How to Choose & Use Yellow in Your Watercolor Paintings

Yellow can be a favorite hue for creating sun-drenched beauty in watercolor, or a muddy disaster! If you’ve been struggling to mix and use this beautiful primary color, I have some tips to share that can help you choose the right yellows for your watercolor palette and mix and use them more confidently, with better results. Let’s explore!

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Yellow’s temperature will vary depending on the colors beside it.

Yellow’s temperature will vary depending on the colors beside it.

Yellow can be COOL or WARM

Yellow can be cool or warm in temperature, and you should have both a cool and a warm yellow in your palette. A cool yellow will look “lemony,” leaning toward green. A warm yellow will tilt a little closer to orange or golden in temperature.

Note that color temperature is RELATIVE. That means that a warm yellow might look cool if placed alongside a warmer color (red or orange), and a cool yellow will appear warm if it is near a cooler color (blue, green, violet).

Yellow is a Primary Color

Yellow is a primary color, and as such, it’s designed to be mixed. I have found that mixing yellow is easy if you remember a few simple things:

  1. Yellow mixes best when it is related to the colors you are mixing it with. So, use a cool yellow to mix more cleanly with cool colors (blue to make green), and a warm yellow will mix better with orange or red than a cool yellow (the greenish cast in cool yellows will make the red/yellow mix look muddy).

  2. Yellow and violet are complementary. Mixing yellow with violet - the color directly opposite yellow on the color wheel - will create a neutral, usually a brownish hue if the colors are mixed equally. If you add just a hint of violet to a too-bright yellow, you get a softer, more muted hue.

  3. Mixing brilliant oranges: You’ll get very different results mixing a cool yellow with a cool red (magenta) than were you to mix warm yellow with warm red. (Note that transparency affects color brilliance as well). Give it a try and see which one makes your favorite shade of orange!

  4. Mentioned in #2, it’s worth saying again. Tone down a too-bright yellow by adding a hint of complementary color. Tone down a too bright yellow-and-something-else mixture by adding a hint of that mixture’s complement (if you are making green, and it’s too bright, poke in a little red!)


Yellow is a LIGHT VALUE color

In watercolor, the lightest value you can achieve is found in the white of the paper. Often, when painting a strong light source, like the brilliant light found in the sunset, it is tempting to want to use a strong saturation of yellow. However, yellow at its strongest saturation is actually yellow’s DARKEST value. Lightest value = white, so dilute yellow to near-white or stick with white paper at the places in your painting where the light is the brightest, and you will see more light in your paintings.

Another place that yellow being a light value matters is when working with darker value colors. If you want your yellows to look darker than the other hues in your painting, you will need to either darken your yellow or dilute your companion colors to create contrast. Red is naturally one of the darkest value colors when used at full strength, and needs to be diluted a lot to appear lighter when contrasted with yellow.

This sunset study shows how much brighter the white paper is than the yellow in the painting.

This sunset study shows how much brighter the white paper is than the yellow in the painting.

I have many favorite shades of yellow that I love to use when painting. I’ve listed just a few below, with a brief description of the characteristics that I love.

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Nickel Azo Yellow (Daniel Smith). This coppery yellow has a transparency that I love, and is high-dispersing, pushing and moving easily in a wash.

Aussie Red Gold (Daniel Smith). I love Aussie Red Gold both diluted and at full strength, it’s just a beautiful golden yellow-orange. When mixed, it shows some opaque qualities for interesting cloudy neutrals.

Bright Yellow Green (Sennelier). One of my new favorites! This is the coolest yellow I’ve been able to find, just barely leaning toward green.

Cadmium Yellow Medium (QoR). This opaque or semi-transparent yellow is a middle of the road “true” yellow, and because it’s opaque, it’s fun to use at the end of a painting to bring in some light splashes of color over darker contrasting areas.

Did I fail to mention your favorite? I’d love to know which yellow is on your “must-use” list, comment below!

See it in action! My video on using yellow in watercolor: