Choosing Your Own Color Palette: Where to Start

So you want to put together your own watercolor palette? It can be a really fun and rewarding process, but also a challenging one. Allow me to offer some advice on the matter. This post is meant to accompany the Instagram Live stream I did on this subject. If you are interested in watching this as a recording, please see my IGTV @amyearls.art and the series of videos titled, "Choosing Colors for Your Palette."

The information I am sharing in this post is largely based on my personal experience and it is important to keep in mind that every artist is going to have a slightly different answer to this question. We all have certain personal preferences or an affinity for one color over another. Some artists love Payne's Gray others refuse to use it at all. There is no wrong answer. Your color palette will likely be something that grows and changes with you as you develop as an artist. Like so many things, it is not a static fixture and I think it is good to allow some fluidity especially when changing from one type of subject to another or one season to another. The list goes on.

Where to Begin

The idea of choosing colors can feel overwhelming at first, especially when there seems to be an impossible number to choose from. I would strongly advise that you have some painting and color mixing experience under your belt before trying to put together a palette of your own (Naturally, you can do whatever you want, but this is my recommendation). It is better, in my opinion, to start with a pre-made set of 12 or so colors to give you some familiarity with the medium and a starting point for understanding color. Watercolors are not like markers or pens, they are meant to be mixed together. Master color mixing with a limited set, work out all the color combinations that are possible and which ones you like best. This will give you a much better idea of what you like when choosing colors of your own. This learning phase takes time but it is extremely important to your progression and development as an artist. Don't skip it!

You Don't Need All The Colors

I would also encourage you to avoid the temptation of buying all the colors! Yes, I want them all too, but you need to know what to do with them once you have them or its kind of a waste. Not to mention you really do not need ALL THE COLORS to create an effective palette. It is very likely you will end up with colors you don't like and won't use, and that means money that could have been spent on other art supplies. Go slow, try a few new colors at a time, or maybe even just one at a time and really get to know it before moving on.

While a formal understanding of color theory is not necessary, it can be really helpful. Nita Leland has a series of books on color that you may find helpful. I took a class on this subject in college but the majority of my understanding of color comes from a lifetime of experience playing with watercolors.

Here are a few questions to get you started:

1. What subjects do you paint the most? - Tailor the colors in your palette to this subject.
2. Take a look at your current paints, what colors are the most used up? - This can really indicate to you which colors you reach for the most often and they should likely be included in your palette.
3. Consider your needs and budget; professional vs beginner/hobbyist. - This can help by narrowing things down a bit. Some colors have very poor lightfastness rating and are generally avoided by professional artists but can be fun for let's say a sketchbook artist who has no plans of exhibiting their work (Opera Pink is the first color that comes to mind).
4. What are your favorite colors? - Sometimes I will include a color just because I love it so much.

Tips:

  1. Keep color mixing in mind. - Think about the bare minimum of colors you would need to mix the range colors you will want.
  2. Test your colors prior to filling your pans and adding them to your palette.
  3. Your palette is not set in stone. You can always swap colors in or out.
  4. Dot cards can be super helpful if you are unfamiliar with colors from a certain brand. In addition, it is important to note that colors vary from brand to brand so it's important to do your research.
  5. Jane Blundell's blog is an excellent resource for color swatches and pigment comparisons.
  6. Generally speaking, it is more cost-effective to buy paints in tubes rather than pans. Bigger tubes are more cost-effective than smaller ones.
  7. When filling your palette with paints from multiple brands, consider the binder used. They will play together better if the binder is the same. Or you can intentionally create certain effects by combining paints with different binders. I have also heard that gum arabic tends to behave better in self-poured pans than honey (which tends to be tacky)(But again, I have no personal experience in this area). QoR watercolors use their own in-house binder that is not used by any other brand.
  8. You can buy a small metal watercolor tin and 12 empty half pans on Amazon for $11-12. Larger ones are also available at a very affordable price.
  9. You don't have to buy all your paints at once. Try one or two at a time instead. This is more affordable than buying all twelve at one time.
  10. A 12 pan metal tin can actually fit up to 18 colors if you take out the insert (use half pans or a combination of full and half pans).
  11. Get more pans than you think you will need. It is always good to have extra!
  12. Try to buy pans that are all the same brand. There is no industry standard for pan sizes.
  13. Consider how much space you have in your palette. More space means more wiggle room when it comes to narrowing things down. A limit of only 12 colors can be harder to settle on. (I started with twelve but ended up adding 5 more, and now I am thinking of switching to a larger palette so I have more space).
  14. Take inspiration from your favorite artists. Liz Steel, for example, is very open about what colors she uses and it can offer insight on what colors you might want to try.

A Note About Handmade Watercolors

As a final word of caution, I would discourage the purchase of handmade watercolors, especially if you are a beginner. Handmade watercolors are not regulated. There is no guarantee of the paint quality, consistency, or colorfastness. Often pigment information is not included. I hate to say this, but I have found that many people making handmade watercolors are complete amateurs who have little to no painting experience, no understanding of color mixing, or color theory, or even paint pigments themselves. Not to mention these paints are often outrageously overpriced. So if you have your heart set on buying handmade watercolors be careful and do some research before investing your money.

Final Thoughts

Remember to have fun and experiment! Ultimately, color selection comes down to YOUR personal preference (not some other artist or your instructor). It takes time to try things and discover what you like. And lastly, Google search is your friend! Everything you want or need to know is on the internet. Do your own research, don't wait for someone else to tell you the answer!


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