The search for transparent yellow

I’ve realised that not only am I generally a fan of transparent,non-granulating pigments in watercolour, I am particularly fussy about this preference when it comes to yellows.  I can enjoy a fair bit of granulation and opacity in mossy greens and browns (great for adding visual weight to heavy foliage, bark and rocks).  The opacity of Cobalt Teal is what gives it that absolutely yummy irresistible bright colour in the pan.  Softly granulating, semi-opaque manganese and cobalt violets are great for laying in shadows, and even one of my favourite primaries, Purple Magenta (PR122) is far from transparent.  But even the smallest hint of milkyness in my yellows makes me gag.  In my ideal world- all yellows would be like clear, pure liquid sunshine.

This is a stroke of terrible luck on my part.  Whereas transparent pigments abound in some sections of the colour wheel – there’s a transparent, non-granulating phthalo pigment for every shade of blue-green you can imagine, transparent yellows are few and far between – the most common yellows being opaque cadmiums or semi-transparent azo and hansa pigments.

As a result, for the past year, I have basically used one yellow pigment, PY150 (Nickel Azo Yellow or Transparent Yellow) for all my yellow needs. I do also use small amounts of Green Gold (PY129) and Quinacridone Gold (PO49), which are arguably also part of the yellow family, but PY150 is the only “true”  yellow I have used in a painting in the past year.

Nickel Azo
My single yellow – PY150 Nickel Azo Yellow by M. Graham

As an unapologetic pigment magpie – at last count I had 15 blues in my half-pan palette, most of which I find a use for regularly, my yellow section has been relatively anemic.  I do keep some Hansa Yellows PY3 and PY97 I tried and never took to, along with my trusty PY150.  On somebody’s recommendation, at one point I also bought M. Graham’s PY110 Indian Yellow, which is a lovely colour, but also rarely used (and really more of a yellowish-orange, IMO).

Apart from an impulse to try ALL the things, having only one yellow I regularly use hasn’t been much of a problem.  As a botanical artist – I primarily use yellow to mix greens for leaves. PY150 is very close to a primary yellow in tints, and I have so many blues and greens I can easily mix any green I could imagine with only the one real yellow.

However, the trouble with PY150 as a sole yellow comes when rendering pure yellow subjects such as flowers.  Transparent pigments are darker in masstone – in the case of PY150, this masstone shifts to a greenish-brownish sludgy colour I like to refer to as “birdshit brown”.  In rendering leafy subjects, this is never a problem, as this colour works with the shadows.  However, pure yellow flowers often want similarly “clean”  shadows in a warmer orange colour or a cleaner greenish one.  So a few months ago, I started once again feeling the itch to try exploring alternative yellow pigments.

Reading up on pigments, I became very curious about PY153 Nickel Dioxine Yellow, often sold as “Indian Yellow”  or “New Gamboge” up until 2012 or so.  It is described as transparent, non-granulating marigold yellow in masstone fading out to a warm primary yellow in tints.

Manufacturing of PY153 ceased a couple years before I started painting in watercolour. Most lines have since discontinued  the once popular PY153, but a few brands still use it and of course there’s some older tubes still floating around.  I decided to try to find as much PY153 while I could, and stock up if I liked it.

From Jackson’s Art Supplies in the UK – I ordered two PY153 paints.  Sennelier Yellow Light, still made with single pigment PY153, is an oddball formulation that is much lighter/greener than the Indian Yellow/New Gamboge usually associated with the pigment.  I also ordered Jackson’s own brand Indian Yellow, which claims to be made with PY153.  I actually question whether this is true – Jackson’s brand is also made by Sennelier, who a few years ago reformulated their own Indian Yellow to be a mix of PY153 with PY154.  However I will trust the label, as it is possible that it is older stock, or that Sennelier is still making paint they resell to other labels with the old formula.

I also wanted to try some of the popular, discontinued Winsor Newton PY153.  Luckily for me, I live in a smallish town – large enough to have art stores, small enough that their stock turnover rate is extremely slow, and was also able to get my hands on some Winsor Newton Indian Yellow made with single-pigment PY153.  Winsor Newton also apparently sold PY153 as New Gamboge, although I could not find any left over in the local shops.

Comparison of “Transparent” Yellows  – 3 Formulations of PY153,  3 Indian Yellows, PY150

In this way, I’ve managed to collect 3 different formulations of PY153.  I also, rather confusingly, now have 3 paints named “Indian Yellow”.  In the test swatch above, I’ve painted out Sennelier Yellow Lt (PY153),  MG Nickel Azo Yellow (PY150), Winsor Newton’s old formula Indian Yellow (PY153), Jackson’s Indian Yellow (PY153) and MG Indian Yellow (PY110)

On the bottom line I glazed all the yellows over Winsor Blue GS – clearly I didn’t let the latter dry long enough as it bled into the yellow paints.  It is a hot, humid day here.

My results were somewhat mixed, and I feel somewhat foolish for spending a whole bunch of money on yellows when really I’m happy painting with PY150 99% of the time

PY153 Sennelier Yellow Light (Sennelier)  is a beautiful pure yellow colour, just to the lemon side of primary.  It would make a good addition to my palette, but it really isn’t transparent.  You can see the yellow over the top black line.  Also, annoyingly, it is less transparent when wet, which really adds to my gaggy reaction painting with yellow milk.  That said, for those who don’t have such an illogical response to non-transparent yellows, it is a pretty colour.

PY150 Nickel Azo Yellow (M. Graham) remains my favourite yellow.  The birdshit brown really doesn’t look so bad unless it’s REALLY concentrated, and it makes a beautiful variety of greens and oranges in mixes.  I would probably still choose to paint most things with this.

