a basic palette

The beginner's mistake is always ... too many paints. Too many paints! Color is a seductive experience, and it's easy for a beginning painter to get pulled into an orgy of paint purchases.

Yet most experienced artists end up on the other side: by trial and error they have pared down their palette to a handful of paints that provides them with all the mixing power they need. A dozen paints is often the magic number that seems generous without being excessive.

I follow their example in this page, a complete guide to the beginner's watercolor palette. I introduce standard paint concepts, describe the range of pigment alternatives available in watercolors, and explain step by step how to choose the paints that meet your color mixing goals. I pass on the fruits of experience from many painters, but I also teach you how to make decisions for yourself.

I dispel some common color myths or watercolor superstitions — I have to use transparent watercolors, I have to use "primary" colors, I can't use black, I can't use white — that have been inherited from the 19th century (the Queen Victoria era). These are superstitions that only get in the way of discovering the palette that works best for you.

There are also incidental considerations, such as brand and packaging, that may affect your paint choices, and we'll briefly look at those topics as well.
context for your choices
Before we start, here is some important information about paint ingredients and some pointers to related materials on this site. These will be helpful to you as you design your basic palette.

Basic Paint Attributes. As you buy and evaluate new paints, it is useful to understand some of the basic attributes on which paints differ from one another. The most important attributes that will affect the quality of your work, and that you can evaluate for yourself, are:

• color appearance. The color of any paint is described by three attributes: hue (the name of a corresponding spectral color — red, orange, yellow, green, cyan, blue, purple and magenta), lightness or value (from dark to light) and chroma or saturation (from dull to intense). The color appearance of a paint is affected by how much it is diluted with water; the color of a paint straight from the tube is its masstone or top tone color, and its color when heavily diluted with water or white paint is its undertone or tint color.

• lightfastness. Paints that can withstand prolonged exposure to light are considered lightfast. You should avoid any paint that is not completely lightfast (has a lightfastness rating of "6" or less in the guide to watercolor pigments). It is simple and very educational to conduct your own lightfastness tests.

• pigment load or pigment concentration. This is the proportion of the paint, by volume, that consists of pure pigment. The more pigment there is in the tube of paint, the richer the masstone color, the higher the tinting strength, and the more paintings you can make with a single tube.

• tinting strength. The relative intensity of color imparted by a small quantity of pigment to a large volume of water or white paint; the mixing strength of the paint compared to other paints.

• transparency. Watercolor painters traditionally intend a nonstandard meaning for "transparency". Paints that can obscure a black/white pattern on the paper underneath actually have a high hiding power or opacity. Low hiding power (what watercolorists call transparency) allows greater freedom in layering paints. Transparency actually means that the paint is clearly visible as a discoloration when applied to a black surface. Watercolorists should examine paints applied to black paper or plastic, because high transparency confirmed with this test indicates a paint that is free of normally invisible additives or fillers.

• staining. Paint that is difficult to lift or blot away from paper is considered to be staining, although quite often this paint attribute depends on the absorbency (sizing, fiber length and pulp density) of the paper.

• viscosity. Commercial watercolor paint consistency ranges from a "short" consistency, clayey paste to a honeylike liquid; the current manufacturer trend is toward more liquid (lower viscosity) paints.

• particle size. The average size of individual pigment particles, which may be as large as grains of sand or so small they can only be seen under a powerful microscope. Although you can only identify the largest particle sizes by eye, particle size affects many other paint attributes — color appearance, lightfastness, tinting strength, transparency, staining, viscosity and granulation texture.

• dispersability. This is the quality that allows a paint to dissolve quickly and evenly in water. Paints that take a long time to dissolve or that dissolve into clumps have low dispersability and are typically made with a high proportion of gum binder.

Choose Pigments, Not "Colors". As you navigate paint selections, you must keep in mind the difference between pigments, paints and "colors", that is:

• the chemical substance that provides color (pigment)

• the mixture of pigment and viscous liquid that you can apply with a brush (paint)

• the marketing name that the paint manufacturer gives to the paint product ("color").

A "color" such as indian yellow, burnt orange, spectrum red, permanent violet, royal blue or hooker's green is simply a fancy sounding name used to make the paint more attractive to buy ... it tells you nothing about the color ingredients that are actually in the paint.

The beginner's mistake is to believe that different color names mean significant differences in the ingredients or colors of the paints — which to the beginner means, I have to buy them all! In fact, many paint "colors" are made with exactly the same single pigment, or the same pigment mixtures in slightly different proportions. Across all paint brands, the 30 most commonly used pigments account for about 80% of all the "colors" on the market!

If you make your paint selection by choosing pigments rather than "colors," you can make an "apples to apples" comparison of the quality and price between different paint brands. You'll also be able to choose substitute paints if you need to — paints that contain the pigment you want, even if the paints are from different brands and have completely different marketing names.

To make your pigment selection easier, most paint tube labels identify the pigment ingredients using a standard "ID number" system, called the color index name. I give the color index name for pigments discussed here, which also link to pigment listing in the guide to watercolor pigments. Use these references as you develop your palette selections, and you will effortlessly become familiar with the character and handling attributes of different pigments.

All reputable paint manufacturers now provide the color index names of the pigments in the paint. If you encounter a manufacturer that doesn't — don't buy their paints.

Pigment Alternatives. Although there are easily 1000 paint "colors" available across all watercolor paint brands in the USA retail art market, all these "colors" have been manufactured with just 100 or so generic pigments or colorants.

Pigments are the real carriers of color in paints, so painters want to find the best pigments for a specific selection of hues, values and textural effects. However, if you look within a specific hue category — yellow, red, blue or green — you'll find many pigment alternatives to choose from for a yellow or red paint, but relatively few pigment alternatives for a purple or blue. (Most green paints are convenience mixtures of green and yellow or blue and yellow pigments.)

As guidance, the total inventory of pigments available to you, along with many of the convenience mixtures (prepackaged mixtures of two or more pigments) made from them, are listed in the complete palette. This is just an index to all the pigments described in the guide to watercolor pigments.


context for your choices

the basic mixing strategy

the artists' "primaries"

exploring the
"primary" palette

expanding the palette

other palette topics

The artist's color wheel shows the color (hue and chroma) of the 90 or so most common pigment choices in the format of a traditional color wheel. This shows graphically where there are abundant or sparse pigment alternatives. It will be helpful to print out this color wheel as a guide to the pigment landscape you must navigate.


the artist's color wheel
click here for a full sized image

To help you sort through these choices, the complete palette organizes paints into common color categories, and the palette scheme locates these color categories around the color wheel. This will familiarize you with the standard color names ("deep yellow," "blue green", etc.) and the pigments that provide each color.

An understanding of the basic recipe and ingredients in commercial watercolor paints can help you choose and use paints more effectively. The section on paint ingredients explains the backbone composition of modern watercolor paints and the effects that different ingredients have on paint handling attributes such as transparency and staining.

A basic fact about all paints is that the pigment determines the vehicle recipe, and the vehicle determines the paint handling attributes. For example, many brands of ultramarine blue (PB29) will shoot away from the brush when applied to wet paper (used wet in wet). This does not happen because the pigment likes water, but because a soapy dispersant or wetting agent was added to the paint to accelerate the mixing of pigment and vehicle during manufacture.

