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Why Did I Change My Palette Colors?

For many years, I used the colors and brands of watercolor paint that my instructors used. (Interestingly, each instructor had different preferences.) There were so many different colors to choose from I was unsure why they used some colors and not others. I didn’t worry too much about their color choices when I was just starting to paint, being more focused on learning technique, but as I gained experience, I wanted to understand why we used those particular colors. Was it just a matter of personal preference, or were certain colors better for some reason? Why?


‘Color’ became more and more interesting to me. I became fascinated by how many different ways there were to mix colors from the paint that was already on my palette. There was such variety! Yet at some point, I began to feel some dissatisfaction with certain black, gray, and green paints straight from the tube, and began to prefer my own mixtures. Unlike blends that I created from mixtures of often primary colors, some of these tube paints began to appear dull, flat, uninteresting, and lifeless to me. Other tube paints looked stark, strident, unnatural and out of place in certain pictures. What a revelation! I began to notice details that I had not been aware of before. And I was starting to feel unhappy with a few of the colors on my palette.


Why did some paints, like some of the reds, greens, and browns, look so flat and dull?  Everyone talks about ‘Transparent Watercolor,’ but what is it exactly? Are all watercolors transparent? And why is transparency important? How are opaque colors different from transparent colors? Where does the elusive ‘glow’ or luminescence of watercolor come from? Is it in certain pigments, or does it result from how the paint is applied? I decided to try to make my paintings glow!

As I studied and experimented, I learned more about the characteristics of pigments and how they behave. The issues were confusing! Some paints worked well in certain situations but not in others. Some colors mixed cleanly with others, but similar-appearing colors, when mixed with another color, turned into mud! Ugh! I realized that all watercolor pigments are NOT transparent or equal in intensity. All blues are not interchangeable. In fact, sometimes tubes of paint with the same name do not even contain the same pigments! How could one expect them to behave the same? And, further, some tube paints are not made from a single pigment but are mixtures of a number of pigments, each of which  has its own characteristics.


Jeanne Dobie, in Making Color Sing, describes how she makes vibrant, glowing color. She recommends transparent and pure color pigments as a base for your palette colors. To capture the ‘effect of light’ in watercolor, use transparent and single ingredient pigments! Jeanne says, “Because transparent colors permit the greatest amount of light to pass through to the paper, reflecting back to the viewer, they impart luminosity. Moreover, they remain transparent when mixed together – so there’s no mud!.. If you begin a watercolor with opaque pigments, you’ll lose the effect of light. Opaque pigments are denser and heavier, which greatly reduces the amount of light transmitted through to the paper. Because of this ‘thickness,’ an opaque pigment does not mix well with another opaque color. It only becomes thicker! If you mix two opaque pigments together, you are flirting with a muddy mixture. Should you mix three opaque pigments together, the result may be too lifeless to call a watercolor.”


Watercolor pigments are composed of several different types of materials. First, some pigments are made of ground MINERALS or EARTH. These have a tendency to float on the surface of the paper, whether transparent or not, and so may NOT be very good for mixing. (I think it is interesting that some mineral pigments are quite transparent — for example, genuine ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, raw sienna, cobalt blue, viridian, and manganese blue.) Second, some pigments are ORGANIC DYES. Third, other pigments are SYNTHETIC DYES. The dye pigments are NOT all transparent as one might expect, because some are combined with various fillers.


Gradually, I have added more transparent primary colors (red, yellow, blue) to my palette and reduced the number of opaque pigments. I have tried to find transparent colors made from a single pigment (i.e. ‘pure’, as Jeanne Dobie describes). I now have a wide variety of  transparent red, yellow, and blue primaries which can be mixed into numerous clear variations. I chose each paint for a particular quality; while some are very similar, no two are exactly alike.

On my palette, I continue to keep some additional “occasional use” colors that are opaque, such as cerulean blue, cadmium red, Winsor Newton Payne’s gray, and burnt umber. Many greens I mix from primary colors, but I have a few transparent greens on my palette. I removed any ochres and use burnt umber with care, as they are opaque. I like the siennas because they are transparent or semi-transparent, depending on how diluted the mixed wash is. While the above earth colors look beautiful when wet, they do seem to lose their richness as they dry, appearing flat and somewhat dull. (I plan to discuss the specific colors that I have on my palette in a later blog. Stay tuned!)