PY153 Indian Yellow (Winsor Newton) This is my favourite of the PY153 paints (and of the paints named Indian Yellow).  It is the most transparent and the most chromatic of these groups, although still less than PY150 – ranging from a golden orange to a beautiful marigold yellow, down to a buttery colour in tints.  It is really too bad this is discontinued.  I’ve managed to get my hands on 2 5mL tubes.  I can see reaching for this paint to paint warm yellow flowers such as sunflowers or black-eyed susans, where it would capture both the body colour and midtone shadows perfectly.

PY153 Indian Yellow (Jackson’s) This is similar to the WN paint but slightly less transparent and slightly less chromatic.  I don’t know if this is down to the paint manufacturing, or whether the Jackson’s tube is incorrectly also contains the less transparent PY154.  On the brighter side, it is about a quarter the price, not discontinued, and comes in massive 21 mL tubes – a couple of those should last a lifetime.  If you are less fussy about transparency, it’s a nice colour.

PY110 Indian Yellow (M. Graham) Although my scanner is exaggerating, this really is more of an orange than a pure yellow, although it does make a nice golden glaze.

The colour of joy is a mixed pigment


Over the past couple years I have primarily been focusing on watercolour as a medium, and building up my collection of watercolours one tube at a time.  I’ve been focusing on single-pigment colours, especially those rated “very lightfast” by independent testers. I now have quite a large selection of different colours, fairly well distributed around the colour wheel, yet I still felt like something was missing.

A couple of months ago, I was swatching out dot sheets by Schmincke.  I got to the colour “May Green” and squealed out loud.  It is such a lovely, happy green!  Of course, it was also a mixed pigment (PG151 and PG7) so I debated whether I should get it, since I could just mix it myself.

Around the same time, the single pigment Py117 Greenish Yellow by Holbein had caught my eye.  Although I love the colour, I was put off by Handprint’s review, which showed less-than-perfect lightfastness (Holbein ranks the lightfastness as “excellent”)

Greenish Yellow by Holbein (Py117) and May Green by Schmincke (PG7, PY151)
Two lovely yellowish greens. One has debatable lightfastness, the other is a convenience mix of two greens

I debated whether to buy these paints for a while.  I really, really wanted them, but my dogmatic side prevented me from pulling the trigger, until one day, while working on a coloured pencil piece, I noticed which pencils were worn down to stubs in each of my sets.  Without fail, it was all my yellowish greens in the light olive to bright spring green family.

Favourite greens in other media
Most used colours in other media (Neon Green by Prismacolour scanned teal for some reason, it actually is a neon yellow-green)

This should not come as a surprise.  A fun fact that few people know about me is that I have synaesthesia.  In fact, I only found out a few years ago that I have it.

Synaesthesia is a quirk in brain wiring that affects something like 3% of the population – causing different senses or concepts to be associated/linked in unusual ways.  When I first read about synaesthesia, the article used some examples that seemed really foreign and crazy to me, such as one person who has shape-smell synaesthesia (ie- cubes smell like carrots, etc), and another who uses her number-depth synaesthesia as a way to perform complex arithmetic really quickly by “balancing” distances.  I was kind of jealous that other people  had these crazy, weird superpowers when my brain was just normal (or so I thought).

The second time I read about synaesthesia was in a much more in-depth article that gave examples of more common types of synaesthesia.  This time I was very confused, because several of the examples given were things that I do experience.  For example, as I am writing this in my cold basement, my fingers feel a very nearly white, icy blue, whereas my arms and hands are more of a teal.   I have temperature-colour synaesthesia.  Since I’ve experienced temperatures as colours as long as I can remember, I have trouble imagining the concept of a warm day that is NOT orange-yellow,  or of cold fingers that are not icy blue.  I thought, since people often discuss the concept of warm vs. cool colours, and that water taps are labelled with blue/red, that this was the universal experience of temperature (although I always did find it odd that the cold tap is labelled with ultramarine, which is most definitely not the “cold” blue).

In fact, I have many types of experience/colour synaesthesia.  Among other things, I experience emotions as colours, some kinds of sounds have colour associations,  people have colour associations.


Testing Greens
“Joy” and “Self” greens in various media


Notably, my colour association for the emotion “Joy” is a bright, spring green, nearly a perfect match for Schmincke’s May Green watercolour.  You can see similar examples in the top row of the swatches of my most used/favourite colours in other media below.   No surprise then, that my reaction to painting it out was so giddy. (Again, ignore Prismacolor’s neon green.  It is neon green, not teal)

On the second row of swatches are some more olive yellow-greens.  These are all near matches for the colour I associate with myself.  The truest match for “Lee Green” is between Faber Castell Polychromos May Green, and Lyra Polycolor Apple Green.  Holbein’s Greenish Yellow is among the closest single pigment watercolours, although a little too muted and yellow.  Daniel Smith’s Serpentine Genuine (from the Primatek line) is also fairly close, but a little too cool, and not as transparent as I often want.

So, needless to say I bought both of the watercolour paints.  I will conduct independant lightfastness tests for the Holbein paint, but even if I am not satisfied it will have a place in my travel/sketch palette.  May Green may be a mixed pigment, but Joy should always be available in my palette.

I hope you will all join me in hoping for more single pigment greens to be discovered and developed for watercolour!


Effects of water hardness on watercolour paints

For the past couple of years,  my tap water has been curdling my paints.

It all started with a tube of Quinacridone Rust (PO48)  from M. Graham.   I was attracted to this paint partially because the pigment is listed as non-granulating,  and I fell in love with the colour, but ever since I got it, the paint has had a tendency to clump and curdle when mixed with water in the palette or dropped into a wash, resulting in an incredibly pronounced granulation pattern.  This pattern becomes even more pronounced when Quin. Rust is mixed with another dark valued, non granulating paint such as a phthalo.

Colour mixing experiments with Quin Rust (PO48) and Phthalo Turquoise (PB16)

I searched the internet extensively, and could find no other reports of quinacridone rust granulating like this.  For months I was actually convinced I had received a dud tube, but avoided investigating further, because I really adore the colour and transparency of the tube I own.  Instead, I simply developed strategies for mitigating the crazy clumping and curdling.

Then, a few months ago, I purchased two more quinacridone paints by M. Graham – Quinacridone Rose (PV19)  and Neutral Tint (PV19 + PG7).  Again, all of the pigments are listed as non-granulating, but both of these paints showed the same clumping/curdling behaviour (albeit to a lesser extent).

Now, one dud tube would be easy to explain, but 3 dud tubes purchased at different times would reflect very poorly on the manufacturer.  And yet, still I could find no reports of similar experiences online.  I felt like I was going crazy.

PV19 Quinacridone Rose (M. Graham) on palette with KW water

Finally, I reached out to other botanical artists and asked around.  Someone suggested I should paint with distilled water, as acidity and mineral in tap water can react with some paints.  Suddenly it clicked.   I live in Kitchener-Waterloo, known to have the hardest water in all of North America.

Water hardness refers to the amount of dissolved calcium and magnesium in the water.  Water tends to be harder when drawn as groundwater rather than from lakes or streams.  Water hardness leads to limescale deposits in pipes and fixtures, and premature degradation of water heaters in pipes.  In my area, most households (including my own) have a home water softener, which functions by replacing the dissolved calcium/magnesium with sodium.  We shower and do our dishes with saltwater, which is not drinkable, and have a hard-water tap direct from the city for drinking water. At my art studio, a few blocks away, we do not have a softener.  Thus, my paintings in the past few years have all been done with limewater, and perhaps occasionally saltwater.

In order to test the effects of the tap water on my paints, I purchased a large jug of distilled water at the grocery store, and painted out samples wet-in-wet and wet-on-dry on identical paper using hard water vs. distilled water.


The difference between the two samples was dramatic.  However, there was still a little bit of texture visible in some of the paintouts even when using distilled brushwater.  I attribute this to mineral build-ups in the pans themselves, as well on the brush and the plates I use as palettes, which of course get washed in tap water.  I even tried a sample using fresh tube paints, which was even cleaner, but still contained a little bit of granulation.

So, from now on, I will be painting using distilled water.  My paints are much posher than me, and will get fancier drinking water than I do.  Eventually, I will have a reverse osmosis system installed for the drinking water line at home, although likely not at the studio, which is a rental shared with other artists.  I will however be able to fill up a bottle at home and take it to the studio.  However, I can’t imagine going through the trouble of only washing my palettes and brushes with distilled/RO water, so some hardness effects will still be seen.

I am somewhat torn about manufacturers.  I love the brightness and saturation of M. Graham paints, but they seem to be much more prone to this kind of curdling. Since running this test, I did look through my mixing charts and found a few other paints where some minor unexpected texture, but nothing remotely close to what is seen in these three paints.

My quinacridone pigments from other manufacturers do not show nearly as much clumping.  My PV19 Permanent Rose from Winsor Newton is unfortunately not as bold and red as the M. Graham version, but it shows only the faintest amount of texture even in hard water.  My PR122 Purple Magenta and PV55 Quinacridone Purple from Schmincke and PO49 Quin. Gold from Daniel Smith are also quinacridone pigments, but paint out completely smooth.  Given that in most cases I prefer smooth, non-granulating paint, and that my paint will no doubt continue to come into contact with some dissolved calcium and magnesium, would I be better served switching to different manufacturers for quinacridones (and any other paint that may be similarly affected)?

Does anyone know what the chemical reaction occuring might be in these cases?

Schmincke Horadam Dot Sheets – Brand Review

As I mentioned in my Watercolour Palette Tour teaser post last week, I recently received some watercolour trial dot cards of Schmincke Horadam watercolours.

I do already own a few Schmincke watercolours – Purple Magenta (PV122) and Translucent Orange (PO71) are in my “greatest hits” palette.  I also keep Schmincke’s Ultramarine Finest (PB28) in my larger studio palette – although I don’t love PB28 in, it is such a ubiquitous pigment that I do want to have some around. I do find this smoother, less granulating version less aggravating than most.

In general I had been impressed with my Schmincke watercolours.  The Purple Magenta and Translucent Orange are both unique, brilliant, beautiful colours with fantastic mixing and layering properties.  All three pour buttery smooth into pans, set nicely and rewet beautifully.  However, since Schmincke is such a hard-to-find, expensive brand in Canada, I only have a few tubes that other artists had recommended as standouts from the line.   I was thrilled to see them offering trial sheets, so I could find out how the rest of the line compares.

In addition to the 12-colour card I already blogged about,  I also got a a trial sheet of the 35 new colours they released in celebration of their 135th anniversary, and a large 80-dot set.   I also snapped up some small tubes of  Cobalt Blue Deep (PB74) and their newly released Quinacridone Purple (PV55) and Phthalo Sapphire (PB15:6) in the same (135-year!) anniversary sale where I got the dot samplers.

schmincke new 35

I had hoped that that the 80-colour and 35-colour would be completely different sets (adding up to almost the full range of 139 colours Schmincke now offers), but alas there was substantial overlap, so I missed out on a number of interesting pigments, including the Translucent Brown I was particularly excited to sample.  Schmincke does produce a 135 colour dot trial sheet, which was out of stock.  Perhaps someday I will buy that one.

Schmincke testing

According to Handprint, Schmincke is a popular brand among botanical artists “for their consistent texture and less emphatic chroma”. I’ve heard the same sentiment echoed by other artists.  With only a few paints, I couldn’t really comment  on consistency, and “less emphatic chroma” is not a word I would use to describe Purple Magenta or Transparent Orange, even alongside my eye-scorchingly bright M. Grahams.  After painting out swatches from the large trial sheet (and squeezing my new paints into pans), I have a much better understanding of what they mean.

Schmincke Horadam are exceptionally well-behaved paints.  These are stern, precise, German paints.  

