Choosing a good selection of colours for your basic palette means that you will be able to mix any colour you need from just eight to 12 colours. If your watercolour box has room for a few more colours then you might wish to add some extra colours that you mix often but for convenience are premixed, like some greens and browns.
In painting, the word ‘palette’ is used for both the group of colours an artist uses for a painting and the surface upon which you mix your paints. The Jackson’s Empty Watercolour Palette Box will hold 12 full pans or 24 half pans or a combination (you can actually fit two extra full pans of most brands). The frame inside has bendable edges that adjust to fit any make of watercolour as the standard sizes do vary a little bit. You might wish to choose full pans for the colours you use most often, half pans for the colours you use less often and you can even use a few empty pans that you fill from tubes for some custom mixtures that you want to make in advance or if the colour you want is only made in tubes but you’d like a pan. Inside are fold-out palette flaps for mixing paint on. There is also a thumb-ring on the bottom to help you hold it.
With the right eight colours you can mix most other colours. To get the most from a limited palette it is important to choose good mixing colours, this means being sure to choose from the warm and cool ends of each colour section in the spectrum: a warm and cool red, a warm and cool blue, and a warm and cool yellow. For example: a warm yellow is near the red end so when mixed with a warm red (near the yellow end) it makes a vibrant orange which is the colour between them. In addition to the six primaries, you can add burnt umber to mix with ultramarine blue for a near black; and a bright bluish-green (like phthalo green blue shade or viridian) for a pre-mixed green than can be easily altered to provide many shades of green.
Choosing your colours wisely allows you to mix the most vibrant colours if you wish, but you can also mix muted colours by mixing colours that are not near to each other – for example: a cool yellow (a yellow that is a bit green) and a cool red (a red that is a bit violet) will produce a less vibrant orange as there are now small bits of other colours mixed in to muddy it up somewhat.
Many watercolour brands at Jackson’s only come in tubes, but the good news is that if you wish to have a box of pans you can squeeze your tubes into pans. The formulae for tubes and pans are different in some brands but most artists find this isn’t a problem. You might also save money by buying tubes while still having the convenience and portability of a watercolour box of pans.
An Eight Colour Palette
This is a good colour selection for a wide range of watercolour painting purposes. You don’t have to choose these brands, you may have a brand whose texture you prefer or a certain pigment you like. You can choose variations of these colours depending on the subject matter or your preferences.
Cool yellow (greenish yellow) – Jackson’s Lemon Yellow
Warm yellow (reddish yellow) – Schmincke Horadam Indian Yellow. Another good warm yellow is Daniel Smith New Gamboge it comes in a tube so for this paint box wouold need to be squeezed into an empty pan.
Warm red (orange-ish red) – Jackson’s Cadmium Red Light
Cool red (blue-ish red) – Schmincke Horadam Permanent Carmine. Crimson also works well
Warm blue (reddish blue) – Jackson’s French Ultramarine
Cool blue (greenish blue) – Jackson’s Phthalocyanine Blue
Cool green (blue-ish green) – Sennelier Viridian Green. Phthalo Green blue shade also works well
Neutral brown – Schmincke Horadam Burnt Umber (to mix with Ultramarine Blue for a near black, more blue makes a cool black and more umber makes a warm black)
A Twelve Colour Palette
If you wish to expand your palette to 12 colours then adding these four colours could be helpful:
Sennelier Green Earth (a weak green, but I like it to tone down too red skin tones, if you are painting figures)
Winsor & Newton Perylene Maroon (helps mix darks)
Winsor & Newton Gold Ochre – this great colour does not come in the full pan size (or other earth yellow like Raw Sienna or Yellow Ochre)
Jackson’s Venetian Red (or other earth brown like Burnt Sienna)
When colour mixing be aware that each pigment has a different tinting strength. To get a colour that is visually halfway between two colours you will rarely mix half and half. Yellows are often poor tinters so I start with the yellow and add a little of the other colour at a time. To make a vibrant green for instance, you will need about 95% Lemon Yellow and 5% Phthalo Blue. Some brands show the tinting strength of a colour on the label.
Because you are mixing two colours to make a third colour you can alter the third colour by changing the ratio of the two colours. Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Umber make a great black. By changing the ratio you can make a blue black or a brown black, you have control of the variations. Another advantage of mixing colours yourself over readymade is that you can control how well mixed the two colours are and if you mix only slightly there may be a slight separation or even a big separation of the two colours on the paper, giving a pleasing visual texture.
The basic idea to have in your head when mixing colours is that the more pigments that are added to the mix the darker and duller it becomes because each pigment absorbs light, so what is reflected to our eye becomes less and less. Mixing paint is called ‘subtractive mixing’ for this reason. Green pigment absorbs all colour but green, which it reflects back. Red absorbs all colour but red, which it reflects back. If you mix green and red, the green and red are both absorbed so neither is reflected back and you have a dark neutral colour. You can use this to dull down a colour that is too bright by adding a bit of a complementary colour (opposite on the colour wheel) a little at a time.
To know what colours you are mixing it helps to know what pigments are in your paint. The paint name isn’t enough information. You can find the pigment information on the tube in the format of PB15 for instance, meaning Pigment Blue 15, which is Phthalo Blue. If a tube of colour contains a single pigment and you mix it with another colour of a single pigment then you are only subtracting the reflection of two colours. If you mix a tube that has two or more colours already mixed together with another colour then you are subtracting three or more colours from your mix. So it is good to know what is in your tube of colour. If you’d like to learn more about pigments and colour mixing I highly recommend the great website Handprint where you can also find what pigment corresponds with the number codes on your paint tubes.
Click on the underlined link to go to the Watercolour Painting Department on the Jackson’s Art Supplies website. Postage on orders shipped standard to mainland UK addresses is free for orders of £39.