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. 12 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 10-14 colors. This is the number I like to have with me while I travel. I typically chose 5-6 colors per painting, so any less than that in my palette feels like one arm tied behind my back. 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. 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 a primary triad of yellow, magenta, and cyan, to make sure you can mix every hue. (3)
  3. Consider secondary colors scarlet, green, and violet blue to fill in gaps and reduce mixing effort. (0-3)
  4. Consider earth tones, especially if you’re doing landscapes. (0-5)
  5. Add bonus colors you just like! (0-5)

TOTAL: 4-18 colors

I’ll go through each of these steps in more detail.

Five Steps to Palette Perfection

Step 1. Choose A Dark Color

I used to have this as step two and the three primary colors 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. Any dark color will get you there, but I have found through trial and error that blue is most satisfying to me. I perceive shadows as being blue-toned, and blue mixed nicely with other colors to make a range of complex dark tones. Personally, I find black dull and I don’t like the inert, grayish colors it makes through mixing. Dark reds, oranges, and browns bring more heat than I usually want in a shadow; yellows never get dark enough; purples and greens are okay but I suspect that’s because they’re blue-adjacent.

What about white? If you are painting with gouache, acrylics, etc., you should definitely get white, e.g. Titanium White. That will be a necessary component to making your light values. But it’s not necessary in watercolor. Because the paint is translucent, the standard (and IMO most beautiful) 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 I like to use white gouache for special effects (e.g. splatter stars). I have never found a use for white watercolor.

Palette SlotSome Options (Non-Exhaustive List)
Dark ColorIndigo
Indanthrone Blue (PB60)
Payne’s Gray, especially Winsor & Newton’s
Ultramarine Blue (PB29)
Sodalite Genuine
Perylene Green (PBk31)
Raw Umber or Van Dyke Brown (PBr7)
Carbazole/Dioxazine Violet (PV23)
Perylene Violet (PV29)
Lamp Black (PBk6), Ivory Black (PBk9), or Lunar Black (PBk11)
Neutral Tint (usually a mix of several colors or Spinel Black, Pbk26)
White(Only necessary if using gouache, but white gouache can also be added to watercolor for special effects.)
Titanium White (PW6)
Zinc White (PW4)
Buff Titanium (PW6:1) – an unbleached, granulating light beige

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

With the three primary colors, you can mix all the hues of the rainbow!

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.

Here are some specific watercolor shades that fit the bill. You only need one for each slot. Choose your favorite, or whichever you can get your hands on, or a similar substitute. To learn more about pigment numbers and other properties, see my post Watercolor Paint, How Does That Work?

Palette SlotSome Options (Non Exhaustive List)
YellowPure Yellow (PY154)
Hansa Yellow Medium (PY97 or PY74)
Nickel Azo Yellow (PY150)
Lemon Yellow (PY175)
Hansa Yellow Light (PY3)
Cadmium Yellow Light or Lemon (PY35)
Magenta (Violet Red)Quinacridone Rose (PV19)
Purple Magenta (PR122)
Quinacridone Pink (PV42)
Quinacridone Fuchsia (PR202)
Carmine (PR176)
Alizarin Crimson (PR83) or a permanent hue
Cyan (Green Blue)Phthalo Blue Green Shade (PB15:3)
Phthalo Turquoise (PB16)
Phthalo Blue Red Shade (PB15:1 or PB15:6)
Prussian Blue (PB27)
Cerulean Blue (PB35 or PB36)
Cobalt Turquoise (PG50)

These are great options because they are close to the “true” primaries, so you can use them to mix up any other color.

Now, you may be okay with the idea that you can’t make every single possible color. For example, you might be making a “golden hour” theme palette where you want all the mixed colors to be more yellow-toned, to give your paintings a sunny, warm, nostalgic quality. In that case, you might decide that instead of magenta, you will have an orangey scarlet red. You won’t be able to make certain colors like vibrant purple, but in your theme, that works!

You could stop here. One dark plus three primary hues makes a great limited 4-color palette that will allow you to paint almost anything you want. 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 the foundation of a complete limited palette, 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: scarlet (orange-red), green, and violet blue.

Palette SlotSome Options (Non Exhaustive List)
Scarlet (Orange-Red)Pyrrol Orange (PO73)
Transparent Pyrrol Orange (PO71)
Cadmium Red (PR108)
Pyrrol Scarlet (PR255)
Vermilion/Scarlet Lake (PR188)
Quinacridone Coral (PR209)
GreenPhthalo Green Blue Shade (PG7)
Phthalo Green Yellow Shade (PG36)
Viridian (PG18)
Chromium Green Oxide (PG17)
Primatek greens like Serpentine, Apatite, or Jadeite
Mixed greens like Hooker’s Green, Sap Green, Undersea Green
Violet BlueUltramarine Blue (PB29)
Indanthrone Blue (PB60)
Cobalt Blue (PB28)
Dioxazine/Carbazole Violet (PV23)
Ultramarine Violet (PV15)

* [Edit 3/5/2022.] I originally endorsed a “split primary” system, where your next three colors would be “warm” versions of the CMY primaries. This is functionally the same as the secondary system for red and blue (since red-orange could be considered a “warm red” and blue-violet could be consider a “warm blue”). The main difference is that I previously endorsed getting a “warm” yellow, e.g. New Gamboge, where I now advise getting a green. For more detail, see The “Warm” and “Cool” Color Binary Doesn’t Make Sense.