All 6 of the tubes I own have squeezed out neatly with a creamy, even consistency, and then settled into looking like smooth, shiny little candies, which all rewet neatly and are never sticky.  This in comparison to my M. Graham paints- which glob out unevenly into sticky, unsightly mounds in my palette which eventually dry but never look smooth, or my Daniel Smith and Winsor Newton paints, which crack as they dry or pop out of the pan entirely.

In terms of the behaviour of the paints themselves, particularly in the dot set, I was struck with how all of the paints behaved similarly.  Whereas in some brands, like Daniel Smith, granulating paints will create wild crater-like patterns and staining paints will be prone to dramatic backruns, this effect was barely noticeable across most of the Schmincke line, with the exception of a few of the newest additions.  Granulating paints left delicate granules in place.  Staining paints painted out evenly, and stayed put where they were brushed in.   The colours seemed about as saturated as Winsor and Newton or Holbein overall, although the range of saturation was less pronounced (the phthalos less overwhelming, cobalts and earth tones more saturated).

The Schmincke line does include a few very bright, brilliant, high chroma colours.However, although these are all bright and well-pigmented, they do not overwhelm mixes as much as some of my M. Grahams or even the Winsor Newton phthalos.

Having swatched out these paints, I can certainly see why many botanical artists would appreciate this controlled, predictable behaviour.   In very detailed, technical work where precise colour mixing is desired, one does not want to worry about a stray puddle of phthalo green eating your palette whole or crazy textured bumps appearing in your smooth flowers because your ultramarine granulated over-enthusiastically.  Schmincke definitely delivers a consistent, reliable, user-friendly product.

For most of my painting, I am addicted to the wild ride of the most saturated, highly staining, brightest colours and the responsiveness of honey-based paints.  However, I do find the idea of putting together a cohesive palette with similar hues to my current favourites, but all in nicely-setting, evenly mixing formulations appealing.  Occasionally for delicate subjects, or in a travel context, it might be nice to have better-behaved alternatives, so I looked carefully at the Schmincke offerings of my favourite pigments.

My current primary triad is Schminke’s Purple Magenta (PR122),  M. Graham Nickel Azo Yellow (PY150) and Winsor Newton Pthalo Turquoise (PB16).  Given that my choice for magenta is already Schmincke, I was particularly interested in Schmincke’s PY150 and PB16 offerings.  I was not impressed with either one.  Whereas the M. Graham PY 150 looks like bird poop in the pan but washes out to a brilliant primary yellow, the Schmincke looked smoother concentrated but didn’t achieve that clear pure yellow look even in tints- always looking a little brownish/earthy, not a great choice for a primary/main yellow.  And while the PB16 was a lovely colour in tints, it did not appear to be as concentrated as the Winsor Newton, which is nearly black in masstone.

Other favourites were also dissapointing.  PY129 did not have the lively green masstone of M. Graham’s green gold, instead appearing more brown.  PB60 Delft Blue was the gorgeous blue of cobalt glass when wet, and I was very hopeful, but when dry it looked ashy and greyer than both the M. Graham and Daniel Smith versions.

However, the dot cards did introduce me to some other offerings which I may soon add to my collection.  Schmincke has quite a range of pleasingly bright and transparent colours in the red/rose/coral family. I am also hungrily eyeing the absolutely yummy version of PG50 Cobalt Teal.  I currently own this pigment in QoR, which is nice from the tube but I don’t like the rewetting behaviour of.  The Schmincke version is prettier, brighter, and rewets beautifully.   I may even spring for May Green, which is the happiest bright green (gasp! a convenience colour).



Watercolour Palette Tour 2017 – Teaser

Whew, I haven’t blogged in a really long time.  I’m eager to get back to it.

I’ve made a number of changes to my palettes since my last colourholics post last year.    Recently, I set up a “complete” studio palette in  a tin of half-pans of all of the watercolour paints I regularly use  (it claims to hold 48 – I haven’t filled up the 52 I crammed in there yet and I think I could find a way to fit a few more in the brush well) , and repurposed one of my old 24-half pan tins to hold my 14 most commonly used pigments in full pans.

Soon after creating my 14-colour “greatest hits” set, I received some freebie dot cards from Schmincke.  One of the samples was  a 12-colour dot card.  These are the colours they include in their filled version of the same tin.  I couldn’t resist painting out the comparison.  The results are a reminder of how far I’ve drifted in only a couple of years, when I used to use sets much like this one.

The top row in the dot card below are the colours in the Schmincke 12 colour set.  The ones in the bottom row and middle are the 14 colours I’ve recently put in the same tin.

Paint Palette
Comparison of Schmincke 12 paint set vs. my top 14.

The colours in the Schmincke 12-colour basic set are:

Lemon Yellow 215 (PY3)
Cadmium Yellow Light 224 (PY35)
Cadmium Red Light 349 (PR108)
Permanent Carmine 353 (PV19)
Ultramarine Finest 494 (PB29)
Prussian Blue 492 (PB27)
Phthalo Green 519 (PG7)
Permanent Green Olive 534 (PO62, PG7)
Yellow Ochre 655 (PY42)
English Venetian Red 649 (PR101)
Sepia Brown 663 (PBr7, PBk9, PB15:1)
Ivory Black 780 (PBk9)

My set contains the following (the starred items are the most permanent fixtures)

Nickel Azo Yellow (Py150, M. Graham)*
Quinacridone Gold (PO49, Daniel Smith)
Translucent Orange (P071, Schmincke)
Quinacridone Rust (P048, M. Graham)*
Quinacridone Rose (PV19, M. Graham)*
Purple Magenta (PV122, Schmincke)*
Neutral Tint (PV19, PG7 M. Graham)
Indanthrone Blue (PB60, Daniel Smith)*
Prussian Blue (PB27, M. Graham)*
Phthalo Turquoise (PB16, Winsor and Newton)*
Amazonite Genuine (n/a, Daniel Smith Primatek)*
Serpentine Genuine (n/a, Daniel Smith Primatek)*
Burnt Sienna (PBr7, M. Graham)
Raw Umber (PBr7, Daniel Smith)*

I find this comparison a rather hilarious reminder of how far I’ve come.  I much prefer my colours (of course).  They are overall much more transparent, more saturated and darkly valued, and are far more chromatic in the magenta and turquoise ranges.  I love turquoise.  Over the course of the past 2 years, I have very effectively gamut shifted from a beginner set like this one to something I find more attractive and fun to work with.

