I have spent weeks (possibly months) pouring over my collection of watercolour paints to choose a new palette for this year. The fact that it is nearly the end of May says a lot! I am nothing if not indecisive, and I can um and ah for hours over whether or not to keep a particular pink from my 2018 palette that smiles coyly at me (of course I did). 

I have the urban sketchers’ symposium in Amsterdam coming up in July, along with 5 weeks of glorious travel, so that has been a big influence, but so has my Brunswick Street Sketchography. I was wondering if I could possibly put all the colours I would need for the rest of this year into one beautiful rainbow palette (more about that piece of gorgeousness below). And as a little extra I thought I might put together a mini palette of similar colours that can sit in my bag all the time (just in case I have an urgent need to paint while waiting for the tram). The term ‘mini’ of course is relative. I rationed myself to just 23 colours for that one. I hope you’re impressed 🙂

I don’t pretend to be a traditional or in any way expert watercolourist, so please keep that in mind. I don’t have the ability to debate the best mixing colours, or cull my collection to just 12 or (horror of horrors) just 5 colours as others do. I admire that ability, but it just isn’t me. I choose my colours because they have a special something that speaks to me. I like fresh, crisp, bright, jewel like colours. I don’t like mud. I don’t like colours that dull easily. I like contrast because a light next to a dark sings. I don’t use black paint (although I do use black ink), but I do like dark neutrals which have a life to them. I DO mix my colours, but I don’t put a lot of thought into it, and would rather make a small adjustment to an existing colour rather than start from scratch. Yes, I’m a tad lazy.

More than anything else, the colours that I choose need to make me smile and sigh like a happy toddler. Colour is such a personal thing –  what speaks to me will not necessarily have the same effect for you. Discovering what you love through trial and error is half the fun. It is those sorts of differences amongst us that makes art interesting.

To me, watercolour is about playing, and I just want to have fun with it.  But I don’t see my work ending up in the National Gallery of Australia anytime soon! 

The watercolour palette

Firstly, the palette. It was with great sadness that I said goodbye to my old plastic Cotman palette from 2019 after decades of service. Bits of plastic would crack and drop to the ground when I pulled pans in and out – probably not helped by the fact I was using a knife. Yes, not only am I indecisive, but I am also very impatient.

However all was not lost. I am a big fan of Jennifer McLean, who seems to love bright watercolours about as much as I do. When I saw a Schmincke palette that had been customized for her with a RAINBOW on the top I knew I couldn’t hesitate. I had to have it. I’m sure you’ll understand 🙂

The palette has more mixing space than I’m used to, which is pretty exciting. My only worry was the weight as it is metal, but that was solved by lifting out the centre piece of metal with all the pan clips on it. I reckon the weight halved, and surprisingly it worked out lighter than my old plastic palette. I didn’t need the clippy section anyway, as I jammed the palette full of pans with blue tack again. 

The colour swatches

I know someone will ask, so yes, I do make my own tags, with a Fiskars tag punch. I love it because I can use any paper I like. In this case I used Bockingford. That is the watercolour paper I use for my Brunswick Street Sketchography. I have really fallen for the 300 gsm paper. My fountain pen works really well on it and the watercolours stay fresh and bright. I bought a huge roll to make concertina/accordion sketchbooks, so I figured I could spare a bit for my swatches. 

I tried to create a bit of a wash on each tag, so you can get an idea of how the colour changes depending on how thickly you lay it on. Quin Gold, for example, shifts from a brown to a brilliant yellow. I used a Sharpie texta to draw a couple of lines so that you can see how opaque the paint is – important to me as I often paint over pen. Then I drew a line with a white Staedtler Lumocolour Glasochrom pencil which creates a wax resist to see what that did.

Of course the photos are an indication of the colour only. They will look different on different screens, and photography and lighting change things too. It is almost impossible to show how vibrant a colour is in real life.

Laying out the palette – what colours make good neighbours?

