How to Select Colors for a Balanced Palette

There is one frequently asked question in the shop that is hard to add to the F.A.Q. section: “Which colors should I get?” There is no single “correct” answer to this question and selecting colors depends on the person’s color preferences, style, and subject(s) of painting. I would like to suggest a simple formula for selecting colors that can help you narrow down your color choices and compose a useful palette that would help you paint all the subjects: landscapes, cityscapes, seascapes, portraits, and all others.

Before I get into details, I want to mention two things:

1) This approach will be most helpful for artists who want to paint in a realistic manner, i.e. use colors that are similar to the colors of their subjects in the world. This formula can be potentially useful for other styles of painting, as basic principles of conveying light, dark, texture, and contrast apply to all visual arts.

2) My approach to building watercolor palettes is more pragmatic than frivolous. I approach each color selection from a practical and economical perspective, examining if the color is useful, versatile, and works well with other colors to fulfill my purposes. Additional colors can always be included for some limited purposes or just for inspiration. A palette can have multiple extensions.

My formula for the colors in the limited palette set is the following:

Palette = 1/4 highlights + 2/4 mid-tones + 1/4 lowlights (temperature opposite to mid-tones)

First, let’s unpack the terminology and then we’ll look at some examples.


Mid-tones represent the color(s) of objects in real world, unmodified by light, shadows, or reflections. For example, trees are green, lemons are yellow, and roses are red. To convey a mid-tone, we can use several colors and their mixes. Color of the object is rarely solid (think human face), there is a variation of values (light/dark), saturation (bright/subtle), and hues (presence of red, blue, and yellow). Depending on the subject of your painting, there will be several colors that best represent the mid-tones.


Highlights include colors that help convey light, both warm and cool. For balance and to help keep your palette versatile, you will need both warm and cool colors for highlights. When selecting highlight colors for your subject, remember that white watercolor paper can serve as the lightest highlight. If you are painting objects that are pale and light, keep in mind that you can reserve white paper to show lightest highlights.


Lowlights are the colors that help convey shadows, both warm and cool. The lowlights in the set must have the temperature opposite to the majority of mid-tones. For example, if your mid-tones are mostly warm colors, the lowlights must include cool colors, and vice versa. The general rule for painting shadows is that they are never the same temperature as the object. That is, warm object will have a cool shadow and a cool object will have a warm shadow.

Let’s look at some examples of limited palettes composed with this formula. (All photos are authorized downloads from

To make a color selection easier, I suggest picking an image that represents a typical subject you wish to paint with your new set. It does not have to be a photo of the exact landscape or a cityscape or a portrait. It can be any image that conveys the scene and colors you are looking for.

First, look at the dominant colors and narrow down the mid-tones. Second, select the lowlights keeping in mind the temperature of the mid-tones you already selected. Third, select colors for highlights.

For both landscapes and cityscapes, remember that there might be multiple objects casting shadows; you might need to include both warm and cool colors for lowlights.

You can always increase the number of colors in the palette following the formula proportions. That is, if you are increasing the number of mid-tones, it would be helpful to increase the number of lowlights to keep the balance.

If you are painting realistic portraits, always include one warm red or pink! Live healthy skin tones always include red/pink which is visible in ears, nose, lips, and eyes. That applies to all complexions of all people who are alive. If you are painting a zombie or a dead person who does not have blood flowing through their body, then you don’t need a red.

As you can see from the examples above, it’s easy to narrow down the colors and put together a balanced palette if you have a subject in mind. Following my formula, you will be able to put together a palette for painting any subject in a realistic manner.  

I hope the formula inspires you to experiment with building your own versatile palettes. Feel free to share and tag your unique palette on Instagram: #poemsaboutyouwatercolors or comment on @poemsaboutyoushop