Each brand has a different and proprietary backbone composition for its watercolor line. Some brands use more dispersants than others (although use of strong dispersants is less common than it was a decade or two ago), and as you progress in painting you will learn to separate those paint attributes that are due to the pigment from those due to the paint formulation. You control the paint handling attributes by the choice of watercolor brands you use.  

Brand Anxiety. Finally, many novice painters feel it is important to buy the "best" brand of watercolors. This concern is usually misplaced. Despite the wide variation in pricing, tube sizes and full color marketing hype, most of the "professional" grade artists' paints offered for sale in the USA are of comparable quality and provide very similar painting results. There are important brand differences, but these matter only when you have reached a high level of technique.

I vett the various manufacturers in the page on watercolor brands, but at this point don't obsess about the "best" brand of paint to use. Read this page, make some preliminary selections, discuss your requirements with the folks at your local art store, try the brand(s) of paint they recommend, and go from there.

Let's get started!
the basic mixing strategy
Building a palette involves four steps. As described in the section on palette paintings, an artists' paint selections usually represent a basic color mixing strategy. So the first step in building your basic palette is to choose a minimal palette of 3 to 6 "colors" that gives you the entire range of mixed hues and dark values all the way down to a near black.

The second step is to translate these "colors" into specific paint selections, choosing the best single pigment paints from among the pigment alternatives available in watercolors. These paints provide the foundation for the rest of your palette.

The third step is to explore your minimal palette selections — by creating mixing step scales between every pair of paints in the palette, then making a paint wheel of the hues for all 12 points of the tertiary color wheel, mixing near neutral and dark values (as close as possible to black), and making several experimental paintings. If any paint among these foundation colors is badly chosen, these explorations will reveal it.

The fourth and final step is to add paints for colors you cannot mix adequately with the minimal palette you already have. "Adequately" means that you find the colors are too difficult or complicated to mix, or you require the mixed color so frequently that you don't want to mix it each time from scratch, or the mixed colors are not satisfying because they are too dull, bland or light valued, or the mixtures separate before they dry or are too staining or opaque.

Following these steps, the basic palette I recommend contains a balanced selection of lightfast, highly saturated pigments from around the artist's color wheel. The palette map and paint list are:


palette map for the basic palette

paint list for the basic palette
benzimida yellow (either PY151 or PY154)
nickel dioxine yellow (PY153)
cadmium scarlet (or cadmium red light) (PR108)
perylene maroon (PR179)
quinacridone magenta (PR122)
ultramarine blue (PB29)
phthalo blue GS (PB15:3)
cerulean blue (PB35)
phthalo green BS (PG7) or
phthalo green YS (PG36)
gold ochre (PY42) or
yellow ochre (PY43)
burnt sienna (PBr7) or
transparent red oxide (PR101)
neutral tint, indigo or sepia (mixed pigments, usually including PBk6)

Basic Mixing Strategy. The first step in building your basic palette is to select a minimal palette of paints necessary to mix the complete range of hues. These represent your basic mixing strategy, so the aim is to choose the fewest possible paints. Here are the most common alternatives.

Using 2 Paints. Unfortunately, it's impossible to mix the complete range of hues with just two paints, although you can make effective and even atmospheric paintings with a two paint palette that provides an elemental warm/cool, light/dark contrast. Painting a dozen or so works with a two color palette is a healthy preliminary to selecting a wider range of paints: as with drawing in charcoal or Conté crayon, you will find that you can accomplish beautiful effects with only minimal color variations.

Using 3 Paints. Three paints are the minimum necessary to mix every hue around the color circle. After much historical trial and error, it has been found that the most effective selection is a "primary" triad palette of magenta, yellow, and cyan. (Note that middle red and middle blue are not the best "primary" colors.) This palette is widely used to teach color mixing because it strips away everything that distracts you from the basic mixing combinations: how to get an orange, green, violet, brown, and so on.

Unfortunately, the "primary" triad palette has serious limitations in the chromatic balance of color mixtures, and requires a lot of skill to use effectively in a painting — great for virtuosic displays of color mixing, but one of the more difficult choices for a basic mixing strategy. However, it has the benefit of being widely taught and accepted by many artists, so if you want to follow in that tradition than three paints is all you need.

Using 4, 5 or 6 Paints. The common remedy for the limitations of the "primary" triad palette is to add more paints to expand the gamut of the palette.

The traditional solution (since at least the 19th century) has been the split "primary" palette — which divides each "primary" color into two reds, two yellows, and two blues. In my view this is not the best solution to the mixing difficulties, as explained on another page, but many color mixing texts use the split "primary" system and you may find it useful.

If I were allowed a palette of six paints, my immediate choice would be the brilliant, balanced and easily manipulated secondary palette. I explain some of the advantages of that selection on another page, and there is no reason you shouldn't adopt this palette as your basic mixing strategy.

However, we've been distracted from our goal of starting with the smallest number of paints, because we're now adding paints to make mixing more convenient. So let's consider instead a palette based on the four unique hues or the artists' primariesyellow, red, blue and green.

These four paints can mix the complete range of hues at high saturation, get almost the maximum range of value (that is, they can mix an almost black near neutral), and they are easier to understand than the "primary" triad palette as a way to learn color mixing in relation to a color wheel. The four hues mark off the four fundamental quadrants of a color wheel: bright warm colors between yellow and magenta, dark red violets and purples between magenta and blue violet, the full range of blues from blue violet to blue green, and the full range of greens between blue green and yellow.
the artists' "primaries"
Once we've settled on a basic mixing strategy (four paints), we want to choose paints that have the highest possible chroma or saturation. Why? Because this gives us the largest gamut or mixing range. So we will disregard the many lovely but somewhat dull paints available, and focus on colors that are rich and intense.

But which red, and which blue? There are so many! Let's look at each hue in the artists' "primaries" to identify the major pigment alternatives in the watercolor paints for each hue.

Yellow. This is really the keystone hue, because you will use it to mix colors around the entire color circle — from dull green blues through bright yellow greens and all warm hues from deep yellow to deep red (only purple mixtures do not use yellow). As the lightest valued and most saturated of all paints, yellow also determines the warmth of the light and atmosphere in your painting. The key, then, is to choose your yellow not as a color all by itself, but as the essential component of a wide range of other color mixtures.

Intense or saturated yellows come in three basic hues: a light or lemon yellow; a medium, pale or neutral yellow, and a deep or near orange yellow. A medium or pale yellow is, by popular consensus, the most flexible choice, and works equally well in the "primary"triad palette, the artists' "primaries" palette, and the secondary palette.

light yellow (lemon)
 medium yellow
 deep yellow

BENZIMIDAZOLONE YELLOW (PY151 or PY154, and conveniently abbreviated as "benzimida yellow"). As offered by Winsor & Newton, M. Graham, Da Vinci, Schmincke or Rembrandt, benzimida yellow is a wonderful neutral yellow, neither warm nor cool, semitransparent and saturated, wth excellent lightfastness and good tinting (mixing) strength. It dilutes to a transparent tint, holds its own against any other paint it is mixed with, and harmonizes well with the cadmium and earth paints. A popular choice for basic yellow is hansa yellow (PY97), offered by Daniel Smith and Winsor & Newton; although it is one of the most saturated yellow pigments available and is a potent and flexible mixer, it has marginal lightfastness in my view.

