Palette organization

The question sometimes arises as to how best to organize a palette. There are a number of ways to do so, depending on what medium you are using and how many colors you intend to use, as well as your own working methods and personal preferences.

While oil painters may separate their colors into value ranges (darks, mid-tones, and lights) to keep any white additives out of their darks and black additives out of their lights, watercolor are not handled in the same way. This is because, with transparent watercolors, darkening with black and tinting with white rarely come into play. In watercolor, tints are produced by increasing the proportion of water to paint, and darks through using a lower proportion of water and/or the addition of supplemental hues. Although I have begun to include a bit of white gouache in my palettes, it is solely to reclaim lost points of white, not for creating tints.


As I do with oils or acrylics, I find it easiest to lay out my hues in the order in which they would appear in a color wheel (no matter the shape of the palette configuration). But when I set up a watercolor palette, I virtually ignore value in lieu of temperature bias.

This means that I pay attention to not only primary and secondary colors but also to the tertiary colors that are created by bending the primaries and secondaries toward their neighbors on the color wheel.

Separating the colors by temperature helps to maintain consistent light/shadow effects on turning forms and helps me find truer complements when looking for interesting gray tones.

Watercolor palettes are usually designed with wells or cups to keep the colors separated. Besides separated wells, most have a flat mixing area. This is the type I prefer to use, because it allows me to create interrelating puddles of the colors I have selected from the wells (which are filled with more colors than I will use for any one particular painting). It also limits how often I will be tempted to dip into one of the wells with a brush containing a different color, thereby compromising the purity of that well. (When deeply involved in painting, it’s easy to forget to rinse existing color out of the brush before dipping into the “home” well of another color.)

I try to limit my initial colors to only three or four, laying out unadulterated puddles of those few colors and mixing from those puddles any variations that might be needed. This practice both maintains color harmony within the painting and conserves space in the mixing area.

When I lay out puddles of my selected colors (chosen directly from the home wells) into a mixing area, I try to leave plenty of space between the primary hues to allow room to mix adjacent colors in varying proportions, which creates varying degrees of temperature bias. This is difficult to do if mixing space is very limited. (Though since watercolor, by its very nature, runs and mingles while water evaporates from the mixing tray, overlapping and value changes are bound to occur. So if you want to keep your sanity, precision and strict control of hue probably should not top your priority list.)

As an example, when I select a red and blue (primaries) for my palette, I may also choose a purple/violet (a secondary). Or I may leave that space empty, in which to mix the red and blue primaries together to create my own violet secondary hue between. As I blend my own violet mixture, I may add a bit more red on one side of that purple puddle, and a bit more blue on the other side of the purple puddle to create the tertiaries. The reddish violet could be considered both a “warm purple” and a “cool red”; the bluish violet is a “cool purple” and a “warm blue.” And each of these tertiaries may be slanted even more toward the adjacent primary (red or blue) or toward the secondary violet. Because of the flowing nature of watercolor, the visual temperatures within this extended violet puddle will vary and may interact and blend even beyond my initial intention. There’s no point in fighting it—it’s the nature of the beast. If precise color is critical, keep your blended puddles separate from any “parent” puddles.

If a large quantity of a color is needed for an extensive wash, I may mix it in a separate, deeper container to ensure that the color remains as consistent as possible and that (because of the more limited surface area) water evaporation (and therefore value change) occurs more slowly.

I always try to make note, either with replaceable labels or on a list, both the specific colors used (and brands if they vary) and their relative position in the palette. Particularly when a palette is new or revised with the addition of a new color, this technique makes it easier to differentiate similar colors and to know which color is needed to replenish any given well.

Next time I’ll discuss several different types of watercolor palettes I use, the pros and cons of each, and some of the adaptations I’ve made to simplify my work.

Tags: ,

Leave a Reply