Use coupon code HOLIDAY2021 for 15% off! Dismiss

Tips for Painting with Yellow

Achieving Vibrant Yellows

I was approached by one of my lovely art friends on Instagram about painting with yellows and how to keep them looking vibrant. This sounded like a perfect topic for a blog post, so here I am. Again, I must profess that I am no expert in this area but will happily share what I know. Most of my knowledge of color as well as painting with yellows has come from trial and error as well as a LOT of mixing, swatching, and playing with color. Don't be afraid to test things ahead of time if you are unsure of the outcome. Disclaimer out of the way lets dive into yellow.

Clean Everything

When painting with yellows I try to keep them as pure as possible. By pure I mean not contaminated with other colors, etc. So using clean water, a clean brush, and a clean mixing area/palette is important (and no dirty pans). Yellow is quickly overpowered by other colors and contaminated very easily. Both of which will throw off your colors and mixing.


I use a lot of pale layers and glazing for yellows (Glazing requires that the previous layer is completely dry before adding more color). Remember with watercolor the light or the brightness must come from the white of the paper, so translucency is key. Nothing you put down on the page will be brighter than the white of the paper you are using. Yellow is not lighter in value than white.

It is also important to note that many yellows are at least somewhat opaque. This means that they are only partially transparent. The term opaque means not able to be seen through; in other words, the brightness of the white paper cannot show through it. According to my Daniel Smith color range chart Hansa Yellow, Azo Yellow, and all of the Cadmium yellows fall into this category. This will vary somewhat from brand to brand, so pigment information is very helpful to have on hand. When painting with these semi-transparent colors I suggest using a generous amount of water so as to counteract this opaque quality.


I find that shadow colors for yellow is tricky and color theory also plays a role here. Payne's grey is a very blue grey and when layered with yellow does not make the most attractive color (not to mention blue + yellow = green which is probably not what you're going for). Neutral tint is another color to consider mixing with but do not use black. Moreover, there is no universal shadow color that is appropriate in all situations. When it comes to yellow, reach instead for warm neutrals or subdued earth tones. For example, I often use yellow ochre as a shadow color when painting with yellow, but again this depends on the subject matter.

When mixing shadow colors for yellow you can also try adding the complementary color. In this case that would be purple. But you want to start with yellow and then incrementally add very small amounts of purple, not the other way around. Be aware that purple is a strong color and will easily dominate yellow. So go slowly until you get a slightly darker and less saturated yellow. You may also want to test out various yellows and purples to see which ones play nicely together and which do not.

A few yellow & purple mixes. Please note: the colors do not appear exactly the same to the naked eye.

Make It Your Own

As always, remember that with art there is some room for artistic license. Unless you are painting a scientific botanical drawing, your art does not have to match back exactly to real life. Choose colors that you find appealing and that work well together to create dimension. There is no wrong answer and much of this will come down to color preference.

A Recent Example

Now that we've covered all that, let's walk through an example. I recently painted these little yellow sunflowers and I will share with you my color palette and process. I am going to limit the discussion to just painting and just the petal part of the flower, otherwise, this will get quite lengthy.

I used 4 main colors for the sunflower petals: Lemon yellow, Mayan yellow, cadmium yellow deep, and yellow ochre (with a touch of 'palette dirt' grey). I started with the lightest color (lemon yellow) and worked to the darkest (yellow ochre) in multiple transparent layers. I do not at any point use these colors at their full strength, straight out of the pan/tube.

I am also using two brushes to paint this. One brush is loaded with pigment and the second is clean and damp, ready to soften off edges. I rinse this second brush constantly to keep it clean. Each time I put paint on the paper I am blending it out immediately with my clean brush. In addition, I have two jars of water. One to rinse dirty brushes and the other for clean water for blending. These jars were both cleaned out and refilled before I started painting the petals. That way no green from painting the leaves can sneak into the yellow.

Work Light to Dark

To begin I did a very pale wash of lemon yellow over the entire flower. This will be my lightest value. I then went back in and added more lemon yellow to each petal. I am already thinking about my highlights and my shadows, taking care to leave some areas of the previous light wash visible. I then move on to the Mayan yellow, looking at shadows and areas of medium value. For a light orange or golden tone, I mixed cad. yellow deep with lemon yellow. This was more for the center of the flower and the base of the petals.

Lastly, I mixed some yellow ochre with a little bit of palette grey to desaturate it slightly (this grey is an undetermined mix of various blues and browns that I always have on my palette and I keep adding to it or adjusting it each time I paint). This color was then used for the shadow areas or the darkest parts of the petals. It is not perfect and it does not match back exactly to my reference but it still gives dimension to the flower. I do not have to render everything with watercolor because I am relying on my ink lines to form edges and most of the details.

Final Thoughts

That sums up my technique for painting in yellow. I have used this for flowers as well as other yellow subjects, such as lemons, and been happy with the results. I hope you have found this helpful and if you have any additional tips or something to add please leave a comment or reach out to me on Instagram ( I am always happy to chat about art and watercolor! Thank you for reading!

Scroll to top