The major alternative for a basic yellow is one of the cadmium yellows. These have been commonly used since the late 19th century and are still very popular today. I suggest a "cadmium yellow light" or "cadmium yellow pale" (with a hue angle between 80 and 90), such as the M. Graham, MaimeriBlu or Rembrandt cadmium yellow light, the Winsor & Newton, Rowney Artists or Holbein cadmium yellow pale (PY35). Some artists recommend a greener color, a "cadmium yellow lemon" with a hue angle well above 90; but cadmiums of that hue are too whitish, with so much green that they produce unappealing orange and scarlet mixtures. The "middle" cadmium yellow offered by many brands is too warm (tinged with red) to provide a balanced yellow, but this increases the intensity of mixed oranges and reds. (Refer to this cadmium color chart to compare the hues offered by different paint brands.)

All cadmium paints have some drawbacks that may affect your selection. First, they are relatively pricey — though well worth the money for their rock solid permanence and color intensity. Second, cadmiums are commonly described as opaque and therefore more difficult to handle, especially in foliage green mixtures that must appear luminous or transparent. Third, the cadmiums come with a health warning, though the health risks are, in my view, nonexistent if you use standard painting techniques. (This means don't eat the paint, put paint soaked brushes in your mouth, or inhale paint as a mist, spray or heated vapor; and don't leave tainted rinse water where a pet can drink it.) And finally, cadmiums are potentially polluting, and technically should be disposed of as hazardous waste, in the same way you'd get rid of lead based housepaint (though the quantity of cadmium in watercolors is vanishingly small compared to the amount of toxic metals in other sources). Because of these issues, most paint brands offer equivalent red, orange and yellow colors using modern, carbon based (synthetic organic) pigments, which are harmless all around.

Some manufacturers offer a balanced yellow hue labeled a primary yellow or spectrum yellow. Be careful of those designations, because manufacturers sometimes choose a lemony yellow pigment, such as hansa yellow light (PY3), as the "spectrum" color. The problem with these lemon yellows, and similar light yellows such as bismuth yellow (PY184) or nickel titanium yellow (PY53) is that they are either too green to mix strong oranges or scarlets, too pale to mix deep greens, or too dull to provide bright yellow accents. (They are delightful pigments in other roles.) I also don't recommend you use aureolin (PY40), as this pigment can fade or turn grayish if exposed to sunlight or moisture. (If you have opted for a "primary" triad palette, use any yellow paint listed under the "primary" triad color wheel.)

Many manufacturers provide a synthetic organic "deep" yellow under the marketing names gamboge or indian yellow. These antiquated color pseudonyms tell you nothing about the actual paint ingredients. Genuine indian yellow is no longer available from any manufacturer, and in 2005 Winsor & Newton finally retired its genuine gamboge. Look for the pigment color index name on the label to determine what is actually in the paint — and if you can't find the pigment information, don't buy the paint!

Red. Red comes in four basic hues — a light or scarlet red (close to red orange), a medium red, and a deep or carmine red, and magenta. There is also a systematic decline in lightness across the red range: deep red is darker than middle red, which is darker than scarlet, which is darker than orange.

 light red (scarlet, red orange)
 medium red
 deep red (carmine)
 magenta (rose)

Unlike yellow, red is less critical to a wide range of color mixtures: it is most often mixed with yellow to make "warm" colors (various oranges, pinks, tans and browns, and caucasian flesh tones), and to neutralize green mixtures. (Think of orange as basically a red hue, not as a yellow hue, because, like red and unlike yellow, orange paints do not mix green with a greenish blue or bluish green paint.) And many painters think that they need red and blue to make red violet or purple hues, but in fact most red paints do not reflect any "blue" wavelengths and so make drab purple mixtures: only a bluish magenta (red violet) can do purples effectively.

If you're a beginning painter then you will instinctively want to choose a "really red" red, such as cadmium red (PR108), naphthol red (PR170) or pyrrole red (PR254). These paints have different drawbacks. Although I like cadmiums for the yellow to scarlet range of hues, the red cadmiums tend to darken and dull too much as they dry, and they are also among the most opaque paints. Pyrrole red or naphthol red are beautiful pigments, but their brilliance tends to make their mixtures with other paints look rather strident, synthetic or one dimensional; and these paints make muddy purple mixtures. Although purples are traditionally of secondary importance in painting, it's wise to avoid a "true" red and instead choose a bluish red that gives strong warm color mixtures (including intense reds) yet still gives an effective range of mixed red violets and purples.

So our choice for a basic red settles on a magenta color. QUINACRIDONE MAGENTA (PR122 or PR202) are superb replacements for the fugitive and obsolete alizarin crimson (PR83). A popular alternative is the light shade of quinacridone violet, almost universally marketed as quinacridone rose or permanent rose (PV19). And if you prefer a color that is warmer than magenta, then the widely available quinacridone red (PR209) provides gorgeous mixtures with yellow, very satisfactory purples with blue, and is a saturated red when used on its own. Any of these four red paints creates a wide range of interesting, muted browns and tans when mixed with yellow or yellow green paints (green gold, sap green).

One or both of these quinacridone pigments is offered by every major paint brand, because they provide mixing versatility and good lightfastness. At full strength, quinacridone magenta (or rose) are not too light valued (pink) so they can mix fairly dark maroons and violets with green or blue paints; surprisingly, because of their relatively high saturation, they can mix a satisfying range of moderately intense oranges and reds with most medium yellow or deep yellow paints.

Michael Wilcox spurns quinacridone magenta as impermanent, based solely on what appears to be an erroneous ASTM rating. Manufacturer and my own lightfastness tests do not indicate signficant problems — in my lightfastness tests, most brands of quinacridone magenta (PR122) turned out to be more lightfast than some brands of quinacridone rose (PV19)!

You will find alizarin crimson recommended frequently in published art tutorials, but I advise you to ignore this stodgy, "old master" prejudice. And as old and cynical as I have become, my jaw still drops every time I encounter a watercolor painter who uses fugitive rose madder genuine (NR9). We're not talking about a Queen Victoria pigment here, this stuff goes back to Ben Franklin!

A unusual alternative is the dark shade of quinacridone violet (PV19), a very interesting compromise between a red violet and light valued magenta paint. It's warm enough to provide wonderfully dark, muted mixtures with the other warm colors on the palette, yet dark enough to serve as a dark violet when mixed with blues or greens. (Mixed with phthalo green BS, it makes a wonderful dark, dull blue violet, identical to the increasingly popular indanthrone blue PB60, which is also a great shadow color.) It has excellent lightfastness (always an issue to be concerned about with rose or magenta colors of any kind) and produces a lovely hint of blue in diluted washes. But the drawback to quinacridone violet is its dark hue; it dilutes up to a muted, "bruised" rose color, making it less suitable for floral subjects, it cannot mix a decent orange color, and it can easily overpower an ochre or raw sienna, making it tricky to handle in portraits.

Finally, you will discover that the color variations across paint manufacturers in rose or magenta quinacridones are rather large: refer to the guide to watercolor pigments to assess hue and lightness of the different brands.

Historically, both yellow and bluish red pigments have been among the most susceptible to fade when exposed to light — as you've probably noticed in many color advertising posters left too long in quick mart windows. You should be especially cautious about the permanence or lightfastness of bluish red pigments. Currently the most saturated and lightfast red pigments available include the quinacridones. I used to advocate the beautiful quinacridone carmine [pyrrolidone] (PR N/A), but my 2004 lightfastness tests convinced me I could do better. I also found that some brands of quinacridone rose, and hybrid quinacridones intended to replace fugitive carmine pigments, may also have less than optimal permanence. Do your own lightfastness tests to be sure.

