Creating a Color Palette


Color is as important to me as are the lines drawn on the page: it’s what gives a sketch its mood. Over the years, I’ve refined my palette by filling my paint box with the colors most important to me. While I miss using some of these colors while sketching on location, I find this limited palette works well for most subject matter.

To create a palette that best fits your needs, I recommend using half a full sheet (22″ x 30″) of watercolor paper. I use Arches 140 lb. hot press. I like to create a small puddle of paint for each color, leaving room on the page to add additional colors later. I also leave space between each color on the sheet, and label each with its name.

After creating your color swatches, look closely at each color to determine which are warm and which are cool, which are opaque and which transparent. Decisions about which colors to use in your palette will come through experimentation. Now use the remaining half sheet of watercolor paper and mix different colors together to see which combinations best fit your needs.

My palette consists almost exclusively of cool, transparent colors. It’s not that I don’t use the colors red or yellow, but I use cool versions of red (leaning towards pink or purple instead of orange) and yellow (leaning towards green instead of orange). Even the blues I use are cool. For example, I stay away from Ultramarine Blue because it’s a warm blue. Choosing a cool palette allows more freedom with paint mixing. When blending colors, keep in mind that warm colors and cool colors generally don’t mix well. Scarlet Lake Red (warm) mixed with Manganese Blue (cool) makes mud, not purple. Some people use all warm colors on their palette, but to my eye, their finished paintings look hot.

I use Winsor & Newton paints (from the tube). Here are the colors that I use in my kit:

Permanent Magenta
Permanent Rose

Scarlet Lake Red (semi opaque)
Windsor Orange

Quinacridone Gold
Windsor Yellow

Green gold
Olive green

Hooker’s green
Permanent Sap Green
Cobalt Green

Cobalt Turquoise Light (semi opaque)
Prussian Blue
Manganese Blue Hue

Paynes Gray (semi opaque)
Windsor Violet

Vandyke Brown
Sepia (semi opaque)
Burnt Umber

With all of these beautiful, cool colors on my palette, I can freely mix and blend without making mud. I try to limit myself to two colors per cup but there are so many I love that I often squeeze in three.

I reserve Scarlet Lake, Cadmium Yellow, and Windsor Orange for isolated areas because they don’t mix well with the other colors. But I don’t want to leave them out since they add warmth and life to my paintings.

“Base” Colors
There are three colors I consider my “base”: Vandyke Brown, Paynes Gray, and Green Gold. Generally, I add these base colors to other colors to darken them or to give a color added depth.

8 thoughts on “Creating a Color Palette

  1. Thanks Peter! Yes two, sometimes three colors per cup. On the far left I have squeezed out Permanent Magenta and Permanent Rose paint from the tube in the same cup (diagramed on my sketching kit ). And I’ve done the same for all the rest of the cups. As long as the colors are similar, it works great and I’m able to have more colors with me while sketching than I would be able to if I only had one color per cup.

  2. Richard, just read my comment on the sketchbook post and say “Jean said Ditto to that about this”!

  3. Thanks Jean, and I say “ditto to you and read my previous reply too!” : )

  4. I love your palette. I have tried many other palette choices from other artists but yours is the most versatile and gives me the best color selection!

  5. Thanks Cathy, that’s great to hear! Color theory is complicated enough but adding pigments to the discussion is a whole no other level of complexity. I know other people have luck mixing warm and cool colors together but for me, it just makes mud. Using cool colors allows me to mix them directly on the page.

  6. Very much enjoyed visiting your web site and reading about your traveling art studio. I always learn something when I look at how other artists have approached their painting subjects(especially in similiar geographical areas. It really gives a lot of food for thought/enjoyment/and and an greater appreciation for the mind/heart behind the brush and the uniqueness each individual artist brings to the subject matter!) If they share the set-up their personally selected materials to meet their artistic needs ilways seems to for me spark new ideas. I would like to offer that if you have never used Daniel Smith Lapis Lazuli Genuine you MUST give it a try, I have had a great deal of enjoyment using it. If you have not tried their paints consider the color dot cards they offer(I do not work for them.) I personally like the green/gold for capturing young vines. The only down side of the natural pigment paints can be in the mixing, but the depth of color they can offer is truly a memorable experience. Thank you again for sharing, I hope your holiday season is enjoyable and wish you continued success with your art.

  7. Thanks very much for you comment Leanna. I appreciate your input. My materials are always evolving and it’s good to get ideas from other artists! I have not tried the Daniel Smith paints but maybe it’s time to give them a try. I’ve used WN almost exclusively for many years so it time I should broaden my horizons. Right now I’m almost finished with the sketches for my upcoming book “Impressions of Wine Country” so when I finish it, I’ll try adding some new colors to my palette. Thanks for stopping by!

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