Palette Updates After Taking Liz Steel’s Watercolor Class

I recently went through Liz Steel’s Watercolor course, which was a great way to geek out about color. The course is appropriate for beginners but probably ideal for people with, say, about a year of experience (like me!), and focues on color choice and pigment characteristics, brush technique, and trying different styles.

One of the first assignments in the course is to choose your palette from colors you already have. Since Liz’s sample palette is 12 colors, I wanted to limit myself to about the same number (having a lot more would also make the other assignments more difficult, since they involve things like swatching out all your colors and finding out how they interact.) I ended up going with 14, since that’s the number of quarter-pans that fit in my Art Toolkit Pocket Palette. 

My original palette for Liz Steel’s Watercolour course

Here’s how these map to Liz’s color choices:

SlotLiz Has…My Choice…
Yellow (Cool/Greenish)DS Hansa Yellow MediumWN Winsor Lemon (different but similar yellow)
Yellow (Warm/Orangey)DS New GambogeHolbein Isoindolinone Yellow Deep (same base pigment)
Red (Warm/Orangey)DS Transparent Pyrrol OrangeDS Perylene Red (very different, a new color I want to try)
Red (Cool/Magenta)DS Quin RoseDV Red Rose Deep (same pigment)
Blue (Warm/Violet)DS Ultramarine BlueDS Indanthrone Blue (personal favorite, much darker and less granulating)
Blue (Cool/Greenish)DS Cerulean ChromiumDV Cobalt Blue (mid blue, hue somewhere between Ultramarine and Cerulean)
GreenDS Sap GreenWN Viridian (much bluer and more granulating)
Earth YellowDS Monte Amiata Natural SiennaSame
Earth OrangeDS Transparent Red OxideSame
Earth BrownDS Van Dyke BrownSame
BonusWN Potter’s PinkMaimeriBlu Potter’s Pink (same pigment)
BonusDS Cobalt Teal SH Cobalt Turquoise (same pigment)
BonusDS Rich Green Gold
BonusMission Gold – Green Gold (PY150, aka Nickel Azo Yellow)

As I worked through the class, I found myself satisfied with some of these colors, and unsatisfied with others. In fact, I made changes to my palette nearly every single week of the class!

Week 1: Still Life

Assignment: Paint vegetables, including a bright red bell pepper. 

Two versions of the vegetable painting exercise from Liz Steel’s Watercolour course. Left: my original palette. Right: Revised palette with Perylene Red swapped for Quin Rose and Transparent Pyrrol Orange.

Palette Changes: 

  • Removed Perylene Red: I’d chosen Perylene Red in part because it was a new color I was still figuring out, and I wanted to put some time into it; and in part because I wasn’t sure how to make a bold middle red without a pigment of that color. But in the first week of class, Liz demonstrated mixing up a bold red with Transparent Pyrrol Orange and Quinacridone Rose, and when I tested it, I liked it better than Perylene Red! 
  • Added Transparent Pyrrol Orange: TPO also mixed better and opened up other opportunities, for example to ability to mute blues, so I made my first swaparoo by pulling out Perylene Red and replacing it with Transparent Pyrrol Orange.

Week 2: Color Combinations

Assignment: Explore color mixes, one pair at a time, really getting to know the range of colors you can make from any two paints in your palette. 

Yellow Orange + Cobalt Blue
Holbein Isoindolinone Yellow Deep (PY110) + Da Vinci Cobalt Blue (PB28) in a Wonder Forest sketchbook

Palette Changes:

  • Removed Isoindolinone Yellow Deep: I found time and time again that my PY110 warm yellow just didn’t make pretty mixes. The mixes with both green and blue came out muddy (not ‘nice’ grays, like TPO with blue). I just didn’t like it and didn’t feel I really needed something in the slot. So I just cut it. 

Week 3: Landscapes

Assignment: Landscape painting, loose vs. layered.

Left: Layered landscape. Right: Same landscape in one go.
  • Added Cerulean Blue: After removing PY110, I had an open slot, so I pulled in the first color that I was tempted by – Cerulean Blue, largely because I wanted to paint a quick sky for the landscape. (This messes up my palette scheme a bit, since I previously had 50/50 granulating and non-granulating paints, and this replaces a non-granulating with a granulating. Oh well.) 

Week 4: Review

My palette from the halfway point of Liz Steel’s watercolour course

Since I’d now painted quite a bit, I was able to tell which colors I was actually using from how used-up they were. 

