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Getting to Know Your Watercolor Paints, Part I

Whether you're just getting started and you're working with a beginner set of watercolor paints, or if you're a hobbyist or an artist with an ever-growing collection, it's essential to get to know how each individual paint works.

One of the most challenging things I've found over the years that I've been using watercolor is that different watercolor paints have vastly different qualities, and that's what makes watercolor painting both incredibly challenging and wonderfully magical. The pigmentation, consistency, the way the paint flows (or doesn't flow) in water, the transparency of the paint on paper...watercolor paint is incredibly diverse, which is why it's so important to swatch your paints.


If you're anything like me, then the moment you open up a new paint, you grab a brush and a scrap of paper and swatch it, which usually consists of a small patch of paint on watercolor paper--just to see the color and drool over it! It's like trying on new shoes as soon as you get home. It's irresistible!

I've done this with every single paint in my collection. Then I pin the swatch to a bulletin board next to my desk so I can look up and admire all the beautiful colors.

But then what? These swatches show me what colors I have, but they really don't tell me much else about the paint, and watercolor paints definitely have personalities. There have been many times when I'm painting, and I place a small amount of Paint B next to Paint A, only to find that Paint B is incredibly pushy and has literally shoved all the pigments from Paint A to the edges of the wet paper. Thanks a lot, Paint B! And I've often found myself accidentally painting over pencil lines with incredibly opaque, gouache-like watercolor, and I immediately panic (as one does) when I lose my reference drawing lines.

So this is where swatch cards come in. Swatches need to tell you more about the paint than just the color. Of course, the color is important, but there are a number of other properties about watercolor paints that are equally important. Depending on your painting style, some properties will be more important than others, so when designing a swatch card or swatching style, think about what's most important to you: transparency/opacity, dispersion of pigments, the intensity of the paint, permanence, etc.

For my painting style, the most important properties for me (aside from the color/hue) are opacity, color intensity, and dispersion when painting wet on wet, so in these swatch cards, from left to right, the rectangles indicate (1) color and opacity, (2) the range of color intensity and granulation, and (3) wet-on-wet dispersion (and again, granulation). Depending on your priorities, you can use the rectangles to test other things like permanence/lightfastness, staining/lift, and pigment information.

I've seen swatch card designs that have loads of other spaces and symbols to record things such as pigment numbers, but to be perfectly honest, those pigment numbers may as well be in Latin because I have no idea what to do with them! I know that pigment numbers are important to some people, and I understand why, but it's just not something that at this point in my painting journey I can wrap my head around! Don't get me wrong: Information is good--very good!--but too much information, and I get overwhelmed.

(If you're interested in pigment numbers, paint makers should be able to supply you with them, and you can find a very useful chart here of various pigments used to make paints.)

So I kept the design of the swatch cards very simple. The basic idea was that you wouldn't have to sit around for hours, measuring and drawing straight lines just to swatch your paints because I really feel like this is the single biggest reason why I've tried and failed repeatedly to keep a bullet journal! Drawing out lines for weekly schedules and calendars is definitely not my idea of fun, although I know that many people find it therapeutic!

For those of us who don't enjoy measuring and drawing out swatch cards, I've created a waterproof solution for you! Yes, there are other downloadable/printable swatch cards available on the internet, but the problem isn't finding and downloading a swatch card design. It's the at-home printing. A vast majority of inkjet printers use a dye-based ink that is not waterproof, so the printed lines will bleed into your paint swatches. Additionally, many printers (both inkjet and laser printers) cannot handle thick, watercolor paper.

So to save you time and to avoid the hassle of making your own swatch cards (not to mention risk ruining your printer by trying to feed watercolor paper through it!), pre-printed swatch card sheets will be available to purchase in the shop soon so stay tuned! In addition to the swatch sheets, I'm also working on a complete watercolor swatch book to keep all your swatches organized as well as several different types of color mixing charts to help you explore your paints! More information about how to use the various color mixing charts will be coming soon!

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