Simple Steps to Choosing a Palette

Simple Steps to Choosing a Palette

Part of my task as a botanical artist and illustrator is to depict my chosen plant in not only an artful way, but as botanically accurately as possible.  This means that the colors in my painting should be as close as possible to the colors in the plant.  My goal is to convey the variations of color in leaf, stem and petal, but not in a way that distracts or looks disjointed. I want to show the diversity of colors and shades, yet retain an overall unity to my painting.

The shades of green in the world are limitless…take a walk through a forest in the Pacific Northwest where I live and you will see what I mean…or just stand in a park near you and count the different greens…you’ll be there a very long time.  Not only is the range of hues we call green immense (let’s not even start on red or blue), but the myriad of pigments and possible mixes of pigments seems endless as well! (A note to my art appreciating but not painting readers, this is a rather technical post about pigments so if you want you can skip down to the bottom for a summary and a bit of philosophy thrown in!)

Olympic National Forest copyright sfgamchick

How many shades of green can you see in this one spot in the Olympic National Forest?  photo credit: fsgamchick

Getting to Know the Plant

Rather than using premixed greens, I mix my greens from primary colors (yellow and blue with usually a dab of red) so creating the right shade of green can be daunting without a system for figuring out which yellow and which blue to use.  So where to begin…?

Here are the steps I take to find which pigments to use to mix my greens and to bring unity to my overall painting.  My first step is to take my plant outside (if it is potted or a cut flower) to examine it closely in daylight because artificial lighting can distort colors.  Besides looking at how the light interacts with the leaves and petals, noting translucency, reflected light and shadows, I take note of the overall hues and tones in the plant, particularly noting any primary colors (blue, yellow, red) it might have.   Once I have found any primary colors, I try to determine which pigment in my palette will match that particular hue most accurately.  I don’t always find a perfect match, but if I can find a pigment that is close, then it will take a minimum of mixing to create a match.  The less mixing, the more likely to keep my colors pure and clean.

Using color cards to find a pigment close to the hue of the blue berries

Color cards help find the pigment closest to the hue of the blue berries. In this case it is Winsor and Newton Indanthrene Blue (PB 60). I have the brand and pigment on the card, and I’ve left room for notes and samples of mixes I’ve made with the pigment.

The purest red in the plant was the berry stems, so I used my red color cards to find the closest match--Daniel Smith Anthraquinoid Red (PR 177).

The purest red in the plant was the berry stems, so I used my red color cards to find the closest match–Daniel Smith Anthraquinoid Red (PR 177).

Using Color Charts and Pigment Cards

I can spot the closest pigment pretty easily with these pigment cards I made using the watercolor paper I typically use.  I splay them out and hold them close to the plant.  I got the idea for pigment or color cards to supplement my chart of smaller dabs of paint, from Eunike Nugroho’s marvelous blog. (She kindly gave me permission to talk about her technique and give you the link.)  I love her cleverly compact system of radial cards but decided I wanted to use bigger cards since I take lots of color notes (which tend to get lost) and I wanted to be able to record mixes on my cards as well.  I made them 3″ x 5″ (7.5 cm x 12.5 cm) on Fabriano Artistico extra white 180 lb paper (fortunately I had lots of scraps).  When I am traveling light in the field, my little color chart works well as an alternative, or maybe someday I’ll make a travel version of Eunike’s radial cards.

On the left is my basic color chart that I take into the field or use to narrow the possibilities before I get out my pigment card with mixes for that color and color notes.

On the left is my basic color chart that I take into the field or use to narrow the possibilities before I get out my pigment card with mixes with that particular pigment and color notes.  I can put samples of mixes on the back too.

Once I determine the primary colors in the plant and which pigments match them most closely, I look at my basic color chart of green mixes.  If the plant has both a blue and a yellow, then ideally I can mix a green with the these two pigments to get my leaf color.  I check my chart to see if the mix is anywhere close.  If not, I look for a green in the chart made from the blue pigment that matches the plant, mixed with any other yellow, or the matching yellow pigment mixed with any other blue.  I add a small dab whatever red that is in the plant to tone down my green mix so it looks more natural.  This may sound complex, but in practice it is easy and simplifies my process of deciding on pigments while creating color harmony in my painting.  It’s remarkable how often the primaries in the plant will mix to make the right color of leaf, but if not I fall back on my basic color chart to find a path to the right shade of green.

Summarizing and Philosophizing

In many of my paintings, I have used only three pigments, each representing a primary color.  Sometimes I add in one or two more pigments to supplement them so I end up with 3-5 pigments per painting.  It’s amazing the range of colors that can be mixed with just a few pigments.  When I mix a lot of colors from just a few pigments, it seems to harmonize and unify the painting.

It’s been my little secret that the underpinnings of my paintings reflect the underpinnings of my personal philosophy, admittedly in a very subtle manner.  In a deeply personal way, this approach is satisfying to me because of the unity in diversity I see in nature, and that we long for in the human race.   I like to think that my paintings are a small voice of hope, maybe a plea, for a form of unity that embraces diversity as well.

Many artists, including some that are better artists than I, use a multitude of pigments in each painting and their work is beautiful.  My simplified approach to pigments suits my attempts to convey the peace and complex harmony one experiences in the forest and fields of the Pacific Northwest…plus it keeps me from pulling out my hair when I try to figure out which pigments to use in the first place!

I did these paintings with a limited palette of three pigments per plant.

Here are a few examples of my paintings using a limited palette of three to five primary pigments.  From left to right: Camassia: French Ultramarine, Winsor Yellow, Permanent Rose, Winsor Violet, Winsor Blue Green Shade; Licorice Fern & Oxalis: Quinacridone Magenta, Prussian Blue, Quinacridone Gold, New Gamboge; Mission Bells: Winsor Blue Green Shade, Cadmium Yellow Deep, Quinacridone Magenta


  1. I looooved your super clear explanation of colors! And I looooved your color chart cards!
    And I would loooove to paint as good as you! I have seen the chance of entering the London Art College, but I haven’t decided whether to go directly into botanical painting or taking the drawing course! ??☺️☺️☺️☺️?! Have a wonderful evening and keep painting! Greetings from Guadalajara in Mexico!

    • Leticia, Thank you for your kind note–great to hear from you in Guadalajara! I am happy that you found my post helpful. If you don’t mind my input, I would say that a good drawing course will get you off to a great start in pursuing botanical art, unless your drawing skills are already really strong. Every beautiful botanical painting has a good drawing as the first step. Best wishes to you in your studies!


    Preparing colors and match them is necessary in all kind of media….and in watercolor spacially.

  3. mary harper says

    I love your blogs and soak up any information you kindly share. I would like to know what the gs is in the Windsor Blue GS.

    • Hi Mary, I am delighted to hear that you enjoy my blog and my posts have been helpful to you! The “GS” refers to “Green Shade”. Winsor Blue (which other brands call Pthalo Blue or Pthalocyanine Blue) comes in both Green Shade and Blue Shade. Btw, I think its handy to know that all of the “Green Shade” versions have the pigment color index name PB 15:3, and the “Red Shade” versions are PB 15:1, so I don’t get so confused over different manufacturer names for the same pigment! You’ll find the color index name on the side of the tube of paint.

      Thank you for your question–I’ll edit my post and write out the abbreviations so others don’t get confused by them.


  1. […] my last post, Simple Steps to Choosing a Palette, I talked about a method I use to determine the pigments for my paintings. In this post, I’ll […]

  2. […] blogged about this previously but I have index-sized cards for each pigment with color samples, good mixes noted, and what I […]

I would love to hear from you...