On Watercolor Palettes: Final Thoughts (6 of 6)

On Watercolor Palettes: Final Thoughts (6 of 6)


Buy in bulk

I recommend you to buy paints in bulk and in the largest tubes you can find. I prefer the 37ml tubes that are offered by American Journey (as well as Da Vinci, similar also by Winsor & Newton), however as the import taxes and regulations when buying from outside of EU increased considerably in recent years, I’ve been forced to seek sources within the Union. I found that paint in Europe is much more expensive than in the US. Wherever you are, if you find a good deal, stack up on paint. As a painter, paint is the one thing you simply cannot afford to not have. Whatever your situation and location, try to do the best you can. Look for the best value and even though what you have available may not be ideal, remember that it’s only paint. Currently I use LUKAS paint, which comes in 24ml tubes and is of fair quality. It’s certainly not the best paint out there but it offers reasonable value though it is an “artist” quality paint with excellent lightfastness rating. Since it’s the best I can do right now I am contented with that.

Pans vs. tubes?

“The Paint Box” by Craig Young

I prefer tubes. I recommend tubes. Fresh paint in plentiful amounts is a must. And for studio work I can’t even see how you would maintain a good working rhythm if you had to scrub your paint from a dry pan. Pans have their place but their use is vastly limited for studio work, though that too depends on your personal approach and use of paint. If your approach is similar to that of an illustrator, working with thin layers of paint on small areas, you may be perfectly comfortable using pans.

Pan paints are in certain cases prepared differently than tube paint (look for videos on pan paint manufacture, Winsor & Newton had some). They won’t dry out as much as paint in tubes would when exposed to air. Re-wetting paint in pans is not as difficult as it would be with dried tube paint.

Student vs. Artists’ quality?

The main difference between the low and high end ranges is the composition, or rather ratio in which the components that make up the paint are used. In simplified terms there is lower pigment to binder ratio in the lower end lines. These lower cost paints usually contain more fillers than “Artist” lines, thus they don’t produce as intense colors generally and it’s necessary to use more of them to achieve comparable results. They don’t use any of the expensive pigments, which are substituted by proprietary mixes of less expensive (mostly synthetic) alternatives. You can recognize this by the word “hue” added to the name of the paint, such as “Cobalt Blue (Hue)”. Such paint actually contains no Cobalt whatsover.

The exact differences differ from manufacturer to manufacturer (there is no set standard manufacturers adhere to, “Student” and “Artists’” lines is pure marketing) but I find this is generally fairly consistent way among brands to lower the cost of their “Student” lines.

That being said, using “Student” paint may be perfectly reasonable if they meet your personal standards and there may very well be colors that match the quality of the original. Sometimes it can also be observed that the lower end line of the better paint manufacturer is of better quality and pigment concentration than that an “Artist” line of overall cheap brand.

Palette is just a tool

Winsor & Newton Heavyweight Paintbox, takes both half and full pans

An important tool but nonetheless one that shouldn’t be unnecessarily overemphasized. I know that, mainly at the beginning of the journey, the tools of the trade excite and are a big part of the appeal of watercolor painting. I know they were indeed a big draw for me personally. I don’t want to understate their role either, after all they directly affect not only the results we get, but our enjoyment of the activity.

That being said, priorities need to be established. I think your understaing of palette layout and paint selection are the two most important considerations, except the way we use color in our actual painting. The physical palette comes last I think, while still playing an important role in our workflow.

Paint value, not color

Painting by Daniel Novotny

Color can be anything as long as your values are right. Color is subjective – value is objective. Color is personal, emotional – value is factual.

For the beginner this can be a difficult concept to grasp. How do you not paint color?

We see color as light reflecting from surfaces. One of the inherent properties of any surface is color. However, if our eyes couldn’t see color, would we not see the object at all? But of course we would! But instead of red, we would perceive the color’s inherent tonal value. Each color has its own tonal “weight”, that is how light or dark it is. Yellow is light, blue is dark, generally speaking. Our brain actually uses tonal value for our spatial orientation. Tonality is the basis for all art-making. We do value studies in single color because we need to establish our planes, the “logic” of the picture and we do this through value allocation. We don’t use color because that’s the least effective way to go about it.

If we painted with color and disregarded value, there would be just a very small chance of our painting making sense, as it would be indeed left to chance. If we, however, painted our painting with value only (see my monochrome painting above), we’d be much more likely to organize our planes properly, because we’d eliminate not only the chance factor but the distraction (color) as well. Only after we learn to see color as colorful value notes, we can make powerful paintings full of color.

Therefore my advice is: Base your paint selection on knowledge, base the use of your paints on emotion.

Painting by Daniel Novotny

What I mean by that is that the way you build your palette requires knowledge and understanding that can be theoretically acquired through study. You can build your palette very effectively and have the most balanced selection of paint in the world. Using your paints is another matter. Of course, first it is necessary to learn and master color theory, that is how colors work and affect each other when mixed and how to achieve harmony through the regulation of their relationships within the picture.

But at the same time you’ll benefit greatly if you learn to listen to your feelings regarding color. You’ll have color ideas that need to be put to test. Don’t slavishly follow harmonies found in books. Learn, understand and master them but always keep yourself emotionally unattached to work the way you feel you should. In other words, don’t paint color mechanically. Don’t paint your harmonies from “recipes”. Color is a very expressive and personal factor in any painting. Let your personality shine through.

Live in the moment

Painting by Daniel Novotny

Use the paint layout, palette and color you want, right here, right now, don’t wait for the perfect occasion, don’t wait until you are more established. You get more established the more you listen to yourself. Learn to listen to the inner voice. Explore the ideas that you wonder about. The more you’ll paint, the more ideas you’ll have. Focus all your attention on them. You feel like you should experiment with different hues of blue? You just love blue? Then use blue and nothing but blue. Push yourself, push the idea, explore it. Paint monochromatic paintings until you feel like there’s nothing more to be said, nothing more to be explored. Then move on to your next idea. The same goes for palette layouts, various color combinations, paint consistency, paint application even. Listen to what you think and feel at the moment and go for it!

Educate yourself

Don’t expect anything to be handed to you. And even if instructions were thrown at you left and right, there is no guarantee you could absorb them. Your journey is original. You are original. There is time for repeating the basics. There’s also time for advancement. But always it is up to you to initiate an interest. To learn and seek. To better yourself. Nobody can do this but yourself. The more you learn, the richer your life becomes, the better your paintings get, the more original your style becomes.


On my resource page I list my recommended books, pens, inks, paper and everything else I use, including palette and paints. If you’d like to go through this particular palette series you can click here.

Then there are other resources out there. I have learned a lot from the website Handprint. There is an enormous wealth of information and I cannot recommend enough that you give it a look. Another website that my friend Russell Black recommended is Artist Creation and specifically the section The Color of Art. There is also a great art forum you most likely heard of, WetCanvas. I used to be an active participant on the forum and learned a great deal from the folks there. It is a welcoming community and if you love talking about art it’s the place to be.


If you’ve been following my blog for any period of time, you may know by now that I regard highly the creative process and place it above the final product, which is effectively a by-product of our creative mindset. And I realize it is a cliché to say that it is not about the destination, it is about the journey. As most clichés I’ve heard, it’s utterly true. There is a lot to consider when starting out in watercolor, or anything else for that matter. But it is our attitude that makes us who we are. We are reborn as the old dies (habits, understanding, misconceptions, experience) and the new is introduced in our life, thus we are reborn. In practice this means that as you get to know yourself better, you’ll learn to listen to yourself. You will naturally incline towards certain styles and methods more than others. It is a good thing – never silence these inclinations, instead follow them! Follow them with your heart!

What it boils down to is that there are things that one must experience on his or her own terms. Reading and educating yourself theoretically is the grounding for all future progress, but it goes to waste without practice. I want to encourage you to not give up, to explore and entertain yourself with trying out new paint, color combinations, layouts, palettes. Be curious as you’ve been curious when you were a child. Be the child again, for there lies within you your true potential.

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