Choosing Watercolors


Need help choosing watercolors for your travel or field palette? Start by accepting that there is no perfect palette. Your watercolor choices will change over time. As you discover new art supplies and colors you may add them to your palette while removing others that you never use. As you add or delete colors from your palette, consider paint quality, lightfastness, staining, granulation, transparency, and single pigment vs. mixtures. I look for colors that do not fade in the sun (very important), are non-staining, and are transparent. I also prefer colors that contain a single pigment rather than prepared mixtures. Not all watercolors are created equally. Use high quality paints from the beginning and you will make your work much easier. Low quality paint will respond unpredictably and will make it more difficult to achieve intense colors or deep values. I use paints manufactured by Daniel Smith (DS) and some artist grade Winsor & Newton (WN). Each pigment has an alpha-mumeric code that you can use to help you keep track of similar pigments made by different manufactures or understand the ingredients of mixes. is the most in depth analysis of individual colors available, an invaluable resource. 

Just as a photograph or couch fades in the sun, so do watercolors. Some colors fade more easily than others and should be avoided. Start your color selection by eliminating all such “fugitive” colors. For this reason I avoid Alizarin Crimson, Rose Madder Genuine, Opera Pink, and Aureolian (Cobalt Yellow). Do your own lightfastness test by painting strips of all your colors and cutting the page in half. Put one side in a dark drawer for three months while the other half hangs in a sunlit window. Compare the colors after three months. If you can detect a change in color, either lightening or darkening, look for a new pigment. Some colors stain the paper and cannot be lifted out. Others sit as granules on the top of the paper surface and can be lifted out with a damp brush. This makes it possible to correct mistakes or add whites back into a painting. I prefer non-staining colors as a rule, but often I need to incorporate more staining colors to get a better range of colors. Paints may contain heavy particles that concentrate into patterns on rough paper as the paint dries. This is called granulation, and it can create beautiful and surprising effects. If you like (often pleasant) surprises, you will like granulating paint. Wherever possible, I use transparent watercolors which allow me to layer coats of paint and maintain the brilliance of watercolor.

Some artists prefer to limit their palette to a few primary colors and then mix the rest of their colors. This is excellent training in mixing colors. I prefer to take advantage of the array of colors created by grinding chemicals or earth materials into paint. I can combine these single pigments to mix the rest of my colors. This is not “cheating” or taking a shortcut, but instead you are taking full advantage of the characteristics of different pigments. Paint suppliers also sell their own mixes of multiple pigments. These are less useful for mixing, but often convenient. If your palette is limited, focus on single pigment colors rather than pre-made mixes.

  • Neutral Tint WN PBk6 PB15 PV19, This opaque, staining black mix can be used to tone down any color or build up deep black areas.
  • Payne’s Gray DS PB29 PBk9 PY42, A low-staining, semitransparent, cool blue-black mix. Do not use it to create shadows on yellow as it turns green.
  • Black Tourmaline Genuine DS, Non-staining, transparent warm gray (similar to Davy’s Gray WN,  but lightfast).
  • Shadow Violet DS PO73 PB29 PG18, A low-staining, transparent purple, blue-black mix. This granulating pigment can dry in surprising and beautiful ways. My go to shadow color.
  • Bloodstone Genuine DS, A non-staining transparent purplish brown that dilutes to a warm gray.
  • Raw Umber DS PBr7, Low-staining, semitransparent deep cool brown.
  • Burnt Umber DS PBr7, Low-staining, semitransparent warm brown.
  • Italian Burnt Sienna DS PBr7, Non-staining, semitransparent red-brown.
  • Monte Amlata Natural Sienna DS, PBr7 Low-staining, transparent warm light brown.
  • Buff Titanium DS PW6:1, Non-staining, semitransparent pale tan. One of my favorite colors to paint lighter areas of brown birds.
  • Perylene Green DS PBk31, Medium staining, semitransparent rich dark green can be used to mix rich blacks.
  • Undersea Green DS PB29 PO49, Medium-staining, semitransparent intense dull green-brown mix. Fades to soft olive drab.
  • Hooker’s Green DS PG36 PY3 PO49, A low-staining, semi-transparent green mix that is a good start for mixing other greens.
  • Chromium Oxide DS PG17, Low-staining, opaque olive-green, good for sage and greenish warblers.
  • Serpentine Genuine DS, Non-staining, semitransparent warm granulating green.
  • Rich Green Gold DS PY129, Low-staining, transparent yellow-green, that is good for mixing with other greens.
  • Phthalo Yellow Green DS PY3 PG36, Medium-staining, transparent intense yellow-green mix. The yellow becomes more apparent as the pigment is diluted. 
  • Phthalo Blue GS DS PB15, Strongly staining, transparent primary cyan. Be careful, a little goes a very long way.
  • Manganese Blue Hue DS PB15, Low-staining, transparent substitute for Phthalo Blue that is less intense and lifts out cleanly.
  • Cobalt Blue WN PB28, Low-staining, transparent blue.
  • Indanthrone Blue DS PB60, Medium-staining, transparent warm dark blue, that appears almost black when applied in a concentrated wash.
  • Winsor (dioxazine) Violet WN PV23, Medium-staining, semitransparent purple. This formulation stains less than Dioxazine Violet DS.
  • Quinacridone Pink DS PV42, Medium-staining, transparent primary magenta.  
  • Pyrrol Red DS PR254, Medium-staining, semitransparent, intense fire engine red.
  • Quinacridone Sienna DS PO49 PR209 Low-staining, transparent orange-brown. 

  • Permanent Orange DS PO62, Low-staining, transparent rich orange.
  • Quinacridone Gold DS PO49, Low-staining, transparent yellowish-brown pigment that dilutes to a soft gold.
  • New Gamboge DS PY153, Low-staining, transparent yellow that changes from brownish to a warm yellow in transparent mixtures.
  • Hansa Yellow Medium DS PY97 Low-staining, transparent yellow.
  • Hansa Yellow Light DS PY3, Low-staining, transparent lemon yellow. Use as the primary yellow for mixing.