It's important to choose your blue red and yellow paints carefully. The number of possible paint choices is very large, and red or yellow are part of every mixed hue around the color circle, with the exception of blues.

Blue. The choice of blue and green pigments is drastically more limited compared to the available reds or yellows — a fact of chemistry and not an artistic prejudice — so the selection for a minimal palette is easier to make. At the same time, any blue selection is less satisfactory because the hue range of colors we call "blue" is quite large — from blue violet to turquoise.

There are only five colorants currently available to provide blue colors in lightfast art materials: (1) ultramarine blue, (2) iron (prussian) blue, (3) cobalt blues (commonly labeled cobalt blue deep, cobalt blue, cobalt cerulean, cobalt turquoise and cobalt teal), (4) phthalocyanine blues (red shade, green shade and turquoise), and (5) indanthrone blue. (Because it was excessively polluting, manganese blue is no longer manufactured.) As there are so few useful blue pigments available, blues are typically not named by an abstract color category (such as scarlet red or deep yellow), but after the pigment itself. You should learn to associate these pigment names with the four major blue categories:

red blue (cobalt, ultramarine, indanthrone)
 middle blue (cobalt, phthalo, iron blue)
 green blue/cyan (cobalt, phthalo)
 turquoise (cobalt)

Consult the complete palette for a full listing. Notice that, as the hue shifts from red blue to turquoise, the cobalt blues get lighter valued but their chroma also declines steadily. Cobalt teal blue is the lightest valued but exceptionally very saturated.

Perhaps the best basic paint choice from this limited selection is PHTHALOCYANINE BLUE GREEN SHADE (pronounced "thal-oh", PB15:3). This is another extremely useful modern pigment, widely used in color printing: dark valued, bright across the entire range of tints, very lightfast, and (in the paints labeled "green shade") close to a cyan blue hue. If the paint manufacturer offers a "red shade" and a "green shade" of phthalo blue, the "red" phthalo will be darker valued and closer to a middle blue hue, and is often slightly less lightfast than the green. (This chart shows the hues of different brands of phthalo blue.) (If you want to use the "primary" triad palette, use one of the cyan paints listed under the "primary" triad color wheel.)

Phthalo blue can be strongly staining, and has high tinting strength (is powerful in mixtures); it can also be somewhat dull in masstone, and create backruns in dilute washes. The hue and tinting strength depend on the manufacturer, so review the brands listed in the guide to watercolor pigments to get the paint characteristics you prefer.

There are few good alternatives for a basic blue. The major alternative is cobalt blue (PB28), which has a beautiful texture and is extremely lightfast, but is a little too light valued and weak in tinting strength for a basic blue. It is also relatively expensive. However, it is an excellent wash pigment, and you may like the subtle textures you can get with it — in this case, the expressive pigment granulation outweighs the other drawbacks.

Finally, prussian blue (PB27) is both dark and unsaturated, which makes it less useful as a basic blue but very evocative in certain applications. Some artists do not use it because of its reported marginal lightfastness, but in fact the ASTM (in 1999) assigned it an "excellent" (I) lightfastness rating, and in my 2004 lightfastness tests I found the highest quality pigments were very durable, though there was prompt but very slight fading in the tints of some brands. The hearsay reports of its impermanence or its quirk of changing back to its original color when put in darkness date from the 19th century. However, paints labeled antwerp blue typically are less lightfast and should be avoided.

Green. The choice among green pigments is even more limited by the facts of chemistry than the blues. In fact, the first modern greens were copper acetoarsenite (emerald green) and the chromium oxide greens (viridian and chromium oxide), developed in 1820-40. The next important green pigment, phthalo green, was not commercially available until 1936, a century later! That time gap alone indicates the significant chemical problems in creating good green pigments. This is the reason why painters have traditionally mixed their greens from blue and yellow.

As with the blues, the range of green hues is large and the selection of useful pigments is quite small. Most greens are convenience mixtures of green and yellow or blue and yellow paints, and you should learn to associate these convenience mixture names with the four major green categories:

blue green (emerald)
 middle green (hooker's, permanent deep)
 yellow green (sap, permanent light)
 green gold (olive)

My preference for a basic green is PHTHALOCYANINE GREEN BLUE SHADE (pronounced "thal-oh", PG7), because it is has astonishing tinting strength, is extremely dark in masstone, mixes well with both the yellow and blue pigments, and produces intense near blacks when mixed with a red pigment such as perylene maroon. Phthalo green is also typically strongly staining and some brands have a gooey consistency because so much binder or extender has been added to the paint to buffer its staining and tinting power. You may want to try different brands to find one that works best on your preferred brand of paper.

The primary alternative is viridian (PG18), one of the oldest and most lightfast synthetic inorganic green pigments. It is exactly same hue as phthalo green BS but is slightly less saturated; it also has a weaker tinting strength mixtures and is much less staining, so it can be lifted with brush and water. (Try that with a phthalo pigment!) It works well to produce a more subdued range of hues and can give greens and blue greens a lovely subtle texture. Many waltercolor painters feel it is the best green pigment available.

Phthalo green yellow shade (PG36) is by comparison a slightly lighter valued and less staining pigment, with slightly lower (but still strong) tinting strength in mixtures, a little too yellow to mix effective dark neutrals with a carmine red paint; you have to use a rose or magenta paint instead. However, it has the highest chroma of any green pigment in use today and produces really intense yellow greens when mixed with a green gold or greenish yellow paint. It may be a better green to choose if you want to mix really bright yellow greens for spring foliage, tropical birds or botanicals.

I can't recommend as a basic green any of the remaining greens, including chromium oxide green (PG17), cobalt green (PG19) or cobalt green dark (PG26). These are older and relatively dull pigments, which significantly limits their mixing range, although the darker cobalt paint is great for dark foliage such as perennial oaks or pine trees, and I find chromium oxide green produces a beautiful range of natural looking yellow greens when mixed with a bright "primary" yellow.

The newer cobalt titanium green (which comes in a range of shades, all listed under PG50) has a gratifying mellow tone; the blue shade is lighter valued than viridian but with the same hue and saturation, and like viridian it is relatively easy to handle in masstone and diluted solutions. Unfortunately the inherent whitish color and relative opacity of these unique pigments make them less versatile as a basic green paint.

Many artists use a premixed yellow green, such as olive green, sap green or hooker's green (listed as convenience mixtures under PG7 and PG36), but I suggest you start with a pure pigment green. The convenience greens are more variable across brands, which makes it harder for you to learn how to get a specific green mixture as proportions of your basic yellow and green or yellow and blue paints; and all of them are mixtures of phthalo green and a yellow paint, which are already on your palette.
exploring the "primary" palette
Once you've selected on four paints as your basic mixing palette, the next step is to get familiar with what these paints can do.

First, use these four to mix the other colors on a color wheel. I suggest you mix the 12 tertiary colors and the near neutral colors produced by mixing paints that are opposite each other on the color wheel. Take your time, and pay attention the relative tinting (mixing) strength of each paint against the others, the handling attributes of the paints, as well as the transparency, intensity, and texture of the mixtures. Paint out each mixed color at optimal dilution (with just enough added water so that the dried mixture is "not black, not white") and then as a tint (heavily diluted with water). This is important: many paints that are attractive at full strength can be very disappointing in tints.

