Blog / Tutorials

Beginner Watercolour Tutorial – Mixing a Wide Range of Colours with a Limited Palette


In this blog post, I’m going to go through

  • how I set up my watercolour palette
  • how I mix a wide range of colours using only 4 colours
  • how I’m able to use this to save some money, too.

So, if this sounds interesting, let’s get started.

First, I’ll start with a disclaimer. I’m not sponsored by any of the brands I’m using, and nor do I think they’re the exact brand you have to use. But the reason I use these brands is purely because they’re the only ones I’ve tried. However, the tips I’ll be sharing here can be applied to almost every brand, as long as they’re artist quality.

What Paints Should I Buy?

Now, artist’s quality watercolours are usually more expensive than student grade watercolours. But personally, I’ve found that it’s can actually be quite cost efficient to get only a few colours of some really good artist grade watercolours and mix the colours I want, instead of buying a full set of 24 colours pack but from a lesser quality brand. Also, I like to keep things minimal, so I don’t get decision fatigue whenever I’m painting. So if you find that you can’t afford to buy a lot of paint here’s what you could try.

See here. The cost of buying 4 colours from Holbein (the brand I’m using) is around AUD $60. Now you don’t need to get this brand as they’re quite expensive, but I personally find that it’s better to get better quality paint.

This may seem like a lot, as you can get a 24 colour student grade set for around AUD $25. However, the quality of paint would not be the same, and this would affect the look of your painting. Also, a lot of student grade watercolours are made with a lot of fillers, and therefore the colours are not as pigmented, so it would be a lot harder to get vibrant colours using them. Some student grade watercolours can be pretty vibrant at first, but the colours may fade with time and the painting might not end up as vibrant and bright as it was than when it was first done.

Also, student grade watercolours are not as lightfast as professional grade watercolours. Meaning that the colours would fade after a while with time, or with exposure to sun, which would become a problem if you’re selling your paintings.

Lastly, a little goes a long way. As you’ll see later what I start doing the calculations.

What Colours Do I Need?

showing 4 tubes of 15ml watercolour paint

So these are the 4 paints that I’m currently using to mix just about everything (although I do have more paints than these 4 in my collection, but for the purpose of this post, I’m only using these 4 paints, and to be honest, if you’re a beginner, they’re pretty much all you need in order to get started) So, if you’re starting out, you can invest in 4 to 8 professional artist grade watercolours first, and gradually build up your paint collection.

So these are the essential colours you’ll need, and I find that you can also get along fine with just these colours.

  1. A magenta
  2. A yellow
  3. A blue
  4. A dark brown

How Much Do I Spend Actually?

The 15ml paints I’m using, I’ve estimated that they would probably last for a year and possibly longer.
Now, say I paint 3 times a week.

There are 52 weeks in a year

52 x 3 is 156

$60 divided by 156 = 0.3846…

So actually, I only spend around 38 cents every time I paint. (i.e. 38 cents per painting session) And that’s only if my estimate is correct, because the tube of paints may last even longer.

Setting Up My Watercolour Palette

Now, you can pre-mix the colours you need first on your palette. And because watercolour can be rewetted even after they’re dried, it’s a really great way to streamline your painting workflow. It’s a bit like setting up your workspace if you were working digitally on Procreate or Photoshop.

So, you’ll also need a palette of some sort to hold your paint. And for me personally, I really like these ceramic wells. The reason is because paint flows really smoothly on ceramic materials, unlike plastic palettes, where they gather into these beads, which I really don’t like, because it’s so hard to see the colours on them.

So using magenta as red, first I squeeze a generous amount of the three colours onto the ceramic palette, then blending them with the colour that’s next to them on each side like this. And I do it this way so my ceramic palette becomes like a colour wheel. If you’ve painted digitally, either on Photoshop or Procreate, there’s usually a colour wheel where you can pin your colours from. Here, I mimicked that colour wheel on my palette.

traditional and digital colour wheels

Mixing Light and Dark Colours

So, using the concept as if I’m painting digitally. If I want the colours to be lighter, I would slide the colour wheel towards white. For painting with watercolour, to lighten the colour, I’ll need to add more water to it to dilute the paint, and the colour will be lighter.

The Colour Wheel – Why Magenta Instead of Red?

Ok, now you may or may not be wondering why I’m using a magenta instead of red, because aren’t the primary colours supposed to be red, yellow and blue? Here’s the reason why:

The theory is that all the colours can be made up from the primary colours, which are red, yellow and blue. But this is only in theory. It would only be possible if the pigments reflect pure red, pure yellow and pure blue, but there aren’t such paints around.

The yellow and blue I’m using a pretty close to pure yellow and pure blue, but for red this is really difficult, because most red paint on the market are either closer to warm red, or cool red in their properties. (And this is why printers use CMYK, M being magenta).

When using a red that’s warm, I can mix some really vibrant oranges when adding yellow to it, but I can’t mix vibrant purples if I’m adding blue to it.

But on the other hand, with magenta, I can mix it with a bit of yellow to create a warm red first, and then use the warm red to mix with even more yellow to create various shades of oranges. But I can also mix the magenta with blue to create lots of vibrant purple shades.

So this is why I’d suggest buying a magenta colour if you’re on a budget, because this colour combination is more versatile than the traditional red, yellow and blue. Or as you would for acrylic based-paints, where you’ll get a warm red, a cool red, warm blue, cool blue, warm yellow and cool yellow, which would be the colour combination I’d use if I’m painting with acrylics. But that’s a topic for some other time, as I’m not really familiar with acrylics at the moment.

How to Mix Muted Colours?

Before, we talked about vibrant colours, but what happens if I want muted colours instead!? Is it still possible with these 4 colours? The answer is yes 😀

When mixing two colours together that’s opposite to each other on the colour wheel, which are called complementary colours, you get a muddy colour. So for example, if you want a muted green, then you need to find the colour opposite to green on the colour wheel. So, the complementary colour of green is red, so depending on how muted you want your green to be, the more red you add, the more muddy the green becomes.

How to Mix Black

Ok, now the last thing I’m going to share today is how to mix black. My favourite technique for mixing black is to use blue and a dark brown. It creates a really vibrant dark colour, and you customise your mixture too. What I mean is, you can choose to mix a warm or a cool tone by how much blue you add to it. If your mixture includes more blue than dark brown, then the colour will be cooler, and vice versa.

And that’s all I have to share. I hope this helps you a bit, I also have a video detailing everything I’ve gone through here, so you can watch it if you’d like to see the colour mixing in action. And lastly, I hope this inspires you to create some really awesome paintings! Feel free take a picture of your palette and tag m on Instagram, I’d love to see your take on it 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *