by Penny Bearman. August 2015
Although each painting you do may require only a few colours and brushes, it takes a full selection of paints to mix precisely the colour you have in mind, and it takes a variety of mark-making tools to achieve the texture that fully expresses your feelings.

The following is a guide to what you need with variety as well as economy in mind.

When we learn about colour in school we are told about the 3 primaries, red, yellow and blue, and told that these will mix the secondary colours, green, purple and orange. Although this is true, the pigments from which paints are derived do not fit conveniently into a perfect shade that can be used to mix perfect secondary colours. Common frustrations are firstly encountered in the art shop when you want to buy red or blue, but instead have to choose between "cadmium red", "alizarin crimson", or between "phthalo" or "ultramarine" blue. Then having plumped for a blue you discover that it won't make a good green, or most commonly the red you have chosen won't make a purple but a muddy brown.

You can overcome these difficulties by buying 2 of each of the primary colours and adding the very strongly pigmented green listed below. These colours I call the spectrum colours, precisely because with these you can achieve any colour, however brilliant.


Cool Yellow:   Cadmium yellow pale or Lemon yellow
Warm Yellow: Cadmium yellow or Chrome yellow
Warm Red:     Cadmium red or vermillion
Cool Red:       Alizarin Crimson, Magenta (ideally both), Rose madder
Warm Blue:     Ultramarine, Cobalt.
Cool Blue:       Phthalo blue, prussian blue, cerulean blue.
Cold Green:    Phthalo green, viridian.

You only need these 7 "spectrum" colours (8 including magenta), the pigments listed are different choices or versions of the colour. You will also find that each paint manufacturer will use their own name, such as "winsor blue" instead of phthalo blue, or "winsor red" instead of cadmium red hue. There are certain tricks they use, cadmium is an expensive pigment so if you see "cadmium hue" that means they have used cheaper dyes to replace the cadmium. "hue" is used as a code for a cheap replacement pigment in the same way that "orange juice drink" means there may not be any actual orange juice in the carton.

I have listed these colours in a precise order, in this order, you can mix neighbouring colours together to make smooth transitions of colour, forming a spectrum or a rainbow. If you position them in a circle you will get a colour wheel which can be used to show opposite colours (called complimentary colours) this will help achieve the effects used by many of the famous painters such as Van Gogh and Monet.

I also suggest that you buy as many earth colours as you can find, they are cheap and it is by using earth colours that you can add some subtlety to your colour, making them more realistic. Earth colours are also good for initial drawing-in of your design.
I include White and Black as earth colours, White is cold, Black is warm (in my opinion).


Yellow ochre
Raw Sienna
Burnt Sienna
Burnt Umber
Raw Umber
Lamp Black is very opaque, (Ivory Black is transparent)
Titanium White (Flake white is warm but poisonous, lead based) Zinc white is transparent.


Finally, brushes.
Bristle brushes (originating from the course hairs on a pigs back) are the only brush that can hold enough opaque oil paint to paint with successfully. However some paint effects require more runny paint or detail in which case nylon brushes can be used, or sables, though these can get damaged easily. I suggest you also buy at least 1 large, possibly decorating brush and a triangular shaped painting knife.
It is worth noting that palette knives are sometimes inflexible for cleaning the palette, so you will also need a palette knife with a tungsten tip for painting with. Make sure that you feel the tip when you buy...


You can buy cheap canvases and canvas boards from China, from cheap High St. shops initially, then when you want a more durable surface, buy more expensive better quality materials from art shops.


For water colour it is more important to have a palette that contains water, such as ice-cube trays from the freezer or egg holders from fridges, than having a flat surface to mix on. You can then fill each compartment with water and add paint to achieve the right density of colour.
Acrylics can be used in a wet runny way like water colour in which case jam jars are useful, or they can be used thickly like oil paint, in which case a flat palette is more useful.

For oil paint, you need a large flat surface to mix the colours you want while you paint, and often before you start. Most commercial palettes are not big enough, so I recommend you find a large piece of white plastic, or melomine-coated hardboard from a wood yard, alternative glass shelves are good. These can also be cleaned really easily.
The traditional wooden palettes have a thumb hole and are designed to be held while you walk backwards and forwards to view your painting in the studio, or to enable you to work without a table outdoors. The traditional wooden palette is a good colour if you like to wash a dark earth colour onto your painting before you start, a style used from Renaissance times to the Victorian era, examples include Titian, Rembrandt and Walter Sickert.
From the 20th Century the impressionists popularised working onto a white "ground" or painting surface. If you like the impressionist style ( such as Monet, Cezanne, Pisarro) you will be better off using a white palette than a brown wooden one, because when you mix your colours you will need to mix a tone that will work on your painting, so in short, you need to match the colour of your palette with the colour of your painting surface.


For water-colour and acrylic paint all you need to dilute them is water. You may come across tubes or jars of water-colour or acrylic "medium", this will allow you to put layers of transparent paint thinly, with a more elastic texture than just water.
For oil paint you will need either white spirit or turps. Traditionally we are told to mix the paints with turps (turpentine) and to wash the brushes in white spirit, though recent studies have shown very little difference between the two solvents and have suggested that genuine turpentine is slightly worse for our lungs, so it is ok to use exclusively white spirit. Don't get tempted by the cheapness of turps subsitute, it is horrendously smelly and is too strong to use with paint. For cheapness, get white spirit from the hardware shop or wood yard, not the art shop. It is possible to buy low-odour thinners from art shops if you are planning to work at home and stay friends with your family.
Oil painting mediums fall into two categories, linseed oil is cheap and traditional, the more processed variety from the art shop is better than boiled or raw linseed oil from the wood yard. Linseed oil yellows with time, and slows down the drying time. Modern mediums speed up the drying time of your painting and don't yellow, but are more expensive and can only be bought from art shops. They often have  the name of the manufacturer such as "rowney oil painting medium" or "wingel" made by winsor and Newton. Also liquin is a more liquid version of a gel medium. These mediums will create glazes or layers of paint to  achieve effects such as used by Turner, Rembrandt, Titian. Whenever you wonder how to paint glass or sea or gold, the answer is invariably to use multiple layers of paint, with a thick layer of light colour underneath and a runny layer over the top. A painting medium would be essential for this otherwise the thin top coat would sink into the lower layers and appear dull and life-less when dry. The medium must always be mixed sparingly with the solvent otherwise you will have overly shiny, sticky paintings that don't dry.


All subjects are good, the trick is to find what inspires you. So don't listen if people attempt to restrict your choice. Photos are fine, copying paintings or prints is fine. It is a very important thing to find and keep your "thread" or your train of thought, so any choices you make, or any direction you want to go, should be respected and valued. Every inspiration you feel is a clue, hang on to it.
Finally don't worry if your friends and family don't get what you are doing. Most artists only achieve recognition once they have sufficiently honed their technique and interests. So hang on in there and join an art class!