I work on the assumption that I am going to make a mess. There are no gaps between my pans because I want to squash in as much as I can. That means one colour is definitely going to splash into another while I’m painting. When that happens I don’t want it to make mud, so I try to put colours next to each other who play nicely together. If yellow runs into pink then it will just make a nice nectarine colour. If bright rose runs into ultramarine I’ll get a nice purple. One of the reasons why I love my bright leaf green was because my yellows were always getting dirty when I mixed my own green, and they didn’t work as yellows anymore. Now they are nicely separated, and my yellows are yellows, and my greens are greens.

For the same reason I tend to put my opaque colours together so that they don’t ruin the transparency of other paints. They lead the group of what I think of as my vintage colours which I use over and over for painting old buildings and gardens.

For the sake of this I have loosely split my palette into two – the bright rainbow-ish colours first (although you’ll spot some darks that don’t fit that description), and then my vintage (or more grown up) colours.

I have put an asterisk next to the colours I have also put in my “mini” palette 🙂 

The bright rainbow colours – yellows, reds, purples and blues

Horadam Pure Yellow OR *Holbein Imadazolone Yellow –  To my inexpert eyes these look pretty much identical, and I am happy with one or the other in my palette as I don’t want to waste a perfectly good paint pan. The Horadam arrived in my rainbow palette (one of Jen McLean’s favourites), but in Australia Holbein is cheaper to buy. Both of them are lovely transparent, sunny, gloriously happy yellows. They are brighter and richer than they look in this photo which is a bit washed out.

Horadam Chromium Yellow True Deep OR *Daniel Smith New Gamboge.  Once again when I compare these two they seem pretty much interchangable, so either will do for me.  The Horadam came with the rainbow palette, but I had a tube of New Gamboge so I put that into my mini palette. They are both really nice warm yellow oranges but not quite as transparent as I would like. The search continues on that front.

*Holbein Pyrrole Red – A bright, bright scarlet red. The red of fire trucks and red geraniums. I love it. It is so bright that I took the outrageous step of taking the orange out of my palette for the first time ever. This red with one of the yellows makes a great orange. Not super transparent, but you can’t have everything!

Holbein Quin Magenta – I oohed and aahed over this until my family got sick of hearing it. Such a gorgeous colour, and it almost (but not quite) made me consider whether I still needed to carry the bright rose which bears some relation to this colour watered down. I quickly came to my senses. Of course I need both! In real life the colour has more spark than it looks like in the photo.

*Holbein Carmine – a rich pinkish red, which others would probably describe as warm. Pretty transparent. I think it combines nicely with either my bright rainbow or vintage colours. For example, it adds a nice warm reddish tinge to transparent pyrrol orange for roof tiles. 

Holbein Shell Pink – a brand new colour for me, and admittedly I haven’t used it yet, but I feel in my gut that I am going to find buildings that are this colour so I thought I’d pack it just in case. I could be wrong, but it will be fun to see. It is one of my few opaque-ish colours, although it doesn’t look to be blocking the black pen too much here. And no, I won’t be using this for skin colour (just in case you were wondering) – for that I tend to use a bit of washed out quin gold with a splash of red, pink, or brown depending on the range I need.

*Holbein Bright Rose – the happiest of my happy colours. It is gorgeously brilliant and truly zings. It’s brilliant without being overpowering (to me at least) or quite as fluoro as Opera Pink. I LOVE this colour and every so often I find a flower that needs its brilliance. I can’t imagine leaving it out of any palette even if it is just for the happiness factor 🙂

*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. I feel I can justify this colour a bit more this year as I have found that it makes the most amazing dark purple when mixed with the Holbein ultramarine or royal blue. It means that for the first time I have taken out a dark purple – shock horror! 

*Daniel Smith Moonglow – A soft purple-ish grey that I use mostly for shadows when I don’t want to risk them getting too dark by diving straight in with a neutral. It has a bit of granulation which adds a nice texture. Last year I described it as a comfort colour, and I think that is still true.

