I am constantly asked to share the colours in my watercolour palette, but when you have this many that is easier said than done! I love to play around with different combinations, and I test new colours all the time, but this is my collection for 2018. I took this palette to Europe earlier this year, so they have happily traveled through Denmark and the Czech Republic. I wore through the leaf green and had to replace it, but the dents in the other pans give a good indication of how much they were used.

I should give a warning about my colour choices – I am NOT a traditional watercolourist. I know I SHOULD consider colour theories more, but I didn’t pick up a brush for about a decade after going to a “proper” watercolour class. Although I learnt a lot about how things were meant to be done, and about the difference that good art materials and brushes make, it left me feeling out of my depth. 

What I really love about watercolour is the freedom of just playing with colour – especially bright, jewel-like, rainbow colours. I don’t worry about pigment numbers, but I am interested in granulation for the interesting textures it creates, and I prefer transparent colours because they work well over my pen drawings. I know I should theoretically be mixing more, but my preference is to include a lot of premixed colours that simply sing to me. Some of them are included just because it makes me happy to look at them and apply a wash to a random piece of paper. I have lost count of how many rainbow washes I have made over the years, but they always bring a smile to my face.  My colour choices don’t all need to be very useful in urban sketching terms, because the joy of playing with them is the whole point to me. The hot pinks and magentas fall into this category. I can’t leave town without them 🙂

Having said that, I do smoosh multiple colours together in my palette, and dunk my brush in randomly to see which tone of green or orange or purple it will pick up. So although I don’t make efforts to mix colours in a traditional way, or think about it too much, I let my colours make friends naturally and see what happens. I love that surprise effect. 

Please remember that the pictures of my colour choices won’t be an exact match, because they will look different on different screens, and photography and lighting change things too. There is an infinite number of ways colours can change, so the pics are an indication only. 

I have marked my absolute favourite, indispensable colours with an asterisk*. The others are good but more interchangeable between brands.

The Watercolour Palette

The palette itself is a very old plastic Cotman watercolour palette that I bought in Australia around thirty years ago – showing my age here! It housed my very first set of 24 watercolours which were much loved, and gradually replaced with artist quality Winsor & Newton pans. This year I pulled the innards out and stuck my own mix of pans in with blue tack. The arrangement worked well for me. For once I could remember where I put colours, which worked well together, and I wasn’t accidentally mixing colours by overlapping my brush from one to the other. Sadly the palette has cracked, so its days are numbered. 

The sunrise colours – yellows, oranges and reds

My palettes always have to start on the top left with a bright yellow, as if it was the sun rising in the morning. It just seems “right”. Other people who know more than I do talk about warm and cool yellows, but I just think of brilliance and transparency. I think that having a contrast between light and dark is really important, so if you squint at each of my colour sets you can see how I have consistently put the lightest at the top, and the darkest at the bottom. These are my sunrise colours:

Holbein Imadazolone Yellow – It wouldn’t necessarily have to be this brand, but I love the brightness of this yellow and its transparency. Whatever else I might replace it with would still need those qualities. A lovely, sunny, gloriously happy yellow 🙂

Daniel Smith Isoindoline Yellow – A warmer mandarin yellow/orange. Not so transparent, but plays nicely with the Holbein Yellow and stronger Pyrrol Orange. I could obviously mix something almost identical, but it makes me happy. If I swap this it will be for something more transparent.

Daniel Smith Pyrrol Orange – A brilliant orange which reminds me of Buddhist robes. My sister used to say that when people grew out of all their other favourite colours they often settle on orange. I think she could be right. I LOVE orange with hot pink too – such vibrant friends. Only downside is that this is a little more opaque.

Sennelier French Vermilion – a lovely fire truck red (very important when my husband is a firefighter). Transparent. What’s not to like?

Holbein Crimson Lake – I like the warm pink tone to this red. It’s so rosy. And it’s transparent.

Daniel Smith Rose of Ultramarine – I could obviously mix these from my stash, but I heard so many love stories about this colour that I had to try it. Not sure I really need it, but it is very different to my other royal purples, and creates a nice dark for contrast. It can also be watered right down.

Pinks and Purples

My happy colours. Seriously. I don’t care whether the top two are EVER needed in urban sketching, but I just have to have them because they are stunning. Every so often I spot a flower in one of these colours, and painting that is like winning the lottery 🙂

*Holbein Bright Rose (luminous) – Surely one of the most brilliantly beautiful pinks in existence? This photo doesn’t do it justice, but it truly zings. I have explored Opera Pink in most brands, but then landed on this. It’s brilliant without being overpowering or quite as unnatural as Opera Pink (yeah, I know – blasphemy). Love it so so much.

