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How to build your own watercolour palette: Colour selection tips

In this article, I'll share with you tips on how to your can build your own watercolour palette with a versatile set of colours for mixing.

This article is for watercolour beginners. If you already have a watercolour box, you'll learn the colours you can add to your existing colours to make your palette more versatile. If you are just starting out and don't have a watercolour box, you'll learn about colour selection.

This article will focus on colour selection. If you need recommendation on empty watercolour boxes, read this article.

Choosing pre-built watercolour sets vs building your own

The benefit of going with a watercolour box set with colours already selected is you can start painting the moment you get the box. The downside is the colour selection from these watercolour manufacturers may not be the best. Some companies include colours that aren't that useful, e.g. white and black paint, so you're actually paying for paint that you're not going to use.

The benefit of building your own watercolour palette is you'll learn more about colour selection and you can create a customised palette for your needs. The downside is it takes more time to research the different types of watercolour boxes, brands, the paint and their properties.

There are certain colours that work best together and some colour combinations just don't work and will make your mixes dull and lifeless. For example, Quinacridone Rose (cool red) and French Ultramarine (warm blue) will mix to a vibrant purple, but Pyrrole Scarlet (warm red) and Phthalo Blue (cool blue) will produce a colour that's almost black. So mixing red and blue don't always give you purple. You have to mix the correct red and blue to get a vibrant purple.

The other benefit of building your own palette is it's more economical. A 15 ml tube can fill a half pan 7 times.

Colour selection tips

The fundamental colour theory says that primary colours are needed to mix all other colours. Primary colours are yellow, red and blue. If you only have one set of primary colours, there's a limited set of colours you can create. So in order to widen your colour mixing possibilities, just have more sets of primary colours, e.g. have two yellows, two reds and two blues. But which yellows, reds and blues?

Colour wheel with pigment recommendation from Color Choices: Making Color Sense Out of Color Theory by Stephen Quiller

There are two general strategies for choosing colours that work well together.

The first method is to choose colours around the colour wheel. This way, you'll have all colours around the colour wheel. The downside is mixing possibilities is limited by the included secondary colours, e.g. orange, purple and green. You can mix green with yellow and blue, but you cannot mix yellow with a green.

The second method is to choose warm and cool versions of primary colours, and include some convenient colours for mixing. This second method is actually a variation of the first method because the primary colours are also selected from the colour wheel.

And remember the more primary colours you include, the more versatile your palette will be for mixing. Here's the current selection of colours in my ideal 12-colour palette:

  1. Azo Yellow PY151 / Hansa Yellow Medium PY97
  2. New Gamboge PY97 + PY110
  3. Yellow Orche PR43
  4. Anthraquinoid Scarlet PR168 / Pyrrole Scarlet PR255
  5. Quinacridone Rose PV19
  6. Pyrrole Crimson PR164
  7. French Ultramarine PB29
  8. Phthalo Blue (GS) PB15:3
  9. Cerulean Blue Chromium PB36
  10. Sap Green PO 48, PY 150, PG 7
  11. Phthalo Green PG 7
  12. Burnt Sienna PBr 7

There are 3 yellows, 3 reds, 3 blues, 2 greens and one earth colour.

You can also have some fun by having even fewer colours. Shown above is the Micro Portable Watercolour Palette Box with 6 colours that I've selected:

  1. Azo Yellow PY151
  2. Anthraquinoid Scarlet PR168
  3. Yellow Ochre PR43
  4. Phthalo Blue (GS) PB15:3
  5. Cobalt Blue Deep PB74
  6. Burnt Sienna

The downside to this palette is I can't mix vibrant purples which is fine by me since I don't use purples or violets often.

It's important to understand that colour selection comes down to personal preference. The colours that I like may not be colours you like. E.g. I prefer to use Anthraquinoid Scarlet PR168 instead of Pyrrole Scarlet as my warm red.

How to use the colour wheel for colour selection


Pigments arranged according to the colour wheel provided by Bruce MacEvoy. (PDF available)

I actually used the colour wheel provided by Bruce MacEvoy on (wonderful watercolour resource) for my colour selection.

