Saturday 3 September 2016

An Urban Sketching watercolour palette with Daniel Smith watercolours

I am often asked what colours to buy to start painting with watercolour. I created an 'ultimate mixing set' to address this question - a palette of 15 colours that will be suitable for mixing any colour and painting just about anything, and a book that shows how to mix them.

They are a great set for anyone, but this time I wanted to look more specifically at those who are urban sketching, and who may be new to watercolour. They are painting a largely man-made urban world and looking for a compact and portable palette. I also wanted to focus on more forgiving colours than the phthalos which are powerful and staining, so can be a little scary for beginners, though they are wonderful :-)

Here is a suggested 12 colour 'starter' urban sketching palette using Daniel Smith watercolours. I am focusing on the colours that are available as 5ml tubes and/or watercolour sticks so that the initial investment is not too high - then it is easier to get started with wonderful artist quality watercolours rather than student ranges. I'll look at other brands in separate posts.

This set of 12 contains a fairly classic bright split primary palette with an emphasis on transparent or semi-transparent colours that are non-staining so it is very forgiving - you can lift off 'mistakes' if you need to!

There is a cool and a warm yellow, then a warm and a cool red, then a warm and a cool blue. All are transparent or semi-transparent so your carefully drawn pen or pencil lines won't be covered when you paint - an important consideration for sketching.

This particular sap green is a very useful and realistic convenient green straight from the palette. It can be further neutralised with the addition of either of the reds or burnt sienna for more olive greens. Or it can be warmed further with either of the yellows, or cooled down with the blues. Other greens can be mixed with the blues and yellows.

Then there are the earth colours, which help to speed up your painting and create the colours you need for building materials and even skin tones - the yellow earth - yellow ochre; an orange earth - burnt sienna; and a deep cool earth - raw umber.

Suggested 12-colour starter set of Daniel Smith watercolours
Buff Titanium is an unbleached white pigment. It is perfect for creating the look of marble (with Jane's Grey) or sandstone (with yellow ochre and burnt sienna) and also for skin tones or pastel hues. It is a colour and texture exclusive to Daniel Smith and one of my favourite urban sketching pigments.

These colours can be bought either as sticks, 5ml tubes or 15ml tubes. Some, though not all, are available in all forms. Making half pans from the Daniel Smith watercolour sticks is very efficient and cost effective, as you can just cut 1/6 (or 1/5 if you want it really full) off the stick and press it into the half pan - no need to let it dry overnight like tube colours. They re-wet just like regular pan watercolours when you are painting. Then you still have the rest of the stick to draw with if you wish, or make some spare pans for extended travel. I would put a drop or two of distilled water in the bottom of the pan to soften the paint if you are in a very dry environment so the stick wedges into the pan perfectly.

* The watercolour sticks are all one price, regardless of the series number. Consequently they are a very affordable way to purchase series 2 or higher watercolours to make up into palettes. The pigment load is 1.6 times the tube colours and they contain no chalk or fillers.

The final colour has to be made with tube colours - it is a mix of the burnt sienna and ultramarine to make the very convenient 'Jane's Grey'. Instructions on mixing this here.

*The Daniel Smith Essentials set of 6 x 5ml tubes could certainly be used in this palette, then add Cerulean Chromium along with the other colours so you have a non-staining cool blue for creating skies anywhere in the world with or without mixing with ultramarine. New gamboge and hansa yellow deep are almost exactly the same bright warm yellow colour.

The Schmincke 12-colour metal sketching palette
set up with 12 half pans of Daniel Smith watercolours.
This is the Schmincke palette, available empty, designed to hold 12 colours, but you can easily add another 2 into the metal holding plate. A very similar version is also available for around US$15 or AU$25 (Art Basics from Art Scene in Australia.)

This gives you the option of adding 2 more of your own chosen colours at some time - another blue, such as phthalo blue; a deep green such as perylene green, a convenience orange such as quinacridone sienna; an earth red such as Indian red (which is excellent for brickwork and certainly one I'd add), a convenience purple such as Imperial purple - whatever you wish. I also love the mixing pair phthalo green and pyrrol crimson or Undersea green for Australian foliage. The point is, it's up to you.
Possible additional colours to personalise a 14 or more colour palette

A metal 12-pan palette st up with 14 half pans

Here I have set it up with space for perylene green (or phthalo green, or undersea green) and Indian red (or burnt umber). The half pans can be moved around easily, or stuck more firmly into place with blu-tac or you can stick magnetic strips to the bottom of each pan. 
If your collection grows, as they often do, the whole internal metal tray can be removed so either 18 half pans and a travel brush, or 24 half pans, or a mix of whole and half pans can be added to create a personalised palette. You can see a lot of other palettes on my website here.

Happy sketching!


  1. Hi Jane, Love, love your posts!!! FYI... I have been using DS Quinacridone Burnt Orange in place of Burnt Sienna for years now. Burnt Sienna is a beautiful color when wet but it dies when it dries. DS QBO keeps it's vibrancy! I'm a big fan of limited palettes and rarely have more than 9 colors in my kit for plein air sketching. I had the same idea about using DS watercolor stick pieces in the pans - so portable! I also use DS Quin Gold as my warm yellow.

