Swatching Watercolors

Why do people swatch? Swatching is a great way to know your colors and see how new colors fit into your existing palette. It's a useful tool for any creative process. Combining and mixing colors can spark ideas on how to paint different subjects and create helpful shortcuts and effects.

When we paint, we can't be 100% sure of the results because watercolor has a mind of its own. Watercolor artists mostly try to keep up with this medium and hope for the best outcome. Swatching helps us anticipate some results, so we know certain things will work out in a specific way (most of the time). Basic knowledge of color behaviors is a great foundation for all painting experiments!

Swatching helps us to use our materials efficiently, so that we can always compose a useful limited palette, based on our color mixing experience. I love using big palettes with lots of colors, but I can’t take 200 watercolor paints with me when painting outdoors or attending workshops. It would slow me down and would most likely be more stressful than fun. If you have a large collection of colors, swatching them can help you select the best-performing ones for a particular day, painting, or purpose. Swatching enables you to understand your colors better, whether you're working with limited palettes or expanded ones.

Swatching is a way of auditioning new colors for your evolving interests and painting goals, which can change with seasons or new learning opportunities. Knowing a color's potential helps you anticipate how your palette will work when you start mixing all the colors. Swatching doesn't need to be extensive; mixing each color with just a few warm and cool primaries or any of your go-to colors is enough to understand its behavior.

Below I will discuss several aspects of swatching and share some ideas for swatching exercises.

So, why swatch?

Accurate Color Representation

We get to see the true hue applied and dried; we can layer the color to test its transparency. We also get to see the color on our preferred surface. Different surfaces, like watercolor paper, illustration boards, or rice paper, absorb and show colors differently. Bright white paper, beige off-white paper, textured paper, or smooth glossy paper all affect how colors look. Swatching pure colors without mixing helps you see how they flow, dry, and appear on your paper.

Exercise: using 2-3 different papers, swatch a few single colors and compare how they look; identify the paper that works best with your paints.

Understanding Pigment Behavior

Swatching allows you to test how colors flow. Granulating colors behave differently from extra fine colors. Some pigments stain, some don’t – it’s good to know which one you can safely layer without making mud (staining ones) and which one is easy to pick up with a brush or wipe off the paper (non-staining ones).

An additional reason to swatch granulating colors is to find the right brush size. Most granulating paints are more “thirsty” than average earth pigments or synthetic colors; they require pre-wetting and may not work with small thin brushes. Swatching can help you find the optimal brush size to be able to effectively paint textures, ensuring you’re prepared with the right tools.

Exercise: using a large(r) brush, paint a smooth gradient covering approximately 2” x 4” surface, going from very light to very dark; try to paint using slow and smooth hand movements, covering the surface relatively quickly (less than 20 seconds); switch to a larger brush size if you notice that you start “dabbing and fussing”; notice how different colors flow and disperse; wait for the swatch to dry and then try to re-wet a small area and lift the pigment with a clean wet brush or a tissue – notice which pigments are easy to lift and which are not.

Minimizing Waste

Swatching also minimizes waste. If you get to know your high-performing blues, yellows, greens, or reds, it’s easier to avoid redundant colors. Instead, you can introduce more complementary colors that help your palette shine. Swatching shows how much color you need for a result you want. Some colors are more saturated than others and require very little amount to produce bright saturated hues. This can be an advantage or a disadvantage. Extremely saturated colors take extra time to dilute and re-mix, which can slow you down if you are painting quickly and need more subtle hues. Swatching and examining color saturation will allow you to find the “sweet spot” for your purposes: enough chroma with the least amount of mixing time (this one is important if you paint quickly and like painting wet-on-wet).

Swatching allows you to test your assumptions about color combinations without committing to any artwork or wasting expensive paper. You can test an entire palette on a small piece of paper to see if the results match your imagination.

Understanding which colors work best for you (your method of painting, your art style) can help guide your selection next time you shop and avoid redundant or time-consuming colors.

Exercise: visualize an artwork you wish to paint (for example, a summer meadow); try going over all possible colors and color mixes that best represent the elements of the scene (blue for the sky, green for the grass, brown for the road, etc.), include colors for shadows and highlights; apply these colors and color mixes separately on a small piece of paper (postcard size is good enough); look at your swatch card and notice if these color representations match your initial visualization; consider adding or removing colors to best represent your idea.

Swatching Colors and Testing Paper

Swatching is also beneficial when using new or expensive watercolor paper. If you’re on a budget, ruining a good sheet with unexpected paint results can be upsetting. Knowing how your paints look on a particular paper (bleached white, off-white, or toned) helps you anticipate results and avoid mistakes.

Exercise: using a small(er) size of paper, paint a thumbnail of your future artwork; let it dry fully and examine how paper and paints behave together.

Intensity and Gradients

Each color can be concentrated or diluted. When swatching, you can look at the color in different concentrations (from subtle washes to full-strength applications). Understanding the color range will help set the right expectations for finished artwork (how dark are the darks, how granulation looks in light washes, and so on).

Exercise: using any one color, create a color progression from very dark to very light; apply each mix separately, creating at least 4-6 distinct samples between the lightest and darkest; examine the range of the color; swatch and compare the color ranges among similar-looking colors (for example, Indigo, Prussian Blue, and Ultramarine Blue).

Color Harmony

Swatching helps create versatile palettes and ensures predictable outcomes.

Some colors shine better when mixed with others and may not look very special by themselves. Swatching for harmony and compatibility helps reveal if the color is versatile, especially if you like limited palettes.

Another benefit of swatching for harmony is creating a custom palette unique to you. A personalized palette includes balanced cool and warm tones, for the right contrast and variety to best represent your style. Think of your palette as an orchestra where each instrument plays its part. You are the conductor who decides how many instruments there are and who plays which part. Harmony is key, and swatching helps you find the right balance for unique and beautiful art. It can also help you avoid a crowded palette that has too many redundant colors and not enough variety.

Exercise: on one sheet of paper, swatch each color in your usual palette in a high pigment concentration and 50% concentration; let all colors dry and examine the swatch looking for redundant colors; examine the swatch to see if you feel like something might be missing; consider excluding or replacing redundant colors.

Experiment and Discover

Experimenting is another reason to swatch. Painting is a creative process that starts with choosing colors before we begin to paint. We all have ideas about which colors work together and which don’t. Swatching helps test unusual combinations you hadn’t yet considered.

For example, I discovered that neon colors work wonderfully with granulating mineral colors. I used to think that neon colors were mostly used for illustration, marketing, children’s projects, or abstract art, not for realistic painting. I was wrong! Bright, singing neons complement moody granulating minerals beautifully. Discovering it inspired me to create artwork that equally features both.

Exercise: think of any two colors or color categories that in your opinion will not work great together and “shouldn’t” be used together; select 2-3 colors from each of those categories and swatch them in different combinations and proportions; examine the results to see if there are any surprises.

Swatching to Weed Out Muddy Colors

Swatching helps reveal if any colors are muddy and may dull your artwork. Watercolor can easily become cloudy with overpainting and overmixing. Many watercolorists aim to avoid muddy colors to keep their art fresh and clean. If swatching shows grayness or muddiness in certain colors, consider excluding them from your palette. In most cases, mixing any two pigments shouldn’t make unpleasant mud. However, if you are using paints created with multiple pigments (a mix of 3 or 4 different pigments in each color), you may think you are mixing just two colors, but instead, you are mixing 8 or more pigments – the result is usually a dull color that doesn’t sing. Be mindful of the “Eeyore” colors in your palette that introduce dullness.

Exercise: create a swatch card for your palette, mixing your colors two at a time, creating multiple color combinations; notice how different colors contribute to the mixes; identify colors that tend to “dull” mixes, even when mixed with brighter, saturated colors.

