With the hundreds of colors available to watercolor painters from so many different manufacturers, it can sometimes be overwhelming to choose a palette of colors. Nearly every watercolor book has the author's "favored" selection of tube colors, and that can be one way to choose. I get lots of questions about the colors I use, and you will find my palette here.
A couple of comments on choosing paints: First, buy the very best you can afford. Many times, less expensive or "student grade" watercolors will have so little pigment in them in relation to the binding/filler agents that you will end up either using more paint to get the level of saturation you want, or you will simply not be able to get rich saturated colors at all. In addition, in order to make these paints less expensive, paint manufacturers may use pigments that are not as lightfast as those used in the "artist" or "professional" grade paints. That's not always true, so it pays to know which pigments are being used in the paint color you're considering buying. All the information you need is right on the label, and if it isn't, look for a different brand that is labeled correctly so you know what you are buying!
A well-labeled paint tube will tell you everything you need to know. Don't go by the common color name that the manufacturer usesread the label!
This is the front of a tube of paint from Daniel Smith. It tells you the name of the company who made it (like Winsor & Newton, or Holbein, or in this case, Daniel Smith). It says Finest Watercolors, which probably means that this is "professional" quality paint. Then it gives you the common name of the color. This sample is Quinacridone Burnt Scarlet, but another tube might say Cobalt Blue, or Lemon Yellow. Finally, it tells you how much paint is in the tube. This can help you determine which size tube is the "better buy" if price is a concern.
But....don't stop here. TURN OVER THE TUBE. The stuff you really need to know is usually on the back!
Somewhere on well-labeled paints
(usually on the back), you will find some or all of the following
The single most important piece of
I chose my particular palette of colors first for their permanence, second for their transparency (because I do a lot of glazing, I prefer the most transparent pigments), and third for their color mixing abilities. Finally, I have a few colors on my palette that I like because of their granularity/sedimentary qualities in paint mixtures. These granulating pigments are Transparent Yellow Oxide, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber, Lunar Earth, Manganese Blue Hue, Cerulean Blue, Cobalt Green, Cobalt Violet and Lunar Black. I particularly like them combined with non-granulating pigments (like the quinacridones or thalos), as they create two-tone washes. See the tip on sedimentary pigments.
Updated January 2008:
I have made the following substitutions to my palette, since I am gradually switching over to Daniel Smith paints:
For purple-biased Red, I am using Daniel Smith Carmine instead of Winsor & Newton Permanent Alizarin Crimson
For orange-biased Red, I am using Daniel Smith Organic Vermilion (PR188) instead of Winsor & Newton Scarlet Lake
For orange-biased Yellow, I am using Daniel Smith Nickel Azo Yellow (PY150) or Daniel Smith Hansa Yellow Medium (PY97) instead of Winsor & Newton Transparent Yellow (PY150)
For green-biased Yellow, I am using Daniel Smith Hansa Yellow Light (PY3) instead of Lemon Yellow
For purple-biased Blue, I am using Daniel Smith French ultramarine blue or ultramarine blue (PB29) instead of Winsor & Newton French Ultramarine Blue
For green-biased Blue, I am using Daniel Smith phthalo blue GS (PB15) instead of Winsor & Newton Winsor Blue
BASIC SIX PRIMARY COLORS (2 REDS/2YELLOWS/2 BLUES) for the SPLIT PRIMARY PALETTE
The colors on my palette (below)
list the common color name and a particular manufacturer. All of these pigments
have an ASTM lightfastness rating of I or II (most are I). If there are two
colors listed, my preference is for the first one. Although I currently have
24 colors on my large palette, I rarely use more than five in a painting.
I select a group of colors to use based on what the painting calls for. My group
will normally include a red, yellow and blue of some kind (so I can mix other
hues), and then one or two additional colors chosen for their specific characteristics
and/or their harmony with the red, yellow and blue I've chosen.
I have removed all non-lightfast colors from my palette, including Rose Madder Genuine, which is a beautiful but fugitive hue. If you choose to use that pigment, know that Winsor & Newton is the only manufacturer that makes a true Rose Madder Genuine paint of quality, but it is NOT lightfast.