Daniel Smith Cobalt Blue – I took this out and then put it back in at a whim because I’m going to the symposium in Amsterdam and I was told that the Delft blues were based on cobalt blue. As well as everything else I am easily influenced it seems! This is a nice soft warm blue which I feel has a kinship to the Holbein Ultramarine. I want to try using it more this year, especially in Holland. 

*Daniel Smith Cobalt Blue VioletI have always loved the blueish purples but I nearly cut this from my palette until I saw Paul Wang using it for some gorgeous shadows. I really want to explore it better this year, especially to see how it plays with others. It is too gorgeous a colour to give up on. In real life it isn’t quite as purple as it looks here and it sits right in the middle between blue and violet.

*Holbein Neutral  – Ok, so you can’t possibly describe this as either a bright or rainbow colour, but it just needs to sit with my blues. Holbein Neutral has become an absolute essential in my palette over the last year. It’s hard to see in this photo, but it is almost identical to Indigo in many respects, and in fact it is so close that I can’t really justify carrying both in the one palette. I first learnt to love it when I was drawing houseboats in Denmark and it was spot on with no effort. I consider this my cool neutral, which runs from a strong, lively dark to a light shadowy wash. In contrast, the Horadam Neutral is a much warmer colour, more akin to a brown. I keep both of them because they are fantastic for creating contrasts. No granulation.

*Horadam Helio Cerulean  – Thanks to Jen McLean for introducing me to this gorgeously vibrant cool blue with its tinge of green. Unfortunately this photo doesn’t do justice to its vibrancy, but I think it was love at first sight. I don’t often paint skies, but when I do I think this will be the first colour my paintbrush dunks into, especially if I am trying to highlight a white building against a blue sky. I only have one little half pan of this, so for the time being I have put a Sennelier Phthalo Blue into my mini palette, but I’ll be switching it out when I have time to make some fresh pans of the Helio.

*Holbein Ultramarine Deep – This is such a luscious deep yet bright blue. It makes me think of royal velvets. Gorgeous, just gorgeous. I have just discovered what an amazing purple it makes when mixed with the Holbein Bright Violet. Ooh, aah indeed 🙂

Holbein Royal Blue – To me this seems more of a navy blue with spark, sitting somewhere between the Holbein Ultramarine Deep and an Indigo. It’s a newie, but one I’m keen to play with. 

My “vintage-ish” or more grown up colours – greens, browns, terracottas

Ok there is a fine line here, because I can’t really say the Cobalt Turquoise is a vintage colour, but it insisted on sitting with the greens. What can I say?

*Horadam Cobalt Turquoise –  I love this fairly opaque blue-green, and I especially use it with the leaf green to get a rough verdigris for those copper domes on old buildings. I have tried a lot of different brands, but this is the version I keep coming back to for it’s brightness, freshness and clarity. It is less granulating than some of the other brands which I like, as I really wanted a flat colour. 

Daniel Smith Phthalo Turqoise  – A friendly, rich turquoise which brings my blues and greens together. I don’t use it a lot, but it just keeps calling to me. I need to do more work on finding which other colours it likes to mix with, as I’m not ready to separate.

Daniel Smith Phthalo Green (Blue Shade) – A gorgeous bright green with a blue tinge. I like to throw odd bits of this or the Phthalo Turqoise into my more realistic greens when I am drawing vegetation, because I think it adds an interesting effect. I tend to use it more when painting in Europe rather than Australia, as our Aussie greens are so different and more olive-y.

*Holbein Leaf Green – I think this is the colour I have become known for, as I use it almost every time when I draw plants. I think it makes a fantastic bright highlight which I used to have to mix myself with my yellows. Now I get to save time and keep my yellows clean as well. I don’t see myself separating from this colour EVER, as it has become so essential to me, but I guess time will tell. One of my favourite combos for plants in Australia is Holbein Leaf Green, then a bit of DS Green Gold, then DS Sap Green, then DS Diopside Green. I love the way the Leaf Green can blend towards the olive tones, as well as the emerald tones. Plus it is an undeniably happy colour 🙂

*Daniel Smith Green Gold – a vibrant green for plants that starts with a mid olive-y green and shifts to a brilliant goldish yellow green. It has an interesting range and enough granulation to make it interesting.

