Preparing Colors for the Desert

My partner’s sibling is getting married near Las Vegas in a few weeks, and even though it will be a short trip and I’m not sure how much time I’ll have to paint, I’m excited to prep a new palette for a new biome (I’ve never been to the desert!) and to bust out some not-usually-used colors. 


Since I don’t know what to expect (except from pictures), here are some of my guides:

Grow Untamed Palette

The Grow Untamed palette

I bought the Grow Untamed palette largely because I wanted the cool red box; I didn’t know I’d actually be going to the desert! This palette contains 6 colors from the Letter Sparrow brand inspired by the desert art of Melissa Esplin. Some conclusions to draw from this palette include: I will probably use opaque colors more there than I do here. Orange and brown will be big deals. 

Some colors inspired by the GU palette: Buff, deep orange, violet oxide.

Claire Giordano

Slickrock & Desert Shadows, a tutorial from Claire Giordano’s Adventure Art Academy, which I completed November 15, 2022.

In her post “Fall in the Southwest – Favorite Colors,” Claire lists her eleven most-used colors from her residency in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah. Claire also stresses the importance of opaque colors, in her case often mixing them using white gouache. These lessons appear again in Claire’s slickrock tutorial from Escalante, pictured above.

One inspiring thing about Claire’s post is that her selections were made in retrospect; evidently she had more colors to choose from, she didn’t just pick a capsule ahead of time. She gave herself room to be surprised by what she chose. I like that idea, which is why I want to err on the side of bringing too many colors rather than too few. 

Some colors inspired by CG: white gouache, Phthalo Blue Red Shade, Quin Burnt Orange, Perylene Red, a Quin Violet alternative.

Shari Blaukopf

Shari Blaukopf, author of the Urban Sketching Handbook about color, also has a very relevant post about sketching in Utah national parks including the palette she brought. I relate to her overly analytical preparation style, but I wish she’d reviewed her palette after the fact to say which colors were most useful. 

Some colors inspired by SB: Quin Burnt Orange, various earth tones, Pyrrol Orange, Cobalt Turquoise.

Artist’s Co-op

Several of my pals in Kolbie Blume’s Artist’s Co-op Geneva group recommended colors.

Colors inspired by the AC: various earth tones, olive and drab greens, cobalt and cerulean blues for skies, turquoise and pink for sunset. Multiple people recommended Potter’s Pink for granulating sandstone.

Full Palette

Colors in my Desert Palette

I’ve decided to take out the extra mixing space and just go to town filling my Folio Palette to the brim, using many of my own staple colors as well as many of the ones recommended in the various sources above. The Folio Palette holds 30 colors, and I chose 26, giving myself room to make 4 of them double-size.

Here’s the full list of colors and why I chose each one. 

ME = Typical, staple color for me.
NEW = New exciting color I want to try specifically for the desert.
CG = Claire Giordano pick.
GU = Grow Untamed palette (or equivalent). 
SB = Shari Blaukopf pick.
AC = Artist’s Co-op pick. 

Top Row – Hi Chroma Brights

Schmincke Horadam Gouache – Titanium White (PW6)

CG. For mixing solid-looking opaque pastels. 

Letter Sparrow – Sunflower (PY74)

GU. Bold bright yellow; for mixes, sunsets, and if any yellow leaves are left on trees. 

Holbein – Isoindolinone Yellow Deep (PY110)

ME/CG. A staple color for me and a reasonable facsimile of Claire’s pick New Gamboge (which is PY110 + PY97 Hansa Yellow Medium, which is nearly the same color as PY74 Sunflower… so you could easily mix New Gamboge with the Sunflower and this). 

Winsor & Newton – Winsor Orange Red Shade (PO73)

SB. AKA Pyrrol Orange. Semi-opaque deeper red-orange. I love this as a red canyon color or at least part of the mix.

Monument Valley, November 10, 2022. Colors: Canyon colors are mostly WN Gold Ochre and WN Winsor Orange (Red Shade), dusted with a bit of DS Quinacridone Burnt Orange, with DV Burnt Umber and Holbein Indigo for shadows. Sky is DV Phthalo Blue (Red Shade) to DV Hansa Yellow Light.

