How to Make a Simple Color Chart

Published on Sep. 4th 2009


Painting is a multi-faceted endeavor. . . it takes knowledge of values, edges, perspective—and of course, color. After all, color is what we use as painters to create the illusion of all of these other elements.

Studying color, then, is an essential aspect of painting. All my painting life I’ve experimented with color charts as a way to increase my knowledge of color. When I’m in the field painting, this knowledge kicks into gear right when I need it.

Color charts can be incredibly simple. I have a book of charts that I’ve made over the years which I still reference, as well as large color charts on canvas that I keep on the wall. Whenever I get stuck, I study them and continue to learn from them every time.

My color charts are painted on a series of “canvasette” pages, which I don’t like to use for my paintings, but which are terrific supports for color charts (and it’s very easy to keep them handy in archival boxes).

One of my favorite charts is also the most basic. It simply answers the question, “What do my colors do when mixed with white?”

Do you know the difference between cobalt blue and ultramarine blue when mixed with white? How strong is the pigment in Prussian blue? Which of those blues would you choose to tote into the field if you were painting both sky and water?

To make this chart, I laid out a simple row of side-by-side brushstrokes. I started with pure color on the left, and added more and more white until I’ve achieved the palest tint of that color on the right.

Here’s my color chart with several blues:

Color Chart

I also label each row with a permanent Sharpie indicating the brand of paint as well as the color (since colors with the same name are still different among different brands).

I like to keep pages of blues, greens, yellows, etc. so I can really compare my colors. After years of making color charts, if I’m in the field confronting nature’s glory my attention can be focused on making the thousands of other choices—instead of trying to figure out which blue will work best for my sky.

And even if my choice isn’t the same as yours would be, what’s important is that I am familiar with what the different colors will do.

So try this simple exercise with each of the colors that you use every day. Some of your paints may surprise you. Some may act just like you expect.

Either way, you will be building for yourself an inner and outer library of knowledge that will help in any painting circumstance.

Paint well!

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