Building a Custom “Themed” Watercolor Palette [Daniel Smith] – Lightfast, No animal byproducts, No heavy metals (including scans & research)

In this Post

Why I’m Changing Things

Each year (around Spring time) I revisit my watercolor palette choices. I look at how I’ve used the colors, what I’ve painted, and recall how it felt throughout the past year. Sometimes only a couple of colors change. But this time…nearly everything has changed.

In the last year I realized I’m painting outside much more often than at home. If you’ve ever painted outside you know how quickly the light and weather can change, and because of that we generally need to paint faster. This is where having more convenience colors becomes extremely helpful.

Watercolor Painting outside on the coast of Scotland

The majority of the landscapes I’m painting most often contain rocks, cliffs and sand. I found myself needing to mix the same earthy tones over and over, losing precious time. So I’ve decided to lean my palette heavily towards earthy tones this year.

Examples of Colors I Use All the Time

The Scottish highlands have a very unique color scheme. I find myself needing to mix earthy tones every single time I paint. Here’s a quick example of some autumn/winter tones I mix constantly.

Scotland highlands watercolor landscape by Sarah Burns
Scotland highlands watercolor landscape by Sarah Burns

Scotland highlands watercolor landscape by Sarah Burns
Scotland highlands watercolor landscape by Sarah Burns

And here are some spring/summer tones I mix constantly:

Scotland highlands watercolor landscape by Sarah Burns

Examples of spring/summer colors I need to mix a lot.

Scotland highlands watercolor landscape by Sarah Burns
Scotland highlands watercolor landscape by Sarah Burns

As you can see there are a lot of browns and grays. Even the bright greens are not just pure vibrant green. There are lots of subtle shifts needed.

Back to Top

New Colors Selection Criteria

Just like in the past, I’m placing huge importance on selecting highly lightfast colors.

If a pigment is lightfast, it means it does not fade or change color in sunlight. This is important if you sell original artwork. While most of my paintings nowadays are in my sketchbook, I do still sell originals now and then. Some pigments change quickly, others take several months. The last thing I want is to sell an original painting and in 3 years the yellow has turned brown. The buyer would not be happy either.

In addition, I’m giving myself the added requirement of no animal byproducts. This is easy to do nowadays, because there are so many brand and color options out there. This is one of the biggest reasons I am using Daniel Smith watercolors.

Non-Toxic Color Research

If you don’t care about toxicity, animal byproducts, or quality of pigments, skip to the Swatches below.

Lastly, I’m avoiding heavy metals in order to have a non-toxic palette. Not all metals are bad. Afterall many of us take supplements containing zinc or iron. In particular I’m avoiding Cadmiums, Cobalts, and Nickel, as these are considered carcinogenic. Luckily it’s easy to find alternatives.

To be clear, the toxicity is not simply for my own sake. In fact, paints are a rather ‘safe’ material and we don’t have to worry about them as much as some people think. In fact, many studies have shown that several products we use daily are far more harmful to ourselves and the environment than paint. These include certain beauty products, pesticides, cleaning products, fuels, batteries, clothing dye, and so much more. In artists paints, the powdered pigments are the potentially toxic part, but those are ‘stabilized’ in a liquid binder. Powdered pigment should NOT be used without serious respiratory, eye and skin protection. But if you get a drop on your skin, it doesn’t instantly poison you.

With artist paints, the real danger and toxicity is mostly at the beginning and end of the paint’s life – during manufacturing and disposal. During manufacturing, there are concerns about mining practices (for pigments that come from the earth) and health concerns for pigments made in laboratories. During disposal the harm falls to wildlife and marine life. When pouring used paint water down the drain or outside (which I avoid), this water eventually makes it’s way into the ground, rivers, and sea, and can impact life on a micro level. Some municipalities have special water treatment that will filter the water before it enters waterways, but this is not the case everywhere. Eventually what we pour out moves it’s way up the food chain.

Researching this topic has led me down the rabbit hole many times. There is a lot of confusing information online and I’m not an expert. I get confused sometimes. For instance, Chromium is considered carcinogenic, so you might think of “chromium oxide green.” There is conflicting information about this online, some stating that older production is toxic while newer methods are not. I’m not a chemist and can barely understand the data so I just avoid it altogether. If you want to dive down the rabbit hole, here’s a good place to start.

Back to Top

Helpful Resources

Every single choice we make impacts the world, whether you want to believe it or not. I choose to reduce my impact on the environment as much as possible. But this didn’t happen overnight. In retrospect I wish I had learned about all of this sooner. But with knowledge comes choice, and that is empowering.

