Should watercolor beginners start with a limited palette?

A common piece of advice for watercolor beginners is to start with a limited palette: only buy, say, 3-6 colors. But is this really practical advice? 

Photo by Noemí Jiménez on Unsplash

Arguments in favor

Limited palettes force you to learn to mix.

Beginners tend to overestimate how many different paint colors they need, especially when coming from a medium such as colored pencils where a lot of colors are used. Watercolor is a very mixable medium. You can get a wide variety of hues from 2-3 paints, especially if you choose a primary triad (something in the yellow family, something in the red/magenta family, and something in the blue/turquoise family). If you only have a few colors, you will be forced to learn to color-mix, a crucial skill that many beginners find intimidating. 

Buying fewer colors saves money.

With $20-40, you could purchase 3-6 colors in a professional-quality brand, or three times that many colors of cheaper, student-grade paint. Many argue that a smaller number of colors in a higher-quality paint is a better deal.

Limited palettes help with color harmony.

Using too many colors in a single painting can end up looking busy and unharmonious. For each painting, it is often advisable to choose a limited palette of only 3-6 paints to use in that painting, and mix all the colors from those.

Arguments Against

A limited palette is appropriate for a painting, not all your paintings.

Color harmony is an important consideration, but it’s an argument for choosing a limited paletted of 3-6 colors for each painting – not for only owning 3-6 colors at all.

It’s easy enough to say “I only used four pigments in this painting,” but you still had to choose which four pigments were ideal to mix the hues you wanted in that painting, and it’s not the same four pigments every time. Different base colors create different effects in mixes, and different paintings will call for different combinations.  

There is no perfect triad.

Every time you choose a limited palette – whether for one painting or for a whole series or for your entire body of work – you choose trade-offs. Some hues will be difficult or impossible to mix. Others will be very evident (such as your unmixed base colors). There are consequences to whatever set you choose.

It’s setting people up for failure to tell them they ought to be able to “mix every color” from a single triad. Even the oft-touted “true primary” set of yellow, magenta, and cyan has consequences, making certain colors easier than others (e.g. bright acid greens are easier than muted landscape greens).

You need personal experience to know which colors you like.

In many ways, minimalism is harder than maximalism.

With hindsight, you can look back and say “Turns out I mostly use the same handful of colors, so if I were to start over, I’d only buy those.” But you didn’t know you preferred those colors until you tried a bunch of stuff, and there’s no way to shortcut that. There’s a difference between deciding you don’t want or need a paint based on your own experience, vs. taking another artist’s word for it… or simply not knowing.

My Experience

As you can probably tell from the massive number of paint samples on this blog, I have severe watercolor paint FOMO and just need to try everything! I’ve been that way since I started. Within a few weeks of getting my first professional-quality paints, the Daniel Smith Essentials starter kit, I couldn’t help but add extra colors recommended by others, until I had 19 colors to fill my first palette. I’ve sometimes wondered “what if?” I had had more discipline from the beginning and stuck with a smaller palette.

When I decided to try gouache, I got the opportunity to show that discipline! I got a starter gouache set of  white, black, yellow, magenta, and cyan, and didn’t allow myself to add to it. “I can mix everything from these colors,” I told myself sternly. “I’ll only buy more gouache if I use up this set, and then I’ll have an idea of which other colors I’ll want for convenience.” I painted once or twice with the starter kit… then proceeded not to use gouache for a year, because it was too difficult to mix everything!

It was only when I eventually added five more colors – Ultramarine Blue, Burnt Sienna, Vermilion, Marigold, and Phthalo Green – that I began to really enjoy painting with gouache because I could make paintings that resembled my reference photos and imagination, not just whatever was handy to mix with the colors that I had. Lesson: there is a sweet-spot number of colors that turns a medium from difficult to do-able, and for me, five is too few.

My actual advice

I’m wary of any advice given to beginners that experienced artists don’t follow themselves. That includes the majority of people who advocate for a minimalist palette. There’s a whiff of “I can use so many colors because I’ve earned it” that I find suspect. Denying beginners fun in the name of fundamentals is a common form of artistic smugness. I also think that experienced artists underestimate how difficult certain restrictions would be because they’ve never actually done it! 

In a given painting, it’s a good idea to decide ahead of time which handful of colors you’ll use. But that doesn’t mean you should only own a handful of colors. Personally, I find it more fun and interesting to have a larger “library” of colors to choose from, so it’s not the same handful of colors in each painting. After all, color choosing is just as important of a skill as color mixing, and you deny yourself that practice if there’s nothing to choose between. 

I think the sweet spot is around 10-20 colors: enough to make meaningful choices, but not so many that you’re overwhelmed. (Full disclosure: at this point, I have 25 gouache and 50 watercolor paints. Your personal overwhelm point may vary.) If you’re starting out, erring on the side of smaller number makes sense so that you have room to expand as you learn, from experience, where the gaps in your collection are, and which types of colors you like best. 

In practical terms, I think “start with 6 perfect professional colors” is not really practical advice because it assumes that the beginner already has the type of deep knowledge of color and of their own style that can only be won from experience. (Reading my post, How to Build a Watercolor Palette from the Ground Up, can help, but it won’t tell you which colors you like.) Of course, buying a lot of professional grade paints you don’t like is a good way to waste money (as I know from experience!) There are several ways to make the process of learning about colors cheaper:

  • Go for student grade. Many of the major brands (Winsor & Newton, Royal Talens, Schmincke, Daler Rowney) offer high quality student grade brands that are cheaper than the pro lines. (I include my RT Van Gogh and WN Cotman color picks in Single-Brand Watercolor Palette Ideas!). Student grade paints are also often sold in large sets and sometimes these sets have good sales.
  • Start with smallest possible amount of each color. The price-per-ounce of paint is a better deal at larger amounts, but it’s not a good deal if you don’t use it all. When trying new colors, look for half-pans or 5ml tubes.
  • Try dot cards. This gets you the opportunity to try most or all of the paints in a brand’s line. While you won’t be able to test extensively the amount of paint in a dot, you can at least tell which colors you have a “love at first sight” or “yuck at first sight” reaction to. That said, this is probably most useful after you have enough skill with watercolor that you know what you’re looking for in evaluating paint. After you have messed around with some basic student grade paints, dot cards are good way of learning about pro brands.

I see the theoretical value of starting out minimalist and then gradually becoming more maximalist, but for me personally, I have not been able to even imagine minimalism until I had the information I gathered from maximalism.

2 thoughts on “Should watercolor beginners start with a limited palette?”

  1. Obviously I agree.
    Two comments:
    * Watercolor paints–unlike even gouache–have many interesting properties beyond their hues (granulation and mobility being two big ones) and can mix in somewhat unexpected ways. Not letting people play with that from the start is just so… limiting. A beginner who gets a split primary set with a phthalo in the ‘warm blue’ slot will have a very different experience from one who gets a cobalt, like a cerulean, and so, as you say, neither one will have the chance to figure out what they like.
    Also, earths tend to be much more interesting in watercolor than a brown mixed using clean primaries can ever be.
    So, the split primary thing really doesn’t work so well.

    * I have a larger color library than you do, but most (really, most) of that library comes from second-hand purchases off ebay. I guess some people might be put off by used paint, but for those who are not, it might be something to look into. And I think it can work outside Europe, too: e.g., when visiting the US I scored a 24-color Daniel Smith set for $30. (As with most second-hand purchases, finding the bargains can take a while, though.)

Comments are closed.