Choosing The Right Colors For A Watercolor Painting Palette

Lately it seems like there’s a lot of buzz about choosing the right colors for painting in watercolor. Artists are studying pigment numbers, comparing mixes between brands and searching for the perfect combination of hues to create their ideal palette. If you’re a beginning watercolor artist, this focus might have you feeling a bit overwhelmed, and I’m here to cut through the chatter and help you find your way. It doesn’t have to be so complicated!

Just 3 Colors? Watercolor Triads.

You may have seen an artist post their painting with the added description of “limited palette of…” and a list of (usually) three paint colors. It’s amazing how a skilled artist can use just three primary hues and create a rainbow of beautiful colors for their painting. Paintings made with a limited, 3-color palette are usually characterized by their harmony, the colors that are mixed are the same as the colors that are used unmixed in the painting, and so everything fits together. The most versatile 3 color limited palette is going to consist of the three primary colors, red, yellow, and blue. Choosing the right red, yellow and blue for your limited palette is the interesting part, because the results you’ll get will vary wildly depending on whether the temperature of each color is warm or cool. A “tomato” red will mix very differently with blue or yellow than a “cherry” red. This article on watercolor triads by Jane Blundell is a great place to compare different triads and see how they work.

Is a Limited Palette Good for Beginners?

When I started painting, I had a limited palette in another way; I was limited by what was available in my rural area. I worked with the same dozen hues for ten years before I realized that there was a world of color out there, and maybe I needed to look at little closer at what was available. Even though not all of my colors were ideal, being stuck with those few colors for so many years was actually a really healthy thing for me because it helped me really get to know my colors and be able to work confidently with what I had. As I started to upgrade my palette, I did so slowly, one or two new colours at a time, working with those hues until I really got to know them, and could anticipate how they would behave and look both alone and mixed. When I added a bunch of new colors all at once, I ended up not using any of them, because I had no idea which ones to choose! 

Tip 1: Use what you have, and add new colours slowly.

Transparent & Opaque

The very first change I made to my palette when I started to look more closely at my color combinations was to remove opaque colors from my palette. For years I had used Yellow Ochre as my “buttery yellow” but a switch to Raw Sienna made my mixes less muddy. From there I began to look more closely at the Cadmium colors I’d been using, and the hunt for the perfect transparent red began. (Right now, I’m enjoying Quinacridone Coral, but the hunt continues. Red is hard!)

Working with transparent colors makes color mixing easier, so a basic palette that consists of primarily transparent colors will give you more versatility in your paintings and cleaner, brighter mixed colors.

I’ve found that opaque colors create beauty when splashed into a dark wash, or added as final highlights at the end of a painting rather than at the beginning of a painting, or added to a puddle of mixed color.

Tip 2: Transparent colors are easier to work with than opaque or semi-transparent.

“Limited” Doesn’t Mean Boring

While there are traditionalists who paint incredible paintings using historical pigments in a very limited palette, there are also artists like me, who own over a hundred different colors and love to use them. I love having a huge variety of color to choose from, and I have used over seven different blues in a single painting, but most of the time for me, a limited palette happens painting by painting. From my hundred colors, I will choose a handful per painting, sometimes only two colors, sometimes six, to create a unified color palette for that painting.

A triad of Rose of Ultramarine, Cadmium Yellow and Cobalt Teal landscape by Angela Fehr - Doodlewash
A triad of Rose of Ultramarine, Cadmium Yellow and Cobalt Teal created this landscape.

I often will obsess over a few “favorite” colors for a while, choosing them for every painting for months on end, varying the accompanying colors. This is how I get to know my colors, rather than creating color charts and swatches. I like to learn my colors in a “live painting” situation, and it’s so fun to discover a new combination that comes to life before my eyes.

Tip 3: Use a small number of colors per painting, but feel free to experiment.

For Color Unity, Think Gallon, Quart and Pint

Sometimes it’s less about the colors you choose than the amount you use. That painting with seven shades of blue felt harmonious because of the proportion of the colors used. The blue was my “gallon” color, with green and yellow falling into the quart and pint categories, respectively. Using different colors in different proportions helps create balance that can direct the viewer through your painting in an intentional way. For example, a painting that is primarily created in cool hues, can use warm color in small proportions to create instant impact, even if just added in small, strategic areas of the painting. Vibrant colors will look more vibrant when placed alongside subdued neutrals.

Angela Fehr Watercolor - Feeling Blue in a Good Way - Doodlewash
Feeling Blue in a Good Way, watercolor by Angela Fehr

Tip 4: Use color in varying proportions to create impact and balance.

Pigment Numbers Matter Less Than You Think

John Cogley, owner of Daniel Smith Watercolor, has a great video where he talks about the process of creating watercolor paint, and it was eye-opening to learn some of the technicalities and science behind the process. I had no idea that pigment number was only a small indication of how a color would look and behave on my paper, that how the pigment was milled would affect its color and appearance! There is such an obsession with pigment numbers right now, and it was a relief to me to realize that after twenty years of being oblivious to pigment numbers, I don’t have to feel like I’ve been identifying colors wrong all this time. While pigment numbers can add to your knowledge about how a color behaves and looks on paper, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Tip 5: The best way to learn what a colour will look like and how it will mix? Use it.

Use What You Have

It is so easy to let guilt, shame and fear keep us from painting, and sometimes that fear can take the form of “research.”

“I’ll start painting when I have assembled all of the right materials.”
“I’ll finish swatching all my colors before I start painting.”
“I want to paint, but (insert expert’s name here) says I need to only use pure pigments.”

