The Best Beginner’s Watercolour Palette

For many beginners, choosing your paints is both the most exciting and overwhelming part of watercolours. Off-the-shelf sets are convenient – but handpicking your own palette is an investment into honing your unique painting style. Tailoring a palette might seem daunting, but I’ll show you how to narrow down the paints you need, and make choices that will amplify your creative voice. I’d love to know which paints you’ve chosen!

Buy a Pre-Made Palette

A Split Primary Palette

The easiest option for many beginners is to simply buy a pre-made palette. This a budget-friendly option that doesn’t require as much planning as choosing your own palette.

Most pre-made palette’s are laid out as split primary palettes. This means they are based on the traditional primaries, and feature two yellows, two reds and two blues.

Paul Ruben 24 Colour Watercolour Set
Roman Szmal: Aquarius, Half Pans
Schmincke: Horadam
Colour Set

Something a little different…

If you don’t want a palette based on the split-primaries, I really recommend Daniel Smith’s Ultimate Mixing Palette. Yes, it’s expensive – but these are the most beautiful colours, and the selection has been carefully chosen to give artists the widest range of mixes possible. It’s my favourite watercolour palette to date, and it’s what I use when travelling.

Daniel Smith’s Ultimate Mixing Palette

Build your Own Palette

At some point, most artists out-grow pre-built palettes and start curating their own paint collection. This might be a little daunting to a true beginner, but choosing your own colours is part of developing your own artistic style. Colour selection is like choosing the language you want to paint in: you might be painting the same subject, but the way you get there is defined by the colours you’ve set off with.

Start with your Style

How would you define your style? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you like glazing? If so, you may want to prioritise transparent paints.
  • Do you like painting in a single layer with a more gouache-like feel? Focus on opaque paints
  • Do you prefer granulating or non-granulating colours?
    • If you like granulating paint: do you like everything to granulate? You might like the effect of a granulating blue for the sky, or in a mix to create green foliage, but you might not want granulating colours when you’re mixing skin tones for a portrait.
  • Do you like vibrant colours? Build your palette around the modern primaries.
  • Do you like a more vintage feel, with desaturated colours? Build your palette around the traditional primaries or the split primaries.
  • Do you want to focus on tonalities? Choose a monochromatic palette.
  • Do you want to work with just two colours? Choose an analogous or complementary palette.
  • Want something different? Red, Yellow and Blue are an example of a triadic colour scheme – as are Magenta, Yellow and Cyan. What’s to stop you from using Orange, Green and Violet instead? Or choosing another combination of three colours to experiment with?

My Style and my own Palette, as an example:

My favourite technique is glazing, so my palettes tend to favour transparent paints. I would rather use Hansa Yellow Medium than Cadmium Yellow Medium, for example.

I also like granulating blues and darker neutrals; but I tend to avoid other granulating colours, unless I have a very specific project in mind. I’m generally happy to use Cerulean Blue Chromium (granulating) in my landscape palettes, as it’s a useful colour to use for the sky and it works beautifully in foliage mixes. However, if I choose Cerulean Blue Chromium, I often pair it with a smoother Ultramarine Blue, or Pthalo Blue (Green Shade) so that I have a second option I can use in less granulating mixes.

Start with your Primaries

No matter the palette, I will always include my modern primaries. For me, these are Pthalo Blue (green shade), Quinacridone Rose and Hansa Yellow Medium. These are the most versatile mixing colours, and I can make any vibrant saturated colour by mixing these three colours.

If you prefer a more desaturated colour palette, I’d recommend starting with the traditional primaries. If you’re not sure which primary colours to pick, play around with a few options!

A few examples:

The Earth Primaries:

  • Burnt Sienna
  • Yellow Ochre
  • French Ultramarine

Floral ‘Primaries’:

  • Rose Madder
  • Aureolin Yellow
  • Cobalt Blue

Autumnal Primaries:

  • Raw Sienna
  • Indian Red
  • Indathrone Blue

Define your Subject

Now that you have your style in mind, and you’ve chosen your primary colours, it’s time to think about your main subjects. Do you mostly paint animals, landscapes or portraits? All three require a very different balance of colours. Establish what your subjects usually are, so that you can figure out which colours you’ll need most of all.

For instance, if you do a lot of landscape painting, it might be worthwhile having a convenience green in your palette. Or, if you’re an urban painter who works in a city like London, you might find having a bright teal helps quickly capture those old copper accents on buildings. What colours do you use the most, and are they easy for you to quickly mix? If not, consider adding them as a convenience colour into your palette.

Starting with your subject is a great way of focusing your attention on the colours you’ll need in your palette.

Green ‘Primaries’:

  • Hooker’s Green
  • Lemon Yellow
  • Pthalo Blue

Coastal Colours:

  • Cerulean Blue
  • Raw Umber
  • Quinacridone Gold

Desert Palette:

  • Burnt Umber
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Cerulean Blue

Muted Portraits:

  • Quinacridone Rose
  • Raw Sienna
  • Payne’s Grey

Sunset Palette:

  • Cadmium Orange
  • Quinacridone Rose
  • Cobalt Violet

Spring Greens:

  • Viridian Green
  • Hansa Yellow Light
  • Quinacridone Magenta

Pick your Paints

Choose other colours that will work with your primary colour. For example, if your palette is all desaturated, do you want any aspects to bring a pop of colour? Are there any key features you want to emphasise or downplay? Use vibrancy and tone to draw attention where you want it to go.

Finalise your colour choices. If in doubt, you can use a colour wheel to find shades of your chosen colours. This can help you narrow down the right shades and hues of each colour.

An example: My Mexico six-pan travel palette:

A few years ago, I took a trip to Mexico. Many of the buildings I would be visiting in Mexico City were shades of the same pale ochre colour. I therefore opted for the desaturated primaries:

  • Burnt Sienna
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Ultramarine Blue
  • Carmine

I didn’t have a lot of time to paint, so I wanted quick colours. I therefore knew convenience colours would be in this set. I knew there was some greenery, so I wanted to add a warm green into my set.

  • Olive Green

As my colours so far were desaturated, I wanted to add a bright accent colour that would add brightness and interest. I did play around with switching my Yellow Ochre with Quinacridone Gold, so that I could capture the bright yellows and gilded statues. However, another colour kept coming up in the photos I was looking at; a teal blue-green, that appeared on old-copper buildings, in the ocean, and in the sky. I therefore added:

  • Cobalt Teal Blue

I tested my colours on a piece of scrap paper, to check they all worked together. On the back of this, I made one switch:

  • Alizarin Crimson Quinacridone Red


Once you are satisfied with the colours you have chosen, you can start painting with them. Don’t be afraid to fine-tune your palette and make revisions as you go!

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