When painting plein air, you want to bring as little with you as possible. This applies to your paint, as well. A limited palette is highly recommended. In my opinion, that would be a tube of each of the 3 primaries, a brown, and white. Here’s some suggestions for a beginning palette. Later on, you may want to modify and/or add to it.

Cadmium Yellow. A good, basic yellow, it makes terrific greens, oranges, and golds. It can be toned down with brown to make nice ochres.

Permanent Alizarin Crimson. A cool, transparent red, it makes nice oranges when mixed with yellow and nice purples when mixed with blue. It’s terrific for darkening and/or toning down your greens.

Ultramarine Blue is a very versatile blue to start with. It plays well with the other colors, making nice greens and purples. On its own, it mixes well with white for your sky blues.

Burnt Umber. I like to include an earth color and burnt umber would be the one I’d start with. Again, it’s versatile. Mix it with blue and you get a terrific black. Add white to that mix for nice grays. Add more burnt umber to the gray mix for a warmer gray; add more ultramarine blue for a cooler gray.

Titanium White is a terrific opaque white. I can get chalky looking if overused, so I personally like to buy white that’s a blend of mostly Titanium White and some Zinc White. Do not buy Zinc White on its own. It’s very transparent and won’t lighten your colors unless you use a whole lot. Zinc White by itself is best left for hardcore studio artists who use it for luminous effects like skin in their portraits.

Once you have these colors and have worked with them a few times, you may find you’ll want to add colors to your palette. For instance, I sometimes use a warm red like Cadmium Red instead of Alizarin Crimson. Mix a little into greens to get interesting olive colors. Sometimes, I’ll bring some Sap Green or Viridian if I know I’m going to use a lot of green in my painting. I often use Burnt Sienna instead of Burnt Umber if I want warmer browns in my scene. The more you paint, the more you’ll figure out your own favorite limited palettes.

If you don’t have any paints at all yet, you can buy paint sets to start out. Here’s a 6-color set from Blick that costs less than $15.

Some final thoughts:

  1. Whatever paints you do end up getting, make sure they’re not student grade versions. Seriously, go for the good stuff. Student grade paints don’t have the level of pigments the professional stuff has. You’ll find yourself getting very frustrated when your paints don’t cover the layer below well.
  2. When picking out any colors, look on the label for its Lightfastness Rating to determine how permanent the color is. Make sure it says I. Stay away from II or III. Those colors may fade or change on your painting after time.
  3. Stay away from Pthalo Green, Pthalo Blue, or Prussian Blue at first. Those paints stain like crazy. Once you apply them to your painting and then try to paint over them, you’ll find those colors will stain anything they come in contact with. If you do use them later on, use them sparingly and carefully.
  4. No need to buy black. Mixing Ultramarine Blue with Burnt Umber or Burnt Sienna makes a richer black. No need for oranges or purples at first either. It’s always better to learn how to blend them at first. Later on, if you feel the need for them, you can always buy them.
  5. If you like paint texture, try to find a brand with thicker paints. I personally love the Utrecht line of paints due to their reasonable prices and thick paint.
  6. Don’t buy any paint mediums. They’re not needed for beginning plein air painting. When you get the feel of it, then you can explore mediums that suit your needs.
  7. Knife painting can use a lot of paint. Once you’ve painted a few and know the colors you like to use, definitely go for the larger tubes. They’ll save you money in the long run.

Next blog, we’ll talk about the painting knives themselves.