We are lucky today. We have so much information at our fingertips thanks to the internet. One of the best resources is Handprint – a pigment database sharing years of research and lightfast results for almost all of the pigments you’d need to know about.

A second resource I love is a personal art blog by Kim Crick, who shares results of her lightfast tests and more. I found this especially helpful in selecting my Daniel Smith colors to make sure I avoid the fugitive colors. And if you want a bit more technical information about pigments, this database is one of the most comprehensive.

Last but definitely not least, Dr. Oto Kano has made a fabulous watercolor database where you can quickly reference different brands/colors and see her immense collection of swatches (her youtube channel is amazing too).

Why Daniel Smith Watercolors?

Daniel Smith is one of the first brands I bought in 2016 when I started building my professional watercolor collection. I remember walking into the Meininger Art Store in Denver and seeing a big wall of color. They had a selection of tester paints, and I was immediately blown away by the color power.

While I’ve been trying many brands since then, there are still some Daniel Smith colors that remained on my palette over the years. The most notable is Quinacridone Burnt Orange…one of my all-time favorite colors (and under appreciated if you ask me).

In addition, they do not add animal byproducts (honey or ox gall) to their binder. The only animal byproducts in their paint is PBk9 in a couple colors (which are easy to avoid).

Lastly, they offer a huge array of lightfast colors. So many to choose from that it took me a very long time to make my new palette!

Back to Top

Daniel Smith Dot Cards and Color Swatches (238 colors)

Besides everything I mentioned above, it’s critical to see the colors in person, not just on a computer screen. Investing in a dot card is the most economical way to see an entire line of colors. I bought the standard “Daniel Smith Watercolour 238 Dot Try It Card” which contains 238 colors in their permanent collection. They do have other special or limited edition colors available but I prefer to stick to the basics. 238 colors is a lot to choose from anyway.

To get a better idea of color variation and pigment flow, I made my own swatch sheets. Each color gets two swatches: one at full strength (top) and one diluted in lots of water (bottom). The colors directly coordinate with the placement on the dot cards. I also wrote the pigment number on the dot card (why isn’t this already on the dot card??) and I added a red x next to any colors proven to not be lightfast.

These are full-resolution images and may take a while to load.

Daniel Smith Dot Card yellows oranges reds purples
Daniel Smith Dot Card swatches yellows oranges reds purples

These are full-resolution images and may take a while to load.

Daniel Smith Dot Card purples, blues, greens
Daniel Smith Dot Card purples, blues, greens swatches

These are full-resolution images and may take a while to load.

Daniel Smith Dot Card earth tones
Daniel Smith Dot Card swatches of earth tones

These are full-resolution images and may take a while to load.

Daniel Smith Dot Card blacks and iridescent interference colors
Daniel Smith Dot Card blacks swatches

The final swatch sheet does not include the iridescent / sparkle colors because most of the dots were barely enough paint to make a good swatch. Their full strength can be seen on the dot card alone. Plus I have no interest in buying those.

Back to Top

Watch my Swatching Process

My New Colors: Scotland Highlands Landscape Palette

After what felt like days of research and swatching and comparing and deciding, I purchased 15 new colors. I already owned Diopside Genuine, New Gamboge, and Quinacridone Burnt Orange.

These are the colors in my new ‘themed’ Scotland Highlands Palette:

Building a custom Daniel Smith Watercolor Palette for landscapes

You might notice some familiar colors – I kept a couple primary classics on the palette for the times when I need pops of color or when I’m painting something other than the Highlands (it does happen once in a while). Admittedly, I added ultramarine blue as a comfort color, because I’ve never not had it on my palette. But I expect to use it less now. It will come in handy for certain things, like mixing custom greens/purples, and painting snow.

Colors in my new custom “Highlands Landscape” palette:

(Click the name for the UK link to buy from Jacksons Art, or USA will load Blick Arts Materials website).

This page contains affiliate links through Jacksons Art and Blick Arts Materials. If you decide to purchase one, I get a tiny store credit at no extra cost to you, so thank you for your support! New Jacksons Art customers will receive a 10% discount on their first order if it is made through any of these links.

My Pigment Research

I’ve downloaded the Daniel Smith pigment chart and made some modifications. I added the known heavy metals, and marked colors that contain Ivory black (animal byproduct). You can view it here (google doc).

Why so many Primateks?

Granulation and special color. Beautiful muted tones. Sparkle. Just plain fun! Perfect for rocks and beaches.

