Choosing Your Palette

With many art supply manufacturers boasting upwards of 100 colours in their ranges, it can be difficult for a beginner to any medium to decide what colours they should buy. How do you pick just one yellow or one blue from the five or ten on the shelf? As a dry medium which must be mixed on the paper, coloured pencils can be difficult to mix if you only have a handful of colours, so it often makes sense to buy a large set of those (ie. 24-36 colours, or more). The same goes for oil pastels and soft pastels (though they are probably a little more flexible with how they can be mixed). Paint, on the other hand, is much easier to mix as you can do it on your palette and get the colour exactly right before applying it to your surface; it’s a simple matter to add a little of this colour or that to refine your mixture. For this reason, painters can get by with a much smaller palette (though many still choose to have a larger selection of colours, which is perfectly fine), so this post will be aimed more at acrylic, watercolour and oil paint artists rather than coloured pencil or pastel artists. Most of the examples I’ve used in this post are done with watercolours because that’s what I had on hand at the time, but the basic principles will apply to all paint-based mediums. This post doesn’t go into other materials like brushes or paper as I’m planning to address those in other ‘Getting Started’ posts for each individual medium at some point in the future.

I’ve often heard the phrase “ask a hundred artists what the best palette is and you’ll get a hundred different answers”, and the multitude of threads on the art forums I frequent can certainly attest to that. Some artists use more than 20 colours, while others use only 5 or 6, and even among those who use an extremely limited palette, the colour choices they have made are often completely different. Artists may also change their palette over time or if they have a change of subjects they like to paint.

Anyway, if you’re a new-comer to art as a hobby and you’re trying to decide what you need to buy to get started, here are some things that are worth considering before you part with your money.

Student Grade vs Artist Grade
The first thing you will notice when you start browsing your local art supply store or looking at only retailers is the significant difference in price between different grades of materials. Generally, art supplies will come under one of three categories; artist grade, student grade or what I call ‘kiddie grade’. Kiddie grade is basically what you would buy for a 5 year old to take to school or kindergarten; you know, the $3 box of pencils and a palette of 20 watercolours for under $10. Kiddie grade paints and pencils generally have a far lower pigment load than even student grade materials, to the extent where they colours look weak and transparent even when applied thickly or in multiple layers. If you have any intention whatsoever of becoming serious about art, even if it’s just as a hobby, do not buy kiddie grade. The poor quality of the materials will only put you off drawing and painting.

Student grade is a fairly big step up from kiddie grade. The colours are usually far more concentrated and behave in a manner that more closely resembles proper artist grade supplies in terms of pigment load and texture. That being said, they usually contain a lot more fillers, which may give some colours a slightly chalky appearance, and many colours are made from mixtures of cheaper pigments or sometimes dyes (which are prone to fading) instead of single, more durable pigments.

Artist grade paints are generally the most expensive, but they do make it easier to produce much better results. They have a higher pigment concentration than student grade and expensive colours like cobalts and cadmiums are made from genuine pigments rather than being hues made up of cheaper pigments (some companies do still include hues in their artist grade line for those who don’t like using toxic pigments or want a cheaper option; cadmiums and cobalts and the like are usually among the most expensive colours in any range). The relative lack of fillers mean that colours usually look stronger and more vibrant when applied to your surface, and artist grade paints usually (but not always) have more of a focus on single-pigment colours and lightfast pigments.

So, should you buy student grade or artist grade? Most art supply manufacturers produce both an artist grade line (sometimes called ‘professional’) and a student grade line, and though a particular manufacturer’s artist grade line will always be more expensive than their student grade line, sometimes you will find one manufacturer’s artist grade paints aren’t much more expensive than another manufacturer’s student grade line. Some say that it’s better to start with student grade in case you don’t like the medium and so you don’t feel as bad about ‘wasting’ paint on paintings that don’t turn out well. Others say it’s better to use artist grade materials from the start, as they often have different pigment compositions than student grade paints, meaning that when the student decides to upgrade, they would have to relearn a lot of their mixing combinations.

You will need to look at the supplies that easily available to you in order to decide what is best for your budget, however I would recommend that you buy artist grade paints but in a limited range. As I’ve explained below, you don’t need that many colours to get started, as you can mix pretty much everything you need from a handful of paints. This will give you a better feel for how the medium (whether it’s watercolours, acrylics or oil paints) are supposed to perform and their pigments, and a selection of, say, 6-8 paints from the lower end of the artist grade price range shouldn’t break your bank.

Sets vs Individual Colours
Once you’ve been painting for a while, you’ll get a sense of what colours you use a lot, but it can be hard to predict this when you’re first starting out. This means deciding whether you want to buy a set of paints that includes a number of pre-selected colours or choose your own colours by buying them all individually. Regardless of whether you buy tubes or pans, buying a set is almost always cheaper than buying the same colours individually. However, depending on the size of the set, you will almost certainly end up with colours you rarely or never use, which can seem wasteful. Pre-selected watercolour sets can include anything from 6 to 48 colours, while oil and acrylic sets tend to be sold with 5 to 12 colours. If you do buy a set, I’d recommend getting one with 12 colours (anything bigger is mostly unnecessary) and gradually adding a few more individual colours once you know what colours you use often, but if you’d rather start with a limited palette, it might be worth looking into those I’ve described below (or researching them yourself on art forums) and picking your own colours.

Colour Names vs Pigments
If you buy individual colours, one thing that can make it difficult to decide what paints to buy is the variations between colours of the same name and of the same pigment.

Colour Names
Regardless of the medium, there are some ‘staple’ colours which are commonly used by artists and are therefore included in almost every brand’s lineup. Colours like Ultramarine, Cadmium Red and Yellow Ochre are just a few examples. However, unlike these colours, which generally look very similar (and are made from the same or similar pigments) regardless of what brand you buy them in, other colours can look completely different, especially colours made from multiple pigments. See my charts of Burnt Sienna and Burnt Umber paints below.

Burnt Sienna and Umber Samples

As you can see, paints of the same name can look completely different depending on the pigments used, or even with the same pigment. Winsor & Newton’s Burnt Sienna uses PR101, a light reddish brown, while the other Burnt Siennas are PBr7. Burnt Umber also varies between a dark, cool brown to a lighter warmer brown. I find these discrepancies to be particularly noticeable among convenience mixture greens, such as Sap Green and Hooker’s Green. Have a look at the green charts in my lightfastness tests at colours with those names to see how different they are across manufacturers (you’ll also notice that most of them consist of completely different pigment mixtures).

So, the takeaway from this is that it’s important to look at the pigment information rather than relying on the colour names when choosing paints, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee you’ll get the colour you think you’re getting, as I’ll explain below.

Colour Pigments
As with colours of the same name often looking the same across brands, there are some pigments that tend to look the same across the board (such as PW6, PR108 or PB29; white, cadmium red and ultramarine blue, respectively). However, sometimes two paints made from the same pigment (even if it’s only a single pigment mix) can still look vastly different. For example; here is a colour chart I have made of all the watercolours I have that are made from PV19.

PV19 Samples

As you can see, PV19 can be anything from a delicate pink to a strong, deep magenta. Some manufacturers will have two different colours using that pigment within their line, while a colour of the same name and using the same pigment may still look different between brands.

It’s really worth getting a colour chart from the manufacturer or looking it up online if you can, so you can be confident that the colour in the tube is the right one for you.

Limited Palette vs. BUY ALL THE COLOURS!
It can be very easy to get sucked into thinking that you absolutely must have every single colour you can get your hands on, for if you don’t, all your paintings will be rubbish and you will never be able to paint like <insert your favourite artist here>. I was no different; after seeing the different palettes recommended by artists in every painting instruction book I read, I went nuts on eBay and in local art supply shops and other online art supply retailers, especially when they sent me coupons or had sales. I got half-pan sets of various sizes (from 12 to 48) in several different brands. I even spent the better part of an hour in the campus bookshop at uni, rummaging through their art supply clearance bins like a hobo in a dumpster as I made sure I had dug out every last tube of discounted watercolour.

But when it came time to actually do a watercolour painting, I spent more time digging through my 40+ tubes and trying to work out which colour I should use than actually putting paint on the paper, yet I didn’t have this problem with acrylics (of which I only had about 15 tubes). It took me a long time to learn that there is such a thing as having too many paints, but eventually I did, and I realised that having a small set of colours would be a much better approach.

Exactly how small a set is an often-debated topic on art forums, but I have seen various examples of limited palettes, which I’ll talk about here. Note there may be some variations within these palettes, so my suggestions shouldn’t be taken as gospel, but these are the combinations I’ve used or seen most often. Also (as previously discussed in this post), it’s important to look at both the colour name and the pigment information and try to get a colour chart if possible before purchasing colours.

Triads
Technically you can mix all colours with pure versions of the three primaries, but this can be tedious and time consuming (I find it nearly impossible to get a good brown from just the three primaries, even though other artists make it look easy). The pure primary triads I’ve used and seen are usually made up of the following colours:

  • Yellow: Hansa Yellow, Lemon Yellow or Nickel Azo Yellow (often PY3 or PY150)
  • Red: Permanent Rose or Quinacridone Magenta (often PV19 or PR122; aim for a strong, bright pink rather than a dark violet variety)
  • Blue: Phthalocyanine Blue or Ultramarine Blue (PB15:3 or PB29; the latter isn’t truly a ‘primary’ blue but it’s still a versatile colour and popular with many artists)
Pure Triad

My pure primary triad: Nickel Azo Yellow, Quinacridone Rose and Phthalo Blue (M Graham)

I’ve also seen artists make use of an earth primary triad. Though it’s impossible to get proper purples, this sort of triad can give you all sorts of lovely muted browns and greens.

  • Yellow: Yellow Ochre or Raw Sienna (PY42 or PY43, with Raw Sienna sometimes having PR101 or PBr7 mixed in)
  • Red: Light Red or Venetian Red (PR102 or PR101)
  • Blue: Cobalt Blue (PB28)
Earth Triad

My earth primary triad: Naples Yellow Deep, Golden Barok Red and Delft Blue (Old Holland)

Split Primary
Other artists have a split palette, with a warm and a cool version of each primary. Once again, the pigment and manufacturer must be taken into account.

  • Cool Yellow: Hansa Yellow or Lemon Yellow (often PY3)
  • Warm Yellow: Indian Yellow or Nickel Azo Yellow (PY153 or PY150)
  • Cool Red: Permanent Rose or Quinacridone Magenta (often PV19 or PR122)
  • Warm Red: Pyrrol Red or Cadmium Red (PR254, PR255 or PR108; some don’t like Cadmium Red in watercolour as it is opaque)
  • Cool Blue: Phthalocyanine Blue or Cerulean Blue (PB15:3 or PB35)
  • Warm Blue: Ultramarine Blue or Cobalt Blue (PB29 or PB28)

Some artists use only the colours in their limited palette, while others like to add a few colours that are difficult or time consuming to mix, such as browns or convenience greens or greys. It can be worth buying a brown, green or grey like this to save time mixing later, but mostly you shouldn’t need to buy too many extra colours.

Depending on what I’m painting, I find that 7-12 colours is usually about all I need, though I do still have a set of 24 Winsor & Newton half-pans in which pretty much all the colours get used. While it is good to try to reduce the colours you own (to save money on unneeded paints if nothing else), there is nothing wrong with expanding your range a little if a limited palette feels too restrictive.

Transparent vs. Opaque Pigments
Some mediums – such as acrylics or oil pastels – provide denser coverage by their very nature, and for these mediums, the difference between transparent and opaque pigments may be less noticeable (it’s worth noting that even opaque pigments can appear transparent if thinned down enough, while transparent pigments may appear opaque if applied in thick layers). However, for more translucent mediums such as watercolours, it pays to understand how transparent or opaque your colours are before you mix them or apply them to your paper. Since watercolour demonstrates this difference most effectively, I’ve used it for my samples below.

Transparent colours will let anything below them show through, whereas opaque colours tend to cover other layers either partially or completely. As you can see from my samples below, colours like Cadmiums and Cobalts and some earthy browns and yellows lean towards opaque and reduce the visibility of the black lines underneath. More transparent colours allow the black lines to show through at almost full strength. Some colours fall somewhere between opaque and transparent; most art supply manufacturers will include a semi-opaque and/or a semi-transparent category on their colour charts.

Many watercolour artists prefer to use only transparent colours as it gives them more control and flexibility with the layering of colours. Floral painters and artists who paint in a looser, more abstract style often like to build up multiple layers of pale washes to achieve subtle effects. Others are happy to include some opaque colours for highlights or to emphasise key sections of their painting (for example, opaque earths often give a boost for landscape paintings). Both approaches are perfectly valid, but if you do use both transparent and opaque colours, be aware that mixing the two can result in more muted (if not muddy) colours, especially if you are trying to mix violets with one transparent and one opaque colour.

If you prefer to paint exclusively with opaque watercolours, you may wish to switch to gouache instead.

Lightfast and Fugitive Pigments
If you’ve spent any time on art forums, you’ll no doubt have come across discussions of lightfast and fugitive pigments. If you’re still unfamiliar with the terms, pigments have ratings in terms of the Blue Wool Scale or the ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials). The BWS runs from 1-8, with anything above 6 being considered lightfast, while the ASTM runs from I to V, with I to II being lightfast. If a material is lightfast, it means that it will not fade or change over time (or if it does, it will take decades, if not centuries and the change will be pretty much unnoticeable). A fugitive pigment will degrade over a relatively short time, whether by changing colour as it breaks down (some pigments turn brown as they deteriorate) or by fading entirely. To see how significant this fading can be, look at the red chart in my lightfastness tests. As you can see, large portions of the Alizarin Crimson (PR83) have faded entirely, with thin washes of it fading even when covered. Though most art isn’t going to be displayed in a window as these charts were, colours this fugitive can still fade surprisingly quickly when displayed on a wall. While UV light is probably the main cause of pigments deteriorating, some can react to exposure to different atmospheric conditions or may just break down naturally over time.

As an aside, this is another reason why it is important to carefully check the pigments in any colours you buy, especially in paints made from multiple pigments. Though the fading in a multiple pigment mix (made from one fugitive and one or more lightfast pigments) won’t be as pronounced as a single fugitive pigment mix, it will still affect how the colour looks; look again at my lightfastness tests of green paints to see how the yellow faded from some of the convenience greens, leaving a darker, bluer green than the colour’s original state.

If you never intend to sell or display your work and only want to paint for fun in sketchbooks or journals, fugitive pigments probably won’t concern you, but for artists who do sell their work, I believe we should educate ourselves about our materials and take responsibility for our work. People who buy our art are trusting us to give them something that isn’t going to fade after hanging on their wall for a few years and most of us would be pretty upset and angry if something we’d paid a lot of money for halved in value after a few years because the artist didn’t check what pigments they were using (it would probably be okay to sell a fugitive work if you let the buyer know that it’s fugitive, though you’d probably have to sell it for a much lower sum). Personally, I prefer to avoid fugitive colours entirely; even though a lot of what I paint stays hidden in my sketchbook, sometimes I paint something that comes out really well and that I might want to display or sell, which I wouldn’t feel confident doing if I used colours that I knew were fugitive.

Conclusion
Regardless of what paints you end up buying, you’ll no doubt need to do your own research by looking at manufacturer colour charts or other artists’ blogs or forum posts to get a better idea of exactly what you want from your materials, but I hope this post has at least given you a place to start and provided some helpful advice.

Bits of this post have been cannibalised from an old post on my writing blog.

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One Response to Choosing Your Palette

  1. Pingback: Getting Started: Watercolours | artdragon86

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