Fun of the Best Kind: Work—Choosing a Palette

November 16, 2009

Thoughts on selecting a palette of gouache or watercolor pigments.


Above: A quick and messy chart I made to illustrate my point—Brands use the same name but different pigments and formulations. From left to right, Burnt Sienna Gouache (and an exception): A: Winsor Newton (cake set); B: Schmincke Gouache (dried and rewet); C: Lukas (notice correct spelling here, used fresh); D: M. Graham (dried and rewet); E: Holbein (used fresh); F: the exception—Daniel Smith Watercolor, Quinn Sienna. As this swatch chart shows there is tremendous range in the preparation and presentation of Burnt Sienna. The two paints used fresh are paints that don’t rewet easily, and which I remembered I had after I’d made the chart. Which is the right color for you? Well that depends on the other choices on your palette and a host of other factors.

Recently an artist contacted me (I get similar emails every month) about selecting a palette of gouache colors. She read about my limited gouache travel palette and her questions indicated she was having difficulty with my choices. “You use burnt sienna. Why? It’s a Band-Aid color,” she wrote. “Do you think your palette has appropriate warm and cool primaries?” she asked.

My first thought on reading her query email was that she really didn’t read any of my gouache palette posts clearly. In them I state that I like to work with a limited cool/warm palette—that addresses head-on her second question, I'm happy with my selections and how they work for me. And I am always writing about my love of PB60 and how, when mixed with burnt sienna it makes the perfect range of Malamute greys. Clearly I would never think of anything relating to Malamutes as “Band-Aid”—only essential.

If all of that is as clear as I can state it in my previous writing what’s behind the insistence of her question?

Again, let me state that I don’t know this correspondent, and I get many such emails a month, but I do know that at the base of this type of question several emotional and intellectual responses lurk. I also see this insistence in my students in person, where it is easier to see down to the cause. Many factors may be involved with a person asking “in this manner.” These can include an uncertainty about his ability to make choices, specifically no knowledge of how to make palette choices; past habits in color selection may make such a person reticent to let go of pigments at the same time he feels caught and knows he needs to make a change in order to take his art to the next step; an inability to sift through conflicting information received from a more trusted source (I know, I know, more trusted than Roz? Who could that be?); a frustration over trying suggested pigments of many artists and never having any of them work for him; an inability to identify and judge criteria for selecting a paint and then having it work for him; and numerous other factors that range from the silly to the sad.

It could be any or all of the above, which prompts these questions, with this insistence. But there is one thing that is definitely coming through, some frustration in the asking, some sense of “I’ve tried some of these colors and they don’t work for me. I don’t want to waste any more time and effort and money.” The frustration is continuing to build.

Add to this a sense on the part of some people that “I want the right palette.” They feel cheated when they use your suggestions and the selections don’t perform for them.

Here’s why—selecting a palette is a personal thing. It relates to how you see. (My opthalmologist told another artist friend that he could spot late Monet paintings by the degree of yellow they contained, as evidence of his increased cataracts.) And beyond the physical seeing there is the emotional and intellectual seeing. How well do you understand color theory and how well can you use that knowledge to convey mood and emotion—show dramatic variance in light, shadow, or color to convey your mood and message?

All of that starts with the selecting of a palette and the practice of using it and refining your colors. If you are just starting out you need the advice of others to have somewhere to start—that’s why I never mind answering such questions, just as others once answered my questions.

It is important to pause and stress that my selections work for me. I provide them as a starting point for readers, for my students in my classes. If you were local and able to take a color theory or gouache class from me I would help you work through the choices so that when you are done you would know why I made the initial suggestions and how you could go about making changes to suit yourself. That’s my job as a teacher and I take it very seriously. I am not on a mission to have everyone use the same palette I use (that would be beyond boring). I am interested in showing and teaching the process of working things out for yourself so that you can create your own art. When you understand the process of selection, and understand color theory, you can take that journey. In a class situation with a teacher interested in that journey you also get to see your fellow students make vastly different choices with interesting results, which will inform you, even as those choices take your peers off on a different and unique artistic adventure.

So I believe it is good for all of us to stop for a moment and look at what is behind the insistent questions that suppose a "right" palette, even if we don’t see ourselves in the questions, in the insistence, or in the search for the perfect and right palette.

