My thought process when choosing yellows

Let’s say I want to build a new palette, or there is a new yellow on the market, and I’m wondering whether I should buy it. Here is what is happening in my head when I’m thinking about color.

  1. Yellow. OK. So yellow is a primary color. If it’s a primary color, then I need at least two yellows: one warm and one cool, because I use a split primary palette. What do I have:

Which yellows do I use in watercolor painting? That’s one of the most frequent questions I get as an artist, so I thought I’d write an article that addresses this question more fully. This article will be broken into sections, each covering different yellows and their usefulness in your watercolor paintings. Please note that I use Winsor&Newton paints, and I will be using this brand as my base. I know many members of my school use Daniel Smith, so I’ll compare WN paints with DS. If you use a different brand, please refer to my conversion chart. You can find it on this page under the Paints section: CLICK.

You may or may not agree with this text. We all have different approaches to painting and choosing our tools. What works for me may not work for you. I’m just sharing my personal approach.

I have a flood of yellows. My first thoughts are:

2. So I have 4 groups of yellows in Winsor&Newton (WN) brand. For the purpose of this presentation, I’m going to use also Daniel Smith (DS) examples. I have swatches of WN and DS colors, not ALL colors, but I will use what I have.

So let’s take a look at those groups.

The first one is only that “different yellow”, Naples Yellow Deep PBr24. The closest match in DS brand is Naples Yellow PW4, PY97, PR101. We have the first group.

The second group includes my cool yellows. When I spread all swatches on the table I’ve found many similar cool yellows in DS brand. We have the second group.

The third group is my warm yellows. There are also many warm yellows in DS brand. We have our third group.

And the last group consists of those a bit different, slightly dirty yellows. Here’s our fourth group.

Now ask yourself a very important question: “When I’m looking at one of those groups, let’s say cool yellows, do I really need ALL of those yellows? They look very similar! DO I REALLY NEED ALL OF THEM, or do those brands need my money?”. I’ll give you a hint: you don’t need all of them and the producers make all those colors to give you a fake impression that you need all of them. We don’t blame them! It’s business. We all need money to pay bills. But from my perspective, I also don’t want to waste money. Not that I’m greedy, but when I already have a yellow, I really don’t need another one that looks almost the same.

That’s why now I want to select the best colors that will work for me. Here’s what I do.


Because I use a split primary palette, I know that I need one cool yellow and one warm yellow. And those are my must-haves. Everything else can be just a nice addition.

In choosing a good color I take into consideration a few factors:

  1. Is it a single-pigmented color? Do I have a color that has the same pigment, but the name is different? All colors on my palette are single-pigmented, with one exception (Payne’s Gray). The same color can have different names across all brands. But when you look at the pigments, it may occur that it’s the same color. There are some tricky exceptions, like PV19 which may come in a wide range of colors.
  2. Is it opaque? If it’s opaque I mark it with a big question mark at this stage. I want my colors to be transparent. If I can’t find a good transparent alternative I go with semi-transparent or semi-opaque colors. If I can’t find any, I’ll go with opaque.
  3. Is it lightfast? It has to be. If it’s fugitive, I run the risk that my colors will fade after some time. Luckily nowadays, paints have excellent or very good lightfastness. Only a few exceptions are fugitive: Aureolin PY40 and Alizarin Crimson PR83. There are also colors with an additional fluorescent dye, like Opera Rose PR122, BV10 or Bright Violet BV15, BV7. I would be careful with those colors. Experienced artists who use them claim that W&N’s Opera Rose is more lightfast than others. A fluorescent dye may fade over time, leaving us with not-so-vibrant-look anymore. It doesn’t mean you can’t use them. You can. Come on. It’s art. You can do everything.
  4. Is it granulating? I prefer non-granulating colors, so if I have a choice, I go with non-granulating colors.
  5. Do I like this color at all and do I use it in my paintings? There’s no point in wasting space on your palette for a color that you will use once in a blue moon or you just don’t like. For example, for me, Naples Yellow is not very useful. I think it’s more useful for painting architecture, landscapes or maybe portraits. Cobalt Turquoise Light is a beautiful color, but I use it maybe once a year. So instead of keeping them on my palette, I just squeeze a bit when I need to use them.


So now let’s take a look at all the cool yellows. Below you can follow my elimination process.

I know (from color theory) that the coolest yellow is something like lemon yellow. It’s leaning towards green on the color wheel. In this whole group those would be: Winsor Lemon, Nickel Titanate Yellow, Bismuth Vanadate Yellow, Hansa Yellow Light and Lemon Yellow. I already know from experience that I don’t use this shade of yellow. It’s too cool for me, I don’t like it, I don’t need it. Even if I had to paint a lemon, I would use a slightly warmer yellow, which I can always cool down by adding a tiny bit of blue. So I know that I can eliminate 5 colors from this group straightaway.

Now I see the rest is pretty similar. Of course, in my brand, W&N, I already have the winner: Winsor Yellow PY154. That would be my cool yellow. But what about Daniel Smith? Let’s take a look.

Aureolin – out. It’s a fugitive color. Cadmium Yellow Medium Hue and Cadmium Yellow Light Hue – out. All cadmium colors are out, because 1 – they are toxic, and 2 – they are opaque. Besides, these are not single-pigmented.

We’re left with Mayan Yellow, Hansa Yellow Medium and Azo Yellow.