The colours in the Schmincke 12-paint set (and most 12-colour sets like it) remind me quite a bit of the basic box of crayola crayons or pencils.  This is not a criticism of Schmincke paints, as this is the impression I get from most basic colour sets across manufacturers.  The highest chroma “primary colours”  included are the yellow, blue and red we are familiar with from kindergarden – a highlighter yellow (Py3), an opaqueish orangey red (PR108), and a very violet blue (PB29).

The magenta tone in the Schmincke set (PV19) is still quite a warm rose, and relatively muted – there is no way to use this set to mix nice violets and magentas. It’s a shame, as Schmincke manufactures an amazing pure magenta (PR122 Purple Magenta) which would really round this set out.  Even a less muted, cooler variant of PV19 (Schmincke has a few) could be used.  Similarly, the greenish blue spot is occupied by PB27 Prussian Blue.  I actually quite like Prussian blue (and have included M. Graham PB27 in my own set), but the Schmincke version  is particularly muted, and I would like to see a high chroma  turquoise-slanted blue, such as a PB15:3 Phthalo Blue or  PB16 Phthalo Turquoise (my personal favourite) in that spot.

As with most beginner sets, the Schmincke set has a black watercolour as well as a mixed dark containing black.  As most artists, the first thing I do when I buy a set is chuck the black/white and replace it with a personal favourite.  The earth tones – a yellow ochre and “English Venetian red” a brownish brick red made from PR101, are a somewhat surprising choice.  I actually quite like the venetian red but I think I would prefer a PBr7 in this set, to mix neutrals with the Ultramarine Finest.  I don’t like the yellow ochre, and would prefer something livelier and more transparent.

I also got some larger dot cards from Schmincke with my order, which I will review in a later post.  I’ve had a lot of fun experimenting with different watercolours, and it’s renewed my confidence and love for the pigments I’ve chosen for my own palettes.  I look forward to sharing my full palette tour and colour swatches with you soon.



DIY Christmas Tiny Palettes

As holiday gifts, several people on my list are receiving lovingly handmade tiny watercolour palettes, filled with a selection of artist quality paints.  I’m also making a couple different versions for myself.



My palettes are a shameless rip-off.  Last year, while putting together my urban sketching kit, I came across the absolutely amazing Expeditionary Art Pocket Palette by Maria Corryel Martin.

This palette has a number of advantages over other travel palettes.  it is extremely compact, fitting 14 colours into a business card holder. The pans are shallow but have more surface area than a standard half pan, making this a very usable palette that holds a surprising amount of paint.  In addition, the pans are made of tin and attach magnetically to the palette box, which means if you purchase extra pans, you can swap colours around at will.

Most cleverly (Maria Corryel Martin is a visionary genius), the Pocket Palette is assembled entirely out of commercially available products.  It is a snazzier version of the popular DIY watercolour kits made from Altoids tins, blister packs of gum, dollar store makeup palettes, etc.  Immediately, my gears started churning thinking of all the variations I could make myself. I’ll show you how to DIY your own palettes.

NOTE:  If you just want 1 or 2 basic palettes, support a brilliant artist by buying  from Expeditionary Art.  DIY is only cheaper if you plan to make several palettes or customize them.

What you’ll need:

How to assemble:

  • First, create your mixing surface by masking off the rest of the cardholder/box and using spray enamel on the inside lid.  Allow to dry according to package directions.
  • Squeeze your desired tube paints into tin makeup pans, and allow to dry.
  • Once your mixing surface is dry, stick the magnetic sheet to the inside bottom of your cardholder/box
  • Arrange your paint pans on the magnet surface.


  • Paint colour swatches on watercolour paper for reference.  I used the makeup pans as a template.
  • Done!  Easy-peasy.


The pictures in this post are of a palette I made and filled for my sister. For my sister’s watercolour kit,  I stuck fairly close to the original Expeditionary Art design. I ordered a business card holder engraved with her name from Vistaprint. My studio business card is included for scale reference.My enamel paint did not arrive in time, so my sister’s palette won’t get a mixing surface until later.

The chart below shows the colours I included in her set (she also received 5 empty pans to swap out with her own tubes).



Most colours are from my usual studio tube set.  However, I also purchased a QoR High Chroma Set just for travel kits.  Two of my current favourite pigments are Green Gold/Azo Green (Py129) and Cobalt Teal (PB50) but these are both extra sticky liquid in my favourite M. Graham, and thus unsuitable for small travel pans.  QoR’s High Chroma set includes lovely versions of these pigments, as well as a deep rosy PR122 Quinacridone Magenta and a very rich PV23 Dioxazine Purple, which I also included in this palette.

In a later post, I will share some of the other small magnetic travel palettes I am working on for myself and others.



Choosing Watercolours, Part 3: Colourholics Anonymous

Colour Chart

The thing of great beauty shown above is my massive Mega Watercolour-Mixing Chart.  It so it hangs neatly on the door in my studio space.  The door is right next to my worktable, so I can gaze adoringly at my soothing rainbow collection of colours whenever the frustrating #&$#%@ technical illustration I’m working on gets under my skin.  Ahem.

In earlier segments of this series I talked about my process and preferences and the differences between brands

In this segment of my Choosing watercolours series, I will review each of the colours shown in the top portion of my colour chart. I will refer to colours first by their pigment name, then by the manufacturer/paint name.  Most colours shown are available from several brands- if you already have the same pigment from a different manufacturer, there’s usually no sense in rushing out to get the brand I used.

