Color Tests

How well do you know your watercolors? The response to that question at a recent workshop for sketchers led me to work with participants on a number of color tests. These experiments are really useful for seeing the full range of values that a single color offers. They also help you figure out simple color combinations (two or three colors) that work well together. Instead of doing a color chart with carefully controlled squares, I like to test colors more fluidly, doing graded one-color and two color washes. You can do this right in your sketchbook so that you have the reference with you, or use separate sheets of watercolor paper. Here are a couple pages to give you a sense of the great range of possibilities from just a few colors.


Sample 1; click to view larger

Sample 1:
Test (Top left):
raw sienna test with alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, and cobalt blue
Result: I rarely use raw sienna
Test (Bottom left): burnt sienna with phthalo blue and ultramarine blue
Result: great range of possibilities with ultramarine; I use this combination frequently
Test (Top Right): Burnt umber with ultramarine
Result: another winning combination
Test (Middle Right): Alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, yellow ochre
Result: I love the blue leaning combinations, especially for shadows

ColorTest 2

Sample 2; click to view larger

Sample 2:
Test: I just bought two new blues—Indathrone and Indigo (Daniel Smith)—and wanted to try them with colors that I use frequently.
Result (Indigo, left): I was looking for ways to get some rich darks and this seems to do the trick. I suspect I’ll use it sparingly, but it’s nice.
Result (Indathrone, right): I especially like some of the greens and grays—a keeper!

14 Comments on “Color Tests

  1. Thank for this suggestion. You even make your color mixes look like great journal spreads!

  2. Nice! And so much more interesting than those tedious color charts that some artists do. (I never have the patience.) Caution on the Indathrone…one of the most staining colors I’ve ever used. Never tried Indigo, but am moving towards a darker palette, so I might have to check it out.

  3. I tend to do my test mixes in neat little grids, but these more fluid test are so much more alive–and more pleasing to look at. I need to loosen up! Indanthrone Blue is one of my favorites. What is the dark mix at the top, second from the left? I can’t get the image large enough to read the description.

    • Hi Susan- that’s the indigo again, straight up. I put it there, but decided to test each on a separate page for more room.

  4. Thanks for sharing this, Jean! I’m anxious to give it a try. I don’t think of myself as an artist but one who collects art supplies, so consequently I have numerous brands of watercolors. It will be so helpful to use your method to see what I’ve really got. Thanks! Ann

    • Sounds like a good plan. It will also help you practice how much water to add to the paint for being controlled vs. loose. I recommend mixing primary colors and two color combinations since these will be your workhorse paints. Enjoy!

  5. Jean, you’ve turned test swatches into art with your beautiful composition and lettering. You are a work of art, my friend! And thank you so much for sharing. Just love the colors you’ve found here. Your new colors were DS, but your old colors – were they also DS, primarily? Love he vibrancy. And I’d be curious if they were from the palette or fresh squeezed from tubes. Thank you so much!

    • My old colors are a mix of Winsor & Newton and DS. I prefer WN for Burnt Siena, DS for quin gold; otherwise, not so fussy. I’m eager to field test the new blues! Every thing on the tests were from the palette except the blues.

  6. I love these pages. So much more useful than those boring charts. I love to see the gradations between colours. Your pages are always a work of art.

    • I like seeing what pulls out too, and I don’t think a chart would ever reveal the full range of surprises. Thanks for your nice comment!

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