watercolour tubes and pans on a wooden surface

A beginner’s watercolour palette

So, in the last post I delved into how we can expand the idea of the three-colour CMY primaries to produce a functional watercolour palette.

This is the basis of my suggested Beginner’s watercolour palette.

You can read the last 5 posts here:

  1. Primary Colours?
  2. Colour Vocabulary – Hue, Value and Saturation
  3. CMY colour wheel
  4. Colour Temperature
  5. Expanding the CMY Wheel


Since I started with a CMY wheel, I have placed the colours here too, in a ‘wheel’ of sorts. There are 6 split primaries, and 4 add-ons- totalling a palette of 10 colours. Here are those ten colours again, with W or C denoting Warm or Cool in the primaries. Links to purchase these same paints are in the end of this post.

split primary colour wheel with 4 added hues in watercolourI consider this a well-rounded solid-performing palette of colours to dive into beginner watercolour painting.

You might think – well for a beginner, isn’t this waaay too many colours?! It can also be cost-prohibitive to buy these many colours in artist grade paint.

I will make a separate post on the minimum/budget colours one could get by with. But minimum colours require maximum mixing. If an artist is more inclined to explore mixing, that is perfect. Choose the CMY from this post, and just dive in! But for those who might want to just try all sorts of painting, a wider palette range helps.

Let us consider ‘ideal world’ scenarios where we can have these many (ten) colours in our palette. In fact, I might even add a few more to these simply because I love the hues, but that can come later.

Pans or Tubes:

Personally, I prefer to pour out tube paints into pans to fit into a box, or into a folding palette. Tube colours dry out and can be carried around just like the pans. The advantage is that they give you much more value for money to buy larger tubes than to buy small pans.

With tubes you also have the flexibility to make mixes for large washes or tackling a larger-than-usual painting. But if you are only going to work smaller or just want to test out the waters, pans are a much lower investment to make. You also get sets of watercolour pans easily now; it can be an effective way to jump into the watercolour world and experience a whole lot of colours.

top view of watercolour tubes and pans on a wooden tableMixing charts?

We could make a mixing chart of all 10 colours mixing with each other – so a ten-by-ten mixing chart.

While this can either be incredibly frustrating or incredibly calming to make, I wouldn’t suggest it. Unless you find value in the actual doing of it, I have not found the final mixing charts to be that useful. Technically yes, it should be like a handy reference. But when I am painting, I find myself looking for remembered mixes and ideas. I have never once looked at a small colour square in the giant mixing chart and proceeded to mix that from its component colours. And I did spend the time to make a 24×24 colour mixing chart, as well as numerous smaller ones!

photo of mixing sheet with 24 colours of watercolours mixed with each other across a 24 by 24 gridBut one can’t just take a bunch of colours and know what to do with it!

It is essential for an artist to be familiar with using the pigments in her palette. To know how they handle, how easy they are to rewet, how much they lighten when dry, etc.

So we must play, make swatches of the colours, move them around on paper and so on.

Playing with the colours

1. Making swatches:

Swatching is the process of laying out a small patch of colour to observe the resulting hue, tint with water, dispersal, or movement when wet. You can also test opacity and drying shift. Drying shift is the amount by which a particular watercolour lightens after drying.

Beginning with swatches, tells me how each colour looks, and handles. I know if I must scrape the pan with the brush or gently touch to pick up pigment. I can figure out if it is warm or cool.

Is a pigment is granulating or not? Can I test it’s transparency by painting over a black strip of paper or Black marker line? I can dilute the pigment with more water to see how the tint is vs the darker mass tone which comes out of the tube as thick paint.

<img swatches various>

This is how I typically swatch my paints first. I make a box with a Black line to check transparency. Then, I put a wash of paint in the box, starting with a thicker consistency, and diluting it with clean water towards the bottom. I note the name of the brand, paint name and pigment info below.

Making swatches has been a go-to process for me whenever I needed something calming to do. That is how I learnt my colours, played with mixes, and studied the pigments.

Even for a non-nerd watercolourist, colours must be swatched out at least a few times to understand how they work.

Also, thought I have mentioned specific brands and tube names earlier, you can take these with a pinch of salt and find the closest hues that you may already have in your existing collection. Paint out small swatches and observe them to see which is the cool blue you have, the one closest to cyan, or your warmest or coolest red, and so on. Earth colours of Burnt Sienna and Yellow ochre are typically default in most paint sets.

2. Playing with Primaries

NOTE: For all the mixes below, I mention the primaries as Warm or Cool Yellow, Blue or Red. This is because they can be substituted with other similar pigments. It is not necessary for them to be the exact brand or pigments mentioned earlier. Only in a few cases where I mention the actual colour name such as Ultramarine Blue or Burnt Sienna- that mix depends specifically on that pigment interaction and may not replicate with other alternatives.