Daniel Smith – Perylene Red (PR178)

CG. Middle red, slightly muted. 

Daniel Smith – Quinacridone Coral (PR209)

ME. My favorite red-orange, component in homebrew Quin Sienna.

Da Vinci – Red Rose Deep (PV19)

CG/AC/ME. My favorite primary magenta mixer. (This is double-size because I pulled it out of my normal palette, not because I think I’ll use all that much in the desert, though it’s the perfect shade for sunset skies.) 

Winsor Blue Red Shade (PB15:1)

CG. Strong, smooth, slightly muted deep sky blue; also good for canyon shadows. 

Phthalo Green (PG7)

CG (Viridian equivalent). Blue-green mixer for plants or water.

Middle Row – Granulators

Letter Sparrow – Buff Gouache (PW6:1)

GU/CG/AC. Sandstone base. 

In this desert canyon practice piece from November 8, 2022, I used Buff gouache as a sandstone base, plus layers of Quinacridone Burnt Orange (sometimes with Quin Coral for extra orangeyness), Burnt Umber, and other brows. The shadows, which I’m not totally happy with, are Indanthrone Blue, and the twilight sky is a combo of Cobalt Blue and Red Rose Deep.

Winsor & Newton – Magnesium Brown (PY119)

NEW. Highly granulating, yellow-orange/brown earth tone. Great for adding warm texture to sandstone.

Daniel Smith – Quinacridone Burnt Orange (PO48)

CG. Granulating, very orange earth tone. Perfect color for canyon sandstone. Typically I use Transparent Red Oxide (PR101) for my earth orange, but QBO is a brighter, more striking color. Double size because it’s my bedrock color here and because it’s somewhat low tinting strength.

MaimeriBlu – Potter’s Pink (PR233)

AC. Dull earthy granulating pink that’s a good base for sandstone, and good for muting other colors. Double size because it’s low tinting strength and easy to use a lot of.

Da Vinci – Cobalt Blue (PB28)

AC/ME. Bright sapphire blue that’s my favorite for skies. Double size because I love it.

Da Vinci – Cerulean Genuine (PB35)

AC/GU (Sky gouache equivalent).  Light, slightly greenish blue for skies. 

Schmincke Horadam – Cobalt Turquoise (PG50)

SB/AC/ME. Turquoise for striking horizon skies, blue tones in plants, and also just the southwest reminds me of turquoise (the gem.)

Bottom Row – Dark & Misc

Mission Gold – Green Gold (PY150)

CG/SB. Nickel Azo Yellow equivalent; for homebrew Quin Gold (with QBO), warm golden hour sun, yellow mixer.

Daniel Smith – Monte Amiata Natural Sienna (PBr7)

ME/SB. My staple Yellow Ochre/Raw Sienna equivalent, a transparent and granulating earth yellow made from a brown pigment. 

Da Vinci – Raw Sienna (PBr7)

SB. A more traditional semi-opaque raw sienna that’s a bit more on the orange side compared to MANS. A nice part of a canyon mixer, and makes nice gold ochre hue mixes with PY110. 

Da Vinci – Burnt Umber (PBr7)

AC/SB. Brownest of browns. Granulating. Dilutes to beige.

Daniel Smith – Deep Scarlet (PR175)

ME. Muted/earthy scarlet, similar to Brown Madder/Quin Burnt Scarlet.

Da Vinci – Indian Red (PR101)

CG. Opaque, granulating reddish earth tone. I’ve never found that I like this one, but this is my opportunity to give it a shot.

Da Vinci – Violet Iron Oxide (PR101)

GU/NEW. Equivalent to Grow Untamed palette’s Letter Sparrow Violet Oxide. Strikingly granulating, violet-toned earth tone. 

Daniel Smith – Bordeaux (PV32)

ME/CG? (ish?) Claire doesn’t mention it in her post linked above, but in an Adventure Art Academy lesson, she talks about using Quin Violet (PV19) a lot in the Escalante desert as well, mainly for mixing muted purples with PBRS or for adding a bit of complex purple tone to sandstone. I don’t have a Quin Violet on hand at the moment, but Bordeaux is very close, and it’s a color I’m always looking for an excuse to use more.