My actual paints from the halfway point of Liz Steel’s Watercolour course.
  • Cobalt Blue & Monte Amiata are mostly full only because I had already refilled them. Clearly these are my top two paints.
  • Also near-empty are Winsor Yellow, Red Rose Deep, Cerulean (though I brought that one in partially-done), Rich Green Gold, Transparent Red Oxide, Potter’s Pink, and Viridian.
  • About half-empty are Indanthrone Blue and Van Dyke Brown.
  • Colors I didn’t use much are Green Gold (PY150/Nickel Azo), Transparent Pyrrol Orange, and Cobalt Turquoise. 

It’s important to note that the amount of paint I used doesn’t exactly map to how much I like a color since the tinting strength affects it a lot. Potter’s Pink is a very weak color so you need to use a lot of paint to have an effect, but Transparent Pyrrol Orange is quite strong so a little goes a long way. 

Still, I do think Cobalt and MANS are my top two paints in this palette.

Week 5: Your Favorite Colors & Master Palette

Assignment: Notice your favorite colors!

One way to do this is to make a mood board.

Samples from my Color Mood Board on Pinterest

Also, paint your wardrobe, which (if you like clothes as I do) can be another way in to noticing your favorite colors.

My summer wardrobe

Then, create a “master palette” of all the colors you think you need, with a dark version of each. Instead of finding or buying a new paint for each one, mix each one up with your limited palette.

My Master Palette exercise from Liz Steel’s Watercolour course

This was a mind-blowing exercise for me, both because it got me out of the paradigm of thinking of myself as a “shopper” (must find the right-colored paint for each situation), and more as a “mixer” (must make the right color for each situation). 

It showed me which of my limited palette colors are linchpins and got used a lot in mixes: Red Rose Deep, Cobalt Blue, Transparent Red Oxide, and MANS were all-stars.

It showed me which of my palette colors never got used in mixes: Green Gold (Nickel Azo Yellow), Cerulean Blue, Van Dyke Brown, Potter’s Pink.

It also showed me where I could use improvement – which colors were surprisingly difficult to mix. There fell into two categories:

  1. Maroon (dark red-orange), crimson (dark red), and wine (dark magenta). All of these seemed to call out for something in the deep red territory. 
  2. Dark blue-greens like peacock blue and teal; my Cobalt/Viridian combos were okay, but on consulting my mood board, it’s evident that I like a really bright teal. 

Palette Cuts: 

  • Removed Green Gold (Nickel Azo Yellow). Confirming my observation at the midway point that it was still almost full, I found I didn’t reach for it in my mixes at all. Anything it could do, Rich Green Gold (PY129) or MANS could do better. 
  • Removed Cerulean Blue, because I didn’t use it in mixes and I didn’t even like the unmixed color for a light cyan as much as my mix of Cobalt Blue and Cobalt Turquoise. Cerulean is actually a bit on the muted side and I prefer bold, bold, bold. 
  • Removed Van Dyke Brown, because I never warmed to the mixes it makes, and for my dark browns I could mix a similar hue with TRO and Indanthrone. 
  • Removed Potter’s Pink, because again I never used it. To be fair to Potter’s Pink, I use it mainly to add texture rather than to change hue, so its use case isn’t really captured by this exercise. That said, I do feel like my use of it is mainly “trying to be like Liz” more than really being true to myself. When I look at the colors I added to my “mood board,” they are all bright, clear, pastel or bold: not muted, dusty, subtle, etc. 

Palette Additions: 

  • Added Deep Scarlet (PR175). I found that in my initial attempt at this assignment, I didn’t love the “dark reds” that I made from Quin Rose and TRO, nor did I like Liz’s solution of darkening red with blue. I didn’t want my crimson to look too muddy, browny, or purpley. But I loved the crimson that I mixed up with Red Rose Deep and Daler Rowney Artist’s Perylene Maroon (PR179) – the only trouble is that DRA is hard to get in the U.S. and I’m almost out, so I decided to make the more gettable Daniel Smith Deep Scarlet my palette color instead. 
  • Added Phthalo Blue Green Shade (PB15:3) because its light value cyan is brighter than Cerulean, and its teal is brighter than Cobalt Blue + Viridian.

This would have been a good place to stop – I was down to 12 colors and could mix everything I wanted to – but after all my explorations into reds, I decided instead to do something wacky: drop a palette mainstay, Red Rose Deep (PV19), and “split” it into two colors that, together, mixed the same hue: 

  • Dropped Red Rose Deep (PV19), in favor of:
  • Adding Purple Magenta (PR122), a “true magenta” that mixes better purples, and
  • And adding Quinacridone Coral (PR209), a bright red-orange that mixes better oranges. (And that is one of my pet colors that I always try to work in, even though it is pretty unnecessary.) 