Everyone has to remember that after seeking advice from someone it is then up to the individual to refine, to test, to experiment, to always be thinking when working—how are these pigments going to work in my painting?

The great news is that this “thinking” becomes second nature. A current colored pencil student recently said that she always has to look up color theory issues because she doesn’t “know it.” Since she’s carrying around a book by Stephen Quiller I’m not worried about her at all. If she refers to the book, and practices what she learns and then practices more, she’ll find her way to a palette that works for her. The issue is not how many times you have to look something up—the issue is how many hours you put into working through these questions so that they become second nature, and your choices become automatic and inspired.

The journey is fun, but it involves mental and visual sweat. Knowing this an artist can take encouragement. There is much that is magic in art and some of us may only see that in our work sporadically—but there is much that is methodical in mastery. Working towards that mastery, pushed by your passion to create a visual statement—well that’s fun, plain and simple, fun of the best kind: Work.

Here’s the deal—I wrote back to this woman, trying to be as helpful as possible

I use Burnt Sienna. It is a neutralized orange, a complementary color to PB60 (Indanthrene Blue, [in my palette] the pigment in Dark Indigo) and together they make the most wonderful neutrals, as discussed on my blog.

Winsor Newton created their gouache for the textile industry. They have always been an illustrator's medium and until recently contained many fugitive pigments (I'm told they've improved the line recently, but I haven't looked into it as I'm happy with what I use).

Opacity is a great thing, and when you have no opacifiers in your paint you have to rely on only the coarsely ground pigment, so you give up heavy opacity, but what you gain is a lovely, versatile paint which can be used both as a watercolor in washes that are light to something used more heavily.

I suggest you click on Gouache in my categories list and go back and look at early gouache posts from Fall 2008 which discuss these aspects.

Buff Titanium is a "Band-Aid" color if you like to think that way. I like to have it because I paint in nature and a beige color, while totally mixable, is often needed quickly to describe the animals I'm trying to capture before they disappear. Because it is an opaque watercolor, essentially a titanium white that's "colorized," it is useful for opacity and also for interesting blending techniques.

For me, my palette, as listed…provides a great cool/warm choice as well as giving me complementary colors and near complements so that I can mix the colors I see.

Based on your past painting training you might be more comfortable building a warm/cool palette from colors you're familiar with and then trying one or more of these as time and money allow, to see what palette of colors works best for what you like to capture.

Either M. Graham or Schmincke Gouache brands will be a delight for you to paint with in your search for a better brand. You might want to select just three primaries from each brand to test out and compare so that you can see which working properties of which paint you prefer, before you invest in the complete palette.

I hope this helps. I hope you enjoy your adventures in gouache!

She wrote back that she thought her dislike of burnt sienna may in part be from using poor quality paints (she was using Pelikan Gouache which isn’t even student grade). I replied:

Your dislike of Burnt Sienna could indeed be in part related to shoddy paints. In cheap paints it is often a chalky darkness that isn't much fun and not much of a mixer.

M. Graham in particular, has a buttery richness (in part because of the honey they use) and nice orangy tone! (I will also use Schmincke's, it's mainly a matter of ordering convenience if I run out of it and am ordering colors from Schmincke because those aren't available locally, then I'll get it from them, etc.).

Tips on How to Approach the Process

So what are you to do if you don’t have access to teachers, don’t absorb information from books, and are really stuck over the issue of color choice for your palette. Here is a look at some factors relating to paint and pigment choices you need to consider:

• Bad or poor quality paints are going to give you equally poor results. Research quality materials. The people praising the materials should have solid, specific, strong reasons as to why they use what they use—take them seriously in direct proportion to their ability to be specific. Someone who says he uses Winsor Newton paints because he used them in school isn’t going to help you select a a paint brand good for you and your style—he hasn’t been thinking about paint choices. He discovered his style early and went with it.

Now if that same person can tell you what he specifically likes and values about his paint choice, the workability, the quality of pigments, the abundant pigment load, the use of ox gall in the paint and why that works for him, etc., then you can use that information to decide about those paints, because while he hasn’t played the field of paint brands he has been working consciously.

A corolary to this point is to learn to ask the questions that will best help your own art. Be specific about what you do, what you like to do, how you like the paint to feel, how you want it to interact with other colors, the consistency, the flow, all the sorts of things you can’t begin to ask until you put in some time practicing and experimenting and thinking about the process.

