12+ ideas for color swatches {and why you should paint some}

The value of creating color swatches &
my process for documenting my paints!

Color swatches.

Thoughts on painting color swatches, things to do with your rainbow grids of swatches, plus my process for documenting the paint colors in my collection, with examples of watercolor and gouache swatches.


After building a collection of watercolor + gouache paints, I realized that I needed to do some documentation and organization so that I could work more effectively. I love these little swatches and have been using them for several years now! So much fun to see all of the colors like this, in real life, not on a screen! I can touch them and move them around and visualize different color arrangements and palettes!

You can make your swatches super crisp and square by masking your paper with tape before you paint… or you can paint free form and not have a structure to your swatches. I usually make mine free-form but I do like both methods - just depends on my mood and desired results!

Color swatches.

The first step? For gouache, watercolor, and ink swatches, cut squares of watercolor paper. You can paint a grid and then cut up the grid [as I did with my Dr. Ph. Martin’s Bombay ink swatches] or just start with tiny blank squares. To make the swatches, I painted a square of one color on each card with paint full strength at the top and with water added as I moved to the lower part of the square. I can see how color fades into a very diluted version at the bottom. FYI: I used a black PITT pen to write the notes on the swatches, this is a great pen for drawing, labeling + doodling; permanent and dries very quickly with a lovely fine line. It will write on top of paint as well.

Color swatches.

Top 12+ Reasons for Making Color Swatches for your Paints!

  1. Swatches can be arranged, re-arranged, studied, toyed with. In other words - moved around! The real thing!

  2. It’s fun + satisfying + engaging. And did I mention fun? That is sufficient — but it wouldn’t make much of a blog post now would it? I love HAPPY art! As a creative person and a grid-lover, I cannot resist painting these decadent color swatches.

  3. Laying out these swatches allows you visualize where there are gaps. And wow, I have a lot of blues! But can you really have too many blues?

  4. Paint is expensive. These swatches are reference when prioritizing what colors to purchase next. When you lay out the colors you can see the gaps and visualize where you want to expand.

  5. Documentation! What is the pigment code for this particular color? When did I buy it? What brand? If the paint isn’t rewetting or is more opaque or granulating than you had expected or downright dull when dry, that helps drive future buying decisions!

  6. Directly compare different brands of the same color.

  7. Compare the same color/pigment in watercolor vs. gouache.

  8. A reference for what the colors look like when dry.

  9. To test how various mediums work on a particular paper. Try creating a grid of swatches on the first page of a new journal. You can look back as needed for reference. Above, the first page of my Iona watercolor journal.

  10. To dream up or otherwise devise color palettes for a piece of work. 

  11. A spot to document pen testing experiments. Check how the ink fares under the paint [can you still see it? does it bleed?] and to test how well a particular pen/nib writes on the dried paint.

  12. Gives you a visual reference to see the opacity of each color relative to others in your stash, plus what the paint looks like thinned with water or full strength. Draw marks with a pen, pencil, etc. on part of the card before painting your swatch.

  13. Use swatches to create a “map” or “legend” for your paint palettes, indicating what color is in each section. This is how I know what paint is where.

  14. Brainstorm ideas for subjects. Ponder possibilities while moving colors about on the table. Are you painting clouds, contraptions, gardens, portraits, blueberries, logos, cameras or cashmere sweaters?

Color swatches.
Color swatches.

Starting with those square swatches of watercolor paper, I went deep into research mode and made notes on each card, documenting the facts about each color of paint. 

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! 

Color swatches.
Color swatches.

Paint with me!

Generate ideas and transform those ideas into watercolor or gouache; develop the ability to dive in and zip around your pages with bright fresh color and quirky designs, doodles, and patterns! Learn more about my workshops. Join the crew in Tiny Adventure and explore these mediums in my fresh, rejuvenating approach to painting.

gouache, watercolorDaisy Yellow