I like to start with simple triads from the warm and cool primaries. I make these quick ‘colour wheels’ by just mixing the triads to secondaries. Direct mixing on paper helps me see the range of the mixes and not just one mixed hue.

I can try any combination of triads. Warm triad, cool triad. Mixed triads, earth triads.

small triangular representation of mixing 3 primary colours at a time3. Secondary mixes

I have mixed the warm and cool primaries with each other to form the typical secondaries or Purple, Green and Orange/Red.

You can see how warm red + cool blue mixes the dirtiest grey while a warm blue + cool red mixes the nicest purple. (Read the post on colour Temperature for more about purples!)

With the cool red + Yellow, we almost see the warm red as being the secondary colour. Remember, Magenta was the primary and Red was a secondary from our CMY original colours. So, this is an expected mix. The warm red in the palette is simply for convenience and reduced mixing.

With Yellows and Blues, the clear and bright greens appear with the Cool blue (close to Cyan). The Warm blue mixed with either yellow gives us more muted, but more realistic greens.

4. Complementary colours?

Some interesting complementary mixes below:

5. Mixes with Burnt Sienna:

As a beginner in watercolours, I never appreciated why I needed Earth colours. It was only later that I discovered how essential they are to tone down bright hues, desaturate, and bring realism especially for landscapes. While there are umpteen earth colours out there, Burnt Sienna and Yellow ochre are a must-have on any palette for me, be it a beginner’s watercolour palette or otherwise.

One particularly important mix that comes in endlessly useful is – Burnt Sienna + Ultramarine Blue. Think of Burnt Sienna as a rusty dark orange. Now that, is a complement to Blue. These 2 pigments (Burnt Sienna – PBr7 and Ultramarine Blue – PB29) mix and neutralise each other to form a gorgeous grey hue. You can use this to neutralize other colours- aka dull them down, reduce their brightness. You can replace the Dark in your palette with this mix.

6. Mixes with Yellow Ochre:

Yellow ochre too, has a special mix with Ultramarine Blue. It is interesting because this yellow and blue DO NOT make green! Just look below! It is perfect for painting skies when you want to introduce yellow into the sky blue but don’t want any green in there!

mixes of few watercolours with Yellow ochre


So you can see the various mixes and possibilities of this palette. You can play with any set of colours similarly.

The dark Neutral Tint and the Sap Green are convenience colours just to speed up our mixing and help us achieve the colours we want, faster. You could replace the neutral tint with a mix of Burnt Sienna + Ultramarine Blue, and the sap green with a mix of warm yellow + warm blue.

These are just a few of the interesting mixes we can get with these colours.

The variety here is suitable for most subjects, from landscapes to portraits. This is a great start to begin watercolouring, urban sketching , or understanding pigment interaction. Hence my suggestion for this to be a wonderful beginner’s watercolour palette.

Once you paint for a while with these, you will begin to know what you like, or don’t like about certain watercolours.

You will realise which colours you use frequently (and keep emptying) and which you don’t.

This will help you refine your palette of colours, add, and remove as needed, and explore more! 🙂

This post is the conclusion of a 6-part series explaining the basics of colour theory, associated terminology and how that is used to select this set of colours for a beginner’s watercolour palette. The previous articles are linked below.

1. Primary Colours?

2. Colour Vocabulary – Hue, Value and Saturation

3. CMY Colour Wheel

4. Colour Vocabulary – Temperature

5. Expanding the CMY Wheel


Note: Links to purchasing art supplies.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Ramya Ramakrishnan Design is a participant in the Amazon Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.in.

Clicking on these links will not charge you anything more, but may help me earn some commissions from your purchases to keep this site running! 🙂

Sennelier L’Aquarelle Artist watercolours:

These are my go-to paints for most colours. I buy them in the 21ml size to maximise my value-for-money and pour them into empty watercolour pans for portability. I will link the specific shades mentioned in this post. Pigment information is mentioned in brackets


Phthalocyanine Blue (PB 15:3) – Cool Blue / Cyan

Ultramarine Blue Deep (PB29) – Warm Blue


Rose Madder Lake – (PV 19) – Cool Red/ Magenta

Rose Dore Madder Lake – Warm Red


Lemon Yellow (PY 3) – Cool Yellow

Sennelier Yellow Light (PY 153) – Warm/mid Yellow


Burnt Sienna (PBr 7) – Earth Brown – This is out of stock in the 21ml size, but I’ve linked to a smaller size which si available right now!

Yellow Ochre (PY 43) – Earth Yellow

Sap Green (PB29 + PY 153) – Convenience Green

Neutral Tint (PB 60, PBk 7, PR 209) – Neutral Dark


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