. Highly staining. A versatile color. With warm yellows this creates sap green. With ultramarine blue it makes nice teals and turqoises. It can be muted with crimson.
11 Daniel Smith Phthalo Green Yellow Shade (PG36, chlorobrominated copper phthalocyanine)
Transparent and super staining, lightfast, bright green. A bit intense to be used straight but useful in mixes. According to Bruce MacEvoy, “The best mixing complements are quinacridone rose (PV19). benzimidazolone maroon (PR171), and quinacridone carmine (PRN/A).”
11.1 Winsor & Newton Permanent Sap Green (PG36, chlorobrominated copper phthalocyanine; PY110, isoindolinone yellow R)
This is a dark, warm green with a yellow undertone. W&N explains that “Sap green is a lake pigment and was originally made from the juice of unripe berries from the buckthorn, (Rhamnus) plant. In medieval times the extracted colour was reduced to a heavy syrup and sold in pig bladders rather than a dry pigment.” The result was a color “about as fugitive as the grass stains fixed on the knees of your Levi’s.” Matt Harvey uses sap Green in portrait painting: “The one colour I can’t live without at the moment is sap green.… For me all skin tones seem to flow from there when this green is mixed with alizarin crimson or cadmium red.… If I mix Sap Green and a red for a shadow and it’s still too warm I mix in a bit of blue. It could be any blue but the blue I have on my pallet is Ultramarine.”
12 Daniel Smith Phthalo Yellow Green (PG7, chlorinated copper phthalocyanine; PY3, arylide yellow 10G)
A bright, transparent, lightfast, lime green. Paints such as this, according to Brucee MacEvoy, “appear to be approximately midway between unique yellow and unique green, much as orange is midway between yellow and red. I like them; they produce a wide range of green mixtures with all other paints, and interesting botanical browns and tans with reds or magentas.”
PALETTE FOUR (earth tones)
G Winsor & Newton Payne’s Gray (PB15, phthalocyanine blue; PBk6, carbon black; PV19, beta quinacridone)
Payne’s Gray, introduced in the early 19th century by William Payne, is a dark blue grey, traditionally made from a mixture of ultramarine and black or ultramarine and sienna. It is a versatile neutral color, though I am tending more often to mix grays from complementary colors related to the image tone — Payne’s Gray can appear dull because of its extreme opacity. Jane Blundell has gone into some depth on the topic of mixing grays. However it is made, artists such as Rembrandt used plenty of grays, and the technique known as grisaille is based on it — the image’s shapes are laid out in gray and then painted over, the underlayer of gray providing shading. The painting known as Whistler’s Mother is actually titled Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1.
A Winsor & Newton Yellow Ochre (PY43, natural yellow iron oxide)
One of the oldest pigments used by humans, yellow ochre is a warm yellow color originally made from natural iron oxides found in earth.
B Winsor & Newton Raw Sienna (PY42, synthetic yellow iron oxide;PR101, calcinated synthetic red iron oxide)
A nonstaining, transparent, neutral orange yellow. Bruce MacEvoy says, “The color of raw sienna resembles dried meadow grass, pale fresh cut woods such as maple or pine, and weathered plaster. I believe the Winsor & Newton formulation is closest to the historical color, which is slightly lighter valued, less saturated, cooler (more yellow), and much more transparent than yellow ochre” Jane Blundell says, “One of the special qualities of Raw Sienna is that it doesn’t really make greens when mixed with a blue so can be gorgeous in a sky as the warm yellow glaze above the horizon, with the blue above and no green!”
C Winsor & Newton Raw Umber (PBr7, natural iron oxide)
A dark, cool, semi-transparent yellow brown, Raw Umber was traditionally used in painting shadows. It creates warmer shadows that those of gray or black. It is an essential aspect of chiaroscuro painting, and was used by artists such as Caravaggio and Rembrandt to make highlighted figures appear to emerge from a dark background. Hieronymus Bosch used raw umber in the shadows of his triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights.
D Winsor & Newton Burnt Umber (PR101, calcinated synthetic red iron oxide)
A semi-transparent, dark, warm brown. Roasting shifts the yellow hues toward orange, but the color is yellower than Burnt Sienna. The name is said to come from the Italian region of Umbria but more likely is derived from the Latin ombra, or “shadow.”
E Winsor & Newton Burnt Sienna (PR101, calcinated synthetic red iron oxide)
Roasting makes the sienna a more reddish color. Bruce MacEvoy says the color “resembles bread crust, dark redwood, and suntanned caucasian skin.” Its complement is Ultramarine. Can also be mixed with Sap Green. In fact, its mixing possibilities are numerous. Jane Blundell says, “Mixed with a yellow it creates a yellow ochre and raw sienna hue, mixed with a blue it creates a myriad of greys, browns and deep blues and mixed with a red a wonderful range of neutralised red hues. Mixed with a green it can create a range of more mossy greens and very interesting neutrals with a purple — it’s a magic colour!”
F Winsor & Newton Venetian Red (PR101, calcinated synthetic red iron oxide)
A dark, dull, semi-opaque orange red, the color of rust. Can get quite opaque if applied too heavily. Complements Prussian Blue, and also works well with Cerulean Blue. Bruce MacEvoy says, “It is extremely effective at warming sap green and yellow mixtures, subduing intense yellow, orange or red paints, neutralizing blue and cyan paints, and producing a wonderful range of salmon, pinkish and pale flesh tints. Winslow Homer’s favorite black was mixed with venetian red and iron blue; it makes fabulous sky grays when added to cobalt blue.” It’s stupid to talk about favorite colors. This is my favorite color.