When I first started painting I went to the nearest shop that sold watercolour paints and bought one of those economical paintboxes which has a multitude of colours and a variety of cheap brushes and paper.I have learnt over the years that it pays to spend a bit more money. Buying cheap paints, brushes and paper really is a false economy.

My current paintbox has a limited palette of just 6 paints in it and I have 1 favourite watercolour brush. How did I choose the paints in my box?

Artists or Students Paint? Not all paint is of equal quality. Artists paints are the top of the range using the finest pigments. Artists’ quality contain a high proportion of good quality finely-ground pigments Student paints are cheaper, therefore they may have synthetic fillers and less expensive pigments. They can give good results but they will never be as good as the Artist range. Due to the intensity of the artists’ quality pigments and the purity of the colour, less paint is needed when mixing. You will give yourself the best chance of producing fresh, vibrant clear colours in your painting.  I want to give myself the best chance of producing a good painting so now always choose Artists Paint, often using Winsor And Newton. A lot of my paintings include delicate fine porcelain or flowers so pure fresh colour is very important to me. I would recommend choosing a few  carefully selected good quality paints rather than lots of cheap ones. I buy my pans individually and add them to an empty box purchased from Jackson’s Art Supplies.

Pans or Tubes? Tube paints can be kinder to your brushes and are easier to achieve strong, bold colours. However tubes are less convenient for painting outdoors or when travelling. I find tubes messier. I often get the lids stuck on and the tubes split. I therefore prefer pan paint as it is easier to transport and not as messy. I also waste less paint. My paintings tend to be fairly small and delicate in colour so pans suit me. If you favour large paintings and want to go really bold you may get on better with pans.

Which colours? My first paintbox had a myriad of pre-mixed paint colours in it. I soon found out that this is a sure way to create mud on the paper. If you have too many colours you will struggle to get familiar with them. The objective of colour mixing in painting is to create the largest number of options from the minimum number of colours and to be able to mix the colour you want. When you become familiar with your paints they become like old friends and you become passionate about colour and how colour can be mixed and used to create exciting results.

Edward Betts: `Nobody is born a colourist. You become a colourist only after many years of looking, experimenting and painting. And painting and painting.’

When choosing paints for a limited palette a bit of simple Colour Theory helps. In simple terms all we need is three primary colours to get us started. Primary colours are red, yellow and blue and cannot be mixed from other colours no matter how hard we try. I often pick 1 blue, 1 yellow and 1 red to produce a painting with a primary palette. Limiting the paints I use in a painting gives the end product a real cohesion. The more colours used in a painting , the more difficult it is to achieve a colour harmony. That is why if you use a lot of the colours from a ready made box you can end up with a painting that doesn’t work. The colours just don’t hang together. To be able to make a  Primary Palette work for you, you do need to know how the three colours will mix together. To this end I have devised a colour mixing book. Everytime I use a new variation on a Primary Colour Scheme I produce a chart to experiment with the range of colours I can achieve with the three chosen pigments. I am very systematic about this. To some this may seem very scientific  rather than artistic. However it really does help to know how your paints work and mix together. It is invaluable. If I want to mix a specific colour  in the future I can refer to my charts. Before I start a painting I try to work out which three primaries will give me the best range of colours.

To produce my chart I start  by choosing three primary colours  – a red, a yellow and a blue. On the colour wheel I mix two primary colours together in equal amounts to make secondary colours – green, purple and orange. It is amazing the variation in secondary colour depending on the primaries you start with.
I then do a line chart mixing two primaries together in varying amounts to create more secondaries. These are still a mix of two colours but in varying amount.
I then do another line chart. This time I take the secondary which is an equal mix of two colours and mix this colour with varying amount of it’s opposite color on the colour wheel. i.e I mix orange and blue, red and green, and yellow and purple. These mixes give a wide range of tertiary colours or neutrals. These mixes are invaluable for creating neutral shadows. Much better to use a colour you have mixed than yet another colour from your box.

Aureolin/Winsor Blue (Green Shade)/Permanent Rose Colour Chart

`Vintage Tea’  is an example of a painting I made with this primary palette of three colours –  Permanent Rose, Aureolin and Winsor Blue (Green Shade).  I chose these colours because  the permanent rose and a dash of the blue would create the pinks I needed. The fresh green of the leaves could be created with the slightly greeny yellow of Aureolin and the Winsor Blue. I was able to warm up the yellow with the permanent rose to create the cakes.

