Color Spree

Color Spree
My favorite color is "all of them." What's yours?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Daniel Smith Watercolors Color Map Set

Daniel Smith watercolors are strongly pigmented, easily soluble and easily reactivated artist grade watercolors. Available only in tubes, you can only get them at, which also carries proprietary oil and acrylic artist grade paints. I haven't tried their oils and acrylics, but I got hooked on their watercolors several years ago.

They come in big generous 15ml tubes, there is no trial size like the 5ml tubes of Winsor & Newton Artist's watercolours. The prices look steep at first, but not compared to the quantity of paint you get in 15ml tubes. For price comparisons, look at tubes of similar size. They aren't the most expensive or the cheapest, but they're artist grade at artist grade prices. Being able to use fewer single pigment colors and make the paint last longer because it's stronger makes these artist grade paints very cost effective.

They're as rich and wonderful as Winsor & Newton Artists' Watercolours. Daniel Smith also has a number of proprietary colors, some mixtures and others single pigment colors in their immense range of 239 colors. They are continually adding more. You can get the full range in a "Grand Voyage" set for $1,433 if you treat watercolors the way some of us do colored pencils or pastels and love having everything there is. It might take a long time understanding how each of those colors performs though!

One of the Daniel Smith specialty lines is their Primatek colors. These are pure natural mineral pigments chosen for their lightfastness and often ground from semiprecious stones. Garnet, amethyst, tiger's eye, bloodstone, lapis lazuli (the original Ultramarine) and other gemstones wind up in the watercolor range with surprising and beautiful results. Among these gorgeous Primatek colors, two stood out as so bright and clear that Daniel Smith included them in the ten-color Color Map set.

Rhodonite Genuine and Natural Amazonite Genuine are pure bright high intensity near complements. A violet-cast rose sits across from a gorgeous rich blue-green just short of turquoise in the palette -- yet these lightfast colors are not lab-created chemical pigments but ground from beautiful natural gemstones. I've seen rhodonite and amazonite in rock shops and museum exhibits -- they can be that bright. Daniel Smith must be getting very high grade minerals to produce these single pigment colors in this intensity though.

Below is a color chart of my new Daniel Smith Color Map set. I had four duplicate colors but finally surrendered to the current sale price on this set instead of collecting it a tube at a time when I swapped some art supplies to a friend for extra Derwent pencils including my Metallics set. It just arrived yesterday, so I charted it in my Moleskine watercolor journal and then tested it this afternoon with a painting on the same page.

I had high hopes for the set based on the luridly bright color chart dots on the website, but colors aren't always true online. Once I opened the tubes and tested them on good white paper, I was happily surprised by something weird the Rhodonite did. Wet, it looked dark and a little less intense than say, Quinacridone Rose. I thought for sure I'd have to augment it with Permanent Rose from Winsor & Newton or the right Quinacridone hue to get the effects I wanted.

Then it dried. It dried brighter, cleaner and truer than it looked wet. I've seen watercolors lighten as they dry, but not one that comes out with a cleaner hue. This one does, it's just a funny side effect of the crystals or something. I love the color once it dries and it's proved to be as splendid a mixer as Permanent Rose. It's quite strong too, like all of the Daniel Smith watercolors it has a lot of pigment because the particles are ground much finer than in some other brands or especially in student grade watercolors.

For once I had a set of artist grade watercolors with the incredible brightness and intense clear hues that children's watercolor sets have. This means that all the palette tricks I've learned in pastels or done with cheap children's paints can be done with the Daniel Smith Color Map set. Those who hesitate to get artist grade paints because they don't want to shift to a more muted palette ought to check out this set -- they really are that bright.

Yet I can mix anything with them, even black and deep darks, with perfect control depending on how I balance complements and near complements. It's easy to mute a color, impossible to brighten beyond the pigment's original intensity. I came close in the red and green peppers I did for Derwent Drawing Pencils by using juxtaposition, but this set allows me complete control of any muted hues and lets me use bright pure intense accents around the spectrum.

So naturally the subject of my first painting had to be a bird with a strong dark red head I'd normally do in Alizarin Crimson, black and white areas, blue shadowed belly and sitting on a brownish-grey tree trunk. That painting pushed the mixing qualities of this set to the extreme. Quinacridone Burnt Orange with Ultramarine makes a splendid black, as good as Burnt Sienna and Ultramarine but a little more transparent when thinned to grays. Quinacridone Gold and Imperial Violet created a rich brown and I shifted it toward gray in stages with Manganese Blue Hue and Ultramarine for the tree trunk. Details on the tree trunk were done with the black from the bird's back.

