Watercolor instructor Erik Lundgren talks on his blog about the lure of watercolor grid charts. Aspiring watercolor artists are often urged to make or to reference charts of colors and mixes. “I have fallen into this trap myself,” he says, explaining that “as a beginner I made such diagrams. Large charts of all my watercolors and how they work with each other. I then put these charts in a drawer and never looked at them again.”

Bruce MacEvoy, whose amazing handprint.com is the most extensive source of watercolor information on the internet, complains that while “these mechanical mixing variations certainly familiarize you with the potential range of mixtures any two paints can make … they may not help you overcome ‘color ideas’ or improve your perception of natural green colors.” (Below is a screen shot of a portion of the page where he discusses this.)

Screenshot of a portion of the "mixing greens" page from handprint.com.
Screenshot of a portion of the “mixing greens” page from handprint.com.

Jane Blundell, on the other hand, says that she has “created many watercolour mixing charts over a number of years that are very useful in my teaching and enabled me to be thoroughly familiar with my colours.” She sells these as a book via Blurb.

Tonya Lee of Scratchmade Journal produced a chart that is “about 20×20-inches, hangs beside my desk, and is a constant and reliable reference.” She sells it as “an in-depth resource that shares information and instructions for creating and using a variety of watercolor mixing charts.”

I mean, whatever floats your boat. Of course we have all done tests of how various colors mix, and this is a necessary activity. I’m sure extensive color charts can be invaluable in the hands of a person with the right temperament.

An early experiment with mixing colors
One of my first experiments in color mixing.

But I am mostly with Lundgren, who advises ignoring such charts. “Paint a lot,” he says “and you’ll learn how your colors work with each other.”

Which is fine, but the artist may still hesitate. Which blue is best, which red works best for this particular image? What I have found to be most useful are simple charts that can be held in one hand and used to remind myself of exactly what my unmixed colors look like. Once I pick my main colors for a project, I generally have an idea how to mix them to get the results I want, or I can do a test on a scrap sheet

The most convenient presentation I have found of my paints consists of informal swatches on 6 x 6 in. paper. With this size is it easy to hold the swatch sheet up to an image and judge which color selection is most appealing. I use Portofino hot press 100% cotton 140 lb paper for this. At present I have three such cards, one for yellows and reds, one for blues and greens, and one for earth colors. In the image below you can see these sheets next to the reference photo for a painting I’m working on. I was trying to judge which blue would be most appropriate for this image (I chose Winsor & Newton Indanthrene Blue, the second swatch from the top on the left of the blues-and-greens card.)

Color cards next to a reference photo (a lane in Sentra, Portugal).

Ideal swatches include both the mass tone and the tint of each pigment, as these can be remarkably different. Currently, I have a chart of all my colors (of course, I am only likely to use a few in any given painting) that I often hold up to my work or its reference photo to help in choosing pigments. Swatches can indeed be a great time waster, but they can also be a convenient aid to visualization.

color swatches
The full palette.