Choosing your colour palette

You don’t need to buy a huge set of colours when you choose your paints. However many you have in your set, it’s worth trying some practical colour theory so you can explore the range of colours available form the ones you have.

Whether or not you know about colour theory, the practice of physically mixing the colours with your own paints will really help you get to grips with colour picking and paint application.

Mixing colours from other colours already in the picture can have the effect of making your painting more harmonious, although mixed colours tend to be more muted and sometimes only a pure hue of a slightly different colour will do.

Try the exercise below to explore your paints.

The colour wheel

The colour wheel is useful to use to help plan your paintings and mix your colours.

Watercolour colour wheelThe colours that sit next to each other on a colour wheel are ‘harmonious’, like a rainbow, when placed next to each other they create a pleasing effect.

The colours that are opposite to each other are opposite or ‘complementary’ colours. They are not harmonious when placed next to each other, in fact the effect can be jarring or clashing.

The colours on the left hand side of the wheel are ‘cool’

The colours on the right hand side of the wheel are ‘warm’

Cool colours tend to have the effect of moving backwards and looking further away, and warm colours appear closer.

Colour mixing

You can mix most of the colours you need from this small list at the top of the page using colour theory.


Red, Yellow and Blue are the primary colours.

By mixing the primary colours, you can obtain the secondary colours of orange, purple and green.


If you mix all three of the primary colours, you will get a range of browns and greys depending on the quantities of each colour that you use.


Mixing complementary colours

As the range of browns and greys possible from mixing all of the primary colours can vary so much, it’s worth making a colour line to see the range available.
You can do this by trying each primary colour with its complementary colour because its complementary colour is always a mix of the other two primary colours:

Primary Colour Complementary Colour
Red Green (Mixture of Blue and Yellow)
Yellow Purple (Mixture of Yellow and Blue)
Blue Orange (Mixture of Red and Yellow)

To make a colour line:

  1. Draw strips on some watercolour paper with your ruler and divide each into twelve sections
  2. Put a generous amount of red paint and green paint onto a palette
  3. Starting at one end, paint each division, starting from pure red, then adding a bit more green to each section until you get to the middle of the strip
  4. Starting at the other end, paint the bottom division with pure green and add a little more green to each section until you get to the middle

Repeat this for the other complementary colours.

You can do the same exercise with harmonious colours, for example yellow and green, or indeed with any other colours you choose.

colour line

Useful mixing tips

Here are some tips I’ve picked up whilst painting:

Yellow + blue + a tiny touch of red = sap green (a more realistic green for landscape)

Payne’s Gray + burnt umber = black (actual black maybe too harsh for your painting)

Watercolour colours

If you have a number of different varieties of a colour that you need to mix with another colour, try to use the colours that are closest together on the colour wheel. For example, if you want to mix yellow and blue to make green, use a cool yellow rather than a warm yellow (eg lemon yellow rather than cadmium yellow) as the cool yellow would be nearer to green and the warm yellow nearer to red. Here’s a few popular colours and their temperature:


  • Lemon yellow – cool
  • Cadmium yellow – warm


  • Cadmium red – warm
  • Crimson – cool


  • Ultramarine blue – cool
  • Phthalo blue – warm


Related posts

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This