Creating Your Perfect Palette

Creating Your Perfect Palette

So many watercolor palettes include excellent selections of color, but it is rare that those collections are perfectly adapted for your painting practice and personal preferences.  Just because a watercolor palette came with certain colors doesn't mean you are trapped into using those same ones forevermore, or that you can't mix them up and switch them out.  In fact, I think it's important that you do just that!  Only then will the palette really become your own - and you will notice an immediate difference in your painting.

In this post, I will speak directly to customizing the colors in your palette, and how to adapt your choices to your practice and preferences, by walking you through the way I assemble my own watercolor travel palettes.


Planning Out Your Palette

There are six main considerations to take into account when customizing the colors in your watercolor palette:

1) Color spectrum

2) Mixing options

3) Convenience colors

3) Colors for specific purposes

4) Personal color preference

5) Color sizes

6) Color Layout


Greenleaf & Blueberry Handmade Watercolors Natural Pigments Artisanal Watercolors Travel Palette Sketcher's Set

All of these colors (both mixed and straight from the pan) come from a 14 color travel palette (The Sketcher's Set).


Color Spectrum

This is an excellent place to start when initially assessing the capabilities of your watercolor palette.  The color spectrum for painting encompasses the general color categories of: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Purple plus Brown, Black, and White.  The point isn't to have a color for every category.  (For example, lot of watercolorists do not carry a White, Brown, or Black because those colors can be achieved by other means than making room for pans of them in their palette).  Just consider whether the various colors and combinations thereof in your palette can touch each category.  It's more about determining how well the colors in your palette cover the spectrum.  However, having a color "blind spot" that's flown under the radar can be a source of frustration when you discover it mid-way through a painting.


Greenleaf & Blueberry Handmade Watercolors Natural Pigments Artisanal Watercolors Travel Palette Sketcher's Set

Mixing together the primary colors in your palette will reveal what  colors may be hiding inside your existing palette.  This is what I mean by determining if the colors in your palette can touch each part of the spectrum.  You don't need to fret about carrying a green if your primary colors mix one that suits your purposes.


Color Mixing Options

Your color mixing options are the next aspect of your watercolor palette to consider.  Does it contain a set of primary colors that mix good secondaries?  A good set of primaries provides a reliable backbone to any palette.  However, not all primary color combinations will yield clean, bright secondaries.  (You can read all about Modern Primary Colors here and using Color Temperature here, which will guide you in making informed decisions about color mixing using primary colors.) This is a good place to do some quick mixing tests to make sure you have a useful, flexible set of primaries that behave the way you intend and mix the secondary colors you want to use.  (I have also created a Paintable Project all about putting your primary colors through the paces.)

But color mixing isn't just about primary colors.  Do you have other colors that are useful for mixing the hues you enjoy using?  For example, I always keep some Orange Ochre in my palettes because it is an easy way to make overly bright colors (especially Greens) more earthy and less artificial-looking.



This is our CMYK (or Modern Primary Colors) Set.  It contains a Magenta (Quinacridone Magenta), Yellow (Quinoxalinedione Yellow), Cyan (Phthalocyanine Cyan), and a Black (Grey Ochre).  These three primary colors mix bright, clean secondary and intermediate colors, as shown above.  Grey Ochre allows for tints to be made so that this palette can match nearly any hue.  These colors have come to form the backbone of nearly all the palettes I use and design.  


Convenience Colors

It can be wonderfully useful to just skip over mixing certain colors - it will save you time and paint!  For me, Green is one of these.  So is Purple.  Various shades of green are pretty easy to mix up, but especially if you are a landscape or botanical painter (or enjoy painting frogs eating pickles on pool tables), you'll find that mixing up that much Green will quickly run you through your primaries, and can leave you spending more time mixing your colors than painting with them!  Having some "base" convenience colors will allow you to make quick adjustments with small amounts of your primary (or other) colors.  I carry Italian Green Earth and Phthalocyanine Green for convenience, as well as Ultramarine Purple.  I can make little adjustments to these base colors to adapt them to a wide array of subjects and hues.


Greenleaf & Blueberry Handmade Watercolors Natural Pigments Artisanal Watercolors Travel Palette Sketcher's Set

 A collection of six different green colors: Brazilian Fuchsite, Chinese Malachite, American Green Opalite, French Celadonite, Russian Green Earth, and Phthalocyanine Green.  Though these are all Green watercolors, they are each very different.  Phthalocyanine Green is more useful in landscapes when tempered with Italian Yellow Ochre or French Orange Ochre.  Italian Green Earth can sometimes benefit from a boost by a having a small amount of the higher chroma Phthalocyanine Green mixed in.  All of our Greens are contained in our Frog Eating A Pickle On A Pool Table Palette.



Colors For Specific Purposes

These are colors you find indispensable for your subjects or style.  They are colors whose hues could technically be mixed, but maybe they have a specific characteristic you only get from a certain pigment.  I always carry a Slate for shadows and values - I love how subtle and buildable it is.  I know other artists who carry Purple Ochre specifically for natural shadows and shading.  I also enjoy carrying Lamp Black for a color that mimics the intensity of ink, and Chromite for its stunning tendency to granulate, something I can't get from mixing.


South African Chromite

South African Chromite is a color that is is nearly every palette I carry.  While its hue can be easily mixed, it's characteristics are unique, beautiful, and impossible to mix.  It has a distinct granulation and also variegates in a lovely way.  I enjoy using this color to create depth and texture in my paintings, especially in areas where a darker value is needed.  Another artist I know relies on this color for sidewalks.