Jeanne Dobie also maintains that selecting pure transparent pigments is just the start. An artist needs to learn about color relationships to use the colors successfully – color mixing could be the subject of yet another, later blog post, perhaps. And, yet, there is also a place for the opaque colors on your palette. “To complement the pretty (transparent) colors” and to enhance their jewel-like tones, you need to use more subtle, “non-brilliant mixtures.”  Thus, my first discovery in the search for “GLOW” was that the glow begins with the use of transparent colors.

The second part of creating glow in a painting seems to be related to a technique called GLAZING. Most watercolor painters are aware that it is possible to paint one wash over another, a process called glazing. (The secret is to apply each wash, usually the lightest color first, to a THOROUGHLY DRY sheet of paper.) Now why would a painter want to do this? It seems like a lot of trouble! Is it worth it?

Yes, properly applied, layers of washes are what actually produce the characteristic GLOW of watercolor and a stained-glass effect that cannot be achieved by any other means. To achieve the much sought after GLOW FROM WITHIN in watercolor, an artist glazes layers of mostly transparent pigments. Pigments applied in glazes have MORE luminosity than the same colors mixed on the palette and applied in a single wash!

Once you have practiced your wash techniques and feel you are a bit proficient at them, here is the procedure for glazing:     1. Develop your glazes from transparent watercolors (eg. Indian yellow or Hansa yellow light, Winsor blue or Phthalo blue, Winsor red or pyrrol red).     2. Begin with your lightest pigment, usually a yellow.     3. Keep your washes DILUTED and transparent.     4. Make sure, VERY SURE, that all previous washes are COMPLETELY dry before a new wash or glaze is applied.     5. Use the most opaque paints toward the final stages of your painting. Using them in the initial stages runs the risk of creating mud or chalky washes. (I must give credit here to Don Rankin, who, in his book Mastering Glazing Techniques In Watercolor, gives these clear and simple ground rules for glazing.)


I now have more transparent pigments in my palette, fewer of the opaques. I try to employ the glazing technique with transparent color more often than I previously did. I like the effect! If you too are a painter who strives to find a way to have your work ‘glow from within,’ try what I have described above. See what you think, and let me know.

What I Wish I’d Known When I Began To Learn Watercolor Painting!

Some painting teachers start students at the beginning and show them how to mix a paint puddle and how to paint a simple flat wash. Other teachers show how to do all the techniques without explaining anything. Still other teachers just set up a still life and leave students on their own, but not even knowing what questions to ask. As a student, I have known ALL of these types of teachers. And I have to say, I have learned a number of things on my own that I truly wish I had been taught earlier in my painting adventures. I would like to share some of these tips with you here, in the hopes that you find them helpful.

1. Watercolor painting almost always involves LAYERS of paint. When I began to learn, I assumed as a painter you put down everything at once, and if you didn’t get it right, you were in trouble. Not true! Often, in watercolor, painters will put down a layer of color, let it dry, and apply another layer or partial layer of color. Gradually they build up part after part of the painting, for example, varying shades of color to add interest or emphasis. Shadows would be added to a painting in this way. It is important to let layers DRY before applying the next layer – this new layer over the dry layer would be one example of glazing.

2. With watercolor, you usually paint from LIGHT TO DARK, leaving the white of the paper as the lightest light.That means you really have to PLAN ahead – you need a very clear idea in advance where those light areas will be so you can either paint around them, tape, or mask (with masking fluid) over these areas to preserve them. It does not work very well to make up a picture as you go along or to change your mind in the midst of a painting (unless your intention is to create an abstract or a picture without realism).

3. You can fix almost any MISTAKE in watercolor! If paint is still wet when you notice a mistake, simply blot it up with a paper towel or tissue. If paint has dried, you can carefully re-wet and with a damp “scrubber” brush gently tickle the area and blot straight up and down (never rub or you will damage your paper) with a paper towel to lift the mistake. If paint has begun to dry (it’s damp), then letting it finish drying is best before proceeding to correct a mistake (in order to avoid creating “cauliflowers” or blooms).  Another correction technique that can dramatically change an area of your painting is applying another wash of color to your picture.