Next, try to mix a dark neutral shade, as close to black as you can get. In most palettes you do this most effectively by mixing a deep red with a blue green, a magenta with a middle green, a scarlet with a turquoise or an orange with a middle blue. Use your dark neutral mixture to darken the tertiary color mixtures you have already prepared for your color wheel, so that each color mixture appears as three color swatches: at maximum chroma, as a shade (darkened with the neutral mixture), and as a tint (the pure color diluted with water). Set this paint wheel up in your studio or home, and look at it under different types of light to judge if you like the results.

Once you've familiarized yourself with the range of possible color mixtures, test drive the paints in several small format (say 6"x9") paintings. The goal is not to make masterpieces, but to turn out a variety of colorful sketches. Paint several different subjects — botanicals, portraits, landscapes or seascapes, whatever your pleasure — to see how the color mixtures and value range perform in each case. Be sure to paint several examples of subjects you most enjoy painting. Take your time, because you are learning about color mixing as well as paints and paint combinations. (You may want to review my intuitive color study when you do.) Really look at the colors, and ask yourself if you love the mixtures your palette can make.

Display your paint wheel and test paintings where you can study them all in good light, and look them over carefully. Get a glass of wine or cup of tea, sit down and indulge your eyes. Ask yourself where the total harmony of the colors seems beautiful and where it seems lacking, both in relation to the character of the subjects you chose to paint, and the range of colors it was easy or difficult to mix. For example, you may find your mixed greens are fine if you like to paint florals or landscapes, but too dull if you want to paint parrots. The mixtures with blue may be too light or too staining. The mixed oranges may look almost brown ... and so on.

As you proceed, if one or more of the paints seems badly chosen, try changing one paint at a time to fix the problem. If the mixed oranges seem too dull, you can try shifting your red (rose) or yellow paint toward orange. If the phthalo blue makes dull purples, you can try cobalt or ultramarine blue instead. With this new palette reproduce the questionable painting, and see if it looks better. It is important actually to try out various color substitutions: you'll learn the relative saturation costs of the different paint combinations, and you'll realize how much the colors you can mix with one paint depend on the other cornerstone paints of your palette.
expanding the palette
Eventually you will settle on a selection of four paints. You'll also have a keen sense of the ways you're still not satisfied with your choices — the colors you still can't mix as brightly or as easily as you like, or with the texture, handling attributes or value you want.

You then are ready to take the third and final step in choosing your basic palette: adding paints to those you already have to fill out these shortcomings in your color mixtures. Artists usually first add to the warm side of the palette, then to the cool side, and finally add any darks or earth pigments necessary to fill out the hue and value range.

Warm Colors. Your color mixing explorations with your "primary" colors probably made you recognize the value of adding paints in the range of warm colors. Our color vision is very sensitive to differences in the saturation and tonal value of warm hues, and most deep yellows and oranges mixed from a carmine red and yellow will appear much too dull. So most artists add more warm paints to their palette. (Unlike the violet, blue and green paints, none of the warm colored paints have strong pigment textures, so granulation is not a factor in your selection.)

You could select a single orange or red orange paint to straddle the distance between yellow and carmine red, but this will leave you with less than brilliant deep yellow mixtures. So it's more common to add two paints, a deep yellow and a scarlet or red orange.

For the deep yellow, NICKEL DIOXINE YELLOW (PY153) is a versatile and gorgeous deep yellow pigment, especially as made by Daniel Smith (under the marketing name new gamboge) or Rowney Artists (indian yellow). In concentrated form it is almost yellow orange; in tints it shifts to approximately a middle yellow, producing a really attractive range of color mixing effects. It's also semitransparent, with good tinting strength, and very good for mixing natural but glowing middle to yellow greens.

An attractive alternative is isoindolinone yellow (PY110), currently only offered by Daniel Smith (permanent yellow deep) and M. Graham. This also has a near orange redness in concentrated applications, but dilutes down to a soft buttery yellow in tints. It is extremely lightfast, semitransparent and has good mixing strength. It may be the best deep yellow pigment available.

Interesting alternatives that appear dull but produce beautiful green mixtures are the semitransparent nickel azo yellow (PY150) and quinacridone gold (PO49), now only available from Daniel Smith. (All other watercolor paints with the marketing name "quinacridone gold" are actually made with nickel azo yellow or yellow iron oxide.) Both paints range from a dull, nutty deep yellow in masstone to radiant light yellow tints, making them especially useful for botanical or landscape palettes, and both paints actually increase in chroma as they are diluted, making them acceptable for floral painting as well. I don't recommend you use anthrapyrimidine yellow (PY108), as my 2004 lightfastness tests show it has only marginal permanence (it darkens somewhat in masstone).

The other choices, such as cadmium yellow (PY35), cadmium yellow deep or hansa yellow deep (PY65) are also high in chroma and mixing strength, although they seem to me bland by comparison.

Finally, you can push the hue even warmer with benzimidazolone orange (PO62), a yellow orange pigment that is very saturated and has good lightfastness, although it is rather opaque and mixes dull yellow greens.

As I've already suggested, avoid convenience mixtures (paints made with two or more pigments) called gamboge yellow or indian yellow. These rarely have anything special to offer in color appearance or mixing attributes, and are often less lightfast than paints made with the single pigments mentioned above.

You want to choose a warm yellow that gives a strong color contrast to the basic yellow you already have. If you have chosen a warm "middle" yellow for your four basic colors, you will probably want to go the opposite direction and choose a cooler, very lemony "light" yellow, as described above. Again, you're not so much interested in the pure color of the paint (which you rarely have need of) as in the mixing effects of the yellows with the other red and green paints on your palette.

For the red orange, try CADMIUM SCARLET (sometimes labeled cadmium red light, PR108). Nothing glows quite like a pure cadmium scarlet, in part because it is close to the warmest hue in the color wheel (at around hue angle 40). Again, the exact hue varies by manufacturer; the Winsor & Newton shade is the farthest toward orange and one of the most intense, and the Holbein cadmium red orange is also a great choice. Cadmium scarlet creates a very effective range of oranges with hansa yellow deep, nickel dioxine yellow, isoindolinone yellow or cadmium yellow deep, and a complete range of very beautiful reds when mixed with your basic quinacridone magenta or quinacridone rose. It also makes deep gray neutrals with phthalo blue, but the combination of these pigments can be rather dull — not necessarily a bad thing, because you have the equally dark, but transparent and lustrous mixture of quinacridone magenta and phthalo green BS as a contrast.

The most common synthetic organic (less polluting) alternatives are naphthol scarlet (PR188) or naphthol red (PR170); I do not recommend either paint because they have marginal lightfastness. And why bother, when pyrrole scarlet (PR255) or pyrrole red (PR254) are both more lightfast and more brilliant colors?

The most saturated pigment on the orange side is pyrrole orange (PO73), now available as a pure pigment paint from Daniel Smith, M. Graham, Winsor & Newton and Rowney Artists (warm orange). (My 2004 lightfastness tests indicate that Schmincke's translucent orange (another pyrrole orange, PO71) has marginal lightfastness. Although pyrrole orange is a stunning pure color, it makes duller mixtures with magenta or yellow than a cadmium pigment. Finally, perinone orange (PO43), which comes in both a light (MaimeriBlu's orange lake) and a dark (Daniel Smith's perinone orange) color, has marginal lightfastness (it tends to darken slightly in masstone).

