Desert Palette Revisited

My Desert Palette, which I used to paint my Vegas travel sketches and post-travel paintings, contained 26 carefully chosen colors. So which ones did I end up using the most? And which could I have left behind?

Most Valuable Colors

These were the colors I found myself reaching for again and again:

  • Raw Sienna. At home, I’m more likely to use Monte Amiata Natural Sienna, which is very yellow; but the warmer and more orangey tones of the desert called out for this rich, caramel earth tone. I test-drove WN Gold Ochre before I left, but found my traditional PBr7 Raw Sienna from Da Vinci easier to handle. There’s a reason it’s a classic! 
  • Quinacridone Burnt Orange perfectly matches the glowing orangey tones of desert canyon sandstone, and can be used to mix many other useful desert colors like Quin Gold hue, sap green, and muted blues.  
  • Quinacridone Coral, my good friend! This one also just has so many uses: alpenglow, sunrise/sunset pink, and a lovely mixer for all sorts of bold desert oranges, including (with Quin Burnt Orange) the bold orange-red tones in Red Rock Canyon.
  • Indian Red surprised me with its usefulness, since I don’t normally like it at home. It’s great for the darker reds of the sandstone and its opacity is nice in rocks because it looks hefty and bold. 
  • Violet Iron Oxide was also nice in the darker tones of rocks, and perfectly matched a thin line of near-purple sediment in one of the mountains I painted over and over. I also found myself mixing it into palette browns to make them look more mysterious and granulating. This color was about as purple as I usually wanted to go in the landscape; using a mix of Quin Violet or Bordeaux and umber might be another way to go, but I wouldn’t want to use either of those purples straight.
  • Cobalt Blue continues to be my go-to sky guy. 
  • Chromium Oxide Green was a great base color for desert plants.
Red Rock Canyon Overlook, painted post-trip on November 26, 2022. Quin Burnt Orange, Quin Coral, and Indian Red are features in the red rock. Chromium Oxide Green is the basis of the desert plants, and purpley Violet Iron Oxide is dropped in behind to make the joshua tree pop.

Also Good

  • Isoindolinone Yellow Deep was a nice mixer for anything I wanted to make more orangey, and got used a lot in sunrise/sunset.
  • Burnt Umber got more use than it does at home, though I think it was both an asset and a liability. I used it as a brown base and to mute blues, though it had a tendency to go green and an earth orange would have been better.
  • Magnesium Brown was a fun granulating agent in the right color family, similar hue to Raw Sienna. I didn’t use it as much as I thought I would, though, and I had to make an effort to remember to use it. 
  • Quin Rose was nice in sunrise/sunsets, though didn’t get a lot of use in the landscape.
  • Phthalo Blue Red Shade was a useful bold blue to mix into skies (usually with Cobalt Blue, to add more smoothness and intensity), or to mix into shadows to make them bluer. As with Magnesium Brown, I did find that I had to make an effort to work in this color, because my instinct was usually to go right to Cobalt Blue, but I usually liked it when I used it.
  • Cobalt Turquoise also didn’t get as much play as I thought, but I liked having it for the occasional bold streak in the sky or mix of cool-colored foliage.
  • Neutral Tint was a nice-to-have convenience color for basic black shadows. 


I used these colors, but wished I hadn’t.

  • Buff Titanium: This was an extremely tempting color to use, because it’s similar to the color of sandstone and makes a tempting base for rocks and sand; but I typically regretted it, both in travel sketches and in retrospective paintings. As a base layer, it’s bland, and I usually wished I’d done Raw Sienna instead. Even if Buff is closer to the actual color of sandstone, Raw Sienna is closer to the more orange tone I perceive it as being. It’s tempting to try to use it to fix mistakes because it’s opaque, but I was never satisfied with it for this use. It dries so dull and chalky, and generally looks uglier than whatever mistake I was trying to fix.  
  • Potter’s Pink didn’t turn out to be the granulating agent I wanted it to be; it cooled and washed out colors in addition to granulating them. I found that I usually wanted colors to be either granulating and bold (like orange rocks), or washed-out and smooth (like hazy mountains). I think Potter’s Pink works better for a cool, muted landscape, like a Scottish moor.
Ash Grove at Spring Valley Ranch. Painted November 26, 2022 (after returning from the trip, based on a composite of travel photos). The use of Buff Titanium to try to correct an overuse of gray in the left side of the mountain led to a muddy patch.

Colors I Could Take or Leave

  • White gouache: I personally did not have a “gouache breakthrough” on this trip. I didn’t really use it.
  • Sunflower Yellow and Nickel Azo Yellow: I needed yellow and these ones worked fine, but I probably wouldn’t have reached for them if I had my entire library at my disposal. 
  • Monte Amiata Natural Sienna: Usually my go-to earth tone, but in this context, Raw Sienna was usually better.
  • Winsor Orange Red Shade, Deep Scarlet, Perylene Red, Bordeaux, Cerulean Genuine, Phthalo Green: I rarely/barely used these. I might easily have skipped them in mixes, or used any other similar-family color. 

Colors I Lacked

These are the colors outside of the palette that I wished I had, or that I incorporated into my post-travel paintings. 

  • Despite having slandered Payne’s Gray as a useless color in a previous Color Spotlight, I found myself wishing I had it. I used it as the primary shadow color for my post-travel paintings. The shadows in the desert seemed to me to be blue and black at the same time. Yes, you can mix blue and black, but when traveling, it is handy to have convenience mixes. 
  • I only brought warm yellows, which worked fine, but I found myself wishing for the cooler tones, especially in sunrises. In my “Ash Grove” painting, I used Hansa Yellow Light as the base color for the glowing ashes, with darker tones from a mix of Sunflower, Raw Sienna, and Magnesium Brown. 
  • Post-trip, I turned to my Neon Palette to paint one of the most wild sunrises from a photo, adding Ultramarine Deep and Hansa Yellow Light again as well as several colors I’d had with me – Quin Rose, Cobalt Turquoise, and Isoindolinone Yellow Deep.
Vegas Sunset. Painted from a photo on November 27, 2022.

Revised Desert Palette

Putting all these notes together, here is my 14-color (Pocket Palette size) Desert Palette!

Revised Desert Palette
  1. DV Hansa Yellow Light
  2. HO Isoindolinone Yellow Deep
  3. DS Quinacridone Coral
  4. DV Red Rose Deep
  5. HO Ultramarine Deep
  6. DV Cobalt Blue
  7. SH Cobalt Turquoise
  8. DV Raw Sienna
  9. DS Quinacridone Burnt Orange 
  10. DV Indian Red
  11. DV Violet Iron Oxide
  12. WN Chromium Oxide Green
  13. WN Payne’s Gray
  14. MMB Neutral Tint

Next time I visit the area or a similar habitat, these are the colors I’ll choose!

2 thoughts on “Desert Palette Revisited”

  1. As someone from a desert, I feel amused that you made a specific palette for it… but of course the dirt and foliage does have a different color wherever you go. I think you could tweak this more to suit a high desert or a coastal desert! Just a note, in your mountain pic with the yellow trees, the saturated sky is a tip-off to me that you painted from a photo. I’ve noticed the camera will make a sky look much bluer in very bright outdoor settings.

    • That’s a really good point! I never noticed that!

      I feel like I started out watercolor thinking I wanted to get the “perfect palette” of useful colors but realized after awhile that what colors seem “realistic” for outdoor/landscape painting (even for something like the sky!!) is really different depending on where you are.

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