Select Delivery Region:
Our magazines
In this section

How to choose colours for your next Magnum Opus!!

Amanda Brett

Posted on Mon 12 Feb 2018

A lot of my students ask me how to choose a palette. Specifically "How do you pick interesting colours for a painting?"

There is much science and theory on choosing a palette, for example a primary palette, tertiary triad, split complementary or harmonious triad - the list goes on! Proprietary Colour Wheels are great BUT they're not based on watercolour pigments/colours we can buy, they're printed using four (or 6) colour process based on commercial primary printing colours cyan, magenta, yellow and black. In addition, a true colour wheel is made up of primary colours that are neither warm nor cool but neutral.

I have to admit I don't have a secret palette selecting trick, my palette is based on the pigments rather than "colours". Hence, I'm more interested in what my pigments will do together, how they mix together (can i make a great, interesting dark), how they react to water, paper and each other. See my youtube video

For example I could go and buy lemon yellow and Paynes grey. Unfortunately for lemon yellow and Paynes grey, they are 2 pigments I like least, lemon yellow is too cold and too opaque, not a good mixer, and Paynes grey dries about 50% lighter than one expects - too unpredictable for me!

My faves for a long time have been transparent watercolour pigments and then I throw in some goodies at the end.

So when you ask me "what colours?", my first answer will be "what have you got and what can you do with them?" I often select 3 primaries, or a version of 3 primaries and make a colour wheel, it doesn't matter which 3 colours/pigments, all one needs is a version of a red, blue and yellow. It could be burnt sienna for the yellow, prussian blue and quinacridone magenta, the point is what new colour combinations will you be able to create?

Another question for the painter to pose is what kind of mood or story do you want to tell? For example, a dark winter's day or a happy summer day?

For the non-realist painter "What colour do i feel like painting today? do i want a pink painting or a blue painting?" the answers spin off from there, if a pink painting one could either choose a complementary green or harmonious colours red orange yellow and then an accent of purple or green.

What colours do you like? Head down to your local art gallery and spend a few minutes actively searching for colour combinations, whether you like the painting or not, is a good exercise in palette selection and most importantly, discovering your own likes and dislikes.

let me know how you get on - leave a comment!! :)

ciao ciao

How to choose colours for your next Magnum Opus!!


Please login or register to enter your comment click here

  • "Lemon Yellow" (as you know) is a colour achieved by almost limitless pigments ... so one tube will have virtually no resemblance to another. I like a good, clean lemon yellow - which won't be too opaque - in combination with an equally good, clean green or blue. It's worth shopping around until you find the version you like (and Payne's Grey varies, too...).

    Some people do develop strong biases against particular colours because of one unhappy experience - the pthalo colours are highly invasive, and unless you know that they can give you a very nasty turn.... but it's getting to know colours that's important, not trying them, squealing in horror, and never using them again: that way lies guaranteed blandness, because we retreat to a "safe" mix which we can control: and so always use it in future. One of the reasons why people keep using Alizarin Crimson, even though one of its most reliable characteristics is that it fades.

    Posted by Robert Jones, N.A.P.A. on Mon 12 Feb 14:08:50
  • glad you like lemon yellow, it does seem to be a colour more favoured in the northern hemisphere, it's not a colour I like and I've found so many others that work better for me. You should try Permanent Alizarin Crimson or Permanent rose, lovely and transparent and permanent but they also make terrific darks!!
    While travelling a few years back, I ran out of Burnt Sienna - I could not find a tube of my favourite brand, so i bought a tube in every other I could find - most of them were pretty awful (opaque, gritty and grainy, incl white pigment etc) and nothing like "mine", ai carumba!!
    cheers Amanda

    Posted by Amanda Brett, Watercolour Artist on Mon 12 Feb 20:39:33