Art Blog

The World of Watercolor: Basic Watercolor Palette Colors

Whether you are just starting out with watercolor painting or you’ve been at it for a while, it is very convenient to set up a basic color palette with the most useful colors and your go-to ones, depending on your preferred subjects. For instance, if you usually paint flowers and natural sceneries, you’ll probably include a wider variety of greens than say, an urban sketcher.

Watercolor Painting Swatch and Palette on Craftsy!

Getting to the know the basics of watercolor palette colors

The Cotman watercolors from Winsor & Newton are my favorite. They are more affordable than their pricier artist-grade paints, yet they are still good quality and mix together nicely.

Cotman Watercolors

The basic colors

These are the colors I have found work best for either a beginner’s palette or even a travel-sized palette for plein air painting:

Blues:

  • Ultramarine Blue
  • Phthalo Blue
  • Cerulean

Greens:

  • Viridian
  • Phthlo Green
  • Sap Green

Yellows:

  • Lemon Yellow
  • Cadmium Yellow
  • New Gamboge
  • Yellow Ochre

Reds and Oranges:

  • Cadmium Red
  • Alizarin Crimson
  • Permanent Rose

Browns:

  • Burn Umber
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Sepia
  • Raw Umber 

Swatching your color palette

Whenever I get new paints, I like to swatch them on a sheet of watercolor paper alongside the rest of the colors on my palette. This helps you see what the color really looks like, since it can vary from the color on the tube. It’s also nice to have this swatch page for future reference. This way, you can have a look at what colors you own, how they look next to each other and keep track of new additions to your palette.

Watercolor palette with paints and brushes

To get started swatching you palette, you’ll need:

  • Watercolors (either pans or tubes – I use a few of both)
  • A paintbrush
  • Water
  • A sheet of watercolor paper
  • Paper towel (to wipe off your brush)
  • Ruler and pencil (optional)

Water containers for painting

Artist's tip: Use two different water containers. One for cleaning your brushes (this one will have dirty water very early on) and another one with clean water to pick up new paint.

You can choose to swatch each color by doing simple brushstrokes on the page. This can be quick and easy. But, personally, I'm quite detail-oriented, so I like to draw a grid with equally sized rectangles and plan where I will place each color, organizing them from coolest to warmest (blues – greens – yellows – reds & browns). I also make sure to leave extra empty spaces for future additions to my palette. I keep these pages as reference for whenever I'm painting, so I like them to be neat.

Watercolor paint swatches

With this exercise, one of the many things I was able to notice is that the color Cadmium Red Pale and Cadmium Red are awfully similar on paper. You might be saying “well duh, they share practically the same name!” However, they do look quite different in their pans than they do once you are painting with them.

With this knowledge, I can now take one of them out of my palette and make room for my beloved Phthalo Blue, which didn’t have a spot in there before. From your swatches, you will also be able to compare things like hue and temperature, but we will talk more about those properties in future posts.

Watercolor painting desk view

Sneak peak: In this picture you can see a little sneak peek at the upcoming post in this series where we will be getting acquainted with the transparency of our paints!

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10 Comments

Stephanie Stephens

Thanks for this, I’ve been contemplating making watercolor swatch sheets. The tube labels often vary quite a bit!

Reply
Stephanie Stephens

Thanks for this, I’ve been contemplating making watercolor swatch sheets. The tube labels often vary quite a bit!

Reply
Joe Maffit

A very talented friend is retiring. Before raising a family he was an artist. I would like to get him a watercolor setup, paint, brushes, some good paper, etc. I’ve seen kits with carrying cases and supplies and ordered one. I won’t do that again. Have you any ideas or recommendations? Not a toy; I’d like to find something that he might use and take seriously. Or vice versa.
I’d appreciate any advise.

Reply
handymom

It’s 4 months later, so you have probably bought your friend his gift already. I would buy six tubes of paint: cadmium yellow light, cadmium red light, alizarin crimson, raw sienna, phthelo blue, and ceruilian blue. Which, at an artist grade, is about $60. Then a brush of red sable $20 and a ceramic butchers tray $12. Not a small investment for a birthday gift, but these items will be truly valued and used if someone is serious about exploring watercolors.

Reply
Suz

Just curious, why are you suggesting cadmiums (which are opaque and could quickly become muddy when mixing with other pigments) and alizarin crimson (which is a fugitive color)? Curious because the excellent online course I am taking with Kateri Ewing is teaching me otherwise for a basic setup if there is color mixing.

Reply
Nixx

Alizarin crimson is definitely far too fugitive to use in serious art. PR177 (often called something like anthraquinone red) is a much more lightfast alternative, but still not perfect. I find a lot of artists use and recommend it specifically out of nothing more than tradition.
On the other part you mention, there’s really nothing wrong with opaque paints in general. The problem of mixing ‘mud’ is greatly overstated, and ‘transparent’ and ‘opaque’ are really just two dots on a whole spectrum. All raw pigments are opaque. If you paint several layers of transparent paint over each other, you’ll find a fairly opaque layer. Likewise, if you dilute an opaque paint down, it becomes more transparent. A lot of paints are in between.

Reply
Christian T

Most who have worked with watercolour before use small compact sets that are easy to transport. I personally use a schmincke whisky painters box and i keep smallish da vinci travel brush. I then use a pocket size moleskine watercolour sketchbook, i can put evrything in a pocktet and be ready to paint anywhere.

Reply
Ghulam Mahdi

I want buy this watercolor plz send details

Reply
Crystal

Paint swatching is so exciting! I am just starting out. I love seeing the range of options in one place and the swatches do look so different than in the pan! Thanks for the info. Building my first palette.yay.

Reply
Amanda Priano

Hello! I am getting ready to make my first watercolor palette. After a lot of research and taking into account what I could afford, I went with the Gumbacher Academy brand. I got a set at Michaels with a coupon for around $50. It came with 12 colors. I had most of the colors you listed here. But there are some I need to get. This brand I have comes in 60 colors. Some of the colors you listed they do not have. Unless they are under a different name. I thought paint colors were all standard for all brands? Here is the list of ones I could not find: Phthalo Blue, Phthlo Green, New Gamboge (I did see just a Gamboge Hue), and Permanent Rose. Also for the Cadmium Yellow and Cadmium Red which one do we get? There are several different colors and hues for each. What do you suggest?

Reply

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