IMG_4090In a later piece I will go over the “extras and oddballs”, some of which are shown in the bottom of this mixing chart – mostly dark or opaque and granulating colours which are useful for shadows and mixing effects.

I hope to also update with pigment swatches for easier reference.

Highlighted in green are my favourites, highlighted in red are colours I recommend avoiding:

PY3 Hansa Lemon (YSP) : No lemon yellows are truly transparent, but pY3 is a useful semi-transparent.  Used alone it reads as an intense highlighter yellow, but can be muted with violet-blues for useful green mixes.  It does not have the highest lightfastness rating, so proceed with caution.

PY97 Hansa Yellow Deep (MG):  Called Hansa Yellow Medium by other manufacturers, this warmer semi-transparent yellow is useful for mixing olives and punchy oranges.

PY 150 Nickel Azo Yellow (MG):  Called Transparent Yellow by most other brands, PY 150 is a hidden jewel, the only transparent primary yellow pigment.  It looks like literal poop squeezed into a pan, but is a bright clear yellow in washes, and builds up to a deep golden ochre applied thickly, and mixes a beautiful range of greens, oranges and golden browns.

PY 110 Indian Yellow (MG): An M. Graham exclusive as a single-pigment, PY 110 is a transparent, non-granulating rich orange-yellow.

PO 71 Translucent Orange (Sch): A relatively rare pigment, Schmincke’s translucent orange is a bright fiery orange that is transparent in washes and mixes beautiful warm yellows, reds and browns.

PR 112 Naphtol Red (MG): Transparent and lightly granulating, Naphtol red is a bright fire engine red.  Very dominant in mixes, just a tiny dab goes a very long way.

PR83 Alizarin Crimson (WN): Though a useful colour for mixing fleshtones and florals in my sketch kit, Alizarin Crimson is a fugitive pigment which will be replaced once it runs out.

PV19 Quinacridone Rose (YSP) : Usually a warmer rose colour, the Yarka version appears closer to a magenta.  I have the WN Permanent Rose version in my sketch kit and will switch to M. Graham’s redder PV19 when both run low.  Nice transparent, non-granulating, permanent floral colour

PV122 Purple Magenta (Sch): True primary magenta – transparent, non-granulating, and permanent.  Deep and saturated and mixes wonderful violets and reds.

PV23 Winsor Violet (WN): The most common single-pigment violet – called Dioxazine by other brands.  Transparent and non-granulating but may be less-than-lightfast in tints.  Will switch to the supposedly more lightfast PV37 version of dioxazine offered by M. Graham when I run out.

PB60 Indanthrone Blue (DS):  Deep dark violet-blue, transparent, non-granulating and lightfast, excellent for mixing emerald greens and deep shadows of all kinds. I think I am a bit weird about blues, I prefer alternates to all of the common favourites.  I use Indanthrone Blue more frequently than Ultramarine

PB29 Ultramarine Finest (Sch):  Called French Ultramarine by most other brands, PB29 is one of the most common violet-blue pigments.  The Schmincke version is more finely milled than others, which reduces it’s granulating properties.  This makes it a cleaner/more predictable mixer.

PB27 Prussian Blue (MG): A dark, slightly dulled primary-blue – the M. Graham version reminds me of a phthalo blue with more personality, one of the rare cases where I don’t prefer the clearest brightest colour, perhaps because pure primary blues and the highlighter greens they mix don’t occur much in nature.  Has a tiny bit of flocculation with doesn’t impact mixing but gives the paint some depth.

PB 15:3 Winsor Blue Green Shade (WN): Known as Phthalo Blue in other brands, this is the common “primary” transparent blue.  This is the clearest mixer, but not my favourite blue alone or mixed.

PB 16 Phthalo Turquoise (WN): A deeper, greener variant of Phthalo Blue with similar mixing properties but much prettier.  Be careful to check pigments when purchasing Phthalo Turquoise paints as many brands (including my usual favourites M. Graham and Daniel Smith) sell a convenience mix rather than the single pigment PB16.  Luckily unlike some of their other pigments, the WN paint re-wets very readily.  Again, filed under “I’m weird about blues”, I’ve eliminated the ubiquitous opaque chalky cerulean in all of my palettes in favour of phthalo turquoise.

N/A Amazonite Genuine (DS):  DS Amazonite genuine is a transparent, non-granulating teal from Daniel Smith’s Primatek line of real mineral paints.  It waters down to a clear blue-turquoise in tints, I find it useful when I need a less intense green-blue for mixing or water effect than my usual “pow” picks .  Plus, made of ground up real amazonite, how cool is that?

PG18 Viridian (MG): My usual impulse would be to go for a more powerful, non-granulating Phthalo Green with nearly identical hue in the emerald spot.  However, a bit of granulation can make mixed greens more leaf-like and real, and so I am experimenting with using Viridian instead.  This is one of the few cases where brand really matters in a common pigment – Viridian has a reputation as being very difficult to rewet and a weak tinter. M. Graham’s higher pigment load and moist honey formulation make it more rewettable and a deep tinter.

N/A Serpentine Genuine (DS):  Another Primatek, serpentine is a  very realistic mossy sap green colour with purple/brown flecks.  Mixes well with blues and yellows and oranges for a range of realistic neutralized greens and browns, but I love it on it’s own.

PY 129 Azo Green (MG):  Pigment is called Green Gold in most other brands (Rich Green Gold in Daniel Smith).  Nearly transparent and non-granulating, this paint ranges from a strong green lemon in tints to a neutralized apple green  applied full strength.  It makes a great glowing glaze.  The M. Graham paint is greener and brighter than other brands made with the same pigment, which I really enjoy.  However, this is the wettest/stickiest of my M. Graham paints.  In a travel palette, a different brand might be a safer alternative.

