How To Read Watercolors: Understanding Swatches

How To Read Watercolors: Understanding Swatches

Looking at a paint swatch is much like looking up a word in a dictionary; it furnishes you with a full array of facets to better understand whatever was previously mysterious to you.  Just like a definition enlightens you as to whether a word is a noun, verb, or adjective, a swatch will tell you if a color granulates, stains, or is opaque.  Both paint swatches and word definitions answer the question: how can it be used?

What Is A Swatch?

A swatch is a sample, whether of fabric, cosmetics, paint, etc.  In watercolors, there are a variety of different types of swatches, all of which are a type of shorthand designed to give you different information about a color.

Why Swatches Are Useful

Why take the time to swatch your colors?  Why pay attention to swatches that are provided to you?  Every pigment has a distinctive personality.  A pigment's personality is determined by its characteristics: transparency, chroma, value range, tinting strength, tendency to granulate, flocculate, disperse, the changes in hue the happen as a color is used at different concentrations, and its range in pigment particle sizes.

You can "read" nearly all of these characteristics from just looking at different types of swatches.


Types Of Watercolor Swatches

The following are the various types of swatches that we use to demonstrate our colors.  Indanthrone Blue is used as the primary example for each type of swatch, followed by labeled examples of different results of the same swatching method.  All of our swatches are painted onto Arches 140 lb. Cold Pressed Paper.

I will go over how each swatch is made, what each swatch demonstrates, and what to notice about each swatch to recognize the information it is presenting.  In this way you will be able to recognize what all they reveal about a pigment's handling, behavior, characteristics, and ultimately... personality.



Varied Concentration Swatch

Greenleaf & Blueberry Indanthrone Blue Concentration Gradation SwatchIndanthrone Blue Concentration Gradation Wash

What It Is:  The most common type of swatch.  A color is painted from most concentrated to most diluted (usually from left to right).  These can be done quickly to test a new palette of colors, or they can be done more carefully and uniformly.  We use a round brush to build an even, gradual transition from most concentrated to most diluted.  This swatch is painted all at once and then allowed to dry.

Greenleaf & Blueberry French Orange Ochre Concentration Gradation SwatchFrench Orange Ochre Concentration Gradation Swatch: Low Chroma

Greenleaf & Blueberry Benzimidazolone Orange Concentration Gradation Swatch
Benzimidazolone Orange Concentration Gradation Swatch: High Chroma

What It Demonstrates: Hue & Chroma  This type of swatch can reveal much about a pigment, but most importantly it demonstrates Hue and Chroma. 

Hue is the appearance of a color, how it looks.  As concentration changes, so does hue.  Indanthrone Blue may appear as a midnight blue at its most concentrated and a soft forget-me-not blue at high dilution. 

Chroma is the saturation of a color.  A high chroma color will be very saturated where a low chroma color will be more grey.  High chroma colors are often described as "bright" or "intense", while low chroma colors are often described as "dull" or "muddy".

Value Range, and, to some extent, depending on application of paint, Granulation can also be apparent in this type of swatch (more details on those two characteristics below).

What To Notice:  What range of hues do you notice?  A Varied Concentration Swatch lays out the range of hues contained in a given pigment.  How saturated is the color?  A color that appears very saturated or bright is a high chroma color.  [High chroma colors are occur as natural pigments less often, and when they do occur they are often toxic, as is the case with Orpiment and Realgar.  Therefore, when artists want access to a full range of high chroma colors, they turn to synthetic pigments.  We offer a range of high chroma Hybrid Colors, synthetic pigments bound to a natural mineral base.]



Transparency Line Swatch

Greenleaf & Blueberry Indanthrone Blue Transparency Lines SwatchIndanthrone Blue Transparency Line Swatch

What It Is:  A black line is applied to the paper before the paint layer is put down.  An additional black line is applied over the top of the paint layer and below the first line for the sake of comparison to it. 

Greenleaf & Blueberry Cypriot Limonite Transparency Lines SwatchCypriot Limonite Transparency Line Swatch: Semi-Opaque

Greenleaf & Blueberry Quinoxalinedione Yellow Transparency Line Swatch
Quinoxalinedione Yellow Transparency Line Swatch: Transparent

What It Demonstrates: The extent to which the upper black line disappears demonstrates how transparent or opaque a color is.  This characteristic is especially important for layering colors, where transparency is paramount.

What To Notice:  Compare the two black lines.  If they look more or less the same then the color is very transparent.  The more obscured the upper line is the less less transparent (and more opaque) a color is.



