How to Build a Watercolor Palette from the Ground Up

I spend a lot of time researching paints before I buy one, planning how it will fit into one of my existing palettes: what niche it will fill; how it will play with my other paints; what I’ll be able to paint and mix with it that I can’t do now, or can’t do as easily. I’ve had some triumphs (THIS COLOR IS AMAZING) as well as some missteps (Huh, I just… never use this one.) So I have A Lot Of Thoughts on how to build a palette from the ground up that works for you, full of lovely paints you’ll enjoy and that will be versatile enough for everything you want to do! 

tl;dr All this is subjective. There are no rules. Get the colors you want.

Six well-loved tubes of paint from the Daniel Smith Essentials collection.

How many paints do I need on my palette?

For me, a “palette” is not only a theoretical grouping of paints but a physical paint box which usually has a particular capacity (e.g. 14 pans), so I often have the decision more or less made up for me. But in the absence of a limitation like this, what’s the ideal number of paints to start with?

Opinions range from minimalist (only the three primary colors! learn to mix!) to maximalist (alllllll the paints! one for every possible occasion!) My personal sweet spot is 10-20 colors. This is the number I like to have with me while I travel. I typically chose 4-6 colors per painting. Having more paints than I need for a single painting gives me options, but having too many options can be overwhelming, especially when you’re starting out and need to learn the properties of each paint individually.

My rough formula:

  1. Start with a dark color, such a dark blue or gray. If you only have one watercolor paint, a dark color will help you paint monochrome in a wide range of values. As you build your palette, you will still need this. If you’re using gouache, also add white. (1-2)
  2. Build primary triad of yellow, magenta/rose, and cyan/blue, to cover as much of the color wheel as possible. (3)
  3. Consider secondary colors scarlet/red, green/turquoise, and violet/violet-blue to fill in gaps and reduce mixing effort. (0-3)
  4. Consider muted/moody & earth tones to expand the value range. (0-6)
  5. Add bonus colors you just like! (0-6)

TOTAL: 4-20 colors

I’ll go through each of these steps in more detail. To learn more about pigment numbers and other properties, see my post Watercolor Paint, How Does That Work?

Five Steps to Palette Perfection

Step 1. Choose A Dark Color

I used to have this as step two and the primary triad as step one, but over time, I’ve come to realize that value contrast is more important than hue contrast, and if I’m being honest, you can do a lot more with a a single dark color with a single yellow, magenta, or cyan.

If you only have one watercolor paint, you’ll want a dark color. All watercolors can be thinned out and made light by adding water, but not every color gets extremely dark in its full strength (“masstone”). Choosing a color that gets dark will help you create paintings with enough value contrast: light lights and dark darks.

This is important when you are painting in monochrome (one color), and will continue to be important as you build your palette. By mixing with your dark color, you can make sure to get plenty of value contrast even if you focus on hue with the other color choices. You can use your dark color for shadows and to deepen other colors.

I usually choose a dark blue for this, such as:

I find that blues work best because of their shadowy appearance – your mileage may vary! You could also use a dark violet, teal, brown, black, etc. Whatever you prefer.

What about white? If you are painting with gouache, acrylics, etc., you should definitely get white, typically Titanium White (PW6). That will be a necessary component to making your light values. White is not necessary in watercolor. Because the paint is translucent, the standard way to make light tones is to dilute the paint with water and let the white of the paper shine through. That is the way to go for luminous watercolor effects. So you don’t need white necessarily, though it’s a “nice-to-have” for certain types of pastels and effects.

Now that you’ve got your single Desert Island dark color, let’s look at your choices for adding a wide variety of hues.

Step 2: Build a Primary Triad

I was taught in elementary school that these three primary colors were red, yellow, and blue. It turns out that for science reasons having to do with the way our eyes perceive light, a more useful set of primaries for painting are magenta, yellow, and cyan.

By the way, the links in the paragraph above go to my Color List, where you can pick your favorite option from each category.

If you’re a minimalist, or on a budget, maybe this is a good time to pause and experiment before adding more colors. If you’re a maximalist like me, or you’re feeling limited by your four-color palette, you could simply start adding your favorite colors – anything you like – safe in the knowledge that because you’re building on a versatile foundation, you won’t have major gaps.

Or, keep reading to see what colors I recommend adding next!

Step 3. Fill In Your Secondary Colors (Optional)

To make it easier to mix and reduce the time you spend mixing up common colors (e.g. mixing a red from magenta and yellow), a good next move is to fill in colors partway between your CMY primaries. In other words, the secondaries.

