Picking My Palette

One of the most valuable practice exercises I’ve done lately had little to do with actual painting, but a lot to do with one of the most important elements of art: color. The assignment was simple. Memorize the colors on my palette.

Simple for many artists, yes. For me it wasn’t easy at all.

Like many other beginning art students, I had a mish-mash of different pigments, and even though I knew the importance of always keeping pigments in the same place on our palette…well, that advice was meaningless for me because I was going back and forth with different colors, never remembering from one day to the next which particular pigments I had on my makeshift palette. I sometimes used palette paper; sometimes I just grabbed a sheet of waxed paper (one advantage, I suppose of having my easel in the kitchen) and many times I just used a paper plate for my palette.

As I wandered through the realm of painting — both with watercolor and with oil — I often yearned to have my own personal palette, colors I loved, colors I used, colors which were part of me and my art. But how to choose? Where to begin?

I don’t think I can be faulted for having many different colors as a student of art. Each time I read a new book on painting, the author would provide a helpful list of must-have pigments, based, of course, on his or her personal preferences. One would insist on Cerulean Blue; another sang the praises of Ultramarine, and one made me crazy as I tried to figure out what Monestial Blue could possibly be.

And then there was my “demon green”. I’d been given fair warning that greens were the most difficult color to work with in painting. I quickly realized how true that was, but not before I’d purchased probably every green pigment possible. Viridian Green, Plant Green, Sap Green, Phthalo Green and more. I have them all. Yet even with all of those tubes of green, I still couldn’t get my trees and grasses to look the way I wanted.

I wasn’t good at mixing colors, so I bought secondary pigments, too, and of course, I was seduced by a few lovely-sounding names like Indian Red. Yep, I bought a lot of tubes of paint that I didn’t really need. Sound familiar?

Of course I spent time studying color theory, and although I learned a lot, mostly I learned how much more complicated color could be than I’d ever imagined. Cool reds? Warm blues? Yikes! It was overwhelming, so much so, in fact, that for a long time I mostly disregarded a lot of what I read.

Needless to say, my paintings suffered for it. My colors were off. I had no sense of color harmony in my landscapes. I didn’t fully understand saturation, intensity, and tones. So, recently I went back to my studies of color, and I’m paying a bit more attention now.

I made two color wheels — one using all warm pigments, and a second using only cool pigments. There is quite a difference, indeed. It’s was a good exercise for me to do, and it helped me choose the first basic colors that I would add to my personal palette.

  • Alizarin Red
  • Vermillion
  • Lemon Yellow
  • Cadmium Yellow Medium
  • Cobalt Blue
  • Ultramarine

I found a convenient little box and placed those tubes of paint together. Next, I added Titanium White, of course. We all have Titanium White, don’t we? And for earth tones, I followed one author’s advice — I don’t remember who it was — and included Burnt Sienna. I was on my way.

Over the next few weeks, I did more color exercises. First, I dealt with green. I grabbed all my greens and looked at them, then tossed most of them aside. I did have a Soil Green I liked, so I added it to my little paint box with the other tubes for my palette. Then I grabbed my yellows and blues and set to work mixing different greens.

Green Exercise
Here’s a look at some of the greens and blue-yellow combinations I tried. 

When it was all said and done, I discovered that my personal preference was a combination of Cadmium Yellow and Ultramarine. That would be my green, I decided.

After doing the same with reds and yellows, I choose an orange made from Vermillion and Cadmium Yellow.

For violet, I like a mix of Alizarin Red and Ultramarine. I rarely use violet in my paintings. Maybe later I will and if I find that this mix doesn’t give me the color I want, I can change it.

Before putting a personal palette together, I still wanted time to use different pigments and see what I really wanted. So, as I painted over the next few weeks, I added to my little paint box any pigments I used.

Finally, after a bit of time, I felt satisfied that I had found my personal palette and that I could stay with my chosen colors. That’s when I felt I was ready to buy a real palette, and that’s when I was ready, too, to complete that assignment about memorizing the pigments on my palette.

To make it easier for me, I actually wrote the names of the pigments on my wooden palette. Then I began placing pigments in place. I have them in an order that works for me. For the secondaries, I made a note of the mix to use. If you look closely, you’ll see that I’ve added another green combination: Cadmium Yellow and Cobalt Blue.

My Palette

Along with the usual primaries and secondaries, I’ve added a lot of earthy pigments:

  • Burnt Sienna
  • Raw Sienna
  • Burnt Umber
  • Raw Umber
  • Yellow Ochre

I’ve added Payne’s Gray, too, and since I had black, I placed it on my palette. Once it’s gone, I will probably mix my own blacks. I don’t use much black in my paintings. I also added a pigment called Ground White. It’s not shown in the picture, but it’s very similar to the Cream color you can see next to my Titanium White.

The most recent additions have been Rose Red and Naples Yellow. These, I’ve learned, are good for adding a slight color to Titanium White for highlights.

So, at long last, I have my own palette. I have my colors. Each time I paint, I learn more about my colors, how they work together, how they can be changed with the addition of white, how I can gray them a bit with other colors.

There is still so much to learn. As I continue studying color and applying the knowledge to my paintings, I hope to see definite improvements. What I’m learning and doing now is only the beginning.



  1. When I first arted my tutor a tutor at the Royal College of Art, told me to use three basic colours ultramarine alazarin red and cadmium yellow. Plus titanium white. He showed me that you can mix virtually anything from this basic pallete and he was right. One earth colour is reasonsble addition but certainly no greens or other colours you can mix. I have added cad red and cerulean blue but that is all. My advice is drop everything else and go back to basics as all the masters used.


    1. I do like having a “warm” and “cool” version of each primary. I know I don’t really need all those earth colors, but for now, it’s fun to have them all on my palette. I am sure with time — and as I evolve as a landscape artist — I will whittle the palette down to fewer pigments. The primaries you mentioned are the ones I use most frequently. I like mixing cad yellow and ultramarine for my greens, and alizarin with ultramarine for my violet. For orange, though, I do like using a bit of vermillion instead of the alizarin. I’m learning more about colors every day, and I appreciate all the advice and suggestions. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with me.


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