The “Color First” Method of Building a Watercolor Palette

Photo by Efe Kurnaz on Unsplash. One of the results for the search “color vibes.”

I think of myself as being a color person, being in touch with my favorite colors, but when I started putting together my watercolor palette and having to actually make choices between colors, I found it really difficult! It’s easy for me to get really into a color, or to have multiple similar “favorites.” How do I choose between quinacridone rose vs. purple magenta when I love both of them? Am I more of a bright color person or a muted color person? What if it depends on my mood?

In my initial advice for palette building, I started with the paints, as many people do. This was how I built my first palette. My first question was, What paints are available to me? My second was, What’s the minimum I need to get started painting? I took into account color theory, primary colors, value, and identified the minimum viable palette to paint as many different colors as possible. (tl;dr the 3 primary colors yellow, magenta, and a cyan, plus a dark color to increase your value range.)

As I’ve begun to put together more palettes based around different themes, I find that starting with the paints can be confusing. There are just too many options. Lots of paints might potentially fit my theme. Lots of paints are pretty or enjoyable or useful. But I can’t have them all in my palette. How do I narrow it down?

My current theme palette building process begins with the colors, subjects, and vibes instead of the paints and pigments. I just now realized I could have done this the first time, as well. So here is a “backwards” way to pick palette colors where you start by thinking about the colors, then think about the paints.

Step 1. Make a Color Mood Board

Forget about painting for now. When you think of “my favorite colors” (or “the colors that most remind me of this theme”), what colors spring to mind? Where can you find them?

To make the perfect palette for you, consider: what types of colors…

  • Do you wear?
  • Would you like to decorate your home with (e.g. linens, rugs, upholstery, drapes, etc.)?
  • Do you tend to buy stuff in, when you get a choice? (e.g. your ideal color for a phone case or a teakettle)
  • Have you/would you paint the exterior of your home or vehicle?
  • Are you drawn to in shops? (e.g. stationery shops with displays of pens in every color)

If you feel you haven’t surrounded yourself with nice colors, do you know someone who has? (Real or fictional, like in a TV show or movie?) Think of someone whose sense of style your admire, a place where you feel comfortable and happy, or a piece of media you want to live in, and make a list of colors.

(Theme version: Think of people, places, things, and pieces of media that exemplify your theme.)

Samples from my Color Mood Board on Pinterest

Put examples of colors together into a physical or digital mood board. I used Pinterest but you could just drop them into a document – whatever’s easiest for you to be able to see multiple images at once.

Use the mood board to refine your list of colors. For example, mine includes turquoise, teal, hot pink/magenta, yellow-orange, and purple.

Step 2. Make a Subjects & Vibes Mood Board

Imagine the types of paintings you’d like to paint (on this theme, if you’re doing a theme palette, or in general, if you’re making a general-purpose palette). Don’t worry about whether you have the skills. In an ideal world, where you had the skills to paint anything you wanted, what would you like to paint?

(It’s not necessary to think about colors specifically – we’ll get back to that later.)

If you’re not sure about subjects, think about vibes. Feelings. Look for art or photography that makes you feel the way you’d like your art to make others feel.

Find examples of paintings you admire, or photography in similar subjects. I like to use Unsplash to find photography. Put it all together into another mood board.

Samples from my Vibes collection on Unsplash.

Step 3. Find the Overlap

Review your subject/vibe mood board and make a list of the colors, or color combinations, that appear frequently, or that most stood out to you as representative of the look you’re going for.

For example, in my Vibes collection above, I see a lot of dark blues/dark teals, dark greens, bright blue, yellow ochre, yellow-green, orange-yellow, and coral.

Was there overlap between your favorite colors and the colors in your painting inspo? The overlap is where your “definitely yes” list begins. Colors in one list, but not the other, are “maybes.”

I had some overlap, such as teal/turquoise and yellow-orange. Some of the colors on my favorite colors list were not really in the “vibes” list, like hot pink. And some colors in the “vibes” list were not really in the favorite colors list, like yellow-ochre.

Some gut checks for colors on the “maybe” lists:

  • Did your favorite colors change after you did step 2? Did you find yourself wanting to add these colors to your favorite colors list? (If so, go for it! Your overlap is now larger, and your final list will look more like the list in step 2.)
  • What if you painted images similar to the ones you found in terms of subjects and general vibe, but you changed the colors to be more like your favorite colors? (If you like that idea, your final list will look more like the list in step 1.)
  • Did you like all the colors? (Include items from both lists.)

Step 4. Make a Blank “Master Palette” To Fill In

Your sweet-spot list from step 3 is, essentially, a list of the colors it’s most important for you to be able to paint.