Also, a caveat, beware of the person who has a vested interest in convincing you to use a product. It doesn't make their information necessarily wrong, but remember they stand to gain financially so they have to have even more clear and persuasive reasons to use a product.

• Everyone sees differently. Find a trusted source who uses colors that resonate with you and try their palette out. This person doesn’t have to be alive. Biographical information and equipment left behind provide lots of information on the palette choices of past artists. You may need another experienced painter to help you identify pigments used in a museum piece if your eye isn’t trained. Also there are many books on color theory which walk you through traditional palettes of all sorts. Nita Leland, Stephen Quiller and others, show how they use a palette. Jeanne Dobie and Christopher Schink are two artists trained in the same system who get very different results!

• Think about how you want to paint, what you want to convey. This will lead you to the materials you need. (This is a deceptively short statement which stands in for years and years of work.)

• Experiment. Get paints in limited number and test them to your needs, following the advice of your expert—either with more trips to the museum or by reading their books, or taking a class. (Experts aren’t always teachers, professors, writers—retired advertising executives from the “Ad Men” age are often a wealth of information on certain media.)

• Don’t add “extra” or “special colors” to your palette until you know what the colors of a limited palette will do. The typical argument for palette augmentation is “I just had to have that [pink, golden yellow, green-moonstone, whatever] because I'm traveling to [Tahiti, Africa, the Amercian Southwest, etc.] and the [ground, foliage, water, etc.] is that color there.” Or, “I’m a colorist, I’m just in love with color.”

That’s bullshit folks—that’s just code for “I don’t know how to work with my pigments.” Those specialty colors, while they can be a great addition to your palette, are the real “Band-Aid” colors. The pigments used in the specialty colors are those used when the artist can’t manage his palette and needs a life line, an infusion—but they will never work for you and always look oddly out of place in your paintings, if you don’t understand your basic palette. Only then will you be able to branch out successfully! It’s called color harmony. (And remember Turner did some bang up paintings without peacock pink!)

• And this leads us to understanding pigments. It may sound like work but in what other endeavor (except perhaps sex) can you put in an immodest bit of exertion and get back great rewards of joy and pleasure?! (And it is immodest exertion because art is immodest; it is about saying, “look I see this.”)

You need to know what your pigments are or you are doomed to haphazard mixes that never gel, or worse, curdle badly. The pigments used in each paint by the same name can be vastly different as shown by today’s swatches. Your choice depends on which selection works with your other selections. The red pigment used in your chosen red may contain some orange pigment as well—good luck trying to mix a clear purple or lavender with any of your blue selections (orange being the complement of blue will neutralize it in any mixes). So if you’ve got lots of purple irises to paint you had better find those non-orange reds and those non-green cast blues!

All of this isn’t as horribly difficult as it sounds because again—what you do is research pigments through books like those by Michael Wilcox and others and then take the sample suggested palette from your authority and use a reference to find the manufacturer with the most archival pigment, or the pigment that best matches the selections for the suggested palette. You start there. You paint and experiment with that group of paints. Then, after a couple months you bring in one more color because you paint flowers and need more yellow options. You paint 10 more paintings and find it doesn’t work with your other colors. You switch it out. Or you find another color on your palette that doesn’t suit the work you do since the inclusion of the new yellow and switch it out.

You can go to the Leisure Reading section of Rozworks and select, from "Educational Content?" the piece "Adding and Deleting Pigments from My Watercolor Palette," which shows how I worked through a palette selection process with swatches in one of my journals.

• Have only single pigment paints in your initial palette. This will mean you don’t have to worry about the muddy results of that come about when the multiple pigments interact. (How can you tell if you have selected single pigments—read the labels. The pigments are listed. You can then use a resource to look up the quality of those pigments.)

• Get rid of true "Band-Aid" pigments. If you already have French Ultramarine blue on your palette and Quin Gold you don't need Daniel Smith's Undersea Green, however lovely a color it is. Read the label. It is made with the pigments of those two colors. Remove it from your palette to open up a slot for something else. Mix those two colors when you need that lovely green. The results will be more interesting.

• Study the works of other artists you love. What colors were they using? How can you achieve color mixes of the same clarity, or depending on your tastes, mixes which are neutralized.

• Ask yourself questions all the time—mood, colors, blends.

