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.
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.
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.
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
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.