*Daniel Smith Sap Green – very different to the sap greens of different brands, this works well for Australian vegetation. It plays very nicely with the Daniel Smith Green Gold, as well as darker greens. Granulating.

*Daniel Smith Diopside Genuine – The darkest green I carry these days. It replaced DS Green Apatite which was amazing, but not really “me”. I like that the Diopside is granulating for texture, but also that it is a bit emerald-ish. It fits nicely with either the Australian olive-y plants or the brighter European trees. I’d be interested in seeing how it compares with the DS Jadeite. 

*Holbein Burnt Umber I figure I have to have at least one brown in my palette, so this is the one I settled on for this year. I’m not big on browns after wearing a brown school uniform all through high school, but I quite like this paint’s warmth, and I think it will blend well with the DS Quin Gold and DS Transparent Pyrrol Orange. I also really like how it plays with the DS Bloodstone Genuine for tree trunks. 

*Horadam Neutral – A completely different neutral to the Holbein version, this one has a warmth to it that is just slightly brownish. It sits nicely with my vintage-y colours whereas the Holbein fits better with the rainbow brights and blues. Horadam Neutral has a big range from super rich, dark to a soft shadow. A very useful colour for providing contrast. No granulation, so good for flat shadows.

*Daniel Smith Bloodstone Genuine – This is very similar in tone to the Horadam Neutral, but its strength is its amazing granulation which unfortunately you can’t see really well in this swatch. I’ve been using it to paint bluestone and have just started to play with the idea of using it for tree trunks to get that feeling of rough bark. I’m looking forward to lots of experimenting this year. 

*Daniel Smith Quin Gold I think I have grown into Quin Gold. I initially saw it as a brown, but now I am using it for its amazing bright yellow-gold mustard looking highlights. Transparent. It seems to have worked its magic on me very sneakily, so that almost without thinking my brush just dunks right in there and back on to my page. I think I finally have to concede that it will always have a place in my palette, but definitely on the grown up side 🙂

*Daniel Smith Transparent Pyrrol Orange  – This is quite an amazing colour, super vibrant and (who would have thought) transparent. Along with the Quin Gold it has become an essential in my palette. They are two of the first colours I tend to reach for when painting old buildings. I feel it is very similar to Quin Sienna, which is something I’m interested in exploring, as I have tubes of each, and can’t justify having both in my palette at the same time.

*Holbein Jaune Brilliant No 1 – This is my replacement for DS Buff Titanium, and I don’t think I’ll be going back. I wanted a creamish colour for old buildings, to give a kind of plaster effect. The Buff was kind of dull and never really spoke to me, but I still found it useful. This Holbein however lifts my spirits no end and I feel it is crisp and clean, and much more fitting with my style. It will be interesting to see how much I use it. Holbein also have a Jaune Brilliant No. 2 which is quite different, and more orange-ish. I think that would be easy to mix from this one. Opaque.

*Holbein Naples Yellow – One of last year’s biggest discoveries. I have been using it quite a bit for painting Victorian buildings in my Brunswick Street Sketchography, and I love its freshness. I’m sure others would see it as over the top bright, but I’ll concede that’s where my heart lies. Opaque. Gorgeous. 

Daniel Smith Aussie Red Gold – A recent purchase, and not something I have actually painted in my sketchbooks with yet, but every time I see it I smile. I love the way it seems to totally surprise with both its redness and its goldness. For a moment I wondered if it could replace Quin Gold, but I think that might to be too much of a stretch for now. I’m really looking forward to playing with it this year. 

So there you go ….

“Just” 30 colours in my “big” rainbow palette and 23 in my “mini” palette. Pretty controlled for me, I believe, and I made some tough decisions. When I take out a colour I almost feel like it’s rejecting one of my children, so I think long and hard about it! Anyway, I’m really excited about experimenting with my new set of colours and putting more time into mixing them together to find which ones play well together. Who knows, maybe I’ll even sit down and do a colour chart one day, but I would have to find a piece of paper big enough first!!