    1. DS Quin Burnt Orange is a gorgeous colour. I also love their Transparent Red Oxide - similar in hue but with perhaps more power and crazy granulation :-) The W&N burnt sienna made with PR101 and is also brighter, non-granulating and rather like PO48. For many, that is what they expect burnt sienna to look like.

      What I like about the DS Burnt Sienna, and why I find it so useful in a palette, is that is waters down the very useful skin tone where the others would be too orange. It also makes my perfect Jane's Grey :-)

      There are many options for that orange/orange earth spot in a palette, from a bright single pigment or mixed orange through to a burnt orange, a transparent red oxide to a burnt sienna or even a burnt umber. (for anyone not familar with these colours, have a look here - They can each be so useful alone or mixed with whatever blues you also choose to have as their comlementary. For this palette, I thought it best to suggest the classic PBr7 Burnt Sienna pigment - after that anyone can make their own personal choice :-)

      DS Quin Gold is also my personal choice for a warm yellow and one of my favourite DS colours. But I am suggesting a classic bright warm and cool yellow for this palette rather than my choice of a mid and neutralised warm. Nickel Azo Yellow and Quin Gold would also be in interesting pair of yellows. There are so many options, and I load my website with lots of other options, but I wanted to suggest a very workable urban sketching set to get going since such a thing is not available in the market...yet.

  2. Hello, I know this article is little old but I'm curious and figured you would be the best person to ask. So, if I wanted to get together a watercolor palette one day of specific colors and with some being more expensive than others I was wondering if it is possible to substitute these with their stick equivalent? Basically, would it be okay mixing watercolor paint from tubes with the sticks? Is it just specific for getting James grey, or do I have to stick with all tubes or mostly sticks?

    1. Yes you can certainly use some colours from tubes and some from sticks. The sticks are the same thing, just dryer.
      Not every one of my suggested colours comes in a stick though. Some do, some have similer colours available in stick form and some are simply best from a tube. To make Jane's Grey you need a tube of ultramarine and a tube of burnt sienna so you can mix them in the pan while wet. Raw umber isn't available in stick form, nor is quinacridone rose, though for that you could substitute a quinacridone red stick. Equally you could use organic vermilion in stick form instead of Pyrrol scarlet, though I do prefer Pyrrol scarlet.
      Have fun :-)

  3. Jane, I am curious why you placed your cool yellow in the top row with your warms, and the warm yellow in the bottom row with the cools. I am slowly beginning to learn my own likes and dislikes and have just been hit with a class list for an upcoming watercolor workshop that will introduce me to some new my sister just sent me a set from Daniel Smith. I need to learn a logical way to work with these colors and find your discussions are a great help, but why the reversals of the yellows?

    1. I didn't place the cool and warm colours together. If you were to line up the 12 colours in a row, they would flow like a rainbow - lemon yellow then orange-yellow then orange-red then purple red then purple blue then green-blue then green, then through the earth yellow then earth orange then deep brown then the lightest (buff titanium) and the darkest (Jane's grey). But I then put the yellows together followed by the reds in the next column then the blues, then the green, then the earths. As I usually mix warm and cools together I don't bother organising them that way. Hope that makes sense.

  4. Hi Jane, what is the best way to store pans filled with colours not used on a regular basis and therefore not normally included in the palette ? They are either Daniel Smith or Winsor & Newton paints. I would still like to have them with me when I am travelling.

    1. In addition to my sketching palette, I have a 'Pocket Palette' with an additional 14 pigments that I love for special purposes. It is very slim and light so doesn't add bulk or weight. More about it here
      If you already have the watercolours in half pans, consider getting a small tin and either attach them with blu-tac or get some magnetic strips and attach to each pan. If you are carrying extra colours, you don't need a palette for them, just storage, so you don't need anything complicated. You may even be able to use a plastic container or used sweet tin.

  5. Jane I'm just starting and want to use a limited palette to learn how to mix and not become overwhelmed with lots of colours. Can you recommend a 6 colour palette please?

    1. There are loads of ways to approach a 6-colour palette - some are shown on my website here

      If you want to work with a split primary palette, I'd suggest Hansa Yellow Medium (or Light if you prefer) and Quinacridone Gold; Pyrrol Scarlet and Quinacridone Rose; Ultramarine and Cerulean Chromium. They are all great mixing colours and give you a very useful set of yellows, reds and blues to explore. You can create a great range of oranges, greens and purples with two-colour mixes using these colours but you'll have to use three-colour mixes to create earth colours.

    2. Thanks Jane...3 colour mixes will be good practice too :-)

  6. hi
    i'm just starting out and have decided (as my winsor/cotman pan set is getting empty) to switchto tubes. I picked up a set with split btw warm/cool primaries. I want to add a cool green (I have a sap green pan still).. is was considering phalo green but now am concerned it will be too much for my very limited experience. what would you recommend instead?

  7. Phthalo Green does need to be used with caution - it needs to be mixed with something so it doesn't stand out as it is such an unnatural green. Another terrific cool green is Perylene Green. It is made with a black pigment, but is a deep cool shadow green. It also mixes well with yellows to create other useful greens.