I hear it all the time!
What color paints do you recommend?
This is something that I agonized over when I first started painting with watercolors!
The choice of paint colors is staggering, especially when you consider watercolor brands like Daniel Smith (they have a huge collection of over 250 paints!)
And good quality watercolors are expensive! I didn’t want to make a mistake and buy colors that I wouldn’t use!
I even made a spreadsheet comparing the recommendations of various well known artists… Argh!
In the end I created a list of recommended watercolor palette colors, and this is what it looked like:
Notes: GS = green shade BS = blue shade.
Pigment numbers begin with "P" for pigment then another letter to denote each color.
For example, PY means pigment = yellow. PO means pigment = orange. PR means pigment = red, etc.
No. of Pigments
PY97 & PY110
Transparent Pyrrol Orange
Phthalo Blue (GS)
Phthalo Green (BS)
Quinacridone Burnt Orange
There’s a total of 16 colors above. Now... you don’t have to get as many colors to get started. And I’ll tell you how you can get by with less colors if you want. But I came up with this list as a result of hours of research.
Let me explain...
How to choose palette colors
The perfect color palette doesn’t exist.
Unfortunately, there isn’t some stupefying list of flawless watercolor paints, (wouldn’t that be great…)
In the end it comes down to personal styles and preferences, and a good understanding of your watercolor paints.
Different watercolorists will have different recommendations. But when you begin to compare other artists preferences, you start to see some similarities and certain colors that crop up often.
Nevertheless, there are a few basic rules that most watercolor artists stick to for choosing a basic palette of colors.
Must have watercolors - warm and cool primary colors
Primary colors are a must have because they cannot be mixed from other colors. You probably already know that you can mix any color you need from just the primary colors, red, yellow and blue.
At least that’s the theory.
In reality the color you obtain from the paint is dependant on the pigment it contains. And when you consider primary color paints more closely they can have a warm or cool hue depending on the pigment used.
As a result, when you mix three cool primary colors you get quite a different result compared to when you mix three warm primary colors. Below are a few examples…
Warm primary color chart
Cool primary color chart
The colors used in these charts are as follows:
lemon yellow (cool) / new gamboge (warm)
Quinacridone Rose (cool) / Pyrrol Scarlet (warm)
Phthalo Blue (GS) (cool) / french ultramarine (warm)
Having a mixture of both warm and cool primary colors in your palette is a terrific start to your palette, and with these you can mix a very useful set of colors.
If you’re brave enough you can just make do with some primary colors. But the reality is, you need to really know your paints extremely well to mix the exact color you need. You can end up spending more time mixing than painting!
And you also need to be quite skilled in order to get the proportions right each time when you need the same mixed color again and again.
Mixing colors is an almost an art in itself and it is a very good investment of your time to create some color charts with your paints so you get to know what you can do with them.
If you'd like to reproduce this experiment, I've created a PDF template that you download for FREE in the link below! You can use it to easily trace your own templates and it includes steps for filling in the different boxes... Have fun!
You can create an abundance of colors with just a small number of paints.
In addition to some warm and cool primary colors most artists add a few additional pigment colors to extend the mixing range of their palette.
These additional colors are mostly for comfort and convenience. There are certain colors that so common that you end up mixing them again and again. Having a color already available is a big time saver.
Phthalo Green is a very vibrant and highly saturating color to have in your palette and helps simplify the mixing of other colors.
For example, Phthalo Green mixed with Pyrrol Crimson is an easy way to make an attractive black. Phthalo Green mixed with Yellow Ochre will result in an excellent Sap Green.
Quinacridone pigment paints are transparent and very vibrant. There are many varieties of colors using this pigment, but Quinacridone Violet is fantastic for making glowing purples.
Earth colors such as Raw Sienna and Burnt Sienna are also remarkably useful, and also help produce interesting greys. Browns are wonderful for landscapes, figures and skin tones. It is incredibly useful to have a ready to go dark brown in your palette such as Burnt Umber.
Quinacridone Burnt Orange is a very versatile neutral warm tone.
Which type of watercolor paints are best?
As you add colors to your palette you should first consider the quality of the paint you are choosing. Most artists will agree that the three key factors to choosing good quality paint are transparency, the number of pigments used to make a particular color, and its lightfastness.
Transparent watercolor paints
When you start looking closely at the labels on watercolor paint you’ll find that not all watercolor paint has the same transparency value. In general, paint can be transparent, semi-transparent or opaque.
This transparency affects the appearance of your paintings.
You may notice that certain watercolors have a milky or chalky appearance when dried. This happens in particular when you use opaque paints.
Why is this important?
With watercolor painting, the brightness of the colors is mostly the result of light reflecting off the white paper support. In addition, most watercolorists build up successive layers or glazes of paint to achieve the final result.
When you apply 2 or 3 glazes of opaque paint, this covers the surface of the paper and less light is reflected from the white paper surface.
The outcome is colors that are less vivid.
You can test the transparent properties of your paint by...
Single pigment watercolor paints
You can combine single pigments to mix the rest of your colors and achieve much more satisfying results. When you mix too many pigments together the resulting color becomes murky and dull. This is why many experienced artists avoid paints that are pre-mixed with 2 or more pigments. The fundamental rule in watercolor mixing is don’t mix too many paints.
You can think of non-lightfast paints as temporary. Certain pigments when exposed to light for a certain duration will fade over time. The same is true for some other environmental factors such as pollution and humidity.
If you want your masterpieces to last as long as possible then you must choose lightfast paint. Check the labels and stick to pigments that have an “excellent” or “good” rating
Combining all of these quality characteristics together at the same time can be tricky. So creating a palette where every color is single pigment, transparent, with excellent lightfastness is near impossible!
So try to stick to these quality measures as closely as possible, but don’t be afraid to make some compromises, as I did in with the recommended palette above.
Related reading - What is watercolor paint? The things you should know...
My recommended watercolor palette
When it comes to watercolor the quality of the paint has a huge impact from the start. Check the properties of the paint you buy to be sure they have good levels of transparency, lightfastness and as far as possible, only one pigment.
You will often hear artists recommend that you buy the best material you can afford. This is very sound advice. And I know very well that we all have budget restrictions - just do the best you can with your budget. You won’t regret the investment! Using good quality paints from the beginning will make your work much easier. Low quality paints make it difficult to achieve intense colors and are difficult to control.
Need a limited watercolor palette?
Stick to some warm and cool primary colors to start - the six colors below are good examples.
To these you can add some earth tones. A red/orange earth tone like Burnt Sienna and a yellow earth tone like Raw Sienna are a good foundation.
I would also add Phthalo Green (BS) because it’s just so useful for expanding mixing possibilities.
(note: It’s not easy finding transparent single pigment yellows, but as an alternative to new gamboge you can try Permanent Yellow Deep, although it’s a bit more reddish)
Try before you choose !
Still can’t make up your mind ? One of the things I found valuable when choosing colors was paint samples. Depending on the watercolor brand you choose you may be able to order samples or dot charts at a lower price than buying small tubes of every paint. For example check out the Daniel Smith range of dot charts...