Step 4. Consider Earth Tones (Optional)

I like bright colors, so I am typically an earth tone avoider, which is fine! You can mix browns with your bright colors, especially by combining complements or near-complements. But a range of brown, muted, moody, and/or earthy shades can be very useful for landscape and portrait painting, among other realistic subjects, and it can be easier and quicker to get beautiful brown from earth-toned paint than from DIY mixes.

I have more on my post on earth tones, but here’s a basic set of slots. Which colors seem more “realistic” to you may depend on your natural landscape. I typically choose three of these: earths yellow, orange, and red. 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. Blue isn’t really an earth tone, but granulating blues can complement traditional earth tones nicely. Plus, it’s an excuse to add another blue.

You could also use these to turn your existing dark blue into a “dark primary triad,” adding an earth yellow as a dark version of your yellow and an earth red as a dark version of your magenta.

Palette SlotSome Options (Non Exhaustive List)
Earth Yellow/GoldYellow Ochre (PY42 or PY43)
Goethite (PY43)
Monte Amiata Natural Sienna (PBr7)
Raw Sienna (PBr7)
Manganese Brown (PY119)
Quinacridone Gold (PY150/PO48)
Rich Green Gold (PY129)
Earth OrangeBurnt Sienna (PBr7)
Transparent Red Oxide (PR101)
Quinacridone Burnt Orange (PO48)
Earth RedIndian Red (PR101)
Perylene Maroon (PR179)
Perylene Violet (PV29)
Quinacridone Burnt Scarlet (PR206)
Deep Scarlet (PR175)
Imidazolone Brown (PBr25)
Naphthamide Maroon (PR171)
Warm BrownBurnt Umber (PBr7)
Transparent Brown Oxide (PR101)
Mars Brown (PBr6)
Transparent Brown (PBr41)
Mahogany Brown (PBr33)
Cool BrownRaw Umber (PBr7)
Van Dyke Brown (PBr7)
Sepia (PBr7 + black)
Granulating (“Earth”) BlueUltramarine Blue (PB29)
Cerulean Blue (PB35 or PB36)
Cobalt Turquoise (PG50)
Sodalite Genuine

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.

Palette Slot (Non Exhaustive List)Some Options (Non Exhaustive List)
Yellow-OrangeYellow Orange (PY110)
New Gamboge (PY110 + PY97)
Hansa Yellow Deep (PY65)
Cadmium Yellow Deep (PY35)
Indian Yellow (PY83)
OrangeBenzimida Orange (PO62)
Perinone Orange (PO43)
RedPyrrol Red (PR254)
Perylene Red (PR178)
Naphthol Red (PR170)
Crimson (Dark Red)Pyrrol Crimson (PR264)
Anthraquinoid Red (PR177)
Alizarin Crimson (PR83) or a permanent hue
Plum Purple / Dark MagentaQuinacridone Fuchsia (PR202)
Bordeaux (PV32)
Quinacridone Violet (PV19)
Perylene Violet (PV29)
PurpleDioxazine/Carbazole Violet (PV23)
Quinacridone Purple (PV55)
Ultramarine Violet (PV15)
Manganese Violet (PV16)
Cobalt Violet (PV14)
Middle BlueCobalt Blue (PB28)
Phthalo Blue Red Shade (PB15:1 or PB15:6)
Granulating PaintsPotter’s Pink (PR233)
Ultramarine Blue (PB29), esp. French or Deep
Ultramarine Violet (PV15)
Cerulean Genuine (PB35 or PB36)
Cobalt Turquoise (PG50)
Viridian (PG18)
Lemon Yellow Deep (PY159)
Lamp Black (PBk6) or Lunar Black (PBk11)
Most earth tones
Any Primatek
“supergranulating” mixes
Opaque PaintsAny Cadmium
Most Pyrrols
Yellow Ochre (PY42 or PY43), usually
Buff Titanium (PW6:1)
Indian Red (PR101)
Cerulean Genuine (PB35 or PB36)
Cobalt Green or Cobalt Turquoise (PG50)
Chromium Oxide Green (PG17)
Any gouache
Special Effects PaintsFluorescent paints, like Opera Pink (PR122 + BV10)
Iridescent paints
Metallic paints (e.g. silver, gold)
Duochrome paints

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.

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