How to Set Up Your Watercolor Palette and More!

2 kinds of watercolor palettes
You can buy a palette or make one yourself – just keep reading!

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Folding palette with color sheet - photo by Deb Watson

Set up your watercolor palette with paint from tubes or cakes of color – arranged like the color wheel. Label your colors and/or do a color sheet to keep with your palette so you can see at a glance what each well of color is and what it looks like on paper.

Why You Need a Watercolor Palette

A watercolor palette is safe place to keep your paint colors in an organized way, so they’re instantly ready to use whenever you have time to paint. Just add water and let the painting begin.

Which Palette is Best for YOU?

Palettes come in many sizes and shapes, which can be confusing. Don’t let that stop you! Here are the two most common palettes that my students use, but any type you like is the perfect palette for you.

Folding Watercolor Palette

Plastic Folding palette

Many of my students use an inexpensive folding palette like the one pictured on the right.

Small folding palettes have small areas for holding paint and mixing, so they work best for smaller paintings – like 8 x 10″.

Larger folding palettes are great for bigger works.

They are very easy to take with you when you go to classes or out to paint with friends.

Larger Watercolor Palettes with Lids

How to arrange colors for watercolor palette - photo by watercolor artist and teacher, Deb Watson

For larger paintings or just more room to work, most artists prefer larger palettes with lids.

Most work well, just be sure you have flat areas to mix color on, not tilted.

How to Prevent Beading on New Watercolor Palettes

The beading will eventually go away on it’s own as you use the palette, but you can use a soft kitchen scrubby (not scratchy metal ones) to correct this problem.

Do not scratch your palette surface or use harsh chemicals!

Some students have used an old toothbrush and toothpaste successfully, but be sure to rinse all that off very well before using the surface with paint.

Making Your Own Palette or Personalizing Your Palette

hot glue used for color wells on palette - idea from award winning watercolor artist and teacher, Deb Watson

You can use a hot glue gun to make your own palette, or add wells or divide mixing space large areas into smaller areas.

I use an old John Pike palette. When I wanted more wells for color than my palette came with, I used my hot glue gun to create some! See the two wells I added on the left?

The hot glue makes a waterproof seal and can be easily peeled off if you not longer want it.

Using Household Stuff

Mentos tins or the small tins that Qor sample watercolor sets come in can make excellent tiny palettes with hot glue. Many students use these for painting while traveling.

Bottle caps make an excellent temporary wells for colors you’re adding or just trying out. I use hot glue on the bottom of a bottle cap to hold it in place on palettes, but once the paint dries, it can be easily removed.

How to Arrange the Colors in Your Watercolor Palette

Color Wheel

Arrange your colors like the color wheel – red, purples, blues, etc.

You Don’t Need A LOT of Watercolor Colors.

You can set up a good complete palette with as many or few colors/pigments as you like.

Most artists develop their own favorite palette – that’s what makes their work stand out. Most students start with a set of colors that have picked to work together well.

Here are the most common palette color choices:

  • Sets with a full range of colors
  • 3 primary colors (red, yellow and blue) mixed to give you the secondary colors. Soft and pretty triad: Cobalt Blue, Lemon Yellow and Quinacridone Red and Deep Color Triad: Phthalo Blue, Pyrrole Red and Winsor Yellow. (You can add Burnt Sienna to either of these.)
  • A warm and a cool version of each primary (Pyrrole Red, Quinacridone Red, Phthalo Blue, Ultramarine Blue, Transparent Orange, Azo Yellow)
  • Colors (or pigments) for their subject genre – floral painters want more vibrant colors, while landscape painters use more sedate colors.

Expert Watercolor Palette Tips

Watercolor tube paints from What do you need to begin painting watercolor - photo by watercolor artist and teacher Deb Watson

Fill each well with paint and label the well. Personalize as needed.

Mark a black dot beside opaque colors so you can tell at a glance which are transparent and which are opaque. (Transparent colors will mix into beautiful dark hues, opaque colors will make mud.)

Label your wells.

Use a permanent marker to label each well, even if just an abbreviation. If you need to change the labels, wipe the writing off with Mr. Clean’s Magic Eraser.

How Much Watercolor Paint Should I Put in Each Well?

FILL UP EACH WELL. Your paint won’t spoil in a palette. In fact, watercolor paint lasts an amazingly long time. The oldest palette I’ve seen was from WWII, and the colors were as vibrant as today’s paints!

hot glue used for color wells on palette - idea from award winning watercolor artist and teacher, Deb Watson

SQUEEZE YOUR PAINT IN A CIRCLE. If your wells are large enough and your paint more solid, squeeze your paint in like a doughnut or figure eight so you have a small well in the middle to hold water. This helps your paint reactivate quickly when you add water, as the water doesn’t run off.

TWO WELLS FOR YELLOW. Yellow is used up more quickly than other colors, plus it’s difficult to keep clean. By filling two wells, side by side, with any yellow, you can keep one for making greens and one for making orange, gold or brown. You’ll need to refill less often and spend less time cleaning up your yellow.

Video – How to set up a complete palette with only three colors:

Artists With Lots and Lots of Colors – Special Note

Organize by Pigment Number, Not Color Name

Artists who have tons of different colors always have many duplicates of the same pigment with different names. One student had seven tubes of PV19 (often called Quinacridone Red)! You only need one well (or at the most, two) for any pigment. (I do put a light and dark version of a pigment in the same well – one on each side.)

Check the side of the each tube for the pigment number. It will say something like PB (for pigment blue) with a number that tells you what pigment is actually in the tubes. (PBk = Pigment Black, PY = Pigment Yellow, etc.)

How To See The Tiny Pigment Numbers

Tip! – Take a photo of your paint pigment number with your phone and blow it up to read the fine print.

Watercolor pigment number on back of watercolor paint tube , photo by artist Deb Watson

Don’t be overwhelmed. You don’t have to give up any of your paints, or identify each one in the beginning. Just start with a few basic colors, so you can learn what each pigment does.

Where to look up pigment numbers is an older site where it’s easy to look up pigment numbers. Click the color and click the pigment number or scroll down.

On online art supply sites, you have to click usually ‘more information’ and/or go through several screens to find out exactly what they’re trying to sell you. I know, I find it annoying, also.

Deb Watson’s Watercolor Palette

Okay, I DO have a a lot of colors, but my palette is made up of mostly transparent colors. And I usually use only 3 to 5 colors for a water painting.

Different versions of pigments, like a light and a dark version (of course, they have different names) are kept in the same well, side by side. Example – Quinacridone Red and Quinacridone Violet are each on one side of my Quinacridone (cool reds) well. Pyrrole Red light and deep (warm reds) are also in one well. I mix my own greens as I need them.

  • Black – My own mix (Indanthrone Blue, Dioxazine Purple + T. Pyrrole Orange)
  • Dark Brown – Dioxazine Purple PV23 + Transparent Pyrrole Orange PO71 (This mix is sold under many names, but I make my own.)
  • Burnt Sienna PB7 – granulates and mixes well, especially for grays, semi-transparent (Note – Winsor Newton – their ‘Burnt Sienna’ is actually transparent red oxide (different pigment, similar color), so it won’t have these qualities.)
  • Quinacridone Gold PO48 – transparent, mixes well, makes beautiful greens
  • Green Gold PY129 – looks green but is actually yellow, transparent, mixes well, makes beautiful greens. Some very successful artist use this as their only yellow!
  • Yellow (2 wells of the same color) – PY154 or PY97 – bright, semi-transparent
  • Transparent Pyrrole Orange PO71 – transparent, mixes well
  • Pyrrole Red Light PR255 – opaque, warm red (leans toward orange)
  • Pyrrole Red Deep PR254 – opaque, warm red (leans toward orange)
  • Quinacridone Red PV19 or PR209 – transparent, cool red (leans toward purple) mixes well
  • Quinacridone Magenta PR122 – transparent, cool reddish purple, mixes well
  • Dioxazine Purple PV23 – very dark, transparent, mixes well
  • Ultramarine Blue PB29 – warm blue (leans toward purple), semi-transparent, granulates, lifts well, good for mixing gray or black (with a brown.)
  • Indanthrone Blue PB60 – darkest blue, mixes well, makes earth tone greens, transparent (I recommend it over Indigo)
  • Phthalo Blue PB15 – cool blue (leans to green), very strong, staining, transparent, also pretty light blue when watered down, mixes well
  • Cobalt Blue PB28 – medium value blue, semi-transparent, granulates, makes nice grays
  • Cerulean Blue PB35 – light greenish blue, opaque
  • Cobalt Turquoise PG50 – light greenish blue, opaque, gorgeous light greens with yellow
  • Phthalo Turquoise PG7 + PB15:3 – very strong, dark, transparent, makes great greens with any gold, brown or orange
  • Perylene Green (Paliogen black) PBk31 – very dark, mixes well for darkening colors, good for use in landscapes and portraits

Should I keep a sponge in my watercolor palette to keep it moist?

Essential Watercolor Materials - watercolor palette, watercolor paper and watercolor brush - photo by popular watercolor teacher, Deb Watson.
A sheet with color mixes is also useful to have!

NO! Sponges are mold factories and the moist, dark environment in a closed palette encourages any tiny spore to cover your paints. Plus dry paints are ready to go with just a little water.

What To Do With Mold on Watercolor Paints

Clean the top of your paints first with water to remove the mold, then with rubbing alcohol to kill the spores. Put your water dish in the dishwasher or toss it and get a new one. Mold spores float in the air so let your paints dry in a different room than where you had the mold and air out the room if possible.

Some watercolor brands are more susceptible to mold than others. Brands made with honey rarely mold.

How to Use Your Watercolor Palette

Student Paintings done in watercolor artist and popular teacher, Deb Watson's watercolor classes.
Great student paintings!

Once your palette is filled with paint in a nice arrangement and labeled, let the paints dry. When you’re ready to paint add a few drops of clean water to each color and let it sit for a few minutes. Then paint!

Mix your puddles of color in the mixing spaces, then test your color saturation on scrap paper. When it looks right, apply your paint to your paper.

How to Clean Dirty Paints in Your Watercolor Palette

If your paints are contaminated by other colors, wipe off the top of the paint where the other color is with a paper towel.

Do I Have To Throw Away Unused Watercolor Paint?

You can clean your palette after each use or use the leftover color for more painting. If you use primarily transparent color, you can pour left over colors into a small dish (like a yogurt container), one for each color, or just pour them all in one container. The colors will mix into a neutral gray or secondary color that you can use later.

How to Mix A Thick, Well Saturated Wash of Color

watercolor painting of rabbit with dark background

If you want to mix a well saturated wash – add a few drops of clean water to your paints and let it sit a few minutes. Then use a scrubbing brush to get enough of the softened paint to make the wash.

If that isn’t enough, mix a thick wash with fresh paint right from the tube. Put the fresh paint in the correct well on your pallet if you have extra.

I could say things with color that I couldn't say any other way - Georgia O'Keefe