P049 Quinacridone Gold (DS): Daniel Smith is the only remaining supplier of this genuine pigment which has been discontinued by manufacturers.  All other Quin Golds are convenience mixes.  Transparent and non-granulating, Quin Gold is a useful glazing colour, as well as a transparent/non-granulating alternative to traditional earth tones.  

PO48 Quinacridone Rust (MG): Called Quinacridone Burnt Orange by other manufacturers. A transparent and non-granulating burnt orange, this yummy pigment is the perfect earthy fall colour.  Appears more brownish full-strength but is nearly a pure orange in tints.

PR101 Burnt Sienna (WN): Eerily similar to PO48 applied full strength but granulating and more opaque and less pretty in tints.  Previously a favourite earth tone but since I discovered Quin Rust I can’t think of many situations where I would prefer a PR101 based burnt sienna.  Will consider switching to a browner PBr7 based Sienna.

PBr7/PR101/PY42 Burnt Umber (WN):  This one shouldn’t be included at all, I mistakenly thought it was a single pigment.  ‘Nuff said.

PBr7 Raw Umber (DS): There is huge natural variation in natural earth tones.  Daniel Smith’s raw umber is an uncommonly dark cool brown that mixes a range of perfect rocky greys and very neutralized greens and plums.  This is one of those cases where I LOVE the granulation and neutral character of a paint.  

I hope this guide has been helpful to you.  Of course, the best way to learn about colours is to try some mixing of your own, but if you’d like a colour mixing chart reference without the effort and expense, prints of my chart are available through my  Redbubble shop .  I’ve also added some fun extras for those of you who have always secretly wanted watercolour mixing chart leggings.  I think I might treat myself to a scarf after all this hard work painting.

Choosing Watercolours, Part 2 – Battle of the Brands

When choosing my watercolour paints, I was initially very focused on finding the “best” brand(s), and totally confused by the varied and often contradictory assertions made by different brands and their devotees.  How can these two brands both be 5x as concentrated as each other?  Are hand poured or extruded pans better? Is honey in my paint a good thing? A terrible thing? Why do these two brands use completely different names for the same pigment?

The truth is that most brands use the same basic set of pigments and other ingredients from the same sources, with only minor variations.  Artist-quality paints should not contain unlisted fillers, brighteners or dyes – they contain only the listed pigments and some binding/humectant ingredients.  While exact recipes and proportions do vary, you could choose any one of a dozen or so artist-quality brands and get great results.  Brand preferences are very dependent on paint texture, and depend a lot on how you use your paints.

A growing collection
A growing collection

My preference is for tube colours squeezed out and dried into pans or a studio palette. I paint primarily in the studio, though I also have a portable sketch kit.  I like bright, saturated, transparent colours with minimal granulation except in some greens/earth tones.  I use only single-pigment paints, because with the wide variety of available pigments, I don’t see the need for convenience mixes.

In this post, I will walk you through the differences and pros/cons of each the main artist-quality watercolour paint brands I am familiar with.  In order of my preference:

M. Graham:  M.  Graham is my favourite brand because of their high pigment load, their easily rewettable honey formula, their focus on lightfast single-pigment paints, and their unbeatable price point (locally, anyway).  Three other brands claim to be 5X more concentrated than their competitors.  According to my pigmentation tests, they are full of shit.  M. Graham trounces every other brand in pigmentation.  M. Graham formulates their paint with honey, which keeps the paint from ever fully drying, making it wonderfully easy to re-wet.  Some people in hot/humid climates report problems with messy running paint in their travel palettes, particularly with the cadmium and cobalt pigments.  I live in a cold/dry climate, mostly work in the studio and don’t use cobalts or cads, so this isn’t a problem for me.  While M. Graham offer a few unique pigments (try their PY110 Indian Yellow, it’s a beautiful transparent deep orange-yellow) they have a relatively small line, so pigment magpies such as myself will have to diversify.  M. Graham is only available in tube form.

Daniel Smith: Daniel Smith is THE brand for pigment magpies.  They offer an astounding range of over 250 colours, including several unique single pigments, a “Primatek” line of paints milled from natural minerals and gemstones (I love the Serpentine and Amazonite paints, both very useful in botanical work), in addition to some wacky shimmery and sedimentary convenience mixes.  They are also the only remaining supplier of real P048 Quinacridone Gold. Many of their paints are strongly granulating and “assertive”.  They also seem to shrink a lot in the pan, but most re-wet easily.  Daniel Smith is available in tube form, with a limited line of watercolour sticks (which can be used in the same way as pans).

Schmincke: For those of us who prefer less granulation and predictable behaviour, Schmincke’s finely milled paints are a real plus – their Ultramarine Finest is a barely granulating PB29.  Translucent Orange and Purple Magenta are lovely too.  Schmincke paints have a lovely creamy consistency coming out of the tube (no weird little watercolor turds), and dry to nice, smooth pans, making them a good choice for travel kits.  My biggest frustration with Schmincke is that they have a real naming problem – often using names that other brands use for single pigments for their own unnecessary convenience mixes, while naming the single pigment something else entirely.  Also, here in Canada, they are hard to find and ferociously expensive to import.  Available in tube and pan formats

Maimeri Blu: Similar upsides and downsides as Schmincke, though even harder to find in Canada, and I don’t have any personal favourites in their line.  Available in tube and pan formats

Winsor & Newton: The world seems to be split between WN devotees and WN haters.  I suspect many of the haters simply had a bad experience with the ubiquitous beginner kits, and the devotees simply haven’t tried many other options. The biggest advantage of WN paints is name recognition and reliability.   They are sold in nearly every art store in the world, mentioned in every instructional book.  There is no need to research and cross-reference pigment names if you stick with WN.  Other than that, they’re a solid but not particularly noteworthy line.  They have a fairly extensive range but few unique pigments.  I have quite a few WN in my collection simply by convenience but most are not standouts.  Their main downside, in my opinion, is that they insist on formulating their pans differently from their tubes, such that some of the tube paints do not rewet well when dry. Their small 5 mL tubes are priced just under other brands 15mL tubes, so they’re fairly expensive in the long run.