MaimeriBlu – Neutral Tint (PBk26)

ME/CG? In her lesson, Claire also demonstrated using Neutral Tint (likely Daniel Smith’s) for desert shadows. MMB’s Neutral Tint is  not actually typically a staple color for me, but it is a transparent black that I like, which I may find more useful in high-contrast environments.

Winsor & Newton – Oxide of Chromium (PG17)

NEW. Very opaque, muted green that reminds me of desert plants. Its opacity means that it can be layered on top of brown sand at the last moment, almost like gouache. 


There were judgment calls I considered but opted not to take, in lieu of something else that I thought would either be better or that I wanted to try out, but I think any of these could also have been good.

  • Hansa Yellow Light (PY3), Lemon Yellow (PY175), Imidazolone Yellow (PY154), or Hansa Yellow Medium (PY97) – could be swapped for PY74 Sunflower
  • Hansa Yellow Deep (PY65) – could be swapped for PY110 Iso Yellow Deep.
  • Benzimida Orange (PO62) – could be swapped for PY110 Iso Yellow Deep also; similar hue but slightly more orangey. I did try this, but found PY110 made better sap green mixes with blues and greens. PO62 grays out blues instead of greening them. 
  • Transparent Pyrrol Orange (PO71) – great for orangey sun rays at sunset, or as an orange mixer; could be swapped for PO73 orange
  • Pyrrol Scarlet (PR255) or Scarlet Lake (PR188) – could be swapped for Quin Coral
  • Pyrrol Red (PR254), e.g. Da Vinci Red – could be swapped for Perylene Red
  • Quinacridone Magenta (PR122) – could be swapped for PV19 rose for bolder purples at the expense of less warm, rosy tones
  • Prussian Blue (PB27) – could be swapped for Phthalo Blue Red Shade
  • Viridian (PG18) – could be swapped for Phthalo Green
  • Transparent Red Oxide (PR101), Burnt Sienna Deep (PR101), or Burnt Sienna (PBr7) – could be swapped for Quin Burnt Orange
  • Ultramarine Violet (PV15) – could be used for hazy purple skies or to dull down faraway rocks. Possibly swapper for Potter’s Pink, though much bluer. 
  • Ultramarine Blue (PB29) – could be swapped for Cobalt Blue
  • Letter Sparrow Sky Gouache (PB15/PW6) or Holbein Verditer Blue (PB28/PW6) – could be swapped for Cerulean
  • Letter Sparrow Kelly Green (PG50) – could be swapped for Cobalt Turquoise (same pigment) or for other greens (Phthalo Green or Oxide of Chromium)
  • Quin Gold – could be swapped for PY150 yellow
  • Yellow Ochre/Gold Ochre (PY42/43) – could be swapped for MANS or Raw Sienna. I tried WN’s Gold Ochre and I liked it – it has a bit brighter unmixed color than Raw Sienna – but I didn’t like its mixes as well, and found I could mix a similar hue with Raw Sienna + PY110. 
  • Perylene Maroon (PR179) or Quinacridone Burnt Scarlet (PR206) – could be swapped for Deep Scarlet
  • Perylene Violet (PV29) – could be swapped for Violet Iron Oxide or Bordeaux
  • Quin Violet (PV19) – as mentioned, could be swapped for Bordeaux
  • Indanthrone Blue (PB60) – my typical dark blue/shadow, could be swapped for the Neutral Tint. However, I opted to try other things this time because I felt from photos that most canyon shadows either looked brighter blue (like Phthalo Blue Red Shade) or darker and duller (like black).
  • Indigo, Payne’s Gray, or Lamp Black (PBk6) – also could be swapped for Neutral Tint
  • Serpentine Genuine or Sap Green – could be swapped for Oxide of Chromium. I didn’t find a Sap Green I liked, however, and one could be mixed from included colors Phthalo Green and PY110 Iso Yellow Deep. 


Once I’m back from my trip, we’ll see which colors I used, which I wish I had, whether I got time to paint at all, or even if I ended up going because you never know in this day and age of COVID. Fingers crossed!

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