Then since 13 felt like a weird number of colors to have, I went ahead and:

  • Added Ultramarine Blue Deep, even though it is unnecessary because I can use Cobalt Blue in nearly every use case. It’s just a nice-to-have that mixes better purples and can be laid down on top of a yellow underlayer without turning green, as in skies. 

And here’s the revised “master palette” after making these changes. (I only demonstrated base and dark mixes, this time, since I found that my “light” mixes were invariably just diluted versions of the base mix. I also demonstrated fewer grays, since I found that my mood board called for vivid colors more than neutrals.) 

Revised attempt at Master Palette exercise

The changes are subtle, but I think there’s a greater range of distinct vivid reds and blues here.

And for the record, here’s my new palette, with all the changes: 

Revised palette, version 3.

Week 6: Color Studies

Assignment: Actually use our palette to make quick value and color studies of landscape photos.

None of the week 5 overhaul really mattered; I found that the VIPs were paints I’d had all along!

  • Indanthrone Blue is my #1 VIP for blocking in darks, making shadows (in various concentrations) and adding light-value skies. 
  • Transparent Red Oxide makes a range of browns with Indanthrone. 
  • Rich Green Gold makes a dark shadow green with Indanthrone, or golden sun-kissed vegetation on its own.  
  • Viridian is my basic foliage green, to be lightened or darkened, yellowed or blued with the colors above. 
  • Monte Amiata Natural Sienna is great for mixing a number of landscape browns or yellows, including sunny light-colored stones and muted vegetation. 

The only new color I used in any measure was Deep Scarlet for a barn red. 

Back to the Folio Palette

Class over, I no longer had restrictions on the number of paints, so I moved my paints back into my Folio Palette. While I had previously trouble limiting myself to just 30 paints, after getting used to using 14, I found I didn’t really want to expand that much. 

After painting “without restrictions” for a week or so and noticing which colors I reached for from my “B team”, I made very few changes to my version 3 palette.

  • Swapped in Winsor Yellow (PY154) in place of Winsor Lemon. I still like them both. Winsor Lemon is ideal for gentle sunrises, but Winsor Yellow is more versatile as a primary mixer. They’re similar enough that it’s not worth it to me to have both.
  • Swapped in Phthalo Green (PG7) for Viridian because it’s cheaper and easier to get bold color from.
  • Added Serpentine Genuine – A convenience one-stop shop for painting a grassy field in one stroke. 
  • Added Perylene Violet (PV29) as the elusive “dark magenta.”

With two swaps and two adds, that brings me to 16 colors. I made so much room in my folio palette that I was able to shift several colors into larger pans, and even add a giant mixing pan! What I find amazing is that I now feel I have a luxuriously roomy palette with all my favorite inessential “pet colors” included, yet I’ve got about half of what I had before the class. 

Here are some colors that were cut (or never added) that I never thought I’d cut. All these are now in my B Team: 

  • Transparent Brown Oxide: A totally useful convenient brown, but tbh I prefer the browns I mix with TRO and various blues. 
  • Quin Rose/Red Rose Deep (PV19) has been in my palette since the beginning and I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop, but for now PR122 and PR209 are working fine. 
  • Opera Pink: I like this color but it’s got a highly specific use case – neon psychedelic paintings – and I feel like that makes it B team material. 
  • Phthalo Blue Red Shade: This is a great sky convenience color, but I can mix this from PBGS and a bit of red.
  • Perylene Green: It’s great to have a dark green for foliage shadows, but I can mix one with Indanthrone and Rich Green Gold! 
  • Neutral Tint (Black): Figuring out I could mix a dark black with TPO and Indanthrone was a game-changer! That said, this is probably one that I could consider making room for my in my palette, because it’s a handy convenience for silhouettes.

I’m so happy with this palette! For the first time, I’m not constantly flipping between multiple palettes to paint; I tend to find everything I need right in these 16 colors. It’s not just that I made the best color choices, but that I feel more understanding what my colors can do individually and together.

While this kind of experimentation can be done without shelling out for a course, I found the course personally useful to guide my process of nerding out, and to remind me to occasionally paint with my paints and not just make color swatches (while still giving me plenty of support for making color swatches).

I also appreciated hearing Liz’s perspective on layered painting vs quick sketching. Liz definitely prefers the latter as do I. I’ve typically felt that instructors tended to favor layers and to feel that you’re not getting the most out of watercolors if you don’t layer. I appreciated having an instructor support “whatever is most fun for you” rather than a specific way of working.