On Watercolor Palettes: Layout (3 of 6)

On Watercolor Palettes: Layout (3 of 6)


Palette organization is not as personal as paint selection. However, it pays to have it set up so it works with you, not against you. What I mean is that each of us have their preferred way to work. This approach to painting influences our choices of palette, paints, brushes. Similarly, it influences the way we use our paint. Some of us work with small brushes, round brushes, flat brushes. And so, once again, there’s no one size fits all.

That being said, there are considerations that make a lot of sense and can help us be more effective with our setup regardless of the way we approach our work.

Fluid Setup

The first thing I’d like to mention is “fluid setup”. I prefer a more fluid approach to my palette, meaning what I have on my palette changes freely. There are few colors that are fixed however, such as my cool yellow, warm and cool reds, warm and middle blues. These are part of what I call “core” palette. But all the colors around these come and go. It is a beautiful thing to allow yourself the freedom to shift things around as you please. Never refrain from change just because you committed to it when you didn’t know better. When you know better, adjust. Be flexible. Adapt. Stiffness and art don’t go hand in hand.

Temperature vs. Value

The two main approaches to palette organization are 1. Temperature and 2. Value.


Temperature is a very valid consideration when organizing our palette and one that is probably used most often. Setting up our palette by temperature means that our paints basically follow the color circle. We go from warm to cool and vice versa.

This type of setup results in our palette being divided into two general areas, a warm side and a cool side. As I explained in the post on warm vs. cool paints, within these general absolute warm and cool areas there are going to be subdivisions that may be sorted by their relative temperature or tonal value.

My Frank Webb watercolor palette paint setup; Left side warm, right side cool

On the image of my actual palette you can notice the two main groups of colors, warm on the left side, cool on the right side. The following diagram describes the color for each individual well and showcases how the colors lay on the palette according to their pureness and hue.

Palette Setup Diagram: Temperature Prioritized

You can notice that my palette starts with a black or a very neutral dark value hue. Colors then gain purity as they approach the middle of the palette (following clockwise movement), ranging from pure yellow, through reds to blues, finishing with greens on the opposite end of the palette.

You can see here that on the left side of the palette, Earth colors reside as an individual group. They are tied to my pure yellows eventually but they are not to be included with the pure hues. And this, I find, is a good practice when using this setup. Earth colors are not pure and can contaminate washes made with our pure primaries. As to their position, they are all warm in absolute sense and so they are placed on the warm side of the palette.

When setting up a palette according to color temperature, value is for the most part disregarded. The following diagram shows that value is indeed not our primary concern. Warm to cool dynamic takes precedence.

Palette Setup Diagram: Temperature Prioritized – Color Removed

Tonal Value

The trick in organizing our palette by value is in grouping color families regardless of their pureness. This means that Raw Sienna is just as equal a member of the Yellow family as is the very pure Azo Yellow. If I were to set up my palette with value prioritized, it would be as shown on the following diagram.

Palette Setup Diagram: Value Prioritized

Notice that my individual color families stand separately and are organized differently on the palette. I do follow the color circle here in the broad sense, meaning the families go from yellow family to a green family and to blue and violet, finishing with reds (clockwise again).  The important assessment here is that within each family the color placement is based on value, disregarding pureness of the hues. This is proven by the following diagram where the color is removed, showing only the value relationships of the aforementioned color groups.

Palette Setup Diagram: Value Prioritized – Color Removed

Temperature vs. Value – Which is The One For Me?

Now that we understand how both approaches work, the questions is: Which one to use?

Organizing one’s palette according to temperature is, I find, a more standard, mainstream approach. There is the underlying dynamic of warm vs. cool that is inherent to the color circle, and so this setup makes us think in a way that reflects the mechanics and relationships of color as organized through the circle. This is a very universal setup for representational painting. Reproducing local color requires precision and thorough understanding of color theory and in such case, it’s best to have a very strategic setup, assuring consistency and order. I find this setup allows for a great versatility but it may be too generous with its options. Especially for a beginner. That simply means it takes more time to get familiar with it.

It would seem that organizing our palette by tonal value limits our options substantially. It is true that the order of color relationships as laid down in the color circle is not preserved. But that’s because this setup is much more focused and straight-forward. It has a very clear purpose and dedication to value. This setup is a very direct way (a shortcut almost!) to completely revamp how we think about our palette. I had been using this setup for quite some time in the past and I learned a great deal from it. Ultimately I switched back to temperature setup but it was a great lesson indeed. It may be difficult to get used to it for representational approach to color but it’s an excellent approach for a personal color and definitely a good way to learn not only to concentrate on the tonality of your painting but to really start and feel color harmonies in a painting as a whole. A good example of tonal value setup would be the painter Don Andrews. He works with wet-in-wet washes and he hardly ever mixes on his palette. Instead, he keeps his paper wet and charges his washes with one color after another. It is very refreshing to see him paint and I highly recommend you to look for his videos.

I often talk about the “bigger picture” and organization of our palette is just that. As much as the individual paints are important, they are really not so vital in the grand scheme of things. The way we work with our palette is a very important consideration, one that will make our brain retrain itself a certain way. The overall palette is what matters. The “scheme” with which we work consciously and unconsciously teaches us and influences how we work and use color. Ideally, in time, we start to see colors as an assortment of notes that are felt rather than seen. I think the way to get there sooner is by following the tonal value layout, but it can certainly be achieved by temperature setup as well, though more experience and time will likely be required.

Whether you’re in the process of learning and mastering value as the key art element or you’re simply interested in improving your perception of color, the tonal value approach may be something to consider. The bottom line is that, whatever your layout, you need to know your palette as a pianist knows his keyboard. Even if you were to set up your palette completely haphazardly but you could still paint with it blindfolded, you would be at a great advantage to someone chaotically searching for the “right” color in a perfectly set up palette. There is, however, a good reason to set up your palette properly. The logic behind it is that you follow a system, a scheme, a pattern that will make you think in a most effective and efficient way possible. Your artistic perception will be unrestricted and gently guided by the way you use your palette. And though it may sound a bit too far-fetched, those with experience would probably agree that there is something to this concept. After all, through our palette mechanics and patterns are incorporated into the way we work and think, which consequently becomes an inherent part of our procedure, resulting work and personality as an artist.

Please note this is an article repost.
Original publish date overwritten.
Comments loaded with incorrect timestamps.


  1. susan

    I hadn’t thought of a tonal pallet…this might work better for the way I paint, thanks, I think I’ll try it!

    1. That’s great! I’m glad I encouraged you to try something new.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

5 + 4 =