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How to Choose your colors

Choosing colours 

Choosing and mixing colours is a tough task for many people, it is often a-hit-or-miss process.

The problem with mixing colours

The problem in my experience seems to always be three-pronged. Firstly there are uncertainties regarding the initial choice of colours to use as for mixing, secondly difficulties in understanding how to obtain a desired colour and thirdly maintaining

colour harmony and balance within the painting (As I do not have the space to deal with colour harmony and the question of the equilibrium of values, shapes and textures, I refer you to “The Complete book of Watercolour” now available in digital form only (go to: – Type 1641 in the search bar). Hopefully this article will answer most of your questions and give you some tools to make the world of colour nothing but pleasure. If you remember in the last chapter, I mentioned that colour is an accessory in painting (which probably made many people flair up in anger – it usually does!). But colour is not essential and the thousands of extraordinary monochrome paintings throughout history are witness to this. However, colour adds spark! It adds an extra dimension to the emotion and atmosphere of a painting. So, let’s learn how to mix them to our best advantage.


Choosing your palette

Every artist has their own ideas on how to do this, even me! But the only way for you to get the “right palette” for you is by understanding your technique and what results you are looking for. Your palette needs to be based on your needs, no-one else’s. If you want to create fresh, colourful, transparent paintings; you will obviously need a palette of various highly-saturated transparent colours. If on the other hand, you want to create paintings with great depth in tonal values, you may find some more opaque

colours are a welcome addition. If you paint a lot of dry on wet, as I do, some more opaque or even granulating colours may help the strokes stay more localised on the wet paper’s surface, as opposed to transparent ones that will bleed off faster. I often mix in a little white gouache to break bright transparent pure colours down into more pastel, creamy soft colours, without losing purity. Understanding how you paint and the results you are after is 90% of the battle. That said, there are dozens of tempting transparent, opaque, saturated or unsaturated colours out there for sale: how to choose amongst them?

My first suggestion is: ‘Don’t succumb to the temptation of buying all the latest colours available’. Your best bet is to start off with a small number of colours in your palette; ideally one blue, one red, one yellow (and perhaps one orange), one green and one violet. Learn to use these colours only. Observe how they react with water, how they fuse, what colours they make when mixed together, etc. This way you will understand how your colours work and become far more proficient: mixing colours will become an easy, automatic reflex. It is not hard to understand 6 colours, but it is much more difficult to understand 20!


My personal criteria

In order to make it onto my palette, I have a set of criteria that a colour must abide by. I am conscious that I have very high demands, and many of you will not wish to go this far, but this process may help those that do. This process, led to the current palette that I have kept for approximately 5 years now. I have always used Winsor & Newton colours, although in the last year or so I have added some Daniel Smiths. There have been some changes to the Winsor & Newton range and unfortunately certain colours no longer meet my requirements: Burnt Sienna (PR101), Winsor Blue (green shade) (PB15:3), Ultramarine Blue (green shade) PB29, Winsor Green (blue shade) (PG7), Winsor Violet Dioxazine (PV23), Permanent Rose (PV19), Quinacridone Red (PR209) and Transparent Yellow (PY150). Again ideally you are choosing the best range of colours according to your tastes and technique.


Here are the points I consider when incorporating a colour onto my mixing palette:

1. Low toxicity

2. Permanence

3. Transparency

4. High saturation

5. Non-granulating


Transparent Yellow, Burnt Sienna, Permanent Rose, Dioxazine Violet,

Winsor Blue (green shade) and Winsor Green (blue shade).


