Testing new watercolor paint: Crazy system!

Testing new watercolor paint