The standard way of thinking about secondary colors is orange, green, and violet. If you are using the modern primaries, the halfway points between them are more more like scarlet, green, and violet-blue.

Some artists endorse a “split primary” system where you build a second set of primary colors in the opposite color temperature as your first set. So if you’ve added a warm yellow, a cool red (magenta), and a cool blue (cyan), you would now add a cool yellow, a warm red (scarlet), and a warm blue (violet-blue). Notice that this is functionally the same as adding the modern secondaries, except that you’d add a green-biased yellow instead of a green. Personally, I think green is more useful.

Step 4. Moody, Muted, & Earth Tones

You can mix dark colors from brights by combining complementary colors (e.g. blue + orange). But it can be a pain. Make it easier to get dark values by adding dark and/or muted paints.

Earth Tones

I have more on my post on earth tones, but basically these are shades of brown that are usually granulating and made from iron oxides. Here’s a set of possible slots: earth yellow, earth orange, earth red, brown.

I typically include an earth yellow and earth orange on my palette. I find that earth orange in particular can make a range of browns by the addition of blues.

Another way to think of this is as an “earthy primary trio,” where you’d add an earth yellow, an earth red or orange, and an earth blue. Okay, there’s no such thing as an “earth blue,” but earth colors pair well with granulating blues like Ultramarine, Cerulean, or Cobalt Blue.

Muted & Moody Colors

Consider building out your dark color from step #1 into a triad by adding an intense yellow, like gold or warm yellow, and an intense dark red, like maroon or crimson.

Step 5. Add Colors You Just Like!

You’ve covered your bases. You have all the colors that are typically used in tutorials (or reasonable substitutions). Going forward, not only is it up to you to pick the colors for each slot, it’s up to you to pick the slots! Depending on what kind of subjects you like to paint and what kind of colors you’re drawn to, you may find some categories totally useless, and others indispensable.

Aside from the hue slots I identified on the Color List, here are some more ways of thinking about paints.

Transparent vs Opaque

Transparent paints are ideal for glazing and luminous effects; they also tend to have the widest value range. Opaque paints are often brighter, and may have a more “heavy” appearance. Very opaque paints may even be used light-over-dark, like gouache. Some artists choose all transparent or paints, while others favor opaques, or try to get a balance of both.

Examples of typically transparent paints: All Phthalo, Quinacridone, and Perylene colors; Nickel and Copper colors; anything called “transparent”.

Examples of typically opaque paints: Most Pyrrol, Cobalt, Cadmium and Titanium colors; Chromium Oxide Green; Indian Red; Naples Yellow.

Smooth vs Granulating

Granulating paints have visible granules of texture, while non-granulating colors (I call them “smooth”) do not show texture and make smoother gradients. Again, some artists have a preference for one or the other, while others like to balance the two.

Examples of typically smooth paints: All Phthalo, Quinacridone, and Perylene colors; Nickel and Copper colors. Almost all bright (not earth) yellows, oranges, and reds, including Hansa, Pyrrol, and Cadmium colors.

Examples of typically granulating paints: Most earth tones; Ultramarine Blue and Violet; Cobalt colors (e.g. Cobalt Blue, Cerulean, Cobalt Turquoise); Manganese colors; Potter’s Pink (PR233); Viridian (PG18). Exceptions to the red-and-yellow-are-smooth rule are SH Volcano Red (PR108) and Lemon Yellow Deep (PY159). Some brands, like Schmincke, offer special “supergranulating” paints, which are generally mixes of these.

Special Effects

You may fall in love with any number of special effects paints such as iridescent, duochrome, metallic, or fluorescent (eg. Opera Pink).

Finding More Colors You Just Like

An alternative to a slot-based system? Get some dot cards, paint out swatches, and then buy whichever colors that you just like. Who cares if it “fits” into your theoretical system. You’ll find a use for it. It’s up to you what color you make things, after all. Why not paint an elephant in seventeen shades of orange? You’re the boss!

Likewise, try not to get paints you don’t like just because “a real artist would” or “so-and-so says it’s indispensible.” All the colors that I’ve bought and never used are because some other artist had it on their palette. It doesn’t matter how good they are, or how much you respect them: their taste is theirs, and you don’t have to mimic them exactly to be a good artist. Remember, you can mix anything but the primaries, and even there you have a lot of leeway for choosing different ways to fill the slot. If a particular color bums you out, boot it! You’re not building a palette for that famous artist, or for the average artist – you’re building it for you. If you want zero greens and forty purples, hey, it’s your art.