• Irit Landgraf

Choosing Colors For A Watercolor Painting

Hey everyone! Today’s topic is a much requested one. I will be talking about my top tips on choosing colors for a painting.

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I originally recorded this as a video, but the transcript is also brought here for you to read if you prefer. Either way you choose, enjoy!

If you’re new here, welcome! My name is Irit and I am a watercolor and mixed media artist. If you want to know more about my art jouney, read this. I think watercolors are the most beautiful of painting mediums and they have a calming and therapeutic effect. Color is definitely an obsession of mine, and one of the most important elements influencing how I feel about a piece of art, whether it is my own or another artist’s. If you are interested in the theory, color theory, I highly recommend reading Stephen Quiller’s book, Color Choices, the best I have found that deals with this topic and explains it clearly. I don’t want to teach color theory because others do it much much better. What I want to offer you is my approach to color and what works for me. Before we get into the details, I ask you not to focus on the what, the products, the colors I choose, but instead, focus on the why and how. How does color make you feel? Let’s start by establishing the premise that we do not have to paint what we see. I understand that matching colors exactly to how they are in real life is a skill in its own right, but depicting reality is not my goal in my paintings. I do not want to capture what is, but rather paint what I imagine. You will see this attitude to varying degrees in other artists work. If you are watching this video, I assume you are not bound to laws of nature, but rather the laws of beauty. And beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Or the artist.

Loose modern floral
warm autumn mood

That leads me to my first tip. Tip #1 Choose colors you love. This is the beginning and the end. How to get there? Well that’s the journey of learning what kind of artists we are. If you do not experiment, you will not know. Without self reflection and examination you will not figure it out. It has taken me years to get a sense of my own color story and signature color palette, and by the time I figure something out, I find my artist soul has gone on and fallen in love with another color. You are free. Free to paint pink skies and blue cats. Great, you’re telling us there are no rules. Anything is possible, right? That’s hardly helpful. I admit I have been thinking about writing my view on this topic for a long long time, and I keep trying to find rules. Rules help us not be overwhelmed and give us some security. Maybe If I follow the rules my painting will turn out great! I think there are rules, but each artist has to figure out how to make them work for their personal aesthetics.

mixed media watercolor rainbow flowers
Colorful sketchy rainbow flowers

I will walk you through my process, and the guidelines I try to follow, with partial success. I have found that the more I break my own rules, the less likely I am to end up with a painting I love, so for me, it makes sense to follow this process. I love many colors. I have many colors. If you love only 12, well then, don’t talk to me and enjoy your painting time, I am sure it is a lot less confusing and overwhelming than mine. So how can the maximalist, color lover, paint tube collector and sometimes fickle artist make some order in the chaos? Tip #2 Choose your color palette before painting. You don’t have to do this, and many artists have made many wonderful paintings without this step, I think. But after much experimentation and countless failed paintings, I believe this step can save you time and frustration. Also, this will encourage you to mix your own color mixtures and create unique colors, which is one of the best things if you’re obsessed with color, finding that perfect shade.

Tip #3

Choose an interesting color story with contrast

You want to choose a varied color palette. Each watercolor paint has several possible qualities: Opacity- opaque-semi opaque-semi transparent-transparent Granulation-non granulating- very granulating Separation (for lack of better term, I mean colors that once put to paper separate into 2 or more shades, like Daniel Smith’s cascade green, moonglow or lunar blue) Saturation- bright- semi muted-muted-neutral Value- Light-medium-dark Staining (less relevant for color choice, more to the behavior of the specific paint and the ability to lift it) How colorful, saturated, opaque or granulating your palette is, is up to you, but I highly recommend making sure you have a variety of values in your color story. Some artists say they don’t even see color, but only value.

watercolor color choices, color wheel
choosing colors

I try to tick all those boxes for maximum possibilities of CONTRAST and interest, NOT necessarily variety and versatility. Let me emphasize this point: This is not about choosing a setting up a versatile watercolor palette to use in multiple paintings, this is about one color story for one painting. Include light colors, or ones that can be diluted or mixed with white to be light, and deep darks. It absolutely does not have to be black. Or grey. Or brown. Without a dark color your artwork may seem flat and lack interest and depth. Without light colors it may seem heavy, dull and overworked. Choose interesting colors that granulate or separate, they will be fun to use and even more exciting to use for mixtures. So how to pick colors? How many? I cannot give you a clear answer. I find I usually start with five to eight colors. So Which colors to pick? Now that is THE question! Don’t ask me which pink to use, cause I will answer with my own questions immediately, which pink do you love? Try to pick colors that cause a visceral reaction, and hopefully a positive one! Colors that make you happy and excited to paint with. If you’re not feeling it, keep searching! Grab a dot card, look at all the colors and start figuring out which ones are your colors. Try and verbalize how you feel about each colors, take notes. Be specific. Personally I have found I enjoy the use of secondary and tertiary colors and the beauty of semi neutrals. I like my pinks bright, my yellows warm and even opaque at times, my semi neutrals in the peachy coral area, my violets more pink than blue, my blues more red than yellow. My turquoise cobalt, my greens earthy and yellowish. My darks granulating and cool.

Watercolor modern florals
Colorful Loose Floral

All this I have learned through trial, error, observation and experimentation. I keep a record of my successful combinations, which saves me a lot of time when I just want to sit and paint. I encourage you to find clarity when it comes to how you feel about color. A great educational accessory is the color wheel. I have found that creating my own color wheel with my colors and mixtures helped me find that clarity. Over time, my preferences change, but from day to day, I seem to be pretty consistent. This is not about right or wrong, this about you. What do you love? What speaks to you? Which colors make your heart sing? Here is my chosen palette- Daniel Smith Buff titanium- light, semi opaque, neutral Holbein Bright rose- bright, transparent, saturated Lukas Naples yellow red- semi or slightly muted, semi opaque Daniel Smith moonglow- dark, granulating, separating, muted Van Gogh dusk yellow- dark, earthy, granulating, separating, muted

Let's analyse this color story. The most popping color is the bright rose, followed by a slightly muted and semi opaque yellow orange, the Naples yellow red. This allows me to mix beautiful pinks, corals and peaches. If you prefer transparent colors, a good substitute here would be something like Quin Gold or Nickle Azo yellow, very popular picks in my palette. These are my star colors, they will be the most saturated ones.

The other colors will mostly play a supporting role, but choosing wisely assures I will have interesting semi muted, muted and neutral colors, lively darks and muddy yet pretty highlights.

For my darker values I added Moonglow and dusk yellow. Not only are they dark, but they separate and granulate in fascinating ways. Look at the neutrals and semi neutrals I mix with them, you will not find that out of tube. I love playing with light pastel highlights, and so buff titanium is a fun color to include.

This color story leans pink and orange, with dark muted violets or purples and warm earthy greens. It is a rather limited palette, but in no way boring.

We have complementary colors, the pink and green, yellow and purple. Darks and lights. Granulation, separation, transparent and opaque, bright and muted. It has everything.

watercolor color choices
hand drawn color wheels

Something about this particular presentation of the color story works so well for my visual memory. It really doesn't matter if the colors are not accurate as the colors on a traditional or reference color wheel, which I use all the time, by the way.

It not only allows you to see which mixes you can create, but also where they land on the wheel, and where the general weight of your colors story is. It is a real eye opener. You may think you love color only to find out you actually really love very specific colors.

Presenting my color stories this way also helped me understand that I can use many colors and reach a satisfying harmonious result, if I add colors that belong to area already “taken” in my color wheel. It's the introduction of new colors outside that area that led to and imbalance most times.

For example, if I had a warm color story mostly leaning pink peach yellow and some earthy yellow greens, adding a saturated yellow or even more neutral blue really offset the whole palette. In my eyes. Don't forget that part. In MY EYES.

That doesn't mean you cannot create a color story that works also with "outsider" colors as I call them. They can be introduced into the palette as part of a mix with an existing color. They can also never appear in their pure form. That is a very common technique used by many artists, especially those that prefer working with a mostly primary basic palette.

However, I found it easier for me, especially with having so many colors at my disposal, to stay within that first color story, and if I want to add more interesting colors, I can certainly do that, within those boundaries.

Let's explore a few more examples.

daniel smith moonglow lunar earth cascade green nickle azo yellow holbein bright rose
warm and granulating palette

In this color story, I chose again Holbein's bright rose as my main pop.

However this time my yellow is transparent and more saturated than before, with Daniel Smith's Nickel Azo yellow. My oranges and pinks are more saturated, which frankly, is not a must for me. Again we have moonglow.

This palette however is more colorful than the previous one. Instead of dusk yellow, I included here Cascade Green, which is bluer, less muted and more opaque than dusk yellow. It also separates into an earth green brown granulation and turquoise, which is lovely on its own, and also creates the most fascinating mixtures, as you can see. I also added cobalt violet, which introduces another saturated color. For even more granulation and a touch of earth tones, I included Daniel Smith's Lunar Earth.

This is an extremely granulating palette, which I personally love. I know all the darks will granulate and separate to a degree, and I adore that effect. My neutrals will not be boring or flat. As you can see, this palette is on the transparent side, without any opaque colors. I can always add white to create some highlights or pastels if I see the need for it.

watercolor cobalt turauoise carmine naples yellow
Interesting semi opaque triad

The third color story relies heavily on almost primary colors. The only yellow used for the mixes is Naples yellow, I only added a little section of nickle azo yellow at the end, so it is not a part of the wheel.

I chose Van Gogh Carmine, Lukas Cobalt Turquoise and Schmincke's Naples yellow as my main most saturated colors. The mixes of all these are quite interesting.

Naples yellow is opaque, Cobalt turquoise is semi opaque and very granulating. Carmine is bright and transparent. You can see the beauty of the corals and peach colors appear when Carmine and Naples yellow are mixed, and then the murky light greens when naples yellow meets cobalt turquoise.

All three colors create interesting granulating semi opaque neutrals. What is needed here is more dark values.

As beautiful as these 3 colors are, without a dark, it may be hard to create a painting that is not flat. I may have been a little indecisive when it came to choose the dark colors... I love Lunar Blue, Moonglow and Dusk pink as options. Which one is best depends on personal preference and mood, but they are all dark, which is needed in this story, and all granulate and rather transparent, which means I will have again, interesting darks and neutrals that are alive and not flat.

Creating this color wheel does not mean I will use every single mixture made here in a painting. Not at all. It is a tool, to help me find clarity, hone my color sense and also keep a record. This is invaluble information, as there are endless possibilities of color mixes that are not documented anywhere once you go beyond the standard 2 color mixes.

french ultramarine bright rose Nickle azo yellow
primary triad watercolor palette

Here is another color story based on a triad. Rather traditional picks here.

We have Nickle azo yellow, french ultramarine, and yup, here we go again, Holbein's Bright rose. Franch Ultramarine is dark and ganulating.

This is a very colorful palette, which offers great versatility. That doesn't mean I will use all these option in a painting. You can see in the sketch next to the color wheel that there is no French Ultramarine in its pure form. It is there, in the violets, the darks, the neutrals, but not pure. On the other hand, we have in the middle of the flowers pops of pure yellow and pink. Since all three colors are transparent, I can add white for example, or buff titanium for the possibility of pastel or muted colors. It is all up to you.

This particular color wheel also helped me see what I don't like. Which can change tomorrow. But today, those purples next to French Ultramarine are doing nothing for me. The green I got right in the middle when mixing nickle azo yellow and french ultramarine is everything I hate in a green. The yellowish tones however are delightful, and I even like the turquoise I made here. The darks are lively, intense and granulating.

I know there are many seemingly close replacements for each of the colors here, ones you may have and love.

Nickle azo yellow can be switched with many other yellow, the Hansa's the cadmiums, indian yellow, lemon yellow if you're insane. Kidding ;) Kinda. Bright rose can be replaced with magenta, carmine, rose, or the much less attractive alizarin crimson. I'm kidding!!

My point is that I have tried so many classic, "must have" colors that did absolutely nothing for me, and I still bought them and put them in my palette because an artist I admired told me so. They worked for them, but not for me. At least not today. I hope you're starting to get my point.

French ultramarine can be replaced with phthalo blue, which does not granulate and will have different results. Cobalt blue, cerulean blue, prussian blue. You will find artists that swear by those colors. They all offer great versatility. That doesn't mean you will like it, or that you need it.

I get soooo many questions about which colors I recommend including in a palette, and I completely understand why people ask me this. I know I have searched online for the same answers. But I am here to tell you, you have the answer. You may not know which colors are out there. You may not know which colors make your heart sing just yet. But the answer is not online or in my recommendations, it is in you.

Irit Landgraf Art Modern Watercolor
Colorful Watercolor Floral

Sure, certain color choices can mean greater versatility, but if you hate purple and will never use purple, maybe you don't really need purple in your palette... At this point there will always be someone saying I use purple as a mixing color, it's great for mixing black or darks. I cannot argue with that. But after much experimentation, I know I can get to colors that I love also without purple. Or burnt sienna, or raw Umber, or insert whichever color you heard you must have in your palette and never really understood why...

The more you play with the colors you love, the more you will learn about them and how they play with others. If you want to introduce new colors, try doing that one at a time. This again, will allow you to get to know them better and see how they behave and mix with your tried and tested colors.

I am looking forward to exploring this topic more in future videos. Please share your experience with color play and color stories in the comments. I know we would all love to discover new beautiful palettes.

Be brave.


Thanks for reading, until next time, bye bye!

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