My Current Palette

So after writing this post about the physical side of building a new watercolour paint box, here is my updated palette. I’m using a new Moleskine Portrait Watercolour Sketchbook as my sketchbook of choice for the watercolour part of Liz Steel’s teacup course (that starts today), and so I used the first page to create an index for my current palette.

My watercolour palette for May 2023

Every watercolourist’s palette is unique and full of choices that reflect their subject matter preference, the place they live in, and various personal idiosyncrasies. Please don’t copy anyones palette as-is (including mine), but rather understand the artist’s choices and tailor your palette choices to your own needs. To this end, I will explain some of the choices behind my paletter.

There are 24 half-pans in my palette, and 23 unique colours. Daniel Smith Hansa Yellow Medium now appears twice in my palette, once for mixing and once for using as an unmixed mid warm yellow. Yellow paints get dirty if you even look at them, and they are difficult to clean after a dab of this or that paint made its way to them. Of the three yellows in my palette I use DS Hansa Yellow Medium the most for mixing, which is why I opted to have a second half-pan of it this time (it’s a new change that I’m trying out).

Of the 23 paints, 15 are Schmincke Horadam and the rest are Daniel Smith. I’m pointing this out so that you feel comfortable mixing between paint manufacturers on your palette. This can be done so long as you are using the same grade of paint in each maker (artist grade, for example).

There are some classic examples of watercolour palette building in this palette and some that are a bit off. There are warm and cold sets of yellow (Hansa Yellow Medium, Lemon Yellow), red (Quin. Rose and Alizarin Crimson) and blue (French Ultramarine and Cobalt Blue deep), and there’s a rather standard set of earth tones (Pyrol Oxide, Monte Amiata Natural Sienna, Van Dyke Brown and Burnt Umber) but there’s some weird stuff too. I’ll be focusing mostly on the weird stuff.

There are three greens in my palette. I sketch mostly landscapes and having premixed greens saves a LOT of time. Of the three greens I use Sap Green the most, either by itself or lightening it with yellow or darkening it with blue. It also has a brightness and vivacity that you cannot obtain by mixing your own green. The two other greens are opaque (which means they don’t mix well), and cover two very common and difficult to mix green shades. Schmincke Tundra green is part of their super-granulating series, and has some pink undertones to it. It also covers a wide variety of olive coloured local plants. The Cobalt Green Dark is a brand new addition to the palette, replacing Schmincke’s forest green. This paint works as an “artificial” green, for things like benches and fences that were painted green, and a greyish-green for the many greyish-green local plants.

Then there are some “magic” paints. Schmincke Glacier Green is on the palette as a cool “glass” and sea blue, and it’s super-granulating and dual pigmented. You can see the pigment party going on with it in my swatch of this colour.
Liz Steel has influenced me to add an orange and a turquoise to the palette. They bring joy to the painting, the turquoise is useful as “glass” and “windows” when I want something brighter than the Glacier Green and the orange paint is much brighter and more alive than any mixed orange that I could ever hope to create. It’s useful to add a splash of colour to a painting, to help focus the eye in a certain area. The two Daniel Smith blues on my paletter are also Liz Steel inspired, and at least one of them may be on its way out due to low use.

Paynes Grey Bluish is one of my most heavily used pigments, as part of sky and sea scenes, denim jeans, as a shadow colour, for asphalt and to darken other mixes. A must have for me.

The two violets on the palette are also personal choices, though the Tundra Violet will likely be replaced with something else in the near future. Purples are very difficult to mix without getting muddy not registering as purple, which is why the Cobalt Violet Hue paint on my palette. The super-granulating Tundra Violet is much less useful, and may find its way out my palette.

I hope this gave you some insight as how to think about the pigment choices that you make for your palette. Again – create your own palette and don’t just force yourself to use a copy of someone else’s

Teacup Sketching: On Failures

The wonderful Liz Steel is starting a new teacup sketching course, and I decided to enrol to it. I don’t have many teacups, but I do love the ones that I have, and I think that they are interesting objects to sketch. As Liz points out, many teacups and coffee mugs have vivid memories tied to them, and they oftentimes have interesting shapes, colours and patterns. I was also looking for a way to kickstart my sketching again, and as this is a short course (just 4 weeks) I thought that this was a good place to start.

As is customary in Liz’s courses, I created a “pre course” sketch: a teacup sketch to demonstrate where I’m starting from. I started with a pencil sketch and then worked over it with a Staedtler pigment liner only to have the whole thing ruined when I used a new eraser that was too aggressive for the paper. You don’t often get to see failures on display, so I’m attaching the photo of my failed first attempt so that we can all learn from my mistake.

