046. Beginning Watercolor: Choosing Your Palette

While I'm streaming, I get so many questions about what paints and colors I'm using, so I figured I would write a little about it.

Why do you choose one brand over another? What colors should you get?
What kind of containers do you need?
Brushes and paper are a whole other topic - so I'll discuss that another time!

Disclaimer: I'm not a trained expert in watercolor chemistry and I haven't tried every brand of paint out there. This is all based on my personal experience with watercolor. I am not sponsored by anyone, and I don't get paid to say any of this.

First, let me explain one very important thing:
The only difference between the wet tube paint and "dried" colors that you see above is that one is wet and one is dry. That's it.
Wet tube paint: immediately ready for use, just dip your brush in.
Dried paint in the half pans (those little white square holders): Needs a drop of water to "activate"/be used.

(If you're in a hurry and don't want to read my individual experience with certain sets/brands, skip to the bottom for the abridged version!)

1. Travel/Compact Sets

When I first started my adventures in watercolor, I had a very specific desire to be able to paint outside while I was hiking and camping. Therefore I knew I needed a portable palette. 

I knew nothing about brand or quality at the time so I randomly chose the Winsor & Newton Cotman Compact Set.
It cost about $20 at my local art store, and included 14 colors. 

It was the perfect intro into watercolors! I wasn't worried about which colors to buy, or if this was the "right set for beginners" - I just dove in!
Here are a few pieces I created with this first set (some were done outside, some were done in my studio):

However, after a month or so, I was noticing how difficult it was to get extremely saturated/deep colors out of this set. I also wanted to try some new colors.

Time for an upgrade!

I did a little searching, and I found this Sennelier La Petit Aquarelle 12 Half Pan Set for $20 that had fewer, but slightly different colors and room to add more.

At this time I was becoming completely obsessed with watercolors and I wanted to start a serious study routine. I bought this small Moleskin Watercolor Sketchbook (still my favorite!) and decided that every single day I would paint for at least one hour. 

Most days I ended up painting for 3-4 hours. I loved going to the Denver Botanic Gardens and doing plein air studies (painting outside).

This Sennelier set had new colors, and the paints themselves were much more saturated/deep. With just a touch of water, I got extremely rich colors!

Here are some things I painted with this set:

I quickly fell in love with Sennelier
I saw first hand what a difference the quality of the paints made. 
The W&N Cotman colors are considered "low" grade paints, good for entry-level/beginner painting. And that's exactly the experience I had. They were cheap and got me started.

Sennelier are considered "Artist" grade paints - high quality. And that's exactly the experience I had. I ended up buying another little Sennelier travel set that had a couple more color options. It was tiny and perfect!

By the way, Winsor & Newton also make Artist grade paints, and they are wonderful! I'll get to that later.


2. Custom Palette

So, I was having a blast with my travel sets, but I still wanted more. I was painting so frequently, both in and out of the studio, and starting to notice how limited I was with color. I noticed my limited color palette was leading me into painting a specific "look," and I wanted to have more freedom of choice. 
So I decided to take the plunge and buy some tube paints!

I went to my local art store with my business credit card and an open mind (not always the wisest decision). The people who worked there are extremely knowledgeable about the products, and are artists themselves who USE the products. They also have a little area where you can try things.

After about 2 hours of talking and experimenting, I ended up buying $300 worth of Sennelier and Daniel Smith tubes
The color choices were amazing... of course I wanted everything, but still had a budget. Both Sennelier and Daniel Smith are extremely high quality paints, and you can FEEL the difference when you use them.

Now, I have a large palette. A Melting Pot of brands!

I use an old pencil tin to hold my half pans. I glued mini magnets to the bottom of the pans so they stay in the pencil tin while I move around.
I also have a palette with a lid that allows me to keep paint wet for more than one session.
All of my colors are now Artist Grade, meaning high quality. The "flow" is smooth. There are no chunks or flakes. The colors are incredibly rich. 

3. Abridged Explanation

  • Half pans are little square containers that are used to pour liquid paint into. You can buy them at art stores or online, usually about $.80 each.
  • You can buy tube paint and let it dry in the half pans, or you can buy a palette with a lid that will keep your paint wet for longer.
  • There is no quality difference between liquid paint from a tube and when it's dry.
  • Low grade/entry level paint such as Cotman colors are OK for beginners while you get used to using watercolors. They are typically not as saturated/deep as Artist Grade, which are higher quality but more expensive.
  • My favorite brands in order of preference: Sennelier, Daniel Smith, Holbein, Winsor & Newton Professional (Artist Grade)
  • Colors: If you buy the travel/compact sets, your colors are chosen for you. This is perfectly fine and I did this for the first few months of my watercolor experience!
    If you're buying tube paints, here are my suggestions:
    • Earthy Tones: Olive Green, Serpentine Green, Raw Umber, Burnt Umber, Indigo, Cobalt Blue, Nickel Azo Yellow, Aureolin Yellow, Indian Red, Crimson, Imperial Purple, Neutral Tint, Lamp Black
    • Bright/Jubilant Tones: Lemon Yellow, Cadmium Orange Yellow,  Cerulean Blue, Pthalo Green Deep, Permanent Light Green, Red Violet

If you have experience with a brand or palette you love, please share it in the comments below!