Swatching Just for Swatching. Why not?

Another reason for swatching is to document the colors and mixes, creating a library of samples you enjoy. Swatching has become a watercolor genre of its own. Many artists spend time creating color combinations and limited palettes, swatching and cataloging colors more than painting artwork. And that's perfectly okay!

If you're a beginning artist still learning about colors and building your collection, having a library of color combinations and mixes can be useful and will save you time when you start putting together limited palettes for outdoor painting, sketching, and more.

When we paint, we need to use many skills at once. We're mixing colors, creating compositions, controlling values, and working quickly because watercolors dry fast. If you're struggling to find a specific color within 1-2 minutes or mix colors efficiently, spending extra time swatching can help. It trains your brain to reach for the right colors when needed. Having basic color mixing skills frees your mind to focus on composition, drawing, or values. Swatching is a valid stage of an artist’s development; don’t feel bad if you do more swatching than painting.

Exercise 1: look around and find 2-3 large objects (a tree, a couch, a piece of clothing, etc.); using your usual palette, try to mix a color that best represents the color of that object; put this color in the center of a small swatch card; create two more mixes with this color – one warmer and one cooler; apply cooler version on the left side and warmer on the right; let it fully dry and examine the results (Does the color of the object match the color you created? Is the warmer/cooler version truly warmer or cooler?); continue looking for the right color adding new versions to the swatch card; notice which pigments are more useful than others in your mixes.

Exercise 2: if you feel comfortable finding most colors, try excluding 2-3 most obvious go-to colors from your palette and use less obvious choices (Burnt Umber instead of Cassel Earth, Prussian Blue instead of Indigo, etc.) – this will challenge you and help deepen your understanding of color nuances.

Two basic ways to swatch:

Each swatching approach helps reveal different color interactions within sets or among certain colors.

Color grid:

I find that a 24-color grid is most helpful when testing a 6-color palette. The task is to create 24 different colors using all 6 colors in the palette. Mixing all available combinations of two colors in 50/50% proportions will give you only 15 colors; extending it to 24 challenges both you and your palette – is it possible to create an interesting and harmonious (warm-cool) collection of color samples? Once you start solving that puzzle, you will quickly identify colors that contribute the most and create beautiful new colors in mixes, as well as colors that do not bring much to the mixes and just drain other colors.

You can increase the number of mixes in your grid if you are swatching larger palettes. A basic formula would be to first calculate how many unique 2-color combinations are in your palette (6 colors give you 15 unique duos, 12 colors give you 66 duos, 20 colors – 190 duos, etc.) and then increase the number of duos by about 30-40%, so you can push the colors beyond the obvious 1:1 50/50%. Once you finish the swatch, you will have a good idea of the range of your palette. It will also give you some ideas about possible painting subjects for your set.

Exercise: count the number of paints in your palette and find out how many unique 2-color combinations are in it; create a swatch grid for the total number of unique combinations plus a few more (up to 40%); mix your colors in all possible combinations making sure each color sample in your grid looks different.

Color duos:

This approach focuses on finding color duos that work together so well, that you don’t want to ever separate them (Prussian Blue & Burnt Sienna should always be together, in my opinion!).

With duos, you audition colors in pairs by blending them in different proportions. I find that four samples (20%, 40%, 60%, and 80%) are sufficient to see the color performance. With each proportion, you will see if there is an interesting variety in the color progression or if the combination is not that interesting.

Some duos are more powerful together than as separate singles. Discovering them will help you organize your palette and use their combined powers for the best results.

Exercise: use any two colors in your palette to create a color progression from one to the other by mixing them in different proportions; examine results to find the most successful combinations (those may look different for different artists!).


I hope you find this useful! Please tag me if you share your swatches on Instagram - @poemsaboutyoushop #poemsaboutyouwatercolors