How to Set Up a Watercolour Palette


You’re setting up a brand new watercolour palette – but how should you lay it out? Some artists place their paints according to a colour wheel – some divide it by the split primary colour theory of ‘warm’ and ‘cool’ colours. Some divide staining from non-staining and granulating from non-granulating. Whatever system you choose needs to be one that works for your unique painting style – and there are several options available to you.

Getting Set Up

Some artists layout their paints according to a colour wheel – some divide it by the split primary colour theory of ‘warm’ and ‘cool’ colours. Some divide staining from non-staining and granulating from non-granulating.

Obviously, it’s easier to arrange fewer pigments; a beginner might only need to arrange six colours in a palette. This guide is intended to give inspiration to all artists, regardless of how many paints they own; tailor it to suit your needs as you see fit.

I really recommend you make sure you have at least one shade of every primary colour represented in your palette.

Five ways to organise your palette:

1. Colour Wheel

We all know the colours of the rainbow; red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple. The benefit of this palette is it’s super simple to set up. It also offers some protection against colour contamination: if the yellows are next to the greens and a well overflows it’s going to be easier to fix than if you’d put your yellow next to a purple or blue. It can get tricky to know where to put the browns, whites and blacks – my solution would be to organise your palette from white, yellow, red, brown, purple, blue to green. I prefer to mix my own blacks, but if you do want to add black into your colour spectrum palette you could put it after a desaturated green at the other end of the spectrum.

2. Colour Temperature / the Warm & Cool Palette

A variation on the split primary palette, which is great for beginners learning colour theory. If you aren’t sure what a split primary palette is,

3. Saturation

Separate bright colours from less saturated paints. Pthalo Blue would be far away from Burnt Sienna; which might be perfect for keeping some colours bright and beautiful while others remain beautifully earthy.

4. Characteristics

You could filter your paints by characters, such as: staining, granulation, transparency, opacity, and metallics.

5. Subjects

Do you paint a lot of pet portraits that require Payne’s Grey, Burnt Sienna and Alizarin Crimson? Or landscapes that need Ultramarine Blue, Hansa Yellow and Serpentine Green? If you find you group colours together based on subjects, you might find this is a good way to organise your palette too.

How Much Paint Should be in Each Well?

Some artists decant the entire tube into the well; I prefer not to do this for three reasons.

Reason One: I need Space to Dilute Pure Colours

We all know the most irritating thing, as a watercolour artist, is to contaminate your hansa yellow well with a touch of pthalo blue. It’s awful. Most paint palettes have a large central well which is designed for mixing your colours together. But sometimes you want a higher water content in your paint to get that paler wash – and if you use the central well you might accidentally pick up another adjacent colour. Leaving space in your paint well is the perfect place to add water to create more diluted pure colours.

If you have sloped paint wells, I recommend putting your paint at the top shallow end, so that your water can run down into the deeper trough. If your water is contaminated and your paint is at the bottom, your unclean water runoff will contaminate the rest of your clean pigment.

Fluff Control

I use my paint palettes for one-to-two years. Whilst I try my hardest to remember to close my plastic palette and cover my ceramic ones, there are always days that I inevitably forget. I live in a house with two adorable, mischievous, fluffy cats. It can be a matter of hours before dust and cat hair has crept in to my opened palette. Once it’s there there’s nothing you can do but hope it doesn’t settle strangely in a wash, or clean your entire palette. The fuller your paint well is, the higher your chances are of a house-dust or a kitten-hair based disaster.


This one is pretty simple: you’ll work your way through less paint faster than a larger one. Some people might prefer fewer refills – but for me, it gives me a chance to re-evaluate the colours in my palette. If I want to try a different brand of yellow ochre, or if I didn’t enjoy the hyper-granulating Pthalo Turquoise I thought I’d love, it allows me to try something else instead.

Make a Chart

I cannot recommend this enough; if you’re adding new or unfamiliar colours into your paint palette, make a chart. The more you use your watercolour paints, the more confident you’ll become at recognising them just from your swatches. However, if you’ve decanted your paints out of their tubes you might forget what their names or brands are; and that might become a problem when you need to refill a colour.

So, save yourself the hassle now, and make a chart of your new paint palette with each swatch labelled!

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