*Holbein Bright Violet (luminous) – Another stunner. Rarely used, but I really don’t care. Worth its weight in gold for just sitting there ready to bring me joy. And every so often I find a geranium to match.

Daniel Smith Cobalt Blue Violet – I have always been drawn to blue-purples and I really like this one, but it admittedly doesn’t get many outings. Not sure if I’ll carry it next year, but I also know I’d miss it.

*Daniel Smith Carbazole Violet – A terrific dark purple, and before I discovered the joys of Indigo and the Neutrals this would have been my “go to” for dark shadows. Good for a lively dark.

The Blues

I rarely paint in skies any more, but I still can’t have a palette without a good variety of blues. Technically Moonglow might fit better with the purples, but that row was full and it wanted to be near my dark Neutral. Who am I to argue?

Sennelier Phthalo Blue –  A soft blue with good transparency, and it filled this spot nicely. Not essential though.

Sennelier Turquoise Green – I was really happy with this, but could equally have settled for a number of other bright blue/greens from other brands. It’s a bit opaque but it really sings when mixed with the Holbein Leaf Green – together they make a lovely verdigris  on those old copper domes. One thing is for sure – I will always include something like this in future palettes. 

Holbein Ultramarine Deep – Gorgeously bright blue which really speaks to me. Probably the most lively ultramarine I have found to date.

Daniel Smith Cobalt Blue – A nice blue, but probably too similar to the Holbein Ultramarine to include in the same palette again. 

*Daniel Smith Moonglow – Every so often I toy with not including this, but I think I have to give it its due as an essential. Fantastic lively colour for shadows, with its warm  and subtle purpleness.  Almost a comfort colour if that makes any sense.

Daniel Smith Phthalo Turquoise – A lovely blue green. I like to throw it in with the greens to mix up the tones a bit. 

*Holbein neutral – Wow what a discovery this colour is. It is an absolutely wonderful dark that fits beautifully with my cooler colours, and which waters down to a terrific soft shadow as well. I used this to paint a landscape of Danish houseboats and it was delightfully crisp, yet somehow compelling as well, and it let some orange highlights shine. My latest essential.

The Greens

I love greenery in general because I think trees, shrubs and flowers really brighten a scene and soften buildings. I especially love to see the light as it shines on leaves, and for this reason I adore my latest find, Holbein Leaf Green … but more about that below. If you look at how I have laid my greens out in columns, I see the left column all blending and fitting together nicely, with their more jewel-like blue-ish tones, but Leaf Green (top right) is interchangeable between both columns. The right column works well in another way, which I consider more “sensible” and closer to Australian greenery with an olive tinge. They also have more granulation, which is terrific for trees. That, at least, is how I think about it – but when it comes to the moment I just throw my brush into random pans and smoosh a mix into the palette. Then I dip in and out and see what happens and what blends together. So much fun! Following are the greens in my palette for 2018: 

Sennelier Phthalo Green Light – Impossible to spell (seriously – “phth”??!), but a bright emerald-ish green that goes well with the leaf green. Not an essential, and I could have replaced it with something else. Nicely transparent though.

*Holbein Leaf Green – Oh my goodness I love this brilliant yellow green and could almost eat it for breakfast!!  It is wonderful for bright highlights, and has saved me destroying my yellows while trying to mix my own. For me, absolutely indispensable! 

Horadam (Schmincke) Sap Green – Nice medium, transparent green.  To an Australian eye it feels like a European grass green, and handy for bright leaves. 

*Daniel Smith Green Gold – one of my ‘sensible’ greens, especially for an Australian as it has a hint of gum tree about it. Really useful, and smooshes nicely with the Leaf Green to take it in a more serious direction.

Holbein Bamboo Green – Just another nice green and I was probably getting excessive here, but was evening up my colours in the palette 🙂

*Daniel Smith Sap Green – I find it incredible how different this is to the Horadam Sap Green. Really useful colour with granulation, and goes nicely with the Green Gold. 

Daniel Smith Phthalo Green (blue shade) – I love a blue/green combo so this would probably stay even though it doesn’t get a lot of use. It is just one of my happy colours.

*Daniel Smith Diopside Genuine – A new colour for me, which ties my more serious greens to the brights. Very handy.

