Watercolor: The Why and How of Color Swatching

Hello fellow art enthusiasts. I am excited to bring you the first in a series of posts regarding watercolors. I LOVE watercolors and use them on a weekly basis. Watercolor paint is such a versatile medium, and can be used by anyone, of any skill level. Whether you are a graphic designer, a blogger or crafter, watercolor techniques are very handy to have in your arsenal. So one of the first steps at improving in watercolor is getting to know your paints. This is where color swatching really comes in handy. Let's explore how swatching can come in handy, and how to do it with the paint you may have laying around.

 

Why Swatch Your Watercolors?

There are a few reasons to swatch your watercolors. The number one reason is that it gets you familiar with all of the pigments on your pallet. Each one may be different, and you can see how the react to paper, water, and with the other pigments on your pallet. It's a really nice warm up exersize and you will use your chart as a reference in the future. Depending on how you chart your watercolors you will be able to learn more about the hue and temperature of the pigments, the opacity, and the flow. This will give you the confidence to know which colors to use on your projects and how to mix them to suit your needs. Lets discuss a few ways you can do this. 

Color swatches from the Gansai Tambi Watercolor Pallet, notice the transparency.

Color swatches from the Gansai Tambi Watercolor Pallet, notice the transparency.

What you will need:

Watercolor Paint

Watercolor Paper

Paint Brushes

A Container With Water

Paper Towels

Pencil

Ruler

Pen or Marker With Waterproof Ink

Mixing Pallet (Optional)

 

Color Swatches

Some watercolor set come with a swatch chart, ready for you to fill in with your new paints, like this one from Gansai Tambi.

Some watercolor set come with a swatch chart, ready for you to fill in with your new paints, like this one from Gansai Tambi.

This is the simplest type of chart. Some watercolors come with a chart in the packaging ready for you to fill in yourself.  Here is a sample of my Gansai Tambi Watercolor Pan Set. As you can see, some of the pans are very dark. It is difficult to see what the colors are, and if they are a warmer or cooler hue.

Having these simple swatches is a real time saver because it gives you a color reference at a glance. It only takes about two minutes to do. If your watercolors dont come with a chart, just make your own on watercolor paper. Be sure to lay down your paints in the same order as they appear on your pallet.

Try to be observant. Thank to yourself, is this color have cooler or warmer undertones? What other colors would look nice with this? This is earthy or vibrant? This simple step can really help you in the long run. 

 

Color Gradients and Opacity Test

Color swatches from a Prang Professional Watercolor Set. Vibrant colors, are fairly opaque and don't blend as nicely. 

Color swatches from a Prang Professional Watercolor Set. Vibrant colors, are fairly opaque and don't blend as nicely. 

This is a little bit more of a process but is a very helpful exercise and reference. This really only takes a few minutes to make. If you are detail oriented, feel free to pencil in a chart to keep each of your colors in nice rectangles. I like to do it a little more free form as you can see. 

How to:

Color swatches from a Gansai Tambi Watercolor Set, nicely transparent, and blend easily. 

Color swatches from a Gansai Tambi Watercolor Set, nicely transparent, and blend easily. 

I took a ruler and drew a black line along both sides of it on my watercolor paper. This line serves as an opacity test. You will be able to see how much pigment rests on the line, and infer how the color will appear when it is layered over another color or surface.

Next, I simply take a good amount of my pigment and lay it down on the paper over the inked line. I then clean my brush and load it with water. I lay down the water near the pigment and move the water until it meets the color and creates and automatic gradient as the pigments travel through the liquid. Notice the video below. The yellow pigment doesn't travel through the water naturally, so I use the brush and added water to blend the swatch. However, as you can see with the red, some pigments naturally spread through the water. 

This is the simplest way to create a gradient and to observe how the color flows in the water. You will be able to tell if some colors need more assistance from your brush to travel through the water (as the yellow swatch did). See the color swatches for the Gansai Tambi and Prang  watercolor sets to compare opacity below. 

This is a very relaxing exercise, and can really help you to relax and gain confidence before you tackle a painting. 

Colors by Gansai Tambi on left are far more transparent than the Prang watercolors on the right. 

Colors by Gansai Tambi on left are far more transparent than the Prang watercolors on the right. 

A couple of things to keep in mind:

Use a waterproof pen or marker for your opacity test.

Keep the colors in the same order as your pallet (labeling is optional).

Try to be consistent with your color to water ratio.

Just relax and observe.

 

Color Mixing Chart

Color mixing chart made with Van Gogh Artist Watercolors. This chart shows color values, transparencies, and mixing combinations. 

Color mixing chart made with Van Gogh Artist Watercolors. This chart shows color values, transparencies, and mixing combinations. 

Ok, So this is the most time consuming, and beneficial. This chart does all of the above, and then some. You will be able to see each color clearly, test the opacity AND see how every color in your pallet reacts to the other colors. This is a great reference to keep on hand when you are mixing colors, and creating custom pallets for a project. It really does feel therapeutic. It is a little tedious but rewarding. Just pour yourself a glass of wine, turn on some music and paint. 

How to:

First you will want to use your pencil and ruler to create a grid on your watercolor paper. You want one square for each color on your pallet bot horizontally and vertically, plus some extra space along either the side or the top to label the colors. 

Along either the left side or the top draw a line with your waterproof ink. 

Charting a new set of watercolors. 

Charting a new set of watercolors. 

Label your colors according to the order they are in the pallet. 

Now, there are different ways of doing the follow step. You can use empty space on your pallet or a plate and mix equal part of color from the x and y axis for each corresponding square. This means you will mix the color for each square before applying the paint to paper. Or you can do what I did. I took one color and filled in each box accross and down. Then I moved on to the next box. This allowed me to mix my paints directly on the paper to save time. This will only work if your watercolor paper is high enough quality to prevent your paint from immediately soaking into your paper. (See more about this in an upcoming blog post!) Be careful to keep a little bit space between your painted squares so the color doesn't beed into places it doesn't belong. If it happens, and not a big deal, just keep on going. 

Erase your guidelines and store with your paints. 

Erase your guidelines and store with your paints. 

Once the color chart is complete, You can erase your pencil lines.

Now you have a complete chart to reference in the future. On the chart you will notice that for each color, you will have one true color swatch (in addition to the one one either side of the chart), and two swatches for every mixed color combination. You may see online that you can create a half chart with only one example of each mix. However, I really prefer this way because you can never be sure if you got a 50/50 mix of colors. Having two swatches to reference will give you a much better idea of how two pigments will interact. 

Now, It's Your Turn! 

Now that you've read this post, I would really like to encourage you to get out those paints, even if it's been a while! Or if you have never tried watercolor and are curious, this is a great place to start! There is no pressure, it doesn't have to be perfect! Just relax and learn about your liquid colors. 

I hope you enjoyed this post. I would love your see your charts! Please use the hashtag #SilverFoxWorkshops and share your work! I would love to see it! I am most active on Instagram, so look me up! I'd love to connect with you. Search @SilverFoxFinery or use the icon at the bottom of the screen! 

Please leave me any watercolor related questions in the comments below! And stay tuned next week as I discuss watercolor paper and review a few textures and brands!