• When you ask living artists for recommendations realize that those recommendations can only ever be a starting point for your own journey. You don't have the same eyes, the same attitudes, the same needs in the mess you want to get across. Their information only provides a place to start. There’s another point in which sex and palette selection are similar: they are both highly personal.

There is a right, correct, and perfect palette—but nobody else can tell you what it is. It’s there for you to discover. It’s not a cheap parlor trick—it’s a journey.

Get serious folks; playtime is over. Or as I believe—just beginning.

  1. Reply

    I first found you via Danny Gregory ages ago. I’m not sure I have ever commented but this entry was so thoughtful and thought provoking that I wanted to take the time to thank you. Thank you for encouraging people through their journey.

  2. Reply

    P.S. I bought the Burnt Sienna based on your statement about choosing a palette based on what I like to paint, birds. Sp. Thanks again.

    • Chris F
    • November 16, 2009

    And oddly based on purely my gut reaction to your swatches, none of them look like what I think of as Burnt Sienna. LOL well… maybe the Holbein gouache sample…. A, B, and D are waaay off to my eye. F is garish.
    Oh well…shows you how subjective color is.

    • Roz
    • November 16, 2009

    Thanks Robbie, I’m glad you enjoy the blog and found this helpful!

    • Roz
    • November 16, 2009

    Melanie, so glad that you are moving to some better quality paints, you’re going to have so much more fun! It’s good to have some open spots in your palette too, because after you live with your current selection and go and sketch at a number of venues the “omissions” will jump right out at you. (I had this happen when I went to the conservatory with a scaled back palette of colored pencils—a travel palette I was testing—and discovered I didn’t have a orange red!

    I’m glad you held off on the brush pen until you can get a Pentel Pocket Brush Pen (which by the way you can get from Wet Paint if you can’t find one where you are. WP will do mail order; get extra cartridges when you order because you are going to love it so much you’ll need them!) The problem with the COLOR BRUSH is that the ink in it is not lightfast. The fun thing about it is that the ink is watersoluble so upon occasion I play with it in my journal, but I really recommend the Pentel Pocket Brush as a serious tool. (I wrote a post on these which you can look at here:

    • Roz
    • November 16, 2009

    Chris, I don’t think this is odd at all. First I had a lot of trouble correcting this image even though I scanned it with a gray scale card. (The paper was all buckled as it’s only a 90 lb. watercolor paper and I had to put a heavy book on top of it and not close the scanner—but drape it, still I think light gets in.) Second, your screen is assuredly set up differently…and so it goes.

    But what I find really, really odd is that I use the Schmincke and M.Graham Burnt Sienna gouache interchangeably, though I lean towards Schmincke the past year, and there is a huge difference between them compared side to side, yet when I mix them I can get the same ranges, or close enough. I had never bothered to do a side by side comparison of the two, which is very, very odd for me.

    • E-J
    • November 17, 2009

    What a great post, Roz.

    I still have only limited experience in colour mixing/limited palettes because most of my art has been made in soft pastels or oil pastels, with an inventory of hundreds of colours and not relying much on blending. But I sketch in watercolour and gouache, and know that I need to get to know my choices better.

    I did realise a couple of years back that I didn’t actually need my “favourite” half-pan of sap green, which had been sitting in the tin practically unused for about 10 years! I replaced it with Winsor Green (Blue Shade) and am now much better prepared for mixing good greens.

    You have now made me rethink my desperate need for Daniel Smith’s Lunar Blue …

    I have linked to this post (as I did with your podcast interview) from Twitter.

    • Roz
    • November 17, 2009

    E-J, I’m glad the post was helpful. I LOVE Daniel Smith Watercolors. I think they are the best in the world. But I also know there are a lot of colors we may crave, but we can really do without. Great going, getting rid of sap green and finding something more useful for your needs.

    • Katy
    • November 19, 2009

    Very helpful post, Roz! It motivates me to ask a question I have been considering asking you for some time: If I wanted to try out M. Graham gouache and could only buy three or four tubes, which ones would you recommend? Ultramarine and burnt sienna seem to be given, but I can’t decide which red and yellow would be best. What are your thoughts on this?


    • Roz
    • November 19, 2009

    Katy, if you can only get 3 or 4 tubes I wouldn’t get Burnt Sienna. You pretty much have to stick with primaries at that point.