Vintage Tea

A Six Colour Palette is easier to work with. For reasons of simplicity, we are taught that the three primary colours – red, blue and yellow – are all that are required for colour mixing. In fact, in pigment form every colour has both a masstone and an undertone. Many people talk about warm and cool colours. This can be confusing. I have found red paint referred to as warm and yellow as cold. However I have also heard people called warm in colouring if their skin tone is golden but cool if their skin tone is more pink. How confusing!

Thinking of paints as having a masstone and an undertone is easier to understand.

A blue pigment (masstone) will have either a red undertone or a yellow undertone in comparison to another blue pigment. French Ultramarine is a red shade blue whilst Winsor Blue(Green Shade) is a yellow shade blue.

The undertone of each colour however, is relative to the next one. For example Winsor Blue(Green Shade) is more towards the red than Manganese Blue but both are classed as yellow biased blues.

So, red, blue and yellow alone are not the whole story and in fact six colours provide a wider base for colour mixing: a red with a yellow bias, a red with a blue bias, a blue with a yellow bias, a blue with a red bias, a yellow with a red bias and a yellow with a blue bias. The six colours I have chosen in my paint pallette are based on this theory.

My Favourite Six Paints

The primary colours I choose to work with are appropriate to the secondary I wish to mix. For example, if the subject I am painting has a vibrant orange colour in it I need a yellow with a red undertone so I choose Indian Yellow. I also need a red with a yellow undertone so I choose Winsor Red as it is more biased towards yellow than my other red. If I wanted to paint the secondary colour purple I need a red that has a blue undertone such as Permanent Rose. I also need a blue with a red undertone such as French Ultramarine. However if  I used Winsor Blue (Green Shade) instead I would not achieve the vibrant purple I was after. Winsor Blue has a yellow bias. If you mix the three primaries together you get mud . Therefore if you mix a red with a blue undertone with a blue with a yellow undertone you get a muddy, dull  colour as you actually have red, blue and yellow in the mix.

This theory has helped my colour mixing immensely. In my `Jubilee Tea’ painting I needed very specific colours. I wanted to stick to a traditional three colour palette, however it was impossible to get the colours I needed to make with just three paints.  The blue needed to be French Ultramarine as I needed a blue with a red undertone for the very specific colour of the china and the flags. I needed a yellow red for the flags and the flowers. However if I mixed a red with a yellow undertone to the French Ultramarine blue I got a muddy muted purple and not the vibrant purple blue for the flowers I wanted. I also couldn’t make the bluey red for the strawberry jam. I therefore added Permanent Rose as a fouth colour which worked a treat!

Jubilee Tea

There are many other choices to be made when it comes to paint selection eg transparency, opacity and granulation.The six paints in my palette are transparent where possible as I need to achieve light, bright images suitable to my chosen subject matter of vintage china, glass or flowers. However achieving very dark ,darks is therefore not easy. I will talk more about paint selection in future Blog Posts on `Mixing Colours for Flowers’ and `The Colour Green’. Colour mixing is so exciting and I look forward to sharing more of my colour experimentation in the future!


2 Comments on My Paint Box

  1. GRACE
    24th February 2015 at 10:43 pm (4 years ago)

    HI! I’m glad to find your website after looking around about watercolor painting. I really like your charts. What book do you like best for watercolor instructions, color mixing, brushstroke handling etc.? Thanks.

    • Patsy Smiles
      16th April 2015 at 7:43 pm (4 years ago)

      Dear Grace, I am so sorry for my late response to your questions. I have only just found your comment in my Spam Folder. I must admit I don’t really have a favourite book. I have learnt most by attending evening classes and watching the teacher. I have lots of books on my shelf which I refer to. However the only way to really learn is to get your paints and brushes out and keep on painting. My charts were developed after I attended a class with Rebecca Hind where she taught a lot of colour theory. I found this teaching invaluable. I am someone who tends to learn very visually. Although books help with technical theory I have never found they help with brush handling. The book I refer to for colour mixing is The Encyclopedia of Colour for Watercolour Artists by Jan Hart. Hope this helps. Best Wishes, Patsy Smiles


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