How We Made Our Unique Japanese Watercolour Palette

How we made our unique Japanese watercolour palette blog, overview picture of Japanese watercolour Palette by Art Scribe, handmade watercolour paints, Japanese images, swatch card, colour mixing chart,

Handmade Artist Grade Watercolours Inspired by Japan

First I will explain why we created a Japanese palette inspired by the colours of traditional Japanese art and prints. Then I will talk about the stories behind each of the six coloured pigments that make up the Japanese Collection and the qualities those pigments have for the watercolour artist.

 Why a Japanese palette

The idea of bringing together a colour palette inspired by traditional Japanese paintings and prints quickly captured our imagination. We started with the question: What goes into a Japanese palette? After looking at many examples from Japan, we concluded: Colour harmonies of soft and dark shades with vivid bold colours to add accent and contrast.

Thinking of those iconic images such as Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ and the use of gradients as seen in ‘Fukagawa Susaki and Jūmantsubo’ by Hiroshige, we knew blue would be part of the collection.  

We were keen to include the colour of the artists’ seal, always stamped in red-orange and placed against a complimentary hue. As seen in Hiroshiges’ image above.

Snow by Uemura Shoen

There was a distinctive green that caught our eye in many Japanese paintings (as worn by Shoens’ geisha). Research taught us it was the pigment malachite. From the seventh century onwards, it was widely used and know as Byakuroku (whitish green), but how easy would it be to get the pigment nowadays?

After the excitement of the initial spark, it was down to the research. Reg looked into the pigments that would have been available to the Japanese artisans. With that knowledge, we sampled and experimented with various oxides, minerals, hues, genuine and vintage pigments until we were happy with six coherent and interesting colours that we felt reflected the uniqueness of Japanese culture.  

The Stories behind six colours in our Japanese Palette

Here you will read some stories behind the colours in our Japanese Collection palette. The insights we learnt about each of the pigments characteristics and what the watercolour artist can expect when using them.

Genuine Malachite

Let’s start with the most expensive pigment in the collection and one we were really keen to work with. Genuine Malachite, so called because it is not an imitation, but a pigment ground from the mineral copper carbonate. Mined in limited areas of the world, malachite fetches a high price for the use in gemstones because of its striking concentric rings in various shades of green. 

Genuine malachite has been used as a painting pigment since the ancient Egyptians. It is sold by just a few manufacturers specialising in historical creative techniques, so we were especially excited to receive a small pot of ever-so finely ground powdered pigment of an ethereal soft green shade from L.Cornelissen & Son

The result of our first mulling was disappointing as a discolouration occurred once the paint was dry. Talking with other watercolour makers, the appearance of a dirty yellow coating seemed to be common with malachite. All in all it did not pass the Art Scribe quality control! 

A series of trials pursued as Reg tried to capture the true essence of malachite. In the end he put the pigment through a “cleaning process” where he soaked it for days, skimmed off the discoloured residue before mulling it with our binder. The final result was a purer and intense green that we are proud to include in our palette. 

Vermillion Hue 

Once we started to look at the traditional pigments that a Japanese artist would have used, a whole new spectrum opened up to us. 

As far as red was concerned, traditionally they would have used vermillion. Made from mercury sulphide, genuine vermilion contains a high level of toxicity. We sought alternatives, luckily there are plenty of good imitation vermilions out there. After mulling 3 or 4 imitation vermilions we settled for Vermilion Hue by L. Cornelissen & Son.

This red orange adds a bright accent to the more earthy tones of the palette. We find it mixes beautifully with the other colours. And if you like an edging, this watercolour will naturally give you some beautiful effects. 


The ancient Greeks called this iron ore mineral “bloodstone” which describes well the blood red colour of the powdered pigment. But just as blood changes its hue from bright red to reddish brown as it oxidises with air and dries, so too does the pigment as it goes through the paint making process. 

Haematite gives the water colourist a tonal range from deep earthy red to a lighter, brick pink. 

Iron Oxide Yellow

Yellows in Japanese art tend to veer towards the earthy hues. We chose Iron Oxide Yellow because of the range of tones it brings to the palette.

From warm brights to deep mustards, it mixes and tints well and we especially love the peachy colour it gives to Haematite when mixed together. 

Smalt Blue

Smalt is made from ground glass. The blue comes from small amounts of cobalt oxide. It is an interesting pigment to both mull and paint with.

The texture of Smalt Blue watercolour is slightly gritty. This is due to the risk of over mulling the pigment which can lower the colour saturation. It also has transparent and reflective qualities.

Several applications may be needed when a deeper blue is required.

This watercolour paint has high granulation. On rough paper the pigment settles into the craters of the surface speaking of watery and moon like textures.

Vine Black

This pigment came to us quite late in the collection. A little apprehensive to include a black in the palette, we had overlooked the importance that black plays in Japanese art. 

You only have to think of the iconic tradition of Japanese calligraphy. Known as Shodo, artists often scribed poems and stories as an integrated part of the print or painting. Think also of the black hair or sash and how it dramatically punctuates the soft colours of a geishas kimono. 

Vine Back is made from charred vines. Seen in cave art, it is a prehistoric pigment. We found this warm black subtly tints the other colours in the palette. On its own, it gives the artist some beautiful tonal gradients. 

These colours are intended to be used, mixed, explored and enjoyed in whatever way you, the artist, feels appropriate for your practice. In other words these are not exclusively for the Japanese style of painting!

Visit our shop to find out more about Japanese Collection and other handmade watercolour palettes available.

Sources: Malachite: Uses and properties of the mineral and gemstone  , https://www.naturalpigments , ,