As I said, some artists choose an orange paint, in this case cadmium orange (PO20), but you may find that this is too close to the deep yellow hue you already have. It is also one of the dullest cadmium pigments, when compared to a cadmium yellow or cadmium scarlet: in fact, a few manufacturers (including Winsor & Newton and Holbein) mix their cadmium orange from red and yellow cadmium pigments.

Finally, a deep red paint is necessary to produce muted reds, dark purples and brownish or ocherish oranges and yellows, including muted flesh tones mixed with yellow. Here you cannot do better than PERYLENE MAROON (PR179). It is an exact mixing complement for phthalocyanine green BS and these make a very dark mixture that can be more intense than carbon black. It is somewhat staining but is typically transparent and has good tinting strength. Best of all: it has excellent lightfastness.

Most painters who prefer alizarin crimson do so because of its dull color rather than its bluish red hue. Quinacridone magenta (or rose) gives the watercolorist an intense, lightfast bluish red, but those saturated red violets seem less attractive substitutes because they don't provide the dull crimson so useful for figure, portrait and botanical painting. Perylene maroon fills that need perfectly (diagram, right). It is the same hue as alizarin crimson, quincardione carmine (PR N/A), pyrrole rubine (PR264) or anthraquinone red (PR177), so it makes intense darks with phthalo green; it has a lower chroma than these other pigments, but this lower chroma makes it more versatile in color mixtures. It has a stronger red color and a lighter value than burnt umber, and adds an important reddish brown range to landscapes and botanicals as well.

How do you use it? Just separate your requirements for high chroma color and dark, rich color. A high chroma red is mixed from cadmium scarlet with quinacridone magenta, rose or red; a high chroma purple from quinacridone magenta or rose and ultramarine blue. If you need dark blacks, dark warm mixtures or a dull crimson tint, use perylene maroon instead — it warms flesh tones, earth colors and vegetable browns. If you need a true crimson or carmine color, mix perylene maroon with quinacridone red or rose, and forget any lightfastness worries. Perylene maroon also works well with iron oxide (earth) paints, as these give the mixtures a granular or powdery quality.

Several paint brands (Daniel Smith, Winsor & Newton, M. Graham, Da Vinci and Rowney Artists) now offer perylene maroon; all are very good. Some artists seem to prefer quinacridone maroon (PR206) but to my taste it is a little too dull and low in tinting strength, and its mixtures with phthalo green are not as dark. If perylene maroon is too dull for you as an alizarin crimson replacement, then quincardione carmine (PR N/A), pyrrole rubine (PR264) or anthraquinone red (PR177) are excellent color matches with good lightfastness.

Earth (Iron Oxide) Colors. Your explorations with the four basic paints will have taught you many fundamentals about color mixing, and one of these is the inconvenience of mixing dull warm colors, such as tans, browns and flesh tones. In addition, most intense (highly saturated) pigments look great at full strength, but (except for the cadmiums) seem to dull and blotch too much in tints. This explains the enduring popularity of the many earth pigments, nowadays almost always convenience mixtures of synthetic iron oxides. No basic palette would be complete without them.

Many artists choose either raw sienna (PBr7) or yellow ochre (PY43) as an earthy or dull yellow paint. These yellow iron oxides work very well to make warm foundation tints (to provide a warm background glow behind paints glazed over them), to mix natural subdued greens, and to neutralize blue or red colors slightly. Either raw sienna or yellow ochre is invaluable for landscape and portrait or figure work, as they mix beautifully uneven greens and softened flesh tones. They are especially effective in portrait work, because they reduce the staining intensity of the quinacridone or phthalo pigments, making it easier to rewet, soften or lift (blot) a passage to model facial features.

Some artists dislike the clumpy, slightly greasy texture of yellow ochre; it is also coarser than phthalo blue or phthalo green, and more likely to separate from them in juicy mixtures. If you choose raw sienna, get the clear yellow version (Winsor & Newton raw sienna or Daniel Smith's monte amiata natural sienna) rather than dull grayish color offered by most other brands. (To understand the color differences among earth colors, take my earth pigments tour.)

My favorite earth yellow is Winsor & Newton GOLD OCHRE (PY42), an excellent paint for portrait and figure painting, capable of creating more expressive textural effects in masstone than yellow ochre or raw sienna, and valuable for its permanence and versatility. There is also chrome titanate yellow (PBr24) which has the same dull deep yellow hue but with a natural whitish tone. In very dilute applications both are very similar to raw sienna, but in masstone they create a rich deep yellow. Chrome titanate is naturally somewhat whitish, which means you can also use it as a whitening paint in landscapes, much like naples yellow, and for texturing effects similar to chinese white. However these special effects take us away from the requirements for a basic palette.

The other indispensable earth color is the dull but glowing BURNT SIENNA (PBr7 or PR101). Nearly all watercolor palettes include it. It provides a wonderful unsaturated form of red orange (the warmest hue), mixes to lovely grays and dark browns with many blues (ultramarine blue in particular), subdues all colors slightly to create subtle warm shadow colors or unsaturated tones, and creates earthy deep green mixtures with phthalo green. Mixed with a touch of quinacridone magenta and cerulean blue it makes slightly deeper and redder flesh tones than yellow ochre or raw sienna.

There are some nuances to choosing a "burnt sienna" paint. Most brands of burnt sienna are made with a brownish, relatively opaque variety of iron oxide (usually listed as ingredient PBr7), which gives a darker, less saturated but delicious color, close to milk chocolate. The more intense, slightly yellower and genuinely transparent alternative — which can be used by itself or with a touch of quinacridone magenta for flesh tones — is made with transparent red iron oxide (PR101, actually manufactured as a wood stain pigment) available from Winsor & Newton, M. Graham, Rembrandt, Maimeri, Da Vinci or Robert Doak. (Again, see the earth pigments tour to see the variation across seven brands.) Try both kinds in mixtures with the other colors on your palette to identify your preference.

relative color of
carmine & magenta paints

on the CIELAB a*b* plane

Some artists dislike the dullness that results from mixtures with earth pigments. In that case, try the more saturated and transparent quinacridone orange (PO48), now available from Daniel Smith, M. Graham and Da Vinci.

Cool Colors. Your next step is filling out the cool side of the palette. This is actually the easiest part, because there are not many good blue or violet paints to choose from, and you've already chosen the warm colors that the blues and greens will complement.

Leading the list is ULTRAMARINE BLUE (PB29). What a great pigment! This is without doubt one of the loveliest blues you will find: a semitransparent, dark and strongly saturated blue violet, a synthetic version of the costly mineral pigment lapis lazuli that appears in medieval illuminated manuscripts as well as Romantic era watercolors. It can produce a magical clumpy texture (called flocculation) in washes, and mixes intense dark violets with a rose, magenta or violet quinacridone. Ultramarine and burnt sienna mix a magically subtle range of brown, gray and indigo hues — many early 20th century watercolor artists, such as J.S. Sargent or William Russell Flint, were masters at getting the full expressive range from this color mixture alone. Be sure you test your selection of ultramarine and burnt sienna paints to make sure they work well together.