So what about you? Where does your colour passion lie? Are you proud of your 3 colour palette, or do you need to pack an extra suitcase just for your watercolours? Which brands do you like? Are you a rainbow inspired artist or keen on the earthy tones? I’d love to hear about it!



  1. Wow! I would say, you are without a doubt a ‘color expert’ (I know you said you aren’t!)?…. a great blog for me (a true amateur!) to refer to! Explains the vibrancy of your exceptional sketches! Just love following and learning about your great style! You have been a true inspiration to me! Thank you!

    • Thanks Sarah but I’m still just learning like lots of other people. All I really know for sure is what colours sing to me and which don’t – but then trying them all out is really fun so who cares? I’m so glad to think that my experiments might inspire you to play and work out your own style too. I think I’m only just beginning to twig to what mine might be, and that Holbein Leaf Green is certainly a part of it 🙂

      • Well, I’m turning over a new ‘leaf’ with Holbein W277!? Thank you so much for sharing these special brands and numbers‼️ I’m going to put some structure into my extensive collection! Then I’m going to hit the streets!#urbansketching

        • I hope you enjoy that Holbein leaf green as much as I do, Sarah. I’m so glad you are going to get out urban sketching- have fun!

  2. Great info.

  3. What a wonderful post and color selection! Thanks!

    • Thanks Dena – I’m glad you like it 🙂

  4. I love your color sensibility it resonates deeply with me.

    • Thank you so much Brett – I’m glad we must share a love of colour:)

  5. Hi Helen,
    We DO think of color so similarly. When I read your description of how you use color, it rang a huge bell for me. I call it “tweaking” a color as opposed to mixing it. I’d rather take a green and move it warmer, cooler, darker or lighter than get out blue and yellow and make it from scratch. Brilliant.

    One note on that. I did find when I was working with Da Vinci Paint on a trio watercolor project that you can mix your own neutral tint from PV19 (it was red rose deep that I used, a slightly darker or more vibrant color than quin rose/permanent rose) and PG7 (phthalo green blue shade). Holy heck Batman! It makes a totally transparent neutral tint. I know of only one company that uses this mix to make their own neutral tint, M. Graham. Now their neutral is different than the one I got but it’s fantastic to have a transparent neutral that’s so readily available. Maybe try using pg7 and your holbein quin magenta.

    I’ve been trying to stick with one brand, Da Vinci as they’re artist quality and so much cheeper but you’ve convinced me to get out my holbein bright violet and order their bright rose. (I think someone sent me the shell pink, can’t wait to try that). So thank YOU for getting me back to my even brighter love of color, it’s too hard to be totally brand loyal. And I’ve SO misses my pure yellow from Schmincke.

    Thanks for the shout out, can we be friends? I totally need a friend like you who understands my obsession of bright jewel colors. They make me so happy it’s blissful. who needs drugs when one has paint?? ;o)

    • Oh I laughed so much to read your message Jenn and of course I have to try making the neutral that you suggested! Of course we can be friends – lovers of jewel colours unite!

    • Hi Jenn – I thought I should add that unfortunately Da Vinci watercolours are almost impossible to get hold of in Australia, and then they are even more expensive than Daniel Smith – or I’d be giving them a go on your recommendation as well. It makes sense though, that in Canada it is less expensive to get something manufactured on the same continent. Probably the same reason why it is much cheaper for me to use the Japanese Holbein as much as I can, so it is fortunate I love their brilliant colours. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to completely stick to one brand though, as I really like the contrasts between flat and granulated paints, and every brand has their strengths and most exciting colours (in my eyes anyway!). What always amazes me is how different one colour can be from brand to brand – but then I suppose that’s part of the magic too, isn’t it?

  6. LOVE your use of color! My goal is for my paintings to become more bright! You are a role model! Thanks, Helen!

    • Thanks so much Marie – I hope youhave lots of fun discovering your own rainbow:)


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