I then decided to risk going directly to watercolour. The teacup I sketched was both complex in terms of shape and pattern, so going this route was not something I would have chosen if not for my initial failure. The result came out better than I expected. It’s far from perfect but it’s not terrible. A start that I can improve upon, at the very least.

Direct to watercolour cup

Here is my failure sketch. You can see the mess of the paper. But if you don’t experiment and try new things, you don’t know what works and what doesn’t. That eraser is relegated to non-watercolour paper from now on, and it was a lesson worth learning on a sketch of this kind and not on something more precious.

Failed sketch.

Don’t be afraid to try stuff out. It’s worth it even if the result isn’t what you’d term a success.

Building Back My Paint Box

I’ve recently misplaced my beloved watercolour paint box and after searching for it for more than two weeks, I gave up and decided to build a new paint box, with the hopes that the old one will show up one day. Good quality watercolour paint boxes and artist grade watercolours aren’t cheap, which is why I put this off for a while, but they do last for a very long time if you invest a little bit in them.

This post won’t be so much about my palette choices but rather more about the physical properties of the box that I use and the paints within it. If you have had a taste of watercolours and decided that you enjoy the medium and would like to create a long lasting field paint set, this post is for you.

For years I used the excellent Windsor Newton Cotman Watercolour Field Box. The box comes with a set of Cotman student grade watercolours that I gifted away (they aren’t worth your time. If there’s something worth investing in when it comes to watercolours it’s the paints. The order is paints -> paper -> brushes), a handy little built in water bottle and water cup, a sponge, and a foldable brush that is mediocre but usuable in a pinch (you’ll probably lose it shortly after buying the box, but that’s ok). The box officially holds 12 half pans, but in reality you can squeeze 14 half pans in with no effort. If you are getting into Urban Sketching this is an excellent set to have, a nifty little workhorse that will last you easily for a few years. For a very compact size you get a surprisingly large set of mixing areas, and while I’d only use the included water bottle as a backup because it holds very little water, it’s good to have around.

The pros of this kit are many: it’s small, light, well designed, cheap, easy to use, and holds a lot for such a small, pocketable package. The cons are why after three Field Boxes I finally switched over to my current setup: the boxes deteriorate and fall apart after 2-3 years of use at most, they are difficult to clean, and it’s difficult to switch out paints if you’re experimenting with your palette.

The build quality in particular has taken a hit in recent years, to the point where I cannibalise old Field Boxes for parts for the new ones. However, even the old boxes didn’t last for more than 3-4 years, because the plastic would deteriorate and the attached mixing flats would drop off, leaving you with very few mixing space in the end.

Enter my current setup, one that I’ve been using for a few years now: the Schmincke 12 half pan metal paint box, filled with 24 half pans.

The box after being freshly filled.

There are many pocket sized enamelled paint boxes, but after trying several generic ones, I found that Schmincke’s box is worth the extra money. Generic boxes didn’t have such a good mixing area configuration, and they tended to rust off on me. The Schmincke box can take a hell of a beating without the enamel flaking off, and when working with watercolours, as soon as there’s a chip in the enamel, rust will take hold of your box.

The box comes with an insert meant to allow for two rows of six half pans and a compact, foldable brush in the middle. I take that insert out and toss it. That leaves me the whole box for a whopping 24 half pans, or a mix of half pans and full pans. Here I my usual setup, which is about 60% Schmincke and 40% Daniel Smith watercolours. Some of them are paint filled half pans that I purchased, and most of them are half pans that I filled with paint myself. Buying tubes and filling your own pans is cheaper in the long run, particularly for paints that you use often.

Filling your own half pans with paint is very easy, and also exposes interesting properties of the paints that you use. For instance, Van Dyke Brown takes ages to cure, while all my yellow paints cure super fast. I’ll also note that Daniel Smith watercolours loose A LOT of volume after drying up, shrinking at times to almost 50% of their original volume. It always takes 2-3 passes to fill a Daniel Smith half-pan, and with Schmincke one pass is enough. So you can see the ugly crack in my Hansa Yellow Medium, where the paint shrunk to half its size and I filled the other half of the pan again.

