Guest Article: Creating a Custom Van Gogh Watercolor Palette

Creating a Custom Van Gogh Watercolor Palette

Review by Bekki Page

The original article was written for Doodlewash and World Watercolor Month and can be found here.

Imagine getting a box from Royal Talens in the mail that included a half pan of every single paint in their Van Gogh watercolor line and a pocket box to create your own palette. Yes, that really happened to Sandra and me!

I’ve seen Van Gogh watercolor paints featured on artists’ Youtube and Instagram feeds from all over the world during the past few years, but I didn’t know much about them. As I worked with the paint I received, I realized the Royal Talens color team developed a method for producing vibrant, transparent color at a fraction of the cost of most paint.

Experimenting With Van Gogh Watercolor Paint

Like a capsule wardrobe, I found that almost any of the Van Gogh watercolor paints I laid next to each other or mixed worked together because they were created with the same set of about a dozen pigments. To keep things interesting, Van Gogh utilizes another dozen “spice” pigments that add character to the standard mixes.

The Van Gogh line of watercolors is mostly transparent, highly pigmented, and rewets easily. Color numbers are printed on the sides of the half pans for easy reference. While some of their colors are created with unconventional pigment mixes, the overall look is harmonious and mixtures are clean. Van Gogh watercolor is a line of colors that functions like an experienced watercolorist’s personal palette.

Investigating The Van Gogh Watercolor Sketcher’s Box

An empty 24 well palette box was also included with my shipment. Van Gogh designed several thoughtful elements into their pocket box:

  • Plenty of space around half pans to accommodate large brushes and prevent contamination.
  • Generous wells in the lid come from the factory with a finish that puddles rather than beads. The lid can be held under a faucet for cleaning without getting water into the paint, but you may need a toothbrush and toothpaste to remove stains.
  • A well holds a strip of sponge for tipping off brushes or keeping pigments moist when the box is closed.
  • A place to house a full sized favorite brush offers additional convenience.
  • At 5.5” x 8.5” x .875” the Van Gogh box would be considered a studio palette rather than a pocket palette by most Americans, but it stacks with a standard A4 sketchbook.
  • A little adhesive was needed to keep the half pans securely in their wells. (Pro tip: If a color block falls out of the half pan during unwrapping, push it back in upside down and it won’t budge again)

Building My Custom 24 Color Van Gogh Palette for Nature Sketching and Landscapes

My first thought when creating my custom palette was to put in the single pigment colors from the Van Gogh line as split complementaries, and then add convenience colors to complete my box. As I worked more with the paint line, I decided instead that my goal with this 24 well box was to create a set that allowed me to paint with minimal mixing so I could maximize color play once I got to the paper.

My Van Gogh Watercolor Pocket Box choices for Spring and Summer

Watercolor in general–and nature work in particular–is all about gradation: warm to cool, light to dark, one color into another. I opted to set up my palette with colors that would naturally gradate into the colors on either side in hue and value. For the summer, I focused my efforts on bright primaries and a wide range of earth colors. As the year turns, I’ll replace some of the bright choices with richer, muted tones. By placing my chosen paints into the box in a “Z” shape, the pocket box as a whole gradates from warm to cool and light to dark going left to right.

Putting My Custom Van Gogh Sketchbox Through Sketching Tests

Saturated and low flow, Van Gogh paints perform best with traditional brushes on cotton paper; but will work on the sized cellulose watercolor and sketch paper found in most watercolor sketchbooks. The only problem I ran into was bronzing (an area that develops a smooth shine caused by too much pigment). No chalkiness was present, even in the few colors that were semi-opaque.

Paint performance on 300# Cold Press Hahnemühle Leonardo paper.

I sketch with up to three watercolor passes over an ink drawing. I didn’t experience any issues with lifting or muddling on cotton paper, and was able to manage three passes with a light touch in sketchbooks. I occasionally chose to add a watercolor medium to my water supply to enhance flow, and the paints responded with more movement and glow. Overall, the selection of colors was intuitive to use and mix, and I achieved expected results.

I’m also excited about many of the new colors Van Gogh will be releasing soon: pyrrole orange, turquoise, the dusk colors, and even some of the novelty interference and metallic choices. I’m sure my palette will change when those options become available. I hope the new paints have the same harmony and performance as the classic line I tested.

Bekki Page is a science and math educator who has been creating since childhood. Bekki picked up watercolor four years ago and have been on a grand exploration discovering its playful and enigmatic personality.  Follow her adventure on Instagram!

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