Color Charts

Back to Art Basics: Learning from Color Exercises (no matter what your skill level)


I'll be honest: I haven't made a color chart in 21 years

Color Study for Stamplistic Carousel Seahorse |

That's not to say I don't do my homework... I do color palette studies for each project. Because no one wants to be knee deep and 2 hours into a coloring project or a painting, only to find that the color palette doesn't work, or that you forgot an essential color.

And when I bring home a new paint, marker, or color product, I always play with it on scratch paper. One, because it's fun, but also because I genuinely want to know how the color works, what it looks like on different papers or surfaces, and where the new color fits into my existing collection of supplies.

But I've not sat down and painted actual color blending charts, the little rows of boxes upon boxes, since those exercises were assigned back in college.


Color charts are great for beginners or anyone new to a medium

Color charts are like doing math. You make a box of color A, a box of color B, and then show what happens when the two mix or are layered on top of each other.

Charting how your paints or markers behave is an excellent learning experience for newbies. By painting box after box of "A + B = C" type color mixes, you not only learn what happens when blue meets purple but you're also getting very familiar with the feel of your new product. "It bleeds when I add X amount of water" or "A second coat of marker feels slick while a third coat feels sticky" is incredibly useful information that every beginner needs to know.

Sap Green Color Studies |

Yes, boxes can be boring. But the hours you spend with the paint or the marker in your hand definitely increases your skill level.

And finished charts make great reference material for future projects. You might not need a funky shadowy green right now but you will someday. I can guarantee that at some point you will encounter a project which needs a weirdo green. It helps to remember the recipe or the path for getting there. Charts remind you of mixing ratios and that eliminates future guess work. Having a recipe (or even a clue to the recipe) saves you time and materials because you're not fumbling around trying to get the mix correct.


WARNING: Color Charts are not the same as inventory charts

Please, do not confuse a color chart with a list of the markers, pencils, or paints that you own.

Even if you do swatch out all the colors next to each color name, even if you arrange them all in like-groups, this is still nothing more than a memory jogger which keeps you from buying doubles the next time you're in a craft shop.

I know, a lot of crafters use their inventory list to pick colors for projects (and that's smart) but it's still only a list. A list tells you absolutely nothing about how colors behave in different circumstances- how they bond with the paper, their translucency (or lack of it), how they look next to analogous or complementary colors, how they react with other colors...

Just because you've filled out the manufacturer's inventory list doesn't mean you learned anything about the product.

That's why it's essential to chart your colors. A + B = C is far more useful than "I own A, B, and C"


But as I said earlier, I haven't charted my paints in at least 21 years.


Well, to be honest, it's 50% complacency and 50% hubris.

I'm about to teach a class on color theory for watercolorists. In order to teach my students how to chart, I needed to make class examples. I really dreaded the charting process; box after box after box after box is not my idea of a fun afternoon. I've got better stuff to do with my time than paint 300 boxes which all confirm "hey, after all this time, I still know what I'm doing. No early onset senility yet..."

After so many years of working with transparent paints and markers, I'm pretty darned good at predicting what A + B is going to equal. It's hard to surprise me at this point.

At a certain point of experience, artists develop intrinsic color sensitivity. Just like a baker knows how to make chocolate cake without measuring ingredients and brick layers can sense when something isn't plumb, color is my job and I mix colors by feel now more than by reason. Once you've been doing it a while, mixing color is like breathing, if you have to think it through, something's wrong.


yet, once I sat down and started the darned Chart, I found that it wasn't a waste of time.

For starters, the process of painting without the pressure to produce a specific result was unusual for me.

It's rare that I simply lay down color without worrying about creating a likeness of something.

Color Wheel Comparisons (quick wheel, true CMY, BMG) |

For once, I was able to simply enjoy the paint and to really look at my colors. I'd truely forgotten how much I like sap green paint.

I'll be honest and say that I didn't learn anything new during the process. I'd need to dig out some seriously odd colors to really startle myself about combinations.

But the process of walking myself through the wheels and mix charts was still valuable. It served as a reminder- why I love color and why I especially love specific colors.

It's like riding a bike. Once you learn how, you don't really have to go back and learn it again. But sometimes, even professional racing bicyclists need to take a leisurely Sunday pedal through the park to remember why they first fell in love with bicycles.


Exercise, even rudimentary repetition is good for the brain and it's good for the soul