Organizing Yummy Tubed Gouache + Watercolor Paints

“Pull up a chair. Take a taste. 
Come join us. Life is so
endlessly delicious." 
Ruth Reichl

Thoughts about watercolor vs. gouache and organizing & documenting those luscious tubes of paint.

My organization scheme is as simple as possible, so that can simply pull out paints, jars of water, brushes, etc and paint. I want quick, easy access with almost no set up or tear down time. 

Identification: {left} M. Graham Artists' Gouache, Winsor & Newton Designer Gouache, Maimeri Artist Gouache

After gradually accumulating a collection of tubed watercolor and gouache paints, I realized that I needed to do some documentation and organization so that I could work more effectively. 

The first step was to cut squares of watercolor paper. I painted one color on each card and with a black PITT pen, I went to work researching and documenting the facts about each swatch. 

Included in my notes are the brand, color name, pigment code(s), opacity rating, lightfastness rating. There's space for notes later - like if a color is too gritty or the tube separates or whatever. Some of this info is on the front, some on the back.

My grid-loving former accountant self had a blast. After painting all of the swatches I  toyed with the order that I wanted to place them in the palette boxes. Have no fear. This was not any sort of scientific or art school algorithm but rather ordering them in a way that pleases the eye. You get to decide the order you like best!

The pigment codes are found right on the tubes or if the tube is too smushed or illegible, check the manufacturer's website for that info. Color of Art is a free web database that includes "Color Index Names, Color Index Numbers and Chemical Composition." For example, PV23 is Dioxazine Violet, also known as Aubergine Violet, Dioxazine Purple, Egyptian Violet & Game Over Purple!!! It's comprised of Dioxazine and described as "deep dark blue or red shade violet" with level 2 opacity and level II-IV lightfastness. So there you go! 


I love seeing all of the colors like this, in real life, not on a screen! I can re-arrange them, study the colors I have within blues, for example.

Color swatches make me happy!!!

Maybe I have too many blues! But can you really have too many? This is also really helpful when trying to decide what additional colors to buy. When you lay out the colors like this you can see some gaps.

The swatches come in handy when you need to know what the colors will look like when dry. Or to dream up new color palettes for a piece of artwork. 

Tubed watercolor and gouache paints share so many similarities that I store them together. And while they can be used straight from the tube for vivid intensity and sheer deliciousness, they are more often stored in a palette, spritzed with water, and used like pans.

Identification: Winsor & Newton Artists' Watercolor tubes; right = Professional

Next, the process of squeezing a similar amount of paint into each well, following the order I had decided {and then re-decided after they got pushed around on the table by the kiddos and interrupted by dinner}. For this step I worked ever-so-slowly to be sure I put the paint where I wanted it. Look, the deal is that you can set up your palette in whatever way you wish. I arranged them in a way that I thought would work for the way that I work. Your mileage may vary!

I squeezed a little bit of each of the W&N watercolors into the sections of the new palette. A little room for expansion. I like to mix colors, but I also like the immediacy of simply dipping my brush in a color. A visually engaging color mixing book is the Color Mixing Bible

After squeezing all of the gouache colors into the palette I made a "map" of the paints. More on that below. Gouache paint is thicker than watercolor.

I also create a map for the palettes, indicating what color is in each section. Using a ruler, I measured the number of squares I would need per row and painted swatches here as a reference. This is how I know what paint is where. When the paint runs low, I know what color to use to refill the section. And I know what colors become grainy or flake or whatever.... so that I don't buy them again!


Notes about gouache & watercolor & color selection.

Generally speaking, gouache is more opaque and watercolors are more translucent. But that is not to say that some gouache is not translucent and some watercolor is not opaque. I know this not because I read it somewhere but because I experienced painting with all sorts of colors. Experimenting and testing hypotheses is the way to learn.

Each color/pigment is different. The colors I select will be different than the colors you select. Consider what YOU plan to paint. For example, if you wish to paint nature & landscapes, you'll need the colors necessary to paint nature!

When comparing brands, you will find that some pigments have different names depending on the brand. I am admittedly a geek and enjoy researching pigments and reading reference charts and trying to comprehend the scientific details. Although I do focus more on single pigment colors, I do love Payne's Gray and other mixes. This makes it easier to work in short bursts of time with little-to-no-setup.

That's the story of how I got my tubes of watercolor paint and tubes of gouache paint organized in pretty palettes that look like edible rainbows!

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Original post dated 2013, fully updated 2017.