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How to Use a Limited Palette to Make Luminous Watercolor Paintings

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I am a mom, painter, teacher, literature and history/humanities enthusiast, and nature lover who teaches watercolor to kids and adults.

Start simply!

Start simply!

How to Get Started With Watercolors

So, have you decided to try watercolor painting and aren't sure where to begin? If you ask me, going to the art store these days is a bit overstimulating. That's why I try to keep things simple. Here are a few things to think about before tackling a project.

My #1 Rule: Use a Limited Palette With Transparent Pigments.

Using a limited palette means you use a few transparent pigments that blend beautifully and cleanly. Why should you do this?

  • It keeps costs down while allowing you to create every color you could possibly want, including dark values and luminous light values.
  • It allows you to get to know the "personality" of these colors, as different pigments have different attributes and combine differently with one another.
  • If you're using 25 different pigments, it's impossible to get to know them or how to use them in the best way. But with 7-9 pigments, it's a definite possibility.
You don't need 20 paint tubes to get started, a few will do.

You don't need 20 paint tubes to get started, a few will do.

Transparent Pigments to Use

  • Aureolin yellow
  • Rose Madder
  • Cobalt Blue
  • Viridian Green
  • Windsor Green
  • Windsor Blue
  • Alizarin Crimson

How to Work With and Create Different Colors

  • To get a beautiful glow to your paper, use aureolin yellow. This is probably my most used pigment. It will tint the paper just enough to give it warmth, but it won't look yellow. It's great for skin tones, landscapes, and paintings you want to be filled with light.
  • To get a beautiful burnt sienna, mix aureolin yellow and rose madder. You will get an approximation of burnt sienna that positively glows. You'll never go back to burnt sienna again.
  • To mix beautiful browns, use rose madder and aureolin yellow in different ratios. Then, add in cobalt or Windsor blues to attain an array of colors from light warm browns to deep, cool browns.
  • Greys are dynamite in watercolor paintings—that is, if you know how to mix them. Experiment with mixing luminous neutrals by using combinations of viridian green and alizarin crimson or aurolean yellow, rose madder, and windsor blue.
  • The last three pigments are staining: windsor green, windsor Blue, and alizarin crimson. This means that they "stain" your paper and are hard to take off. They are also the pigments you want to use to create your darkest darks. You can get deep, velvety colors while still keeping the colors transparent, not muddy.
  • Have fun with your colors and play with them. Don't judge yourself, but simply dedicate yourself to experimenting with the pigments on one whole pad of watercolor paper before you try anything more.
Play with your colors!

Play with your colors!

What Watercolor Papers to Use

Watercolor paper comes in different weights and different textures.

1. Paper Poundage

The poundage determines how thick the paper is, which translates into how much of a beating it can take. If you are someone who soaks the paper, puts paint on, takes it off, and scrapes it again, you want at least a good 140 lb paper—and probably a 300 lb paper.

  • The higher the weight, the less taping you have to do. A 300 lb paper will buckle much less with copious amounts of water than a 90 lb paper.
  • I suggest beginning with a 140 lb paper, as it is a middle-of-the-road item in both weight and cost. The higher the weight, the higher the cost per sheet.

2. Paper Texture

The different textures in the watercolor paper will largely affect how the paint goes on, how it feels, and how it dries. This is why you need to try them out before you commit yourself to an entire pad.

  • Hot Press: This is the smoothest watercolor paper you can buy. Use it for a perfectly clear sky, a smooth petal, or a reflection in the glass.
  • Cold Press: This is the "go-to" for watercolor paper. It has a good all-around texture for just about all of your painting needs. The texture allows the pigment to soak in but still come up nicely. This feature allows for good wet-on-wet or wet-on-dry technique. If you buy a pad of paper, I recommend this one.
  • Rough: This is a fun paper to play with. It will not allow all of the pigment to get into the nooks and crannies. The result is that the water, sky, or sunlit grass you paint will have a bit of "sparkle" where the white paper shows through.
Typically, the higher-priced brushes are better. That's not always the case, though.

Typically, the higher-priced brushes are better. That's not always the case, though.