This is your “master palette,” in Liz Steel’s terminology. Arrange this list of colors in any order you like (I usually start with yellow, which is conventional for paint catalogues, going through orange to red to purple to blue to green, and then the earth tones. I also arrange “light version” and “dark version” of the same hue next to each other.)

Make a blank version of this list – just empty blank squares next to the color name – that you can fill in with paint.

Step 5. Experiment With Paint

It is now time to figure out how to make these colors with the watercolors you have available. Experimenting time!

Get out all the paints you have, and try to mix up the ideal version of each color to eventually fill in your blank “master palette.”

You do not need to map watercolor paint colors one-to-one to this list. That is, you don’t need to buy a dark green paint for your dark green, a light green paint for your light green, etc. You may not be able to buy a single paint that exactly matches all of these colors. Knowing how to mix the color is as good as buying it.

Some of your choices will be obvious: you will immediately know that you have just the right paint (or just the right mix) in mind to fill in the blank. Others will not be obvious, and it may take a few tries to get a color mix you like. Start on scrap paper and fill in the blank “master palette” only when you are satisfied. You might want to try a few different methods for comparison, even if you’re semi-happy with your first try. For example, to make a natural-looking dark green from Phthalo Green, you might try to mix it with each of your reds (complements); with an earth tone like Burnt Sienna; or with some other dark color like black, brown, or purple. Try each mix in different proportions, and different amounts of water. If none of your two-color mixes are quite right, try some three-color mixes.

When you’re happy, fill in the master palette blank, and write down the “formula” you used so you can make it again later.

Step 6. Refinement

If you take all the paints you used to mix up all the colors in your “master palette,” you’ve got a palette. Congrats!

That said, you may still want to do some work on it.

6.1 Add Convenience Colors

If some of your master palette colors were difficult to mix, it may be time to go shopping! Identify the properties of an ideal “convenience color” to make your life easier, than try to see if you can find a paint option that satisfies your list.

(When I did this exercise, I found that many of these were in a similar color space, and I could satisfy multiple needs with one paint; for example, since I wanted both a red-brown and a dark red, I prioritized getting the brighter of those colors, knowing I could probably use it to mix the duller one.)

6.2 Reduce Redundancy

You may have ended up with some pretty similar colors. For example, in my first run at an autumn palette, I had both Yellow Ochre and MANS, and both Transparent Red Oxide and Quinacridone Burnt Orange. Go back to your formulas to figure out what function each color is serving, and see if you can’t substitute one for the other. I almost always find in this situation that I prefer one of the colors in most/all situations.

But maybe that won’t happen! Maybe a little redundancy is okay. This can particularly happen when the hues are similar, but the properties are different. For example, in my main palette, it’s worth it to me to have both Phthalo Turquoise and Cobalt Turquoise, even though both can paint turquoise, because they are totally different in terms of opacity and granulation. Sometimes I want those qualities, and sometimes I don’t. Besides, turquoise is one of my favorite colors, so it makes sense to me to spend multiple slots on it – it aligns with my “favorite color” values.

6.3 Double Check Your Basics

Going back to my original palette advice, I advised that the most flexible minimal palette would include a primary yellow, magenta, cyan, and a dark color. So, it’s worth double checking against your final palette… did you end up including some version of each of those colors in your final lineup?

If you did, great! In addition to the reason you picked those colors, they’ll do double-duty as color theory mixers.

If not, don’t sweat it! You may find it challenging to mix up some colors (for example, if you don’t have a bright yellow but only have a yellow-ochre, you might find it challenging to mix springy yellow-greens; if you don’t have a magenta but only an orange and a purple, you might find it challenging to paint pink flowers.) But, if you got through steps 1-3 without it bothering you, those were probably colors you didn’t want to paint much anyway. And you don’t need to paint everything or anything in true-to-life colors. Substituting some colors can give you a stronger color story and give your paintings uniqueness compared to faithfully representing “the real world.”

It’s okay for your palette to break rules, just be aware of what’s likely to be difficult for you, and make sure you’re okay with (or excited about!) working around those challenges.

Or if you want to hedge your bets, you can just add (some version of) the missing color.


This method relies on you finding your favorite colors without worrying about what’s possible in watercolor pigments, and then mapping those colors to paint tubes toward the end of the process. This allows you to dream without worrying about what’s possible. I find that this is the most exciting way to identify colors I’d like to use in my palette.

When I start with the paints, I get hung up on “needing” every paint (what if I want to paint something dark violet? won’t I WANT perylene violet???) But when I start from the colors, the correct paints to choose tend to fall into place.

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