Some artists might choose the newer cobalt blue deep (PB72) for their reddish blue. This produces wonderfully glowing blues, especially in tints (where ultramarine blue seems to dull too quickly), but I find it is too opaque for really versatile mixing; it also seems to fade if exposed to acidic paper or air. Finally, indanthrone blue (PB60) is, despite appearances, the same hue as ultramarine blue, but darker valued and much lower chroma. It is a moody and handsome color in some contexts, but probably too limiting for a basic palette: it lightens excessively when it dries, and tends to blotch in large color areas.

Most watercolor painters get their textural effects with CERULEAN BLUE (PB35), traditionally a semiopaque, grayish green blue. The opacity, saturation and hue of cerulean blue paints differ significantly across brands (for more information on these differences, see the color notes to this pigment in the guide to watercolor pigments). A good cerulean blue mixes a lovely range of natural looking, mid valued greens with all the yellow and earth paints, makes a delicious range of turquoises with phthalo green, and a glorious sky blue when mixed with a touch of ultramarine blue. It handles very well in washes, but can be grainy, streaky or opaque in glazes. It is the perfect muting or dulling paint in skin tone mixtures with a yellow iron oxide and a carmine or rose paint; its granular texture makes these flesh mixtures easier to adjust with blotting or rewetting after they have been applied. (Notice how often we choose paints for their handling attributes as well as their color!)

You will probably find that you don't require any other green paints besides the phthalo green you already have. You can mix a nearly limitless range of green colors using phthalo green, phthalo blue and cerulean blue with the three yellows already on your palette (benzimidazolone yellow, nickel dioxine yellow, and yellow ochre or raw sienna), muted as much as necessary with burnt sienna (for warm greens) or ultramarine blue (for cool greens). One of the best ways to develop your mixing skills is to learn how to mix any shade of green you want from these basic colors, rather than relying on premixed greens as a crutch. (Premixed greens, in any case, are made with exactly the same pigments you already have, so they don't give you anything you can't mix yourself.)

If you do choose another green, then I suggest you consider either copper azo green (PY129) or chromium oxide green (PG17). The first is actually an unsaturated yellow, but looks green to the eye, so it is quite useful to mix bright, transparent and very natural yellow greens; on the warm side of the color circle, it creates muted but interesting browns and tans with quinacridone red or magenta. At first blush, chromium oxide green is a dull and very opaque yellow green, but when mixed with a yellow paint it creates surprisingly bright and effective landscape greens, and it produces beautiful dark green (pine or oak green) mixtures with phthalo blue.

Dark Shades. Your final paint choice should help you attain the widest possible value range or help you manipulate mixtures very close to gray. Since you can dilute paints all the way up to the white of the paper, dark is the direction you need to emphasize in a basic palette. A really deep dark paint will let you pull all your mixtures into a full span of dark shades.

The choice here is between a black paint (such as ivory black, carbon black or lamp black), and a dark near neutral convenience mixture made with mostly black pigment tinted to shift the color slightly toward brown, violet or blue. However, be advised that none of these paints is a significant improvement over the transparent, rich blacks you can mix with phthalo green and perylene maroon. Their principal advantage is convenience. If you rarely use black in your paintings or paint mixtures, then choose one of the alternatives listed further below.

The most common choices among the dark neutral convenience mixtures are payne's gray (shifted toward blue), sepia (shifted toward brown), indigo (shifted toward blue or green) or the popular NEUTRAL TINT (shifted toward violet). These paints can adjust any color toward a shadow hue, and the bluish or violet shades are superb for moody gray skies.

Since these paints are just mixtures of a carbon black with blues you already have in your palette, it may seem reasonable to go with black as your dark pigment. Ivory black (now made with charred animal bones) is extremely intense if made correctly, and is slightly warmer and less greasy or spotty than the carbons made by burning petroleum wastes (sold as lamp, furnace or carbon black).

Unfortunately, all carbon pigments have an unpleasant tendency to lighten significantly as they dry because of surface scattering (the origin of the black "dullness" or grayness). Carbon pigment particles are also extremely small and light, and tend to float to the surface in paint mixtures, creating areas of obtrusive and unsightly dull texture in your painting. Increased light scattering is the reason most watercolors lose chroma as they dry, and black pigments only compound the problem. Hence the taboo against them.

If you mix your dark neutralizing tint yourself (from perylene maroon and phthalo green, or cadmium scarlet and phthalo blue), then this opens up a slot to add a dark earth pigment to your palette. First suggestion: burnt umber (PBr7) is a lovely, very dark and very warm color that is a longstanding favorite with landscape painters; it also mixes to intense but harmonious darks with ultramarine blue or phthalo blue and, adjusted with gold ochre or quinacridone magenta as appropriate, makes a useful base color for yellower or darker flesh tones (asiatic or negroid, depending on the strength and hue of the mixture).

Second suggestion: venetian red (or english red, PR101). This is a beautiful, opaque and very useful pigment, loveliest when used in tints (where it can reach a glowing pinkish or salmon color) or wet in wet (where it can make strong statements because of its opacity). It is also handy for architectural elements such as masonry, brick or warm woods, is very effective as the "earth" component in flesh mixtures with a more intense yellow, mixes interesting maroons with quinacridone violet, and is a highly effective mixing complement for cerulean blue, iron blue (the dark mixture preferred by Winslow Homer) and all shades of phthalo blue. Note that indian red is darker and even more opaque; the Winsor & Newton light red is an excellent alternative.

So ... once again, here's the paint list for the palette we end up with:


palette map for the basic palette

paint list for the basic palette
benzimida yellow (either PY151 or PY154)
nickel dioxine yellow (PY153)
cadmium scarlet (or cadmium red light) (PR108)
perylene maroon (PR179)
quinacridone magenta (PR122)
ultramarine blue (PB29)
phthalo blue GS (PB15:3)
cerulean blue (PB35)
phthalo green BS (PG7) or
phthalo green YS (PG36)
gold ochre (PY42) or
yellow ochre (PY43) or
transparent yellow oxide (PY42)
burnt sienna (PBr7) or
transparent red oxide (PR101)
neutral tint, indigo or sepia (mixed pigments, usually PBk6)

If you've followed this discussion and actually made your paint choices, congratulations! You now have a total palette of a dozen colors that can equal the mixing power and versatility of many much larger selections of paints.

Your last step is to put this palette to work: get out and paint with it! After you've done one or two dozen paintings of different subjects and using different color designs, you'll have a pretty clear idea of where the palette still may not quite meet your needs.

However, the steps you've taken to choose the palette will also help you identify the paint choices that may create the problems — in your fundamental colors, your warm or cool hues, your earths or your darks. You then can swap out individual colors for new paints to get the effects you want.

You may also want to study the palette choices made by other artists, to see if their approach gets you the painting effects you like.
other palette topics
There are a few final points that are worth keeping in mind as you select colors and choose the brands to buy:

Manufacturers. I get emails all the time with one question: what is the best brand of watercolor paint? If you are still on the voyage of finding your basic palette, then this is a misplaced concern. All the major brands deliver good quality for the price, and are often indistinguishable as finished paintings. The "best" brand of paint will be the brand with the most lightfast pigments and the best handling attributes for your painting style. Unfortunately price and "color" are not reliable guides to paint quality.