Colours at the edges are most vibrant and colours. You should pick vibrant primary colours first. Less vibrant colours can be mixed from vibrant colours, but not the other way round. The less vibrant colours in the centre of the wheel are mostly convenient colours, e.g. colours you use often or colours you may want to create but it saves time by including that colour instead of mixing it yourself.

To mix vibrant colours, choose primary colours (on the edge) that are close to each other. For example, to mix a vibrant orange, you can choose Hansa Yellow Deep PY65 and Pyrrol Scarlet PR255 as these two are closer together on the colour wheel than let's say Hansa Yellow Light PY3 and Quinacridone Red PR209.

As long as you pick the vibrant primary colours on the edge of the colour wheel, it's kinda difficult to end up with lousy colour selection.

Check the pigment properties

Watercolour pigments have different properties such as transparency, tinting strength, staining nature, granulation (texture) and lightfastness.

Pen, ink and watercolour sketch with waterproof pigmented ink and white gel pen

Transparency: Transparent watercolour is good for layering and for pen and watercolour sketching where you can see the line art beneath the colours. Opaque colours are good for covering over other colours.

Tinting strength: Tinting strength refers to how much a color is altered with the addition of another colour. It's basically how much paint is needed to achieve full colour intensity. For example, Phthalo Blue PB15:3 has high tinting strength so you can use a tiny bit of paint to achieve full intensity. Cerulean Blue Chromium has low tinting strength so you'll need more paint to achieve full intensity. Paints with low tinting strength gets used up more quickly.

Staining nature: Staining paints will be absorbed into the paper and they cannot be lifted easily. Non-staining paints can be reactivated with water, and can removed by scrubbing the paper. If you want to layer with watercolour, it's best to put staining paints as your first wash.

Granulation: Granulating paint have noticeable texture. Choose the paint based on whether you need texture. For example, French Ultramarine is a granulating paint but there are variations, e.g. Schmincke Ultramarine Finest, that don't granulate as much.

Lightfastness: A pigment is considered lightfast when the colour does not fade when exposed to light for long periods of time. It's important to get lightfast colours since no one wants their colours to fade.

What if you already have an existing watercolour box

It's possible to build a versatile palette for mixing with your existing watercolour box set.

Take a look at the colours in your current palette.

1. Are there Cadmium colours? Cadmium colours are opaque colours. If you don't need opaque colours you can replace these colours are they usually don't mix well with other colours. Since they are opaque, they will make the resulting mixture opaque as well.

2. Are there too many earth colours such as sienna, umber? Burnt Sienna is probably the most useful earth colour for mixing, especially with ultramarine, so it's convenient to have this colour around. Most earth colours can be mixed with primary colours anyway. Yellow Ochre can be considered an earth colour too which I usually have in my palette because I find it difficult to mix a muted yellow and Yellow Ochre looks great with diluted, and can be used to mixed flesh hues too.

3. If there are black and white paint in your box, those are obvious colours you can replaced with more primary colours.

4. If there fugitive or non-lightfast colours, replace them too.

5. Identify the limitation with your palette. Can your palette mix vibrant secondary colours? If you can't mix vibrant secondary colours, add primary colours that are close to each other on the colour wheel. E.g. If you want to mix a warm orange but you can't, add a warm yellow (Hansa Yellow Deep, New Gamboge) and a scarlet to your palette. Can't mix a vibrant green? Add a cool yellow and cool blue. Look at the colour wheel for options for those warm and cool primary colours.

If your watercolour box can take full-sized pans, you may want to squeeze paint that you use up often into a full pan instead so that you don't have to refill repeatedly.

How to achieve colour harmony with your paintings?<.h3>
Just because you have 12 colours in your palette does not mean you should use all 12 in your painting.

Using a limited colour palette from your existing colours can help you create colour harmony more easily. It's not easy to control colour usage when you use too many colours for mixing. So keep it simple and start with a limited colour palette first. You can experiment more with other primary colours and mixes after you're more familiar with the colours you already have. In other words, don't buy too much supplies first which obviously is tempting.

Other colour palette videos to check out

If you want to learn more about colour mixing, check out my online art courses on Skillshare, Gumroad or Patreon.

And here are links to more colour palette selection articles: