2 Ways to Set Up a Basic Color Palette for Watercolor Painting

Whether you’re just starting out with watercolor painting or you’ve been at it for a while, setting up a basic color palette with the most useful colors and your go-to ones is essential.

Why Set Up A Custom Watercolor Palette?

First of all, it’s incredibly convenient. Before you sit down to paint, you don’t have to wonder what colors you should use — your color palette will already be set.

Plus, you can customize your palette to your style and favorite subjects. For instance, if you usually paint flowers and natural sceneries, you’ll probably include a wider variety of greens than say, an urban sketcher.

Getting To The Know The Basics Of Watercolor Palette Colors

Check out this exclusive video, an excerpt from our Startup Project: Watercolor Still Life class, to see how instructor Mary P. Murphy sets up her palette. She’s demonstrating with Winsor & Newton professional-grade watercolors.

I take a slightly different approach using the Cotman watercolors from Winsor & Newton, which are my favorite. They’re more affordable yet they are still good quality and mix together nicely.

The Basic Colors

These are the colors I have found work best for my beginner’s palette or even a travel-sized palette for plein air painting:


  • Ultramarine Blue
  • Phthalo Blue
  • Cerulean


  • Viridian
  • Phthlo Green
  • Sap Green


  • Lemon Yellow
  • Cadmium Yellow
  • New Gamboge
  • Yellow Ochre

Reds And Oranges:

  • Cadmium Red
  • Alizarin Crimson
  • Permanent Rose


  • Burn Umber
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Sepia
  • Raw Umber

Swatching Your Color Palette

Whenever I get new paints, I like to swatch them on a sheet of watercolor paper alongside the rest of the colors on my palette. This helps you see what the color really looks like, since it can vary from the color on the tube.

It’s also nice to have this swatch page for future reference. This way, you can have a look at what colors you own, how they look next to each other and keep track of new additions to your palette.

To Get Started watching You Palette, You’ll Need:

  • Watercolors (either pans or tubes – I use a few of both)
  • A paintbrush
  • Water
  • A sheet of watercolor paper
  • Paper towel (to wipe off your brush)
  • Ruler and pencil (optional)

Artist’s tip:Use two different water containers. One for cleaning your brushes (this one will have dirty water very early on) and another one with clean water to pick up new paint.

You can swatch each color by doing simple brushstrokes on the page, which is very quick and easy. But personally, I’m quite detail-oriented, so I like to draw a grid with equally sized rectangles and plan where I will place each color, organizing them from coolest to warmest (blues, greens, yellows, reds and browns). I also make sure to leave extra empty spaces for future additions to my palette. I keep these pages as reference for whenever I’m painting, so I like them to be neat.

With this exercise, one of the many things I was able to notice is that the color Cadmium Red Pale and Cadmium Red are awfully similar on paper. You might be saying “well duh, they share practically the same name!” However, they do look quite different in their pans than they do once you are painting with them.

With this knowledge, I can now take one of them out of my palette and make room for my beloved Phthalo Blue, which didn’t have a spot in there before. From your swatches, you will also be able to compare things like intensity, value, transparency and temperature.