As a beginning painter, you should focus on the handling attributes and the lightfastness of the paints. Avoid "colors" with lightfastness ratings below 6 ("very good") in the guide to watercolor pigments. If you waver on this issue, at least consider my comments on artistic responsibility. Strive to understand how the paint behavior is due to pigment attributes — color appearance, particle size, dispersability, specific gravity, tinting strength and transparency. Learn as you go how these pigment attributes help you to understand the paint behavior of the most common synthetic inorganic and synthetic organic pigments. You must also master the fundamental skills of working with paints so that you can do accurate color mixing. Ultimately, by the right balance of paint and water, and the use of unfussy, confident brushstrokes, you will master the secrets of glowing color.

Paints made only of pure pigments — compounded with water, gum arabic, a little glycerin or sugar syrup and nothing else — show astonishingly large differences in paint behavior from one pigment to the next. Unfortunately, the current trend in commercial paints is toward a suffocatingly bland similarity across all paints in a line. Nevertheless, I prefer some paints with a judicious addition of filler, as the pigments would otherwise separate from vehicle in the tube, or be too dark or staining. The difference is between additives that put the pigment on best display, and additives that improve manufacturer profits.

That said, for the palette recommendations provided here, you usually can't go wrong with paints by Winsor & Newton, M. Graham, Da Vinci, MaimeriBlu or Daniel Smith. These are among the best you can buy, though every watercolor brand has a few clunkers to avoid. With Holbein, Rembrandt or Utrecht you need to be a little more selective, but overall their paints are also very good. Some of the Daler-Rowney paints are also lovely, but others (their dull cobalts and earth colors in particular) can't be recommended. Schmincke paints look great and handle very well, but I've found some quality problems (lots of air bubbles and pigment/vehicle separation) in their tube paints. As a personal preference I do not like the "color" range or pigment quality (lightfastness, color brilliance, or paint handling attributes) of Art Spectrum, Blockx, Grumbacher, Old Holland, Sennelier and Yarka paints, nor the excessive staining of the otherwise beautiful Robert Doak liquid watercolors. But by all means try these for yourself if you've heard good things about them.

It's not necessary or even desirable to buy all your paints from the same manufacturer. I've explained my preferences among the major watercolor brands, which may help you choose the brand you rely on the most. But you may also find a unique pigment that other brands don't offer — quinacridone carmine, for example, is currently only available from Winsor & Newton, Schmincke and Holbein. That doesn't mean you can't choose a cadmium scarlet, burnt sienna or ultramarine blue from another company, if you like their paint better.

Color Intensity. The natural impulse for many beginning painters is to choose the brightest (most intense) paints they can find — and many paint brands are advertised as "the brightest" or "the most saturated" you can buy. Well, that may be true, but very saturated colors are not always your best choice. Quite often the most intense paint in a particular hue is less lightfast as a result: the sharper reflectance profile that creates the more intense color is also more vulnerable to prolonged exposure to light.

In addition, less saturated pigments often make better mixers with other colors, because their less saturated reflectance profile contains more of the other hues they are mixed with. To see this, try mixing greens from the pair prussian blue (PB27) and phthalo blue (PB15:3), which have the same blue hue but different saturation, with the yellows nickel azo yellow (PY150) and cadmium yellow (PY35), which have the same yellow hue. You may find you like the green mixtures from the less saturated prussian/nickel azo pair better! In any case, chroma is just one aspect of a paint that needs to be taken into consideration with lightfastness, transparency, staining, and of course the mixing behavior with other paints on the palette.

What About White? Every watercolorist has probably heard the prohibition, never use white paint! The "artists" who make that pronouncement typically complain about the color effects that result. This hoary dictum arose during the Victorian era as part of the futile academic debate between traditionalist ("transparent") painters and the progressives who freely used brilliant pigments, white paint and bodycolor. It has the same relevance today as the Victorian prohibition against showing bare legs in public.

The main issue is that there are relatively few applications for a white watercolor paint. And I have repeatedly found that paints that include a white pigment (such as colors marketed as naples yellow) are less lightfast than paints that do not. On grounds of utility and lightfastness alone, yes, you will probably find white paint an unattractive palette choice.

Two white pigments are available to the watercolorist: zinc or chinese white (PW4) and titanium white (PW6). Zinc white is warmer than titanium white (which however comes in a toasty "buff" shade, sold by Daniel Smith). You may also hear it said that zinc white is more transparent than titanium white, but this is a rule derived from oil painting: in watercolors, I've found that zinc white is actually more opaque, and both whites can be diluted to gently clouding, semitransparent glazes.

Applied as a glaze over other paints, whites will veil and soften a color area in an atmospheric haze that can be very effective in landscape or abstract painting; mixed directly with paints, they opacify and lighten the color, creating a subtle contrast with the lightening caused by diluted paint over bare paper.

Some Victorian artists innovated the technique of coating the paper with zinc white before painting. This foundation layer increased the support reflectivity and therefore increased the brightness of "transparent" paints glazed over it. (This coating cannot be too thick, or worked too aggressively, otherwise it will bleed or smear into paints laid over it.) Touches of dense white paint are also faster and more calligraphic (expressive) than scraping or lifting in, for example, describing the foam on curling waves or adding details whites and highlights to a painting.

Incidentally, with dark paints, you may want to experiment with different mixing proportions and lighting effects. Use dark pigments sparingly, either in concentrated form as a small dark accent, or diluted in mixtures with other paints. If necessary, coat very dark areas with a glaze of gum arabic to reduce the surface scattering.

Packaging. The pros and cons of tube vs. pan watercolors depend a lot on the scale and place of your work. Basically, tubes are more convenient for working on large paintings and paintings in the studio, and are often more economical at the cash register; pans are best for smaller paintings and paintings done plein air (in the field), and also waste less paint in use: you never "squeeze out more than you need."

If you're a beginner, I suggest you start with tube watercolors — you'll mostly be working indoors anyway, and the tubes make color mixing faster and more fun to do. Buy the smaller size tubes (5 to 8 ml.) if they are available from the manufacturer, since you will want probably to try alternative manufacturers or paint colors before settling on the palette you prefer. But as soon as you have decided your brand preferences, shift to the larger sized tubes for new paints: they cost more, but are significantly more cost effective. (As of this writing, only Art Spectrum, Grumbacher, Old Holland, Schmincke, Sennelier, Utrecht and Winsor & Newton offer smaller sized tubes of paint.)

When you're ready to paint in the field, you can buy an empty metal paint box from any of the major direct order retailers, and choose the selection of half or whole pan paints you already use in tubes. (The current suppliers of half pan watercolors are *Daler-Rowney, Maimeri, Old Holland, *Rembrandt, *Schmincke, Sennelier and *Winsor & Newton; an asterisk indicates whole pans are also available. Yarka only sells whole pans, and in the USA Blockx is only available in enormous 3" porcelain dry pans intended for studio use.)

If the manufacturer does not offer pan paints (Daniel Smith, Holbein, Utrecht), or does not offer the paints in whole pan sizes (MaimeriBlu, Old Holland) or half pans (Yarka), you can always make your own by squeezing tube paints into empty plastic pans and letting them dry for a day or two.

You cannot make pan paints if the tube paints are made with substantial amounts of honey in the vehicle (Sennelier, or Blockx with the black caps). These will not dry out to a hard cake. (M. Graham has recently reduced the amount of honey in its watercolor formulation; test individual paints to see if they harden sufficiently.)

The plastic empty whole and half pans are available, in any quantity, from the same art retailers where you buy the empty metal paint boxes. If you can't find this item in their catalog, just call them up and ask for it.


Last revised 11.12.2007 • © 2007 Bruce MacEvoy