Getting to Know Your Watercolor Palette By Angela Fehr

About Angela

Drawn to the eloquence found in nature’s simple beauty, Canadian watercolor artist Angela Fehr has lived in Papua New Guinea, the United States and Canada.

A self-taught artist, today Fehr lives with her family in northern British Columbia, Canada, where she is the home educator of her three children and celebrates the small wonders of our world in her vivid floral paintings and tranquil landscapes.  Not content with simply painting, Angela lives the creative life daily, scrapbooking, writing, painting nostalgic wooden signs and crafting with her children.

Original art by Angela Fehr can be purchased online here

Visit Angela’s Website to follow her creative journey.

Be sure to check out Angela’s Watercolor Courses Here!

Getting to Know Your Palette Part 1

These are the colors that are currently in my watercolor palette. I use mostly Winsor & Newton tube paints, and I squeeze them on to my palette and allow them to dry. This makes my palette portable, and shortens my prep time. I also find I waste less paint this way.

Click Image For Larger View

Some colors here look quite similar – for example, the cobalt blue and ultramarine. They are different, but similar enough that I could probably use one or the other. I use about 3x as much cobalt as ultramarine, but I keep ultramarine in my palette because it is a granulating color and so it has a different texture when dry than cobalt. But I use cobalt for mixing with burnt umber to obtain my favorite gray.

Speaking of burnt umber, I really don’t like Winsor & Newton’s burnt umber. It is lighter than I am used to (not sure what my previous brand was) and also more orangey. I bought a tube of sepia recently, in search of a darker brown, but I need to make space for it in my palette. Maybe I’ll get rid of the Winsor Yellow light – I rarely use yellow, and when I do I use Gamboge or Raw Sienna. Not sure if Raw Sienna counts as a yellow.

My quinacridone and permanent rose magenta are also very close in hue. I will remove one from my palette, but I’m not sure which yet. I’ll check the labels to see which one is most lightfast, and which one is most staining, and decide from there.

I’m planning a part two of this post, showing a sheet where I’ve mixed all the colors. And a part three comparing staining & non-staining, opaque and transparent might also be a good idea.

If you are starting out in watercolor and aren’t sure what to purchase, don’t feel like you need to copy my palette. Get some basic colors and familiarize yourself with them. Make some swatch charts, one of pure colors like the one above, one showing gradation of each color from dark to light, and one mixing each color with the other colors in the palette. Then paint a lot and get used to the colors you have.

The paint colors I would recommend for a beginning watercolorist are:

Raw Sienna

Gamboge Hue

Burnt Umber

Sap Green or Hooker’s Green

Cobalt Blue

Cadmium Red Med. or Dark

Quinacridone or Permanent Rose

From these you can mix nearly every other color you might desire.

Getting to Know Your Palette Part 2

Click Image For Larger View

Color Mixing Chart for Watercolor based on Angela Fehr’s palette

Part two of getting to know your palette is all about color mixing. In part one you used water and paint to lay down a block of each hue, and if you did as I recommended, you went a little further and varied the ratio of water to pigment to gradate each color from dark to light, and are now familiar with the pure colors in your palette.

However, in watercolor (and perhaps in all painting disciplines), the artist almost never uses pure color – at least not in representational art. While pure Hooker’s Green will look phony and plastic for foliage, when mixed with a little red or brown, it rings much truer and more natural.

In order to know what colors to mix to get the hues you desire you need to experiment and get familiar with the results of different color combinations. With only a few colors, the combinations are vast, and I have used only six colors from my palette for the sample color mixing chart above. Click on the image to enlarge it.

I painted each of the six colors twice, once along the left side of the paper, and once along the bottom. Then I mixed each color along the bottom with the colors along the left, stopping before I started repeating mixtures or mixed a color with itself.

As you can see, some of the hues are pretty predictable, or are not too visibly altered. Some colors (like cadmium red) are opaque and dominant their more transparent companions. The interest is in the colors that dramatically change – like the browns created by mixing hooker’s green with the two reds. Used in its most saturated form, cadmium red and hooker’s green would make a great black, don’t you think? Like many watercolorists, I prefer mixing my darkest (black) values from two opposite colors, making a richer, deeper, more “alive” hue than using black paint.

Also, look at the green created by mixing hooker’s green and new gamboge. Another example of a color brought alive by adding another hue. Hooker’s green is a gorgeous green anyhow, but when combined with other colors it just gets better.

My standard gray is also here on this chart – the combination of cobalt and burnt umber. I’m not overly enamored of my Winsor & Newton burnt umber – it’s too light and orange-y, in my opinion, but it still makes a rich grey shade that I use frequently. By varying the proportions of burnt umber to cobalt blue, I get a wealth of grays, and when I have a little purple in my palette, I throw that in, too!

You can expand this exercise by mixing your palette’s colors in a variety of saturations. Try increasing or decreasing the water in the mixture to see the resulting color when lightened or intensified. Increased familiarity with color mixing and what each color can do will increase your confidence as a painter.


  1. Sarah Brown says

    Thank you so much for your posting, I haven’t been particularly tied to any one brand so I was completely unsure what my actual palette was and I was getting ready to spend some real dough on all new Da Vinci paints and was nervous I would choose something far from what I wanted. Thanks for shedding some light I appreciate it.

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