Project 640 Tubes: Selecting a Gouache Palette

November 6, 2008



Above: Chicken (sketch is Ziller Glossy Black Ink with dip pen on background painted with Indian Yellow FW Acrylic Ink; gouache)

This post is part two in the series: Project 640 Tubes

Readers will recall that I promised to suggest colors for a gouache palette when I started Project 640 Tubes.

(Note that for purposes of this discussion by "color" I mean the pigment in the paint, which I might refer interchangeably to by pigment number or by tube name because it's clear I'm discussing a particular brand. If you elect to buy a different brand of gouache than what I recommend you need to make sure you're getting the right pigment. The name on the tube can be the same across brands, but what the companies put in the tube in terms of pigments can be very different indeed. I recommend you only buy Schmincke and M. Graham Gouache, read the first Project 640 Tubes post for why.)

I like to work with a minimal range of colors whether I'm out in the field (typically 8 colors and 3 convenience colors: zinc white, calligraphy gold, and buff titanium) or in the studio. Using a limited palette helps ensure that my mixes will all bear some relationship to each other and create a greater harmony. That's the hope. I tend to work with specific complementary colors, near complements, or with triads I find appealing. The same colors on someone else's brush can yield a vastly different result, which is one of the fun things about use of color. It's always ultimately about the individual.

The following colors are the ones I have on my small converted kid's palette (2.5 x 1.75 inches). All gouache is either Schmincke Horadam Gouache (S) or M. Graham Gouache (MG):

  • Venadium Yellow (S) OR Azo Yellow (MG)
  • Gamboge (MG)
  • Yellow Ochre (MG) OR Titanium Gold Ochre
  • Burnt Sienna (MG)
  • Napthol Red (MG)
  • Quinacridona-violet (S)
  • Helio Turquoise (S)
  • Dark Indigo (S) (My beloved PB60, which is not available in M.Graham's line, hence Project 640 Tubes)
  • Zinc White
  • Buff Titanium (a Daniel Smith watercolor)
  • Gold (Schmincke's Calligraphy Gouache, gold; because you never know when you're going to need a little bit of "bright sparkly")

This selection of colors essentially gives me a couple complementary color pairs I like to work with (Burnt Sienna and Dark Indigo which yield a rich Malamute gray); or near complements (Helio Turquoise and Napthol Red); and essentially provide a warm and a cool of each primary (red, yellow, blue). This gets me by in most situations.

Recently, while trying to expand my landscape vocabulary and also spend more time painting people, I've found that I really need some additional colors, or at least need to practice with and then abandon some new colors. With this in mind I have filled a slightly larger palette (3.25 x 2.5 inches) (Pocket Painter Palette, I purchased from Wet Paint) with some additional colors.


The colors used in this palette are listed in the diagram below the photo, but I also added Cerulean Blue (MG) and Purple Magenta (S) after the photo was taken and they are only written in on the diagram.

The addition of 4 blues, another red, and another yellow, along with Raw Sienna and Raw Umber gives me access to color mixes that landscape painters readily rely on for greens. I still haven't had much time to work with this palette to decide which colors I'm going to keep, but it is a useful set of colors to experiment with, given the colors I'm starting with in the very limited palette.

I encourage students to stick with a limited palette, mix the heck out of it, then branch out and see what they like to add or substitute. Color is a personal thing. Some colors will be pleasing to one person and less so to another. By analyzing the colors used in the paintings of your favorite painter you can begin to identify new areas for experimentation. You might even end up using the same palette of colors as that favorite artist, but you might emphasize the warm colors it contains instead of the cools. You might stick with complementary colors and never explore the triads fully (I encourage you to do that however).

The main point is that you will be doing a lot of experimentation with your selections to find out what works for you. Don't think of this experimentation as work. This is part of the fun and spontaneity of working with paint. Embrace the process.

I also recommend that you look at both of Stephen Quiller's books on color theory: Color Choices, and Painter's Guide to Color. Quiller has done a masterful job of breaking down the discussion of color theory into small digestible chunks. He has a ton of suggested exercises. I recommend that you do them so that you really can digest those chunks of information and get the insights.