Personal Color Preference

This part is especially fun, and where you get to gleefully chuck the rule book and spend a few minutes of your adult life with a legit excuse for seriously pondering your favorite colors.  After assessing your palette for useful things like spectrum and mixing options to make sure it has a practical range, it's important to consider if you actually like the colors in your palette!  After choosing my "workhorse" colors that offer flexibility and convenience, I then add in my "special favorites".  These are colors that may not be particularly "useful" for mixing, may not have a wide range, or even a ton of applications, but they are colors that I am simply drawn to.  For me, this is Malachite, Smalt, Chilean Lapis Lazuli, and Violet Hematite.

Thing is, as an artist, you are not bound to depict anything in any particular way, and you are certainly not obligated to realism.  Once you are free of "supposed-to-be's" for your color choices, you'll find that these favorites have a way of sneaking into your paintings, and can even become a signature of your work.


Horizon Set

These are the colors of the Horizon Set, which I designed around this principle.  It contains a solid backbone of the modern primary colors, covers the color spectrum well, offers a plethora of mixing options, but includes some more unique additions, such as Chinese Malachite, Smalt, Violet Hematite, American Green Opalite, and South African Chromite.  By selecting these more unusual pigments the collection is transformed from something that includes merely the usual suspect and seems more generic into something fresh and more stylized.  Daring to carry the colors that you like and use them in your painting can be similarly transformative!



Color Sizes

This is one of the most often overlooked choices you have.  Many artists don't feel worthy of larger sizes (don't fall into this trap!), and many aren't aware of the wide variety available.  

Watercolor paints generally come in Half-Pans, but there are also Full Pans (which are usually a better value), and we offer our colors in natural seashells, and even small metal pans.  (You can read in more detail about our color sizing here.)  I recommend a selection of either Half-Pans, Full Pans, and Shells or a selection of metal Quarter and Eighth-Pans (as they are compatible only with thinner palettes that don't accommodate Half, Full, or Shells).

Here is my guide for matching your colors to the appropriate pan size:

Full Pan - I choose Full Pans for colors that I go through quickly, and colors that have a low tinting strength (often, these are one and the same).  In my current palette, I have Full Pans of Yellow Ochre, Green Earth, and Eggshell.  Full Pans are also an excellent choice if you enjoy working with larger brushes.

Half-Pan - This size is my default size, so most of my colors are in Half-Pans.  They are a great size for small and mid-size brushes, and for travel.  Half-Pans are also a good way to try out new colors - once you've used up a Half-Pan, you'll know if you want to buy more of that color or not.  

Shell - I think Shells are just plain fun to paint from.  I choose Shells for colors that I seldom use but still opt to carry, colors that have a very strong tinting strength or that take me a long time to go through (usually, one and the same), and I will often use Shells of my "special favorites" (unless I go through them very quickly).


This is our Extended Sojourn Set.  It contains a range of different sizes to maximize space and weight.  Colors that are seldom used by nonetheless important to you are a good choice for the Shell size, as this can save the weight of lugging around more pigment than you need.  This palette was designed for long term travel, where you will be relying on having certain colors last, but don't want the hassle of lugging around an unnecessarily heavy palette.



Color Layout

Now that you have your colors selected, it's time to arrange them in your travel palette.  It helps to have an underlying structure or method to your layout as it helps you locate the color you want quickly when painting.  Colors with a wide value range can appear black in the pan, regardless of hue, making them especially difficult to identify if your colors have been randomly arranged.

I use one of two approaches in laying out my Travel palettes:

Approach 1 - Spectrum

I find it useful to arrange my colors in spectrum order, starting with Red, then Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Purple, Brown, Black, Grey, and White.  This makes for natural neighbors and intuitive progression, and locating the right color is always easy.  (Note: try to avoid storing your Black and White side-by-side, as your White will quickly turn into a Grey!)

Approach 2 - Use Category

Other times, I'll arrange my colors by type or use.  I group primaries together.  If I have more than one group of primaries, I'll group the Reds together, the Yellows together, and so forth.  Then I'll cluster secondaries and convenience colors.  Then tertiaries and greyscale colors together.  Any others are fit in either near color equivalents or just where they physically can fit into that particular palette.  

There isn't a right or wrong for color layout, it's really just about what works well for you.  Try to use a layout that doesn't keep me guessing about which color is which.  Ultimately, arrange your colors in a way that is not only useful, but that makes you excited to paint!


Greenleaf & Blueberry Handmade Watercolors Natural Pigments Artisanal Watercolors Travel Palette Jess Greenleaf Pandemic Painting Toilet Paper Still Life

A painting I did early in the pandemic with my own customized palette.


Your Perfect Palette

At each step of the way, as you assemble your watercolor palette, you have the chance to be intentional about which colors are not only useful to you, but also inspire you and speak to your specific preferences.  The result will be a unique palette that no other artist carries.  I've always thought of the artist's palette as a kind of accidental self-portrait.  

Whether you begin with an existing palette or build one from scratch with individually selected colors and a vintage tin, no one else will make the same color decisions or use them in the same way as you.  

Creating the "perfect palette" is a bit of a fluid art form (within a fluid art form!).  Your watercolor palette will change and evolve along with your work.  Certain colors will take you back to certain times and certain paintings, almost the way songs can transport you to different times in your life.


Stay tuned - I'll be following up this post with tips and suggestions on how to choose and customize your palette box itself!

As always, thank you for being here.


Jess Greenleaf Greenleaf & Blueberry

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