How to make a watercolor swatch

The use of swatches is quite valuable during the painting process. Particularly for watercolors, as they do not always come out the same way on the surface. Yet how do you make such a swatch and what do you have to watch out for?

A watercolor swatch is essentially done by taking a sheet of thick painting paper and testing out every color of your palette. You can extend this by doing 3 swatches for each color. One with a lot of water (turns out paler), one with a medium amount of water (relatively normal outcome) and one with very little water (thicker color).

But let’s get into a bit more detail. What does a swatch exactly look like, why is it useful and what should you watch out for?

Why do you even need a swatch

A swatch is very useful for every artist. A lot of times you find yourself using a color and when you actually apply it on the paper it looks totally different than you expected. This will then lead to your painting not turning out like you had hoped it would.

You can avoid this problem by either using an extra sheet of paper while painting and always testing every color before applying it, or you could save some paint and time and make a swatch. 

Swatching is very easy, doesn’t take long and I see no scenario where you would regret doing it. In the end it just buys you time and you don’t have to use up more paper than you’d need to.

What should your swatch look like?

This is purely preferential. You could mirror your palette, make a circle, make a square, etc.. It’s really totally up to you. I personally like the first option. It just makes it easier to find you color quicker and you could even store the swatch in your watercolor case.

Here you can see a picture of how I’d do it.

At the top, the colors are the darkest, while they become lighter the further you go down. That helps with seeing the full range of each color.

What should you watch out for while making the swatch?

The most important advice is to keep everything clean. I would suggest doing a swatch immediately when you open your colors up the first time. That way you can really make sure that they really come out as they are.

If you’re not in the situation that your paints are brand new, I would highly suggest to really clean every color up, even if they seem okay. A lot of times the different colors get mixed, because you don’t really 100% clean your brush before dipping it in the next color.

If your colors are cleaned, you can proceed to swatch the first one and really deep clean your brush after every one. This might be a little time consuming but it’s gonna be worth your while, I promise.

Why you should use different kinds of papers do swatch

If you just use one paper overall for every watercolor painting you make, you can obviously just use this paper, but a lot of artists find themselves using multiple types of paper that they’ve gathered over the years.

So I would suggest that you make a swatch on every type of paper that you regularly use, as every paper soaks up and brings out your colors in a different way. They might behave completely differently than they do on another paper.

Doing 2-3 swatches at the same time, doesn’t really take much longer as you just have to make 1-2 additional strokes with your brush. Again, in my opinion, it’s gonna be worth your while.

Can you extend a swatch even more?

If you really enjoy doing swatches you can extend it all even more, by mixing different colors with each other at different amounts of each color and maybe writing down what you did so you can reproduce it later.

This takes a lot of time and isn’t really that necessary, as it’s quite fun to experiment with the colors while painting, which is one of the key factors why a lot of artists love using watercolors.

But if you’ve got fun swatching, find it relaxing or haven’t really gotten any inspiration for another painting right now, this will definitely be something for you. Maybe you could even sell it as a painting, if you choose a unique pattern.

A couple of tips and tricks regarding swatches

It’s really important that you write down the name of the colors you used for each swatch on the back of the paper or in the corner. Maybe you’ll think that that’s pointless because you won’t forget it, but trust me: at some point you’ll regret not doing it. 

A neat trick for swatching would be to do multiple swatches and try out over a larger period of time how the colors react to different conditions. You could lay one swatch on a spot that gets reached by a lot of sunlight and see what happens to the colors and paper.

Or you could store it in a very humid environment, maybe a basement etc. Also you could just store your swatch in a fridge for some weeks and just see what happens.

The only really practical thing might be the first one, because it happens pretty often that a painting has to withstand the sunlight on a daily basis, but it doesn’t happen so often that it gets stored in a fridge and hopefully not in a humid basement.

All in all that’s just for the little scientist in yourself, to do some experiments with watercolor and watercolor paper.

But if you find yourself producing a pretty cool effect with such an experiment, feel free to hit me up and I’ll share your result gladly.

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