The woodpecker's head is a mix of Rhodonite Genuine and Quinacridone Burnt Orange, which darkened the mix enough to give a base color not far from Alizarin Crimson. I warmed it a little for the first glaze and then charged both colors in again here and there, finally adding some of the purplish mixture I got by mixing some Rhodonite on the palette into the gray leftovers of the bird's back.

Below is the woodpecker painting by itself, so you can see it in detail and see the hue shifts where I charged in Rhodonite and the other colors. I am completely happy with the Color Map set. It's complete in itself and if you purchase a small folding palette, it can be just the thing for plein air painting or anytime you want a complete small palette that doesn't take much space but provides infinite mixing possibilities. Every one of these pigments is great.

I also seriously recommend the Color Map set for beginners.

I'm not kidding.

If you don't know how to paint, using better paint will give you better results as you learn. Very often beginners get discouraged by student grade paints that fade a lot as they dry, don't mix in predictable ways by the color wheel or have other problems caused by the paint quality more than by anything they did. It takes an expert to make cheap paints jump through hoops and do their tricks.

Real beginners have a lot easier time with stronger paint and pure clean hues. This Color Map Set is color theory in a box, it's got everything you need to mix all your blacks and muted colors. Beginners need to learn those mixing techniques, so giving them sets with black in them or hookers green or other convenience colors can cheat them of valuable lessons that'll give them much more control of color.

Also the uniformly soluble and rewettable texture of Daniel Smith watercolors makes lifting easier. Beginners don't even understand sometimes that watercolors can be corrected -- that you can get back a light area nearly to white if you're using good paint on strong high quality watercolor paper. So that's another advantage to the Color Map set.

It's currently on sale for $59.95, 40% off regular price for the tubes in it. Daniel Smith watercolor paints are not cheap, but sets and triads bring the costs down into line. I started out using Daniel Smith watercolors with a Primary Triad that proved just as useful and mixable as this Color Map set and came with free shipping. Watch the website for free shipping specials, the shipping runs a little high but specials are frequent. Also sign up for Daniel Smith's email coupons, that's how you can get new triads with free shipping at extremely low discount prices.

If the colors you want are not in the sets and triads, there's another way to save because Daniel Smith also does a Watercolor Passport savings plan. If you buy enough tubes for each level of the plan, you get certain colors free and a discount on all the tubes you bought. So as with most online purchases, watch for coupons, plan out large orders if possible and order when the specials give you the best bargain.

In future I will be reviewing other Daniel Smith watercolor sets, lines and the excellent Daniel Smith watercolor sticks. Till then, enjoy -- and if you want to be able to do anything in only ten tubes of extremely high quality artist watercolor, snap up the Color Map set when it's on sale. I've seen the sale more than once too, so if you miss this one, watch the site.

Red-Headed Woodpecker
3" x 5"
Daniel Smith watercolors Color Map set
Moleskine watercolor journal
Photo reference by Sharrm from for Weekend Drawing Event, March 19-21, 2010.

I love this set and still use it constantly. It's a complete palette in itself, a wonderful set for a beginner. Still available at Daniel Smith. Click the image to visit their website.

Daniel Smith Fine Quality Artists' Materials


  1. The little white catchlight on the bird's black eye is reserved white, not a dot of white gouache added later. The sample painting was done entirely with the Color Map set and a size 8 Daniel Smith aquarelle brush that I got as a freebie with another set. Their synthetic brushes are good too.

  2. Robert, I have this set and unfortunately not enough time to use it... but now I'm super excited about playing around with the colors and seeing what can be done without a bunch of tubes to choose from. It challenges one to have to work a bit to get the color desired, but in the end, something learned is always better than a premixed color! Thank you, this is wonderful!

  3. Right now Daniel Smith is having FREE SHIPPING! I might go ahead and order these. 40% off and free shipping....

  4. this was one of the first set I ever bought from DS and I love the colors it makes for a great starting palette - and was a great set when I felt so overwhelmed and worried about getting a balanced set of colors that would let me good results and let me learn

  5. Robert, I LOVE the info you have presented on this page. :-) You are dead on target when you say that this is the perfect beginner set. It's often said that beginners should start with a limited palette, learning to mix colors as they go along. But the palette they recommend is usually 6 colors and sometimes only 3! That can actually be very intimidating to a beginner to try to work with so few colors. But 10 colors is the perfect amount. And this page gives great information about using those 10 colors. Bravo Robert! I have bookmarked this page and I will give this addy to anyone who needs this info. (BTW you didn't mention how addictive this product is, LOL! Once I used Daniel Smith I couldn't use anything else.)

  6. You can now get 5ml tubes of DS colors and you can get them online at The Merri Artist, Dick blick online etc... have a great day!

  7. HI, do you still use this 10 color set? I am thinking of using it as my only set, so your experience with it would be appreciated! Thanks!