If your colors aren’t ideal, use them up! Learning to mix colors with “difficult” pigments will teach you as much or more than any so-called “perfect” palette. Research can be helpful, but even more powerful is owning your knowledge through active usage. Have fun trying out colors and playing with the colors in your palette. Jean Haines challenges students to try to make an “ugly” wash using two colors, and follows that up by saying that no one has ever successfully done so; every combination comes with a unique beauty. When you let color be fun and playful, following a few basic guidelines, you’ll develop your own color language that will reflect who you are as an artist, and make you thrilled to paint with it.

Tip 6: Have fun and be playful with your colors.

Nita Leland, in her book Confident Color, reminds us that color theory is just that, a theory. We get to have the freedom to use color in ways that please us, instead of feeling locked in to long-established color laws.

Photo Of Angela Fehr and watercolor - Doodlewash

When I gave myself permission to embrace color and use it freely in my paintings, I also went right out and bought a turquoise eyeliner. Color makes every part of my life more joyful, and I’m so thankful for a world that’s chock full of color!

Do you have a “signature color” – your favorite hue? Are there colors that you struggle to mix and use properly? Tell me in the comments!

Recommended5 recommendationsPublished in Tutorials

Angela Fehr is an internationally known watercolour artist and instructor living in in northern British Columbia, Canada. Teaching over 5,000 students in her online school, Fehr emphasizes fluid and intuitive painting, teaching technique clearly and encouraging students to explore their own unique style as they develop watercolour skills.

19 Comments
  1. Laura H 3 weeks ago

    Angela is one of my favorite “Artist Heroes” and this article is a good example of why that is so. Her love of art, color and creativity is very contagious. Thank you again Doodlewash for providing an ever expanding platform for watercolor artists.

    • Author
      Angela Fehr 3 weeks ago

      Thank you so much, Laura! Colour should just be fun, and the theory kind of a nice perk as we learn how to make our paintings better, I think. 🙂

  2. Sandra Strait 3 weeks ago

    Excellent explanation of colors and their identification. I was glad to see your comments on pigment identification and its limitations. There is so much emphasis placed on it, and then you see 12 different colors that are all PR101 and huh? It is almost as if someone set out to make it confusing. Articles like yours definitely help in understanding what’s going on.

    • Author
      Angela Fehr 3 weeks ago

      Thank you, Sandra! It’s definitely been a trend, and there’s more to making gorgeous colours than pigment numbers, for sure. I really find I do best when I just use the colour and get to know it, although there are some really good resources online to help compare colours and brands.

  3. Laura (PA Pict) 3 weeks ago

    Great article. I especially appreciate your comment about pigment numbers because I really struggle with comprehending that whole side of watercolour paint ( my brain doesn’t do numbers and science generally) so I am encouraged to just keep using my eye and instinct.

    • Author
      Angela Fehr 3 weeks ago

      Right!? I don’t want to have to remember colour and number both – I have way too much else on my mind! When you learn by doing, you get to internalize the information in a way that works for you.

  4. Brenda Mohr 3 weeks ago

    Thanks Angela for all the great information in this post. You sure know how to take the pressure off and to allow for fun and spontaneity in painting. And I love that you bought turquoise eyeliner!

    • Author
      Angela Fehr 3 weeks ago

      Thank you! My mission has always been to free artists to do what works best for our differing learning styles. It’s exciting to see that we can learn in OUR way and not feel guilty about not being as academic in approach as others. And the turquoise eyeliner is perhaps a mid-life crisis, but totally worth it!

  5. An Artsy Appetite 3 weeks ago

    Such an informative article. Thank you for sharing!

  6. Sharon Nolfi 3 weeks ago

    Thanks for the tips, Angela!

  7. Lois Westerfield 3 weeks ago

    I’ve been following your work/tutorials for quite some time now and find your advice is so empowering. If I get stuck on something, I often will ask myself, ‘What would Angela say, how would she move forward?” I can see my work improving and really think that I could become one of my ‘favorite artists’. Many thanks for all that you share with us.

  8. Catharine McC 3 weeks ago

    Fear taking the form of “research”… Now I understand why swatching and mixing grids are so comforting. You are so right!! Rock your turquoise eyes and take a bow, many thanks Angel-La!!

  9. Heidi 3 weeks ago

    Really interesting to see the DS video too. A man passionate about his craft.
    It’s good to be able to simplify the colours into basic catagories, no need to get bogged down with numbers and letters!
    Thank you Angela!

  10. Sharon Bonin-Pratt 2 weeks ago

    Angela, this is a wonderful explanation about color and how to use it effectively. Thank you for a thoughtful explanation.

  11. optibuddy1 2 weeks ago

    Excellent article. Thank you for sharing Angela.
    It’s so much easier, for me, and a lot more, fun to remember colors than numbers.

  12. Sandy T 2 weeks ago

    GREAT article putting color choice into perspective, Angela! I like your analogy of putting our colors into “gallons, quarts, and pints” for your paintings.

  13. Agnes 2 weeks ago

    This is just perfect. Many, many thanks for all the time you spend helping watercolour enthusiasts!

  14. Really great article, Angela. I love how you mentioned that about the pigment numbers. I’ve found that the type of pigment (e.g. PY154) tells me more about it’s behavior than what color it will actually be on paper, but even that can fluctuate. I love numbers and the science behind watercolor, but what you said sums it up perfectly: Have fun! We learn a world about color and paint by painting. Great tips!

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