When painting in the Chinese style, there is no substitute for the watercolors that come from China. Add to that the way the brush is used and its supple grasp of paint and those color dishes become a necessity rather than a luxury.
If you want to purchase the real deal, my foundation set used for the painting above came from Nan Rae as have most of my Chinese brushes and other supplies. There are other stacked, porcelain dish sets available but I prefer Nan’s selection. Her basic colors include Chinese rattan (chunk) yellow*, vermillion, rouge red, burnt sienna, indigo, and neutral tint. Somewhere along the line during a painting class, Nan put a squirt of burnt umber next to my burnt sienna. It is handy for trees but I use it for little else so it falls in the nonessential category.
The swatches below are either pure color or mixes from the original six paints with the exception of the burnt umber.
vermillion, burnt sienna, burnt umber, diluted rattan yellow, rattan yellow
red diluted to pink, rouge red, indigo, neutral tint, neutral tint diluted to gray
three mixes of yellow and indigo to create green, one mix of yellow and green to create blue-green, and lastly rouge red mixed with indigo to create purple
If you just want to dabble at it and already own Western watercolors, there are some passable substitutes. Cadmium yellow will do for Chinese Yellow. Vermillion really has no peer but Daniel Smith Quinacridone Burnt Scarlet can be used, though it is more red than Chinese vermillion. For rouge red, Daniel Smith Permanent Alizarin Crimson or Perylene Scarlet are fine. Daniel Smith Burnt Sienna works well for the Chinese version. Neutral Tint from Winsor & Newton or Daniel Smith Payne’s Gray have the slightly bluish look of the neutral tint in Nan’s set. Finally, W&N indigo is the exact paint in my dish and it makes gorgeous greens. I am not as enthused by the indigo watercolor from other companies. They are too gray or black and less suitable for skies. In addition they lack the luminosity of the W&N version.
All of the tube paints can be purchased from Daniel Smith but that will cost more than a set of the Chinese colors. In addition to containing the paint, the porcelain dishes have a certain elegance, practicality and can easily be refilled. Another advantage is that they accommodate huge brushes, an invitation to paint large and loose strokes.
The backbone of Chinese painting is ink whether full strength or diluted but color enlivens any subject. It is amazing how much can be accomplished with so few colors especially when those colors work in close harmony. This simple, six color palette is all that is needed.
*Chinese chunk yellow is slightly toxic. Follow package directions especially if you are putting it in your own watercolor dish. A few minutes before you paint, dampen a section of it and let the water soak in before loading your brush to paint. Otherwise, the color will be thin and lacking in saturation.