Now for the elephant in the room. There has been some controversy about Primateks in the past, but it doesn’t concern me and here’s why.

People ask, what if there are undisclosed pigments combined with the genuine gemstone pigments? The way I see it is if Amazonite Genuine (as an example) contains traces of phthalo green as well, so what? Phthalo green was on my palette for almost 6 years. I love it. And if it helps make Amazonite Genuine as amazing as it is, that’s probably why I subconsciously chose it.

This reminds me of the controversy around Winsor & Newton’s Cadmium-free colors – in which they don’t disclose the pigments they use. They do this because they don’t want competitors stealing their formula. But you have to test the paint yourself to decide of 1. it is the color you need and 2. is lightfast.

In addition, paint manufacturers are legally required to disclose if a color contains anything toxic.

ASTM for watercolors
(credit: Handprint)

Therefore if cadmium or cobalt isn’t listed on the tube, I have no reason to believe it’s in there. If a company is caught lying about toxic hazards can you imagine the consequences? If in 10 years it turns out there was cobalt in the paint, I’ll be extra happy I didn’t drink my paint water or dump it in the river. And you can bet the hammer will come down hard on a paint manufacturer caught hiding toxic pigment.

Furthermore, the 19 month lightfast test results by Jane Blundell here and Kim Crick’s 1 year lightfast tests here confirmed my Primatek choices are lightfast.

So in conclusion, if the color is not toxic, is lightfast, and looks amazing, I am totally on board!

Back to Top

Color Mixing with my New Palette

So now onto the fun part…color mixing! Let’s see what we can create with this palette. The first thing I do after swatching is play with some quick triads. Selecting one of each primary and mixing the spectrum. I loaded up my travel palette and started mixing with no intentions except to see a variety of color. The middle circle is just a mix of all 3 primaries.

Speaking of travel palette…this time around I’m using this Frank Herring palette because it holds all of my colors plus some custom mixes. I first saw this on Jane Blundell’s blog and it stuck out in memory when I was looking for a new one that holds a lot of colors. It also has much more mixing space than my other travel palettes. It’s extremely lightweight plastic, so if you’re used to metal palettes this will feel very flimsy. Jane has used hers for 6 years, but I’m worried I’m more clumsy than her…I hope I don’t break mine.

Frank Herring watercolor palette

Regarding the custom mixes: those change often. Basically whenever I run out of them I replace with something similar or totally new. They are based on what I mix often in order to make life easier.

Anyways, back to mixing.

Then I start playing with neutrals. Neutrals and midtones make up the majority of a painting, so it’s very important to get intimately familiar with the variety you can mix.

It’s addictive, so I try to limit myself to a couple small cards.

Then it’s time for a more organized mixing charts – so that I can learn what two colors create. I can only memorize this after a ton of repetition, but once I memorize this, painting on location becomes much easier. I’ve already shared why these “two-color mixing charts” are my favorite.

My Favorite Color Mixing Charts

Start with one color on the left, then slowly mix in the second color. Focus on making verrrry subtle shifts along the strip so you can see the full potential of those two colors.

These are fast and easy to make. It’s so fun to see the variety of colors you can achieve.

Here are a handful of mixes I can create with my colors:

LOTS of browns, neutrals, grays and earth tones. Lots of granulation. Since this is a split primary palette, it’s incredibly versatile.

I really look forward to taking this palette outside this summer.

Posted by

I'm an independent artist living in Scotland. Always chasing the light, and painting the beautiful highlands.

4 thoughts on “Building a Custom “Themed” Watercolor Palette [Daniel Smith] – Lightfast, No animal byproducts, No heavy metals (including scans & research)

  1. Excellent information on primateks, and focusing on neutrals and midtones. I am sad you’re not using the Portable Palette anymore but I understand wanting more convenience colors!

    This would probably be annoying for anyone who’s had a bigger studio palette, but I only wanted 1 palette for everything that I could easily take anywhere.

    So I ended up altering my portable palette with 3D printed pans (Etsy). Then I got handy with scraps of thin plastic and a hot glue gun for some of the mini mixing wells. That was a labor of love.

    Now have 85 “micro pans” in total! It’s been working for 2 years and counting and is still the only palette I own.

  2. A wonderful, exhausting research with a show and tell of color possibles. Thank you.

  3. Hi Sarah, thanks for sharing all of this.
    I also search non toxic paints.
    I would like to add that titanium dioxid is not safe because of nanomaterials. Unfortunately there is no equivalent.

    Your selection of paints is very beautiful. I love your color charts 😍

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.