Vintage colours

I’m scratching for a way to define this group of colours, other than to say that I am most likely to use them for watercolours of old buildings, especially when we are travelling in Europe. I tend to think of them as the “grown up” colours in comparison to my usual brights! So maybe vintage, or earthy would start to describe them, although then I’d also add some of the more “serious” olive-ish greens, like a sap green or green apatite. For now I have kept greens in their own slot. The “vintage” colours that I carried in my palette this year are:

*Holbein Naples Yellow  – I love this colour as it is both soft and lively – lovely for some of those creamy yellowy walls on old European buildings. Last year I discovered the Winsor & Newton version, but Holbein has stolen my heart. It doesn’t seem quite so opaque and veers towards my brights without being overwhelming. Flat with no granulation, but it is my latest essential. 

*Daniel Smith Quin Gold – A classic in so many ways. A generally very useful colour, especially if you are lucky enough to be wandering around Italy. It is beautifully transparent, plays well with others, and ‘ll definitely be carrying it again next year.

*Daniel Smith Transparent Pyrrol Orange – A brilliant burnt orange colour with a lot of life. An all round good guy which is lovely and transparent (who would have guessed), and really holds my vintage colours together. A keeper.

Holbein Perylene Maroon – I just wanted a darker rusty red which would blend with the other golden tones. It didn’t have to be this one, but the transparency is really good when painting over pen, and it plays nicely with the others. 

Horadam (Schmincke) Titanium White – I like to have this for its gouache like effect, when I want to paint a dash of white over the top of other dried colours. I don’t want to carry around tubes. It doesn’t get used much, but is handy to have. Not an essential if I have my white gel pen though.

Daniel Smith Buff Titanium – I have carried this for a while for painting bulidings, but use it less now that I have the Naples Yellow which I can just water down, and which has more life to it. This is a useful, but definitely not energised colour. I’m not sure whether I’ll carry it next year.

Daniel Smith Raw Umber – I felt I should have at least one brown, and I like the warm tone of this one. Handy for drawing tree trunks without mixing, but it isn’t an essential. I tend to avoid browns, possibly because I was traumatised by wearing a brown school uniform for 6 years as a teenager!

*Horadam (Schmincke) Neutral – A warm neutral which is super useful. At full power it is almost black so provides a great contrast, but it can also water down to a soft shadow. It feels like a rich brown and it goes nicely with my more grown up colours 🙂

So that’s it. What do you reckon? Does it give you any ideas for a palette of your own? 



  1. Enjoying color/paints and using them in a journal because they make you happy is more important then being “correct/technically” and NOT painting and drawing anything.

  2. I want to try a few of your brights choices. I use a bit more of the earth tones but that’s when I am painting natural trees and plants and rocks and such. I’d like to play with the brighter colors though. Thank you so much for sharing the colors and your reasons for them!

    • Leaf green! Try the leaf green!! No – seriously I hope you find something that you love and brightens your day 🙂

  3. Thanks so much for sharing your lovely color palette with us. Your colors truly sing! And I am so happy to have been introduced to Leaf Green! I hope to be able to try it soon. Also, I notice you use a lot of Holbein brand paint. Is that due to their color choices or the quality of the paint?

    Happy painting!

    • You’re very welcome Fay! I have only recently discovered Holbein and their main attraction to me is their vividness. The colours just really shine in comparison to the other brands – but that really only matters if you are into super bright colours like me. They are artist quality and lovely to use. There is no problem making your own pans from tube paints. Downside (depending on your point of view) is that they tend to be flat (don’t granulate much) so they don’t suit every occasion. Having said that, if I want granulation I just mix them – such is the joy and flexibility of watercolour!

  4. Great blog post. Very helpful! Where did you get those small papers with the holes in them used for the color samples? Or did you make them yourself? Tks again ~Steve 🙂

    • Thank you Steve! I got a big Fiskars punch which made the tag plus the hole. I punched them out of Canson watercolour paper, but I figure I can use it to compare all sorts of papers and materials. Then I tie them together with metal rings which have a clip similar to a key ring.

  5. ? Thanks for sharing.

  6. Hi Helen, thank you for your informative post and for your joyous color descriptions. The color swatches are gorgeous! Is there any difference between Holbein Bright Rose and Bright Rose Luminous? I’ve seen both this color and Bright Violet listed both ways online but was confused. Thank you!