I've had students come to color theory class with commercially printed color guides or swatchbooks that show all the various paint colors mixed with the other colors. The students stare and stare at these books. They ask me how to mix a particular color, then stare and stare some more at the same charts. Basically they are wasting their time. They are looking at a chart that has been printed using the 4 process color printing inks. Those swatches bear a relationship to what you see when you paint, but only an approximation.

While those books might be useful at some point and in some situation I'm not recalling right now, they can never be as important or useful as the physical act of mixing paint yourself and seeing what results on the paper you are actually using, with the brand of paints you own, and the brushes you have selected. Doing color mixing exercises will give you firsthand cascading ah-ha moments with which you can build a unique color palette (in gouache or any paint medium).

Jeanne Dobie's Making Color Sing, is a watercolor book that addresses color theory issues in an interesting and easily absorbed fashion as well.

Exploring Color by Nita Leland has lots of useful information on selecting a palette of colors. She provides sample palettes and then a sample image painted with those colors so that you can see how the choices dictate the result. I have found that people stumbling to grasp the whole concept of how they can arrive at what they see in their mind's eye find this approach helpful.

Have fun on your color selection journey. Don't forget to send Art Graham a postcard from that journey reminding him you wish he made PB60 in his line of gouache! (

  1. Reply

    great post! i’ve just recently started working in gouache and enjoy it more than any other kind of paint, although i’m not very scientific or artistically correct in how i use it. so it’s a surprise every time (either i’m surprised at how happy i am with how it looks, or i’m surprised at how awful it looks). thanks for the brand recommendations; i’ll give them a try.

    an illustrator-friend of mine works almost exclusively in gouache, and this reminded me of a post she once did on mixing and storing her colors. she uses film canisters:

    • Roz
    • November 7, 2008

    Aimee, I’m glad you enjoyed the post and am really glad to hear that you have been working with gouache and enjoy it. I’ve always been pretty ga-ga over it. It satisfies my needs for light washes and opaque passages! And thanks for the link to your friend’s site with her method of mixing paint in film canisters. It is always fascinating to see what people find works for them; we get to peek over their shoulders as they work!

    • E-J
    • November 8, 2008

    Gouache is so versatile! I love the fact that it seems to combine so well with many different media: soft, oil or wax pastels, coloured pencil, pen, watercolours … As you know, Roz, from my recent question on EDM, I am in the market for some new paints. After a week’s deliberation, research and picking the brains of other artists, I’ve decided on a limited secondary palette (7 tubes + white) of Schminckes, but have bookmarked your recommendations for future reference. I think your advice to “mix the heck out of” a restricted number of colours ’til you get to know them inside out is spot on.

    Those paints look gorgeous squeezed out into your palette – it’s like drooling over an ice-cream counter!

    • Roz
    • November 8, 2008

    E-J have fun with your new paints; you will LOVE Schmincke’s gouache. It is always so exciting to take new paints through their paces. Like you I love the way gouache can be used with other media, especially ink and colored pencil! And most of all I love the way I can work on toned paper with gouache.

  2. Reply

    I am new to gouache and am considering buying your palette (since I like what I see you do with it) and I see the only thing I’d want at Daniel Smith is the Buff Titanium. Why do you like this color? On their site they said it’s good for dropping in to wet paint for the effect. Is that why you like it?

    • Roz
    • October 9, 2009

    Timaree, sadly Daniel Smith doesn’t make gouache, but I’m sure if they did it would be as fantastic as their watercolors—anyway, despite that their Buff Titanium Watercolor is great to have on a gouache palette because it is a very opaque color and rewets lusciously, and because I do so many nature-related things, and animals, all of which seem to have some buff on them, it is one of those “convenience” paints, and actually the only one, on my small palette. Sure you can mix a great beige, but sometimes you also need that opacity. And when mixed with some of the colors on my palette some interesting effects can be had. So it just has to have a spot there, just like the Schmincke Calligraphy Gold—not something you use all the time, but when you want to use it, it’s great to have it.

    Good luck with your gouache experiments! Let me know how it goes.

  3. Reply

    Thanks for the answer Roz.

