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Using a limited palette for luminous watercolor paintings.

Updated on February 9, 2017
Start simple!
Start simple!

Getting started in watercolor

So you have decided to try watercolor painting and aren't sure where to begin? Going into the art store these days is a bit overstimulating if you ask me, so I try to keep things simple.

My number one rule is : Use a limited palette with transparent pigments-

Using a limited palette means using a few transparent pigments that will blend beautifully and cleanly. Why do this? Because it keeps costs down while allowing you to create every color you could possible want, including dark values and luminous light values. It also allows you to get to know the "personality" of each of these colors, as different pigments have different attributes and combine differently with one another. If you're using 25 different pigments, it's impossible to get to know them or how to use them in the best way. But with 7-9 pigments, it's do-able.

Transparent pigment-

Aureolin yellow

Rose Madder

Cobalt Blue

Viridian Green

Windsor Green

Windor Blue

Alizarin Crimson

To get a beautiful glow to your paper, use your Aureolin yellow. This is probably my most used pigment. It will tint the paper just enough to give it warmth, but it won't look yellow. Great for skin tones, landscapes, paintings you want filled with light.

To get a beautiful burnt sienna, mix your Aurolean yellow and rose madder. You will get an approximation of burnt sienna that positively glows, and you will never go back to it again.

To mix beautiful browns, use your rose madder and Aurolean yellow, in different ratios, then add in cobalt or windsor blues to attain an array of colors from light warm browns to deep, cool browns.

Greys are dynamite in watercolor paintings if you know how to mix them. Experiment with mixing luminous neutrals using combinations of Viridian and Alizaron Crimson or Aeurolean yellow,Rose Madder and Windsor Blue,

The last three pigments are staining, meaning that they "stain" your paper and are hard it take off, and they are also the pigments you want to use to create your darkest darks. You can get deep, velvety colors while still keeping the colors transparent, not muddy.

Have fun with your colors and play with them. Don't judge yourself, dedicate yourself to simply experimenting with the pigments on one whole pad of watercolor paper before you try anything more.

Watercolor paper

Watercolor paper comes in different weights and different textures.

The poundage determines how thick the paper is, which translates into how much of a beating it can take. If you are someone who puts soaks the paper, puts paint on, takes it off, scrapes, etc. you want at least a good 140 lb, and probably a 300 lb paper. Also, the higher the weight, the less taping you have to do. A 300 lb paper will buckle much less with copious amounts of water than a 90 lb paper. I suggest beginning with a 140 lb paper, middle of the road. The higher the weight, the higher the cost per sheet.

The different textures in watercolor paper will largely affect how the paint goes on, how it feels, and how it dries, so you need to try them out before you commit yourself to an entire pad.

Hot Press- This is the smoothest watercolor paper you can buy. Use it for a perfectly smooth, clear sky, or petal, or reflection in glass.

Cold Press- The "go-to" for watercolor paper. Good, all round texture for just about all of your painting needs. Texture allows pigment to soak in, but still comes up nicely, allows for good wet-on wet or wet on dry. If you buy a pad of paper, I recommend this one.

Rough- This is a fun paper to play with; it will not allow all of the pigent to get into the nooks and crannies, giving your water, sky, or sunlit grass, a bit of "sparkle" where the white paper shows through.


Go easy on yourself again, and keep it simple. You need basically a couple of brushes to learn how they feel, then expand from there. You will need a wash brush, 1 in. or so, and try to use sable. Generally, the higher priced brushes are better. Not always, but most of the time. Make sure you try it out at the store. What you are looking for is the brush's ability to hold water. So when you fill the brush with water and pigment, and pull it along the paper, you have a nice full mark of paint all the way to the end. If your brush runs dry halfway through, you want to choose a different one. Also a round would be good. Do not get tiny brushes! When you start, get medium sized to larger brushes. Detail comes later!


There is every kind of palette that you can imagine out there, so look them over. I like large ones with large areas to mix paints in. I have also used cupcake tins, plates, you name it. Just find one that fits you. They're all pretty much the same as far as cleaning. I use plastic ones generally, but I know painters who swear by glass or fiberglass. I don't recommend fancy ones that keep your paint moist for watercolor painters.

Self help books I recommend

You can find literally hundreds of books and you tube videos showing you technique in watercolor. I recommend these two books, however, out of all that I've seen the past 15 years or so, because they go beyond technique to show you "how" you should paint a picture, "why" to paint a picture, and "what" you should be looking for, noticing, and attempting as you begin your journey in painting. They are both indispensable in my collection.

Making Color Sing- Jeanne Dobie

Powerful Watercolor landscapes- Catherine Gill

Get started, don't get overwhelmed.

So there you are- those basic supplies will get you started and you're on your way. Paint supplies are expensive, so wait and experiment before you buy a ton of stuff. I have a tale of caution for you from my experience with students. One student I had went out to buy her 'limited palette" of paint and basic supplies, and came back with everything known to man pertaining with watercolor supplies. I didn't even know what to do with some of the stuff. One I remember, though, was glitter medium! Remember when you go into the vast, tempting cornocpia of art stores, you don't need expensive or copious supplies to get started. You need paint, brushes, paper and something to paint on. Get going, and as you paint more, learn more and need more, you can get it. You don't need it all now.

Go out there and start painting!

Visit my website at

You don't need 20 paint tubes to get started, a few will do.
You don't need 20 paint tubes to get started, a few will do.


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    • profile image

      Randall 5 weeks ago

      Joeseph, Aureolin is also fugitive. However, some cobalt blues are transparent. It varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. Rose Madder and Alizarin Crismson (P83) is quite fugitive across the board though. Pity. I love the smell of rose madder, which is made from the roots of the madder plant. Such a sweet and pleasant smell.

    • profile image

      joseph shepler 2 months ago

      Pity the watercolorist who follows grinnin1 recommendations on watercolor materials. The "transparent pigment" list contains one opaque pigment: cobalt. Two fugitive pigments:alizarin crimson and rose matter. Pigments should be designated by its Color Index name not, proprietary or brand name. "Windsor Blue" is, at this time, PB15. All PB15 pigments are exactly the same regardless of brand.

    • Fiona Jean Mckay profile image

      Fiona 20 months ago from South Africa

      Thanks - I have been reading a lot on using tinted paper but was not sure what color to get. I will try the Aureolin yellow.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image

      Denise McGill 3 years ago from Fresno CA

      Awesome. Thanks.

    • grinnin1 profile image

      grinnin1 5 years ago from st louis,mo

      Thanks for stopping by Frank!

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 5 years ago from Shelton

      very useful share grin :)

    • grinnin1 profile image

      grinnin1 5 years ago from st louis,mo

      Thank you Stephanie! Glad you think it will be useful and I appreciate the vote!

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image

      Stephanie Henkel 5 years ago from USA

      Excellent beginners guide to watercolor supplies! The section on paper and how different weight papers behave is especially useful. I know it took me a lot of trial and error to discover this on my own. Nice hub, voted up and useful!