    • Hi Jill. These were great questions, and on checking my paint tube tonight I realised I should have said it was Holbein Bright Rose (luminous) – W370. I have corrected it on my post so thanks for pointing it out. I can’t pretend to be an expert on why they might be listed both ways online, but if you check the number you might find they are actually the same colours. If you want to find out more from someone with more knowledge than me you might like to have a look at Jane Blundell’s blog. She really is an expert on watercolours – https://janeblundellart.blogspot.com/search?q=holbein

  7. Greetings from FNQ Helen. I think we must share the same DNA because i’ve never read a dissertation on colour that i related to so unconditionally! Thank you, thank you. I live in the tropics so vivid transparent colours have always been in tune with what i like to paint and what really excites me as a watercolourist. a Daniel Smith devotee for so long that i’ve only deviated lately with some of the Japanese Kuretake pans- the paints are very creamy and cornflower blue is beautiful – but now i’m keen to try some Holbein..like the Bright Rose …i mistakenly thought Opera Pink was the brightest I could go! Ps. I was slow to appreciate DS Buff Titanium but am now a big fan. It creates some unusual mixes too (see Jane Blundall’s blog).Thanks again..can’t wait to try some of your suggestions.

    • I think you might be right Gale – I just had a peak at your website and the colours sang to me! You will LOVE Holbein for their brilliance 🙂

  8. Love your colour choices. What type of sketchbook were you using in great above photo. I like the way the colours float on the paper.

    • Thanks so much Jan. It is a tiny A5 Hahnemuhle watercolour book. The swatches are done on Canson Montval watercolour paper.

  9. This is a great read, it makes me feel okay about not following the rules! I like what I like and use what I want to use, whether it is ‘right’ or not. We must be rebels… LOL!

    • Oh yes – I must be the rebel librarian! Actually lots of librarians are! I’m so glad you enjoyed it Bronny and that you will join me in colouring outside the lines and other rebellious acts 🙂

  10. I just LOVE bright colours and then……. I cannot pick them up from my palette and actually use! 🙂 Great inspiration here – thank you for sharing 🙂

    • Thank you! I wonder why you are finding it tricky to pick up the paint, Marta. Does the brush you use work for other paints? Could it be the surface you are putting the paint on? Do you have enough water mixed in your paint, and in your brush?

  11. Yowza, so cool to find an artist with a brighter palette and I have! Wonderful color selections and you’ve convinced me to add holbein bright purple back into my completely Da Vinci paint palette. Hey, if they DON’T make it, they can’t complain if I add it, right?? lol. Love your bright colors. New follower on Instagram. Oh, and have you tried Sleeping Beauty from DS instead of Holbein’s turquoise? I wonder if it would work as well with your green to make verdigris as it would then be transparent. LOVE that you ALSO look for transparent. You’re my new friend, Heehee!

    • Wahoo – I managed to talk Jennifer McLean into a Holbein bright violet!! I don’t see a lot of people using bright palettes, and sometimes I feel a bit like the naughty kindergarten kid choosing finger paints, but it is sort of fun to buck the system too. Obviously I was drawn enough to your colour selection to drool over the rainbow palette you put together, and I have one in my hot little hand. Quite apart from the happy colours of the paints, the palette itself is a !!!RAINBOW!!! so it was calling to me. Now I need to arrange it to take to the urban sketching symposium in Amsterdam 🙂

      I must try your suggestion for verdigris and love the idea of it then becoming transparent. Anything that saves me going over my lines again after painting is a bonus! Please keep coming with the suggestions 🙂

  12. Gorgeous palette and really helpful descriptions of each colour you’ve selected! I also love how you’ve used tags for your swatches 🙂 I found your site because I was searching for some info on Perylene Maroon. It’s a pigment I’m curious to try and am tossing up between the Daniel Smith and Holbein versions. I see you’ve used Holbein in this palette. Have you tried the Daniel Smith one at all, and if so, are you able to share some insights on their differences? I’m in Hobart where I’m unable to see swatches of the Holbein in our local art shops.Would greatly appreciate your insights!

    Thank you.

    • Thanks so much Brigitte! It’s an interesting question about the Perylene Maroon. I checked my Daniel Smith dot sheets and finally spotted it (yes, accidental pun!) and put it next to my Holbein swatch. Neither of them are meant to be granulating, but my little Holbein swatch still seems to have a bit of interesting variance. My personal feeling (which others may well disagree with) is that the DS version (at least in this tiny swatch) seems flatter and duller than the Holbein. I definitely prefer the Holbein, as it seems more lively to me, and suits my style better. One sings to me somehow, and the other doesn’t. I hope that helps!

      • Hi Helen,

        Thanks for your helpful insights. I also have the DS spot ( heh heh ) sheet and was surprised by how flat their Perylene Maroon is when several online “colouristas” really love it. I know what you mean about how one sings 🙂


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