Mayan Yellow – out, because among those three it has the worst lightfastness. Besides, I can see on my swatches that it’s quite a weak color. It’s not very vibrant. So we have Hanza Yellow Medium and Azo Yellow. They both have the same properties, but on my swatches there is a slight difference in shade. Azo Yellow is cooler than Hanza Yellow Medium. And because of that, I’ll go with Hanza Yellow Medium.

So we have the winners. My cool yellow in Winsor&Newton brand is Winsor Yellow PY154. In Daniel Smith brand for me it would be Hanza Yellow Medium PY97. They both look the same.


Are you tired already? I’m sorry, but art needs your sacrifice 😊 Keep going!

My all-time favorite warm yellow was always New Gamboge made with PY153 pigment. That was a gorgeous, sunflower, warm, happy yellow (the first one on the left). Unfortunately, this pigment is not available anymore, and producers have come up with some alternatives. They started making New Gamboge with two pigments. Winsor&Newton’s version consists of PY150 and PR209, while Daniel Smith’s version is made with PY97 and PY110. You can tell that they are a bit similar, but I can tell you, and those who used the original PY153 pigment, that there is just no good alternative to it. Many artists, including me, have switched to pigment PY65. On the swatches, on the screen, they look pretty similar to the original, but in fact, they are just yellow-orange. Some switched to Permanent Yellow Deep PY110, but it’s also orange. It’s just not yellow. In comparison, PY65 is more yellow-orange than PY110. There is also PY139 (Isoindoline Yellow), which is just another orange.

When it comes to Winsor&Newton brand, I can eliminate both New Gamboge (the original was discontinued, the new one is not single-pigmented), and also Indian Yellow, which is not single-pigmented.

From Daniel Smith brand I would eliminate all of those yellows, except Hansa Yellow Deep PY65, which is the only single-pigmented yellow in the group (I eliminate PY110 and PY139 as they are more orange than PY65).

Alternative for New Gamboge? I’ve found that the most similar color to the original New Gamboge I can produce is by mixing Winsor Yellow PY154 with Winsor Yellow Deep PY65. As a result, I get something between warm and cool yellow, which is very similar to the original gamboge. In Daniel Smith that would be a mix of Hansa Yellow Deep PY65 with Hansa Yellow Medium PY97 as the closest match. It could also be a mix of Isoindoline Yellow PY139 with Hansa Yellow Medium PY97. Because both Hansa Yellow Deep and Medium are leaning more towards orange they need that addition of true yellow in order to make it look more like New Gamboge.


After selecting my cool and warm yellows, I then look at any other colors in the same color family that may be helpful, that I may want to include in my palette.

I can eliminate Naples Yellow as I mentioned earlier because this is not a color that I use often in my floral or bird paintings.

So I have the following colors. Let’s dive into my thought again.

I’ll start with Quinacridone Gold. This is a color loved by many artists. And indeed, it’s a very beautiful, glowing golden yellow. It makes gorgeous, lush grees and beautiful salmon color with pink. However, it now consists of three or two pigments, depending on the brand (it used to be made with only one pigment, PO49). What is worth noting is that one of those pigments is always PY150. It is used to make Quinacridone Gold across all brands that offer this color.

This made me thinking. If I like a color that is made with more than one pigment, I always wonder if I can mix it somehow with my single-pigmented colors.

So it turned out that PY150 can be bought individually. It’s called Transparent Yellow in W&N brand and Nickel Azo Yellow in DS brand.

This Transparent yellow is not only transparent, which is important, but it’s also glowing. It’s this yellow that gives that golden glow to Quinacridone Gold. Apart from PY150, Quin. Gold also has some reddish-brown components. In DS it’s Quinacridone Burnt Orange PO48, and in W&N it’s PR206, which is Permanent Alizarin Crimson (which is called Quinacridone Burnt Scarlet in DS AND which will probably be discontinued, if it’s not already).

Are you still here?

So knowing that, I can create my own Quinacridone Gold by mixing Transparent Yellow PY150 with some kind of reddish-brown, which is of course, Burnt Sienna PR101. So if I can mix it with my single pigmented colors, I can eliminate Quinacridone Gold from my list.


After trying and testing many different yellows over the last few years, eliminating one by one those, which were too similar or I just didn’t like, after taking into consideration all properties of those colors, I ended up using these three. They are totally enough for me.

Winsor Yellow PY154

semi-transparent, excellent lightfastness, non-granulating, staining

I think of it as my cool yellow. It’s a very clean, bright, semi-transparent yellow with excellent lightfastness. It mixes well with other colors. It has a tendency to push away other colors. It flows well on paper and makes a wide range of greens and oranges.

Transparent Yellow PY150

transparent, excellent lightfastness, non-granulating, staining

Brilliant yellow with incredible properties. It mixes very well with all other colors, especially with blues creating rich, glowing greens; with browns making luscious yellowish earth tones and quinacridone gold. It works great as an underlayer and is perfect for glazing when you need to add some warmth. It looks horrible straight out of the tube, but it looks totally different on paper.

Winsor Yellow Deep PY65

semi-transparent, very good lightfastness, non-granulating, low-staining

A warm yellow. It’s a semi-transparent yellow leaning towards orange. It makes a beautiful range of oranges when mixed with reds. On its own, it’s a beautiful, warm, sunflower yellow. It creates a perfect, natural, medium yellow with Winsor Yellow PY154.

  • Do you have your favorite yellows?
  • Are there any yellows you can’t live without?
  • How many yellows do you have on your palette?