    You can find their color chart and that gives whether it is available in Acrylic, Gouache, Oil, or/and Watercolor with the initials AGOW as appropriate.

    If they had Anthraquinone Blue in Gouache WHICH THEY DON’T it would be a no-brainer, but sadly, SIGH, you’ll have to go with something like Ultramarine blue, and then for your red and yellow you could do Gamboge and Cad Red if you don’t mind Cadmiums (a fairly traditional 3-color palette choice; though you’ll see Gamboge is made of 2 pigments and that might put you off).

    Or you could pair Ultramarine Blue with Azo or Hansa Yellow and Napthol Red or Pyrrol Red.

    It really depends on the direction you want to go with your work. I recommend that you get a good book on color theory, as suggested in the post, and look at the examples they provide of the different 3 primary color palettes and expanded palettes (any good book will show a chart and also some painted examples) and see which are directions you want to go in your art and then start with those three pigments, work with them and build from there. Have fun discovering what colors you love.

    • Roz
    • November 21, 2009

    Katy, a short p.s. to your question. Someone wrote to me off-blog about a color choice I’d written about awhile back. It isn’t gouache, it’s watercolor, but the swatches will give you an idea of what to think about when you select your three tubes of paint.

    • Wendi
    • February 13, 2011

    Roz! AWESOME post!! EXTREMELY helpful. Came across this while googling M. Graham Gouache. After reading your post over on Kate’s Artist Journal Workshop blog I am saving up my $$ and holding out for the M. Graham! I can’t wait to try it. In the meantime I am reading everything I can and googling images for ispiration. Thank you!
    :o) Wendi

  3. Reply

    Wendi I’m so glad that you’re going to give gouache a try! You’ll have fun with M. Graham. Good luck with your adventure.

    • Leslie Schramm
    • July 18, 2011

    Oh dear Roz, I like a lot of colours around; however I decided to look at what I actually use a lot of rather than I actually have in the main palette. Bayrte Yellow from Kremer, plus Daniel Smiths Buff titanium white, for all the soft creamy colours of wild flowers, plus winsor Yellow, for those Spring daffodils.DS’s New Gamboge and Old Hollands Golden Barok Red, the GBR is a perfect terracotta and with a touch of paynes grey when very dilute makes that faded garden pot colour just perfectly.All sorts of Cadmiums Reds but it’s Umpton Barvy’s ( Kremer pigments)Cadmium Purple that’s getting worn away, along with Perylene Maroon. Ceruleum , Cobalt Atlantic ( that’s a touch greener than usual) And DS’s Indranthone Blue. A few greens, Vert Paulo Veronese, Cupric Green Kremers Cobalt Green Bluish A ( the colour of the Glasgow School’s crazy obsession with cabbages!! ) , and M. Grahams Viridian which with I.Blue does good dark shadows. Also worn out are DS,s Monte Amiata Sienna, and Lunar earth, but the burnt yellow ochre hardly gets touched. Schminke’s wonderful purple magenta, the slightly odd Ultramarine pink and manganese violet and Payne’s grey all get used. Don;t think the black has ever been used; perhaps a drainpipe on an olde worlde building, and the white; perhaps a bird’s eye. Terrible confession number one, two mixtures, a lilac from Shinhan and a Leaf green from Daler-Rowney. Terrible confession number two. I don;t like Ultramarine, I find it too bright; perhaps poor old soggy Scotland just doesn’;t get those sorts of blue skies.

  4. Reply

    Leslie, it is always fun to hear what other folks are using for colors on their palettes. I haven’t used any of the Kremer paints, though I was intrigued when I first heard about them through chats on Everyday Matters List between Kate Johnson and Laura Frankstone. I hope some day to get to NYC and visit the store!

    I find it very interesting that your list contains a lot of neutralized colors. I tend to use such colors as well. I can’t blame a soggy climate however. It’s just the way my eyes work. (I’ve lived in the tropics and Australia where I’ve had both sun and rainy days.) I think it also might be that I like Arthor Ransome’s work which in the print editions I’ve seen is always rather subdued.

    But I keep playing with things!

    Oh, and I don’t like French Ultramarine Blue either! Though I have been playing with it lately in gouache.

    We get some lovely blue skies in winter, but it isn’t quite that color.

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