What to Look for in a Paintbrush

Go easy on yourself and, again, keep it simple. You need just a couple of brushes to learn how they feel, then expand from there to try other varieties.

  • You will need a wash brush, 1" or so. Try to use sable.
  • Generally, the higher-priced brushes are better. Not always, but most of the time.
  • Make sure you try it out at the store. What you are looking for is the brush's ability to hold water. When you fill the brush with water and pigment and then pull it along the paper, you should have a nice full mark of paint all the way to the end.
  • If your brush runs dry halfway through, you want to choose a different one. Also, a round brush would be good.
  • Do not get tiny brushes! When you start, get medium-sized to larger brushes. Detail brushes should come later!
Start simple!

Start simple!

Watercolor Palettes

There is every kind of palette that you can imagine on the market, so look them over to see what's best for you. I like large ones with big areas to mix paints in. I have also used cupcake tins, plates—you name it, I used it.

Just find something that fits you. They're all pretty much the same as far as cleaning. I use plastic ones generally, but I know painters who swear by glass or fiberglass. I don't recommend fancy ones that keep your paint moist for watercolor painters.

Don't Get Overwhelmed. Get Started

So there you are—these basic supplies will get you started on your way. Paint supplies are expensive, so wait and experiment before you buy a ton of stuff. I have a tale of caution for you from my experience with students.

One of my students went out to buy her 'limited palette" of paint and basic supplies and came back with everything known to man pertaining to watercolor supplies. I didn't even know what to do with some of the products. One I remember, though, was glitter medium! Remember, when you go into the vast, tempting cornucopia of art stores, you don't need expensive or copious supplies to get started. You need paint, brushes, paper, and something to paint on. Get going, and as you paint more, you'll learn more about what you need and can purchase it then. You don't need it all now.

Go out there and start painting!

Painting Books I Recommend

You can find literally hundreds of books and YouTube videos showing you watercolor techniques. I recommend two books, however, out of all that I've seen in the past 15 years or so, because they go beyond technique to show "how" you should paint a picture, "why" to paint a picture, and "what" you should be looking for and attempting as you begin your artistic journey. They are both indispensable in my collection.

  1. Making Color Sing by Jeanne Dobie
  2. Powerful Watercolor Landscapes by Catherine Gill


Jerre allen on April 08, 2018:

I have NOT painted since 2009. Now that I have retired, & a widower. I'm returning to watercolor painting. Why you ask, the great joy I receive, the new people I meet, and its something I MUST do.

I have already spent hundreds & hundreds of retirement dollars on watercolor supplies. I am down to the final expences!

PAINT & BRUSHES. Winsor & Newton, Da Vinci, & Sennelier, the best right.

Any comments?

Randall on February 06, 2018:

Joeseph, Aureolin is also fugitive. However, some cobalt blues are transparent. It varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. Rose Madder and Alizarin Crismson (P83) is quite fugitive across the board though. Pity. I love the smell of rose madder, which is made from the roots of the madder plant. Such a sweet and pleasant smell.

joseph shepler on January 15, 2018:

Pity the watercolorist who follows grinnin1 recommendations on watercolor materials. The "transparent pigment" list contains one opaque pigment: cobalt. Two fugitive pigments:alizarin crimson and rose matter. Pigments should be designated by its Color Index name not, proprietary or brand name. "Windsor Blue" is, at this time, PB15. All PB15 pigments are exactly the same regardless of brand.

Fiona from South Africa on July 04, 2016:

Thanks - I have been reading a lot on using tinted paper but was not sure what color to get. I will try the Aureolin yellow.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on March 07, 2015:

Awesome. Thanks.

grinnin1 (author) from st louis,mo on April 07, 2012:

Thanks for stopping by Frank!

Frank Atanacio from Shelton on April 07, 2012:

very useful share grin :)

grinnin1 (author) from st louis,mo on April 06, 2012:

Thank you Stephanie! Glad you think it will be useful and I appreciate the vote!

Stephanie Henkel from USA on April 06, 2012:

Excellent beginners guide to watercolor supplies! The section on paper and how different weight papers behave is especially useful. I know it took me a lot of trial and error to discover this on my own. Nice hub, voted up and useful!