A Winning Starting Lineup

Q. Can you recommend a good, solid starting lineup of colors? I get so overwhelmed with the numerous colors on my palette. The more colors I work with, the more muddy my paintings get.

A. Great question! I totally understand what you’re saying. When you first start painting, you’re not even sure what to paint, let alone what colors to use. You usually wind up painting everything you see, often using your instructor’s palette. In time, you’ll discover a subject you love, and you’ll keep painting that over and over. Your palette will evolve with your subject choices. For example, you may find that you really enjoy painting landscapes, so you’ll be using very earthy colors. Or you’ll find that you love painting flowers and you are using very bright colors.

Because your subject choice hasn’t evolved when you first start out, I can only recommend that you have a good choice of all colors on your palette. I mostly paint landscapes, but have a wide variety of colors on my palette along with my earthy colors. My palette consists of 22 colors: permanent alizarin crimson, rose madder, cadmium red light, permanent yellow orange, permanent yellow light, cadmium yellow pale, lemon yellow, juane brilliant #1, phthalo yellow green, Winsor green, sap green, cerulean blue, French ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, Winsor Blue, permanent violet, yellow ochre, raw sienna, raw umber, burnt sienna, burnt umber and sepia. Each artist has learned over their years of painting what works best for them. These work best for me.

As far as how to stay out of the mud, there really is no lineup of colors that will completely protect you. Learning to mix colors correctly is the only thing that will help. Plus, mixing your own wonderful colors is one of the beauties of watercolor. There’s nothing more boring than seeing a color in a painting used over and over right out of the tube.

Mixing colors is an art in itself. You don’t need a class or a workshop to learn how—you just need to make a commitment to take the time and practice, practice, practice. In my Basic Watercolor Answer Book, Chapter Four, I discuss the beauty of mixing colors and how easy it really is. I give a few examples of how to begin, and show how to mix complementary colors. This is just to get you started. In reality the combinations are endless. I don’t think many beginners take the time they should to learn this skill. Learning to mix colors is mandatory if you want to be a great painter.

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