On the other hand, Schmincke’s half pan packaging is infuriating. The pans come wrapped in wax paper which often sticks to the paint as you unwrap it (imagine peeling off a sticker and having bits of sticker left behind). You can see this on the Lemon Yellow on the bottom left and on the Cobalt Blue Deep on the second to last row, on the right. After much of a struggle I got the residue off the Cobalt Blue, but I left it to scrape off later from the Lemon Yellow. It is a hassle to remove these bits of leftover paper, and they ruin the paint.

Closeup on the paints in the set.

As there’s a bit of a gap left that allows the pans to travel freely in the box, I cut a bit of foam and put it in the box, creating a friction fit for all the pans. Removing a pan and switching it over is a breeze this way – you can always lift out the foam and then easily remove the paint pan.

Foam at work

The box has two large mixing areas, one divided into three large wells which I use to mix often use colours or paint for large areas. The second area is divided into six small wells (you can see this all in the first photo of the set) which are good for small mixes. As it’s enamelled metal it’s very easy to clean, and the set is much more robust than the W&N Field Box.

If you like to experiment with your palette (I always have 2-3 paints that I switch out every 3-4 months), and you are looking for an ultra durable compact field set, I highly recommend investing in the Schmincke 12 half-pan box and filling it with whichever paints you choose. Pre-made watercolour sets are always terrible (they include at least 1-2 colours that you will never ever use), and building a set that fits your needs is a crucial step in making your watercolour painting more streamlined and enjoyable.

What watercolour box do you use? Let me know in the comments, as I love hearing from other sketchers about their tool choices.

Urban Sketch at Pro Democracy Demonstration

Back to the weekly pro democracy demonstration. Used some new art supplies that I’ll review later. Tons of energy and wind tonight.

Process photo
People gathering to demonstrate

Phoenix Community Garden

The Phoenix Community Garden at the heart of Soho, London is one of my favourite places on earth. How much do I love this place, that was brought to greenery out of the ashes of a parking lot? I visualised it while I was going through my first and very painful biopsy. I won’t go into the gory details, but suffice to say that it took a very powerful positive memory to help me keep my body still during the intense pain of the procedure.

I love this new sign.

The garden is a haven for plants, people and wildlife in the heart of a busy city, and it is full of character. You get to see how bits of masonry and bobs of donations are recycled into a joyful mishmash of urban gardening.

No two benches here are alike, every pot and container has something weird or unique going on (from smurfs to little signs).

There’s a pond surrounded by broken paving that even has some goldfish moseying along in it.

And the place is cleverly built to be full of books, crannies, corners and elevation shifts, making it look much larger than it is.

I managed to get a quick sketch in before the rain started, nothing too fancy as my neuropathy was terrible today.

Find yourself a bit of green to find joy in today. We could all use a bit more of that.

Urban Sketchers Sketchwalk: Dizengoff Square

I went on a sketchwalk with our local Urban Sketchers chapter to Dizengoff Square, a central square in Tel Aviv that has been a gathering place since before there was a state of Israel. It was hot for the season, and the place was jumping with colour and activity.
This was sketched on a Moleskine Watercolour A5 portrait sketchbook, with Staedtler fineliners and Schmincke and Daniel Smith watercolours. The white was added with a Uniball Signo Broad UM-153 gel pen. You can see some process photos below.

One Week 100 People Day 8: Protest Bookend

I started the One Week 100 People challenge with the pro-democracy protests last week, and I finished it with them this week.

Fighting for the soul of our country
Every week more people take to the streets.

These were sketched with watercolour and a 0.1 Staedtler pigment liners. As I was drawing a 3-year-old girl snuck up to see what I was doing, and we had a lovely chat with her and her parents. I ended up drawing dinosaurs in a forest for her to take home and colour, while she explained the merits of democracy and pizza with olives to us. I was enchanted.

I finished the challenge with 112 people sketched. I had a lot of fun sketching people, and there’s something in playing with various medium types that made it more fun and expressive than my attempts in previous years, at least to me.

One Week 100 People Day 7: Mixed Media

Today turned out to be busier than I planned so I struggled getting these 12 in. They are sketched in ballpoint, red and blue Caran D’Ache pencil, a Caran D’Ache coloured lead, a vintage Mongol pencil, Faber Castell Pitt brush pens, and two different fountain pens. Can you guess which is which?

That makes 72.

One Week 100 People Day 6: Posca Pens and Pencil

I used Posca paint markers for the first six sketches and a Musgrave Tennessee Red pencil for the next six sketches. The Poscas aren’t great for portraits, but are a lot of fun to use.

Yes that’s a Cortex Brand Sidekick in the background. Testing it out.

That brings me to 60. I’ll likely finish the rest during the weekend.