  4. Reply

    I’ve taken one of your bookbinding classes and am interested in getting into using gouache. I am within 30 minutes of Wet Paint and realize that they don’t carry Schminke gouache. Are there M. Graham subs for the Q. Violet, H. Turquoise, and Dk. Indigo I could get so I don’t have to buy online for those colors? I read about your Project 640.

    Thank you!

  5. Reply

    Hi Amy, glad you’re going to give gouache a go. Sadly there is no paint in the M. Graham line that corresponds to PB60 (Indanthrone/Indanthrene) blue. All the blues they have in their gouache skew green.

    That’s the whole point of Project 640 Tubes.

    So I would write to them and let them know that you need PB60 in gouache.

    In the meantime you can order Dark Indigo from the Schmincke gouache line at the Italian Art Store, and since you are going to be ordering it from them you might as well get the other two tubes of paint at the same time (if you want to use the same palette that I enjoy).

    I would mention to Art when you write to him about PB60 that you have to buy the other tubes too, which means less money spent on his products.

    I don’t have his pigment chart for gouache in front of me but you can find it at his website. I’m pretty sure he has a quin violet in his gouache line which is useful (though I don’t recall the exact pigment). As to the Helio Turquoise, if there is one it would be a new addition—I don’t look at his line very often as I’m only concerned with the colors I’m already using.

    Now if he had PB60 in his gouache I’d be buying his whole line all the time!

  6. Reply

    Thank you, Roz! I was hoping I could get to your talk on Thursday night about gouache, but it’s not looking favorable. As always, thank you for taking the time to help us all in our artistic endeavors. : )


  7. Reply

    Amy, I’m sorry you won’t be able to come to my gouache talk on Thursday (4/29/10, since this is an old post). I think it helps a lot of people if they can see gouache being used. I guess that’s true about all paints, but people seem to have particular issues with gouache.

    Still it can all be achieved with proper paint (and you know the brands) and lots of experimentation. I hope you have a lot of fun with it.

  8. Reply

    Hi Roz,
    i have created a gouche palette (using WN designer series right now). I am fidning that a few colors are drying out and falling out of my pans. Have you had this happen before? Could it be that the palette isn’t air tight?

  9. Reply

    Genine, I have written a lot about the different brands of gouache and wouldn’t know where all those notes are now, except you can look at the pages section and find a page on Gouache where I provide a lot of links.

    Short story is all gouache I’ve used will get dry eventually. Not all will rewet well. WN Designer is a brand I don’t use because it smells, it doesn’t rewet as well as the others, it always had opacifiers in it (though the new package claims it doesn’t), and their pigments were always more fugitive than the other top brands.

    The palette not being airtight doesn’t matter as to the falling out, if you’re going to eventually let the paint dry in the pans. If you want to keep the paint soft and gooey don’t ever let it dry out, and keep a folded wet corner of a paper towel in the palette when you close it and seal it all in a plastic bag when you carry it around—but also be aware that you’re going to eventually grow mold and have to clean the whole palette out—that’s annoying for me and I don’t worry about the pans drying.

    If you switch to another brand with the falling out stop? Not necessarily. It will depend on which brand and which colors in the brand.

    I don’t have colors fall out of my pans usually. After a lot of use some colors may crumble—the rewetting is changing the balance of binder and glycerine (or in some brands honey) and such and so they crumble. But so will tube watercolors used this way.

    My favorite gouache is still Schmincke for reasons stated here and elsewhere. I don’t have colors fall out. I prepare my pans 1/4 full and dry, another 1/4 full and dry, until full before I go out.

    M. Graham because of the honey is more tacky and stays more tacky if you like that.

    You can read my DaVinci Review over on the Official International Fake Journal Blog. It stays very tacky for a long time, but I think it is an inferior paint to my two favorites.

    I wouldn’t use any other brands.

    Hope that helps.

  10. Reply

    Thanks so much Roz it does help. I did read your review, but missed the davinci one before i purchased. I am going to play with them for a while and will definitely reread if i decide to use frequently and will make the investment in better material.
    thanks again!

    • Michelle
    • October 3, 2015

    Does Schminke still make calligraphy ink? I can’t find the gold – thanks!

  11. Reply

    sorry Michelle, I never used their ink and have no idea whether they still make it. Good luck finding some.

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