Yarka St. Petersburg: Another brand with some fiery debate around it.  This budget line is sold as artist quality but includes many fugitive pigments and cheap convenience mixes.  However, it has a cult following and came very highly recommended by my sister for it’s easy rewetability and transparency.  The pans I got were indeed bright and easily wettable, but are less pigmented than the other brands in my palette.  I use them regularly but when I finish them I won’t buy this brand again.  This is partially because I prefer to buy tube paints, and this brand is available only in pans.

Holbein: An extensive, relatively affordable line of paints including several unique or rare pigments.  However, also lots of fugitive pigments and convenience mixtures, so careful label reading is required.  Available in tubes locally, and I think pans are available somewhere.

QOR: Made by popular acrylic brand Golden, the QOR line of watercolours advertises that they use a proprietary Aquazol binder in place of the traditional gum arabic.  They claim to be 5x more concentrated than their competition, but in my tests they ranked on par with WN and Schmincke.  I tried dry samples, but the different binder did seem to have an effect on the behaviour of the colours when used from dry samples, making them stay in place more, rather than lifting and blending when layered.  I didn’t love the feeling, but my friend Ralf Wall swears by the brand, and it seems to suit his style of painted on location nature illustrations.  Apparently they behave more like traditional watercolours when used from the tube.  The brand offers a large number of 3- and 4- pigment convenience mixes, even for those that are not single-pigment purists, this is too much.  However, the colours in their high-chroma collection are all quite bright and clean and single-pigments (except for the quin. gold). Available in tubes.

Sennelier:  I strongly disliked the feeling of this paint – weirdly sticky both straight from the tube and dried in the pan. This was not helped by the cryptic naming and overwhelming proportion of convenience mixes in the line.  Two of my favourite botanical artists swear by Sennelier, though.  Available in tubes and pans.

Old Holland: I haven’t tried this brand because they are both the most expensive watercolour brand on the planet, and also full of misleadingly named convenience mixes.  According to Handprint, they are also not highly pigmented.  I would love to hear from someone who uses this brand what sets them apart

Mission Gold: I rank this brand lower than the overpriced brand I haven’t tried above for one simple reason – this ridiculous advertisement.  Not only do they claim to be 5x stronger than their competition, they use a very rigged video to “prove” it, loading significantly more paint and water onto their paint-out and pushing much harder, then barely skimming the WN sample.  The free sample tube I tried was weak in tints and separated in the tube. Available in tubes.

There are also several other  artist watercolour brands I haven’t tried – BlockX, Daler Rowney, American Journey, Da Vinci, Kremer, Lukas,  and Utrecht, to list a few. I am curious to try many of these.

Choosing Watercolours, Part 1 – The Scientific Method

I usually prefer to self-identify as an artist first, and an engineer never.  However, there are times, even when doing art, that I cannot deny my history and nature.

A year ago,  I was accepted into the Society of Botanical Artists’ Distance Learning Diploma Course.  My first task was getting myself some artist quality watercolour paints – I had signed up to do several of my assignments in watercolour, yet I had next to zero experience in watercolour painting and only a Cotman watercolour pocket box and 2-3 random WN tubes.

Falling back to my engineer background, I decided to do the only logical thing.  I combed through each of my course textbooks, tallying the frequency of colours and brands used in all of the examples.  I reasoned that this way, I could purchase only the most useful paints, saving money and effort.  The results, to my surprise, yielded a collection very similar to a 24-pan set of Winsor and Newton paints, which I promptly purchased.  I was very proud of my efficiency.

First Attempt Mixing ChartWhen my tin arrived, after some brief marvelling at the improvements over my old Cotman set, I set to work mixing greens, as prescribed by my course handouts.  To my dismay, many of my mixes came out much more opaque, muddy and granular than I had hoped.  Had I not gotten the perfect set after all?

I had not, in my initial search, paused to consider that most artists before me had probably purchased or received as a gift the very same tin, and that the frequency of use of these particular colours likely had more to do with convenience than any particular merit of the brand or paints.  While I wasn’t thrilled with all of my colour choices, however, I was hooked on watercolour painting, and determined to find my “perfect” palette.

Armed with new determination (and a new job with which to pay for expensive paint), I set out to find the best watercolours. Google pointed me to  Handprint and Jane Blundell.  I eagerly read all about different pigments and brands, taking notes and cross-referencing. I desperately searched for any shred of information on which paints the artists I admired used.  I was frustrated that many seemed to offer completely contradictory statements of fact from each other. I made priority lists of paints I wanted to try, with alternates nearby on the colour wheel. I discovered brands that weren’t mentioned anywhere in my course literature – it turns out, shocker, that North American brands are not widely available in the UK.

After at least a couple hundred hours of research, I finally bit the bullet, and started buying paint.  I bought 1-2 tubes from each of 6 brands on my list, all single pigment paints, with a preference for transparent and non-granular paints. I ran my own rudimentary pigmentation tests – debunking several manufacturers marketing hype as well as other artists claims, developing my own preferences as I went.CTTswj8WsAAmmOW (1)

Next, I went back to the internet.  Now that I was more familiar with my own preferences, I could start filling in the blanks in my own palette.  Using my selection of paints, I started working on a giant colour mixing chart to further refine my palette and develop better colour mixing intuition.  I left gaps for paints I had not yet purchased but intended to.

Scientific Method

My watercolour mixing mega-chart is still in progress.  I intend to fill it in fully next week.  However, I’ve learned so much from it I already have plans for the next one.  Of course, I’ll need to try just a few more paints for that 😛

Inspired by some of the bloggers I stalked obsessively this past year, I intend to write a series of post detailing what’s in my palette and why I chose the brands/pigments I use.