Lifting Line Swatch

Greenleaf & Blueberry Indanthrone Blue Lifting SwatchIndanthrone Blue Lifting Line Swatch


What It Is: A line of color is removed from a swatch using a damp stiff brush.

Greenleaf & Blueberry Potter's Pink Lifting Line SwatchPotter's Pink Lifting Line Swatch: Low Staining

Greenleaf & Blueberry Quinacridone Magenta Lifting Line Swatch
Quinacridone Magenta Lifting Line Swatch: High Staining

What It Demonstrates: Staining  A Lifting Line Swatch demonstrates the extent to which a color can be lifted, and thus how staining it is.  Some colors can be lifted away completely, leaving more or less white paper underneath, giving the artist the ability to "erase" color.  Other colors are very staining, and are therefore not the best choice if you plan to employ the lifting technique.  

What To Notice: How white is the lifted line?  The whiter the line, the less staining the color.


Value Scale Swatch

Greenleaf & Blueberry Indanthrone Blue Value Range SwatchValue Scale Swatch


What It Is:  We paint our Value Scales in five layers, allowing each layer to dry before the next is painted.  We start with the color at its lightest value (most diluted), and then progressively paint an additional four layers, increasing the concentration of pigment with each one.  The fifth layer is the color at its darkest value (most concentrated), being painted over four previous layers.  (The Varied Concentration Swatch shows a gradual transition and is painted all at once.)

Greenleaf & Blueberry Phthalocyanine Green Value Scale SwatchPhthalocyanine Green Value Scale Swatch: Wide Value Range

Greenleaf & Blueberry Potter's Green Value Scale Swatch
Potter's Green Value Scale Swatch: Narrow Value Range

What It Demonstrates: Value Range  The value range of a color is its range from lightest to darkest.  Each color has a different range.  Watercolors are diluted with water (which is completely transparent) onto white paper (generally), thus all watercolor paints can be diluted to complete transparency (or white), and therefore are capable of reaching the lightest end of the value scale.  At their most concentrated, some watercolors appear black, or nearly so, while others are never very dark, even when painted very thickly.  Colors with a wider value range can be more versatile, though they can require more precise handling to access that versatility.  Understanding the value range of each of your colors will help you make more intentional choices when painting.

What To Notice: How dark is the leftmost square?  The darker that square the wider the value range of the color.


Gravity Wash Swatch

Greenleaf & Blueberry Indanthrone Blue Gravity Wash SwatchIndanthrone Blue Gravity Wash Swatch

What It Is:  To create this type of swatch, we wet an area of paper, tilt the paper vertically at a steep angle, then apply color to the top of the wet area, allowing it to run down the wet area.  This is essentially a wet-in-wet wash, applied specifically, and held at an angle.

Greenleaf & Blueberry Phthalocyanine Cyan Gravity Wash SwatchPhthalocyanine Cyan Gravity Wash Swatch: Flocculating

Greenleaf & Blueberry YInMn Blue Gravity Wash SwatchYInMn Blue Gravity Wash Swatch: Dispersing

What It Demonstrates: Flocculation/Dispersion Gravity Washes show a color's free flowing behavior in water.  As the pigment flows down the wet paper, it may show it has a flocculating tendency (pigment particles are attracted to one another and pull together), or it may reveal a tendency to disperse (pigment particles repel one another and shoot outwards, away from one another).  

Gravity Washes can also demonstrate pigment particle size range and density.  Larger pigment particles will tend to pile up on top of one another as they run down the textured paper, creating a mottled or granulated effect.  Finer pigments will usually show in a bloom at the edges of where a color flows.  Pigments that flow downwards in a straighter line are heavier, more dense pigments (as is the case with YInMn Blue above - notice how it differs from Indanthrone Blue's Gravity Wash Swatch - both have a tendency to disperse, but YInMn Blue's pigment particles are heavier, running down the paper more directly).

What To Notice:  A Gravity Wash that resembles a jelly fish with dangling "legs" reveals a color that flocculates, while a Gravity Wash that resembles a distant rainstorm shows a more dispersing tendency.


Graded Flat Wash Swatch

Greenleaf & Blueberry Indanthrone Blue Flat WashIndanthrone Blue Graded Flat Wash Swatch

What It Is:  A simple wet-in-wet wash.  We like to add a gradation of color to our Flat Wash Swatches.  Water is applied the the paper, followed by color applied with a flat brush.  Color is brushed across the surface of the paper - not dabbed, or allowed to pool.  The wash is kept flat while it dries.