1. Low toxicity

This is an important issue for me and that’s why it comes top of my list! We live in such a polluted society today and we take in huge quantities of toxins every year through fertilisers, pesticides, food additives, sodium fluoride, heavy metals like aluminium, mercury and many more creating a toxic soup for our liver, kidneys, brain and pancreas to battle with every day. Any way possible to reduce my personal intake of toxins is high on my list of priorities. This includes my watercolours. Colours manufactured using cadmium and cobalt pigments, although respecting today’s health requirements, are still health hazards that can easily be avoided. To give you an idea my 45 kg dog accidentally licked the equivalent of a pea-sized dab of cadmium red watercolour paint. She had an immediate respiratory attack diagnosed by the veterinary as “acute toxic poisoning”. Let me be clear, these pigments alone will not greatly harm your health if they are used correctly, but as an added source they do accumulate to the whole. It is best to at least be aware of this so you have the choice to act as you choose fit. My children also use my paints so I am very vigilant. Colours to use with care (or to avoid in my case) are the entire cobalt and cadmium range; be careful, this includes Aureolin (PY40) which is produced using potassium cobaltinitrite. The pyrrol and benzimidazolone ranges can easily replace cadmium colours. They are semi transparent to semi-opaque in nature, purer in colour and more stable, (cadmiums are less stable in the presence of humidity). The cobalts too can be fairly easily replaced: you won’t find an exact alternative, but pretty close.


My advice:

> Cadmium Yellow (PY35) can be replaced by Winsor Yellow or New Gamboge (PY175, PY153, PY154, PY65).

> Cadmium Orange (PY35+PR108) can be replaced by Winsor Orange (PO62).

> Cadmium Red (PR108) can be replaced by Winsor Red (PR254, PR264).

> Cerulean Blue (PB35) can be replaced by Ultramarine Blue with a touch of white (PB29).

> Cobalt Blue (PB28, PB74) can be replaced by French Ultramarine Blue (PB29).

> Cobalt Turquoise (PB36) can be replaced by Winsor Blue (green shade; PB15:3) with a touch of white.

> Cobalt Green (PG50) can be replaced by Viridian (PG18) with a touch of white watercolour.

> Cobalt Violet (PV14) can be replaced by Permanent mauve (PV16) with a touch of white watercolour.


2. Permanence

It is simple; for me all unstable pigments are automatically off the list! I only use pigment rated “Excellent” in permanency. Sure watercolours are a lot more permanent than they used to be, but not all. Certain colours like Alizarin Crimson (PR83), Rose Madder (NR9), Rose Opera (PR122), Prussian Blue (PB27), Antwerp Blue (PB27) and Aureolin (PY40) in most brands are not ideal for watercolour paintings. Most (though far from all) manufacturers are upfront about instability and mention it on their colour charts. Don’t forget that watercolours are not only used by artists: book illustrators, commercial illustrators, designers and architects, etc. also use watercolour paints for their illustration boards and original drawings prior to printing and for them permanence is less of a key issue.


3. Transparency

For my technique I prefer transparent watercolours for mixing, I even exclude semi- transparent ones, which is purely a personal choice. Transparent colours mix with ease: it’s literally impossible to make mud! You may end up with a grey of some sort, but it will always be clean. Avoiding “mud” is an easy thing to do if you only use transparent pigments. I not only choose transparent colours, but I pretty much stay within two “ families”: the quinacridone and the phthalocyanine colours. This ensures similar reactions between the colours when they are mixed or fused together and they also dry at a similar speed, which eliminates any unwanted surprises. Should I choose to add an opaque or granulating colour into a painting I do so without a problem, however my mixing colours are all transparent.


4. High saturation

Just as I only use transparent colours, I also stick to highly-saturated colours which give me the greatest range of colours possible. Colours that contain more than one pigment or dull colours cannot make bright ones: using them in a mix will only create a duller colour. Keeping pure single pigment colours in my mixing palette allows me to mix dull and bright colours at will.


5. Non-granulating colours

Granulating colours do not fuse in the same manner as non-granulating colours. The pigments in granulating colours attract each other, meaning that the colour once laid onto the paper will move towards itself or fuse inwards. Non-granulating colours fuse outwards. It is this attraction between the pigments that creates the “packets” or “flocculation” of concentrated pigment seen as “granulation”. Many of you will have witnessed a mix of colours on your palette, or on the paper, that separates after a few seconds. This is a common effect when granulating and non-granulating colours are mixed. The result can be beautiful, but it may not be a standard effect that you are looking for in all of your mixes.

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