4. Always try to MIX A LOT more of the desired color of paint than you think you need. I would encourage you to double or triple the amount that you think you need. Don’t be stingy!! There’s nothing good that happens when you need to stop in the middle of a wash to try to mix more paint to match a color.

5. Always have “TEST” PAPER at hand to try out your mixed color and the technique you plan to use on your painting BEFORE you apply it to your painting. The color may look perfect on your palette but may look quite different when applied to watercolor paper. It’s better to check BEFORE a mistake happens.

6. There are several ways to add color to your painting – each technique creates a different effect. You can     A. Mix two colors (sometimes more) ON your palette before you  paint,     B. Mix on the paper or CHARGE one color into another on the paper itself, or     C. GLAZE a second layer of color (or more) over thoroughly dried watercolor paint.

7. When mixing colors on your palette:

 If you intend to mix a LIGHT color, it is quicker and easier to begin by putting some WATER on your palette FIRST, then gradually adding pigment to it until you reach the desired color.

If, however, you wish to mix a DARK color, dip into your PIGMENT first, only adding enough WATER to make your puddle of paint the desired vibrancy and consistency.

8. Many beginning watercolor students have quite a bit of trouble understanding how to judge WETNESS and its effects in watercolor painting. While experience helps you to learn how to control wetness,  even experienced painters need to follow the laws of physics. If painters try to fight the law of hydrodynamics and force the water to do their bidding, they will struggle! This rule is fairly straightforward, but it is not to be ignored. Simply put, greater wetness ALWAYS flows into lesser wetness. Use this knowledge, and you become a more successful painter. Use this knowledge, and your skies will be fluid and smooth, you will avoid “cauliflowers” or blooms, and your washes and glazes will not have hard edges.

9. Some paint pigments STAIN your paper. Mistakes made using staining colors are NOT easily corrected or lifted off. Staining colors are often transparent, bright and strong, so they are very useful. It is probably best to take the time to learn which of the colors on your palette are staining and which are not, so that you know what the characteristics of your colors are. Common staining colors include permanent alizarin crimson, permanent rose, phthalo blue or winsor blue, phthalo green or winsor green, winsor orange, quinacridone gold, winsor red or pyrrol red, Indian yellow, and gamboge hue.

10. If an edge in a painting is sharp or well-defined, it is called a HARD edge; it attracts the eye, which will follow along its length. If an edge is fuzzy or indistinct, it is a SOFT edge; a viewer’s eye is not drawn to a soft edge. Painters tend to use hard-edged details for the center of interest in a painting – painters do NOT want detail in every part of their picture. Thus, knowing how to create soft edges when you paint is invaluable! I use this technique in almost every watercolor that I paint. The technique is called “SOFTENING AN EDGE” or pulling out or fading out color. When softening an edge, you are NOT actually moving any paint. You are using water to encourage the paint to move on its own. Painters try to put just the right amount of wetness (not too much or too little) in the right spot at the right time to allow the paint to ‘sigh’ into the wetness. This approach works best if the paint area is very wet (just painted) and the brush is less wet (just damp). With the clean damp brush, try to lay a line of dampness down just barely touching the edge of the paint. Don’t go too far into the paint, or your brush will act like a sponge, soaking up and spreading the paint around – not your intention. You want to produce a smooth, graded effect – so instead, with a clean damp brush make additional damp strokes farther and farther from your initial stroke. The dampness makes a path for the paint to soften into.

11. Watercolor paint needs WATER in order to flow – paint will not move without the water. You can use this knowledge when painting to stop the flow of paint on your paper. In other words, dry paper creates a dam where paint stops moving (and simultaneously forms a hard edge). If you pre-wet part of your paper then apply paint to the wet area, the color will stop flowing as soon as it touches the dry paper.

12. The most realistic and interesting watercolors are not taken directly from a tube or pan! They are MIXED from a combination of other colors! Don’t try to buy every color you think you need! Many beginning painters DON’T WANT TO BOTHER learning how to mix colors themselves. They prefer to buy already mixed colors because they don’t know where to begin to create different colors or why they should bother. That’s okay in the beginning, but as painters become more experienced, they notice how hard it is to find a tube of green paint that is not gaudy or is the right shade for their grass or tree. They start to notice how a black straight out of the tube is dead, flat, and lifeless. They come to understand that since everyone’s skin is a different color, they can’t use the same ‘flesh’ tone for every person they paint. In the end, they also realize that making combinations of colors is FUN!

“I’ve Always Wanted To Paint Watercolors But Don’t Have The Talent.”

While watercolor painting has a reputation for being unforgiving and difficult, I believe anyone can learn to paint using watercolors. It’s NOT a matter of having some inborn “talent.” Painting well is A SKILL that is learned step by step, and it must be pursued with attention and effort. Skills improve naturally with PRACTICE. It takes time, and, yes, you may struggle in the beginning and be unsatisfied with your first attempts. However, keep practicing, and at some point, all that you have been learning will come together into a gorgeous painting.

I find that the ATTITUDE of each of my watercolor students makes a huge difference in their success in class! Students who become successful painters begin with a more open attitude. They try to relax, are willing to try new techniques, and accept that they have a lot to learn. These students understand that they are beginners. They don’t expect themselves to be perfect. In fact, they expect that they will make mistakes, that mistakes are inevitable. They are much more likely to ask, “What can I learn here today?” than to state, “Ugh, this picture is awful.” They keep trying, ask questions, and do not give up. No matter what happens, they keep painting. They understand that the more they paint, the better they will get. Successful learners are willing to try, take a chance, and not take themselves too seriously.

Believe me, nobody starts off as an expert; everyone begins as a learner. I can still remember one of the first paintings that I did on my own. I set up a still life that included a pair of old work gloves arranged on an antique redware milk pan. I had high hopes. I mixed my colors, and they were spot-on, but when I was finished and stepped back, what I saw looked like dead bananas on a huge pretzel bun! Very frustrating and disappointing!  It was, however, NOT the end of the world. I persisted and tried again. (I’m pretty stubborn.)

What do new students tend to get impatient with? Many difficulties arise involving students’ ability to judge and control the AMOUNT OF WATER used in mixing paint or applying paint to their pictures. Even executing a smooth and even flat wash can be tricky. SOFTENING or fading an edge well can also be challenging. Understanding how to avoid blossoms or cauliflowers also depends on controlling wetness.

Further, beginning painters often are disappointed when their paintings don’t look exactly like their reference photo or the objects that they have painted. But keep in mind: we don’t want a photograph! Painters with some experience strive to create an impression to express how they feel about their chosen subject. They SIMPLIFY, often eliminating some details while focusing on what they feel are the salient ones. They may emphasize lighting or specific colors or soften some edges to help focus a viewer’s attention on what they wish to have noticed in their picture. Keeping a painting simple makes for a strong painting!

I always encourage students to use QUALITY materials when they paint, as doing so makes success much easier to achieve. While many teachers recommend starting with student-grade materials, I think that is a mistake. Don’t buy the cheapest brushes, paper, or paint to try to save money. You will instead frustrate yourself!(Look for my post about what materials a beginner should look for, Help! I Don’t Know What Art Supplies To Buy!,, available July 31, 2018.)  On the other hand, just because materials are the most expensive does not necessarily mean they are the best.

Becoming a skillful watercolor painter does not happen overnight. When students make learning to paint a priority, they COMMIT themselves to the effort even when it seems that for every two steps ahead, they take one step backwards. They organize their lives to meet their goal of becoming skilled painters. They try to stop making excuses not to go to class or not to do the painting. They may at times feel unsure or afraid or discouraged, but they are determined to keep going. They promise themselves to finish what they start! And as time goes on, these painters produce better and better pictures. Their work becomes consistently amazing!

I really do believe anyone who has desire and the willingness to put in the necessary practice can learn to paint well. Give it a try! You CAN do it – one step at a time. Take a watercolor class, and you’ll get support and help all the way, AND you’ll have fun doing it. If you want to learn to paint, you can!