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Joe of our Seattle Store on Creating a Palette to Suit your Purpose

Spring will soon be upon us! For some, it is time to think about dusting off our travel or pocket watercolor palettes. Many of you may not have a pocket palette that you carry around--there is no better time to start than the present! And for some of us, it is simply time to switch out our Winter palette for our Spring colors.

Working in an art supply retail store, I get to talk with many artists and instructors who all recommend different and even contradictory things. Some say you should try every new color, every chance you get while others settle on eight colors and spend the rest of their lives exploring just those eight. Some say you cannot be taken seriously as an artist if you paint with black while others make a living painting with nothing but black. I think a safe recommendation would be to select your favorite, most often used colors, whatever those colors may be, and have them as the basis of your palette. For me, those basic colors are DANIEL SMITH Prussian Blue, DANIEL SMITH Serpentine Genuine and DANIEL SMITH Garnet Genuine.

Once you have your basic palette established, whether it is three colors or thirty, you can add specialty colors to it as needed. If I were painting Winter landscapes, I would make sure my palette could produce an appropriate range of whites, blues and browns. If I were attending a figure drawing session, I'd add some warm, fleshy colors like ochres, umbers and siennas. With Spring right around the corner, now is a good time to remove some of the drab Fall and Winter colors in favor of those that can show the bright sun-shiney colors of Spring. Think flowers, bright blue skies, and new plant shoots that seem to glow in neon yellow-green.

One of my favorite Spring color mixes is DANIEL SMITH Azo Yellow and DANIEL SMITH Iridescent Electric Blue. Azo Yellow is a very strong, very primary yellow. It doesn't lean toward greenish nor orangish but sits right in the center of the yellow range. Iridescent Electric Blue is a blue that, as the name implies, is so bright it looks electrified. It also has an iridescent sparkly quality that scatters bright light like glitter. When these two are combined, the resulting yellow-green is so bright, I only know one way to describe it: you know what it is like when you are inside a dark house on a bright sunny Spring morning, and you walk outside and sun is reflecting off of all the new bright green plant matter that is blanketing the world, and this reflected yellow-green light is so bright it blinds you for a few minutes? It's like that.
At this point, I want to reiterate what I said earlier; that I recommend exploring and finding the colors that work right for you. That bright green mix is great for me, but may not work well for everybody.

To further illustrate this point, I asked Kate in our Customer Service department about her travel sketch palette and she had this to say:


    DANIEL SMITH Watercolors
  • Lunar Black
  • Indigo
  • Aureolin
  • New Gamboge
  • Quinacridone Coral
  • Quinacridone Red
  • Opera Pink
  • Quinacridone Burnt Orange
  • Manganese Blue Hue
  • Ultramarine Blue
  • Cobalt Teal Blue
  • Green Gold
  • Sap Green
  • Quinacridone Gold

These are my favorites and what I keep in my little travel palette. Often, a quick on-the-go painting will only require 3-4 colors but since the palette is so small, it makes me feel good knowing I'll have the colors I need for any subject matter.

I have chosen these because they are transparent (with the exception of Cobalt Teal Blue). I like using clean and bright colors. These allow me to mix everything I want: skin tones, water, plants, skies, buildings and even unnatural man-made things.

Quinacridone Gold and Quinacridone Burnt Orange have long replaced earth tones on my palette; they allow me to make cleaner mixes of browns and ochres. I use them to make the palest of washes up to almost full strength. Green Gold is very unique and essential for foliage.

I would mix my own darks if the Lunar Black didn't make me so happy. I use it for line drawing, outlines, shadows, and the slightest touch of it mixed with any other color will create the most beautiful granulation. It can even make a boring painting interesting. Oh, and because the pigment is made of iron, it can be manipulated with a magnet while wet!

I am embarrassed whenever helpful friends and family hold my bag for me because it is always filled with a box of brushes, multiple metal watercolor palettes, loose tubes of gouache, pens, pencils, scissors, erasers, sharpeners, glue, assorted sketchbooks and tape. "Wow, this is heavy" they say. Yep, it is, but I am always ready for an impromptu painting or sketch.

My set-up is different than Kate's. For one thing, I tend not to carry a purse, nor even a man-bag. Not having a purse means I cannot weigh it down with tons of supplies, so my travel-sketch set-up needs to be more compact (we'll talk more about my full set-up in a future post). Simply put, I cannot carry a hundred things. The items and colors I choose are those I find the most versatile, giving me maximum options for use while using a minimum of space and weight.

My color choices are also quite different from Kate's. I prefer muddy colors over clean, pure colors, so I choose those that allow me to mix beautiful mud that I can control. I also prefer my colors be a little more opaque for my travel palette. Currently, my colors are: Prussian Blue, Serpentine Genuine, Garnet Genuine, Carbazole Violet, Neutral Tint, Diopside Genuine, Piemontite Genuine, Buff Titanium, Cadmium Red Medium Hue and Cadmium Yellow Medium Hue. I also use a number of gouache colors, especially white, to add more opacity, muddiness, and to tone things down in general.

I keep my three main colors (Prussian Blue, Serpentine, and Garnet) in their own little 3-color palette and then switch out my supporting palette of add-on colors as my situation, setting or season dictates. I have a number of different supporting palettes (mostly because I enjoy making new palettes!), so I just grab whichever one of those I want and I’m out the door. Other artists maintain just one palette and simply switch out individual colors from it. Do what works best for you.

Take insight and inspiration from the parts of this article that resonate with you and ignore the parts that don't. Experiment with color and palette set-ups that are appropriate to your subject. Check out sketch-journal set-ups and palettes among your friends or on the internet. But, most importantly, it has been one heck of a winter. Spring is almost here. As soon as it is warm enough, get out there and paint!


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