Greenleaf & Blueberry Ultramarine Purple Flat Wash SwatchUltramarine Purple Graded Flat Wash Swatch: Moderate Granulation, Low Tinting Strength

Greenleaf & Blueberry Dioxazine Violet Graded Flat Wash SwatchDioxazine Violet Graded Flat Wash Swatch: Low Granulation, High Tinting Strength

What It Demonstrates: Granulation & Tinting Strength  A correctly applied Flat Wash Swatch shows you how a color will stretch out in a wet-in-wet wash, one of the techniques most commonly used in watercolor painting.  You will particularly notice the extent to which colors granulate, and you will also be able to determine a color's tinting strength

  • Granulation: The textured appearance of a color.
    There are several factors as work that determine the extent of granulation you will see in a pigment: pigment particle size range, pigment particle coloration determined by pigment particle size, paper texture, and physical properties of pigment particles determined by their geology and chemistry.

    A pigment contains a range of particle sizes that settle out at different depths on textured watercolor paper, larger/heavier pigment particles settling into the "valleys" of the textured paper and smaller/lighter particles settling onto the "peaks".  Different pigment particle sizes are different colors, smaller particles tending to be lighter and larger particle sizes tending to be darker.  As settling onto the textured paper surface occurs as described in the sentences above, this creates a granulated effect.

    Many artists adore colors that granulate.  Whether you are a fan or not, you don't want to be surprised by a sky that granulates when you had planned for a smooth one!

  • Tinting Strength:  The amount of a color needed to reach visible intensity.
    Generally best determined by feel, tinting strength can also be described as "power".  Colors where a little goes a long way, or that easily overwhelm a colors mixture have an intense tinting strength.  Colors that are easily overwhelmed in mixtures, or that require a greater volume to be used to express their color are said to have a weak tinting strength.

    Tinting strength is not an indicator of pigment quality.  It is simply another characteristic that can be used to advantage by the observant artist.  Pigments with very intense tinting strength and pigments with very weak tinting strength are both considered by many artists as difficult to use, and switching back and forth between two such pigments can be challenging at first.

    Tinting strength can also be confused with wide value range.  While there is an undeniable correlation, one is not a reliable indicator of the other.

What To Notice:  Because of the way color is applied to make this swatch (in broad strokes with a wide flat brush), if a color appears densely concentrated at the top of the swatch it indicates a stronger tinting strength.  There isn't time to build up a color on this type of swatch, so those that come out of the gate with guns blazing indicate a more intense tinting strength.  Colors that appear more highly textured are more granulating.


Using Swatches To Choose Colors 

Greenleaf & Blueberry Watercolors
Browsing colors based on desired characteristics demonstrated by swatches.

Once you know how to read the different types of watercolor swatches, through understanding how they are made and what they are designed to demonstrate, you can start making more intentional color selections.

Think about your favorite characteristics: you might prefer colors that granulate or colors that contain larger pigment particles, colors with a wide value range or colors that disperse, or maybe it is a specific combination of characteristics with which you prefer to work.  By understanding how to read swatches, you will now be able to identify those favorite colors with ease and confidence.  


Our Swatches

For your convenience, we provide a variety of swatch types within in each color listing, as well as tables for comparing them.


Value Scales

Greenleaf & Blueberry Value Scales



Gravity Washes

Greenleaf & Blueberry Gravity Washes


We combine Varied Concentrations, Transparency Lines, and Lifting Lines into one single swatch for our lead color listing pictures to provide with with an abundance of information.

Greenleaf & Blueberry Indanthrone BlueGreenleaf & Blueberry Indanthrone Blue Listing Picture

We believe this makes available to you a more thorough introduction to each of our colors, so that you can select pigments that are to your taste - no need for a new color to feel like a blind date!


Swatching Your Colors

 Greenleaf & Blueberry Natural & Historical Pigments Set
Greenleaf & Blueberry Natural & Historical Pigments Set

One of the best ways to become more intimately acquainted with your colors is to swatch them out, and thereby put them through the paces.  You will see details that had previously escaped your notice and begin to analyze and understand your palette in new ways.  Your tools are only as good as your understanding of them, after all.

While swatching colors can be incredibly informative, very relaxing, and a whole lot of fun, they can also be a little bit addictive!  They are a useful exercise to return to again and again, but ultimately a tool to help you enjoy a deeper and more rewarding watercolor practice. 


Wishing you happy painting!

Jess Greenleaf





Left Continue shopping
Your Order

Your cart is empty!