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Starter Colors

Recommended Watercolor Starter Colors

If you ask 100 professional artists which colours you should buy to start with you will get 100 different answers. Some will be based on colour theory, some on instinct or experience. Here is my choice; not every colour you will ever need, but certainly enough to tackle any subject and get you started. I do not recommend buying a huge set of 20 or 30 colours. Too many colours when starting out can just be confusing. Both Pan (Block) and Tube colours can be bought individually and fitted into a box. When you have got to know your colours you can add more later:



Lemon Yellow  (Cool, tends towards green)

Cadmium Yellow (warm/mid yellow, slightly opaque)

Permanent Rose  (cool pink,  good for pinks and purples)

Cadmium Red  (warm scarlet red)

Cerulean Blue  (useful light blue, weak, granulates)

Ultramarine Blue  (tends towards purple,granulates)

Raw Umber  (light cool brown, weak)

Burnt Umber  (rich dark brown, very strong)

Payne’s Grey  (blue grey, very strong)

Yellow Ochre  (mustard coloured, granulates)

This list contains a warm and cool version of each of the primaries, enabling the mixing of orange, green and purple. Mixing these colours yourself will teach you far more about colour than buying a tube of them. It also contains several useful earth colours.  White is not needed for watercolour painting and black only very rarely.  Tube greens are often harsh and unnatural; much better results are achieved by mixing blue and yellow. The names of paint colours may vary between brands, but art shop staff will be able to recommend similar colours if asked for help. 

Some basic uses for your new paints:

Lemon Yellow:

Mix with Cerulean for bright Greens and Turquoises
Mix with Ultramarine for darker more muted Greens
Mix with Cadmium Red for bright Orange

Cadmium Yellow:

Mix with either of your blues for warmer lime Greens

Cadmium Red:

Mix with Yellow Ochre to make a fabulous pumpkin Orange

Permanent Rose:

Mix with Cerulean for soft Lilacs
Mix with Ultramarine for Purple
Just add extra water to make pink
Mix with Paynes Grey for storm cloud Purple

Cerulean Blue:

Perfect for sunny skies
Mix with either yellow to make clear cool Greens

Ultramarine Blue:

Perfect for mixing purples when added to Rose
Will make a muted natural Green when added to any Yellow

Yellow Ochre:

Makes warm, muted Olive Greens when mixed with blue
Mix with varying quantities of Raw umber to get Sandy colours

Burnt Umber:

Rich strong brown good for tree trunks
Add Paynes Grey to cool it down and make the colour of ‘British’ soil!

Raw Umber:

Add a touch of Paynes Grey and a lot of water to make a soft, driftwood grey
Perfect for painting light coloured wood

Paynes Grey:

Has so much blue pigment you can mix muddy greens by adding yellow
Watered down it is the perfect shadow colour for sun on a white building



Combine any three primaries (Red/Pink, Yellow, Blue) and you can make a range of muted browns, skin tones and greys.


To mix secondary colours (Green, Orange, Purple) use these mixes:

Green: Any blue including paynes grey (as it contains a lot of blue pigment) plus any Yellow will make some form of Green

Orange: Any Red including Rose, Madder etc plus any Yellow including Yellow Ochre will make some form of Orange


Purple: Any Blue including Paynes Grey (as it contains a lot of blue pigment) plus any Red, particularly Rose shades will make some form of Purple


To lighten a colour add more water, not white


For white areas just leave the paper unpainted (this is known as reserving your lights)

Watercolours are transparent, you cannot paint light colours over dark, for this reason always work from light to dark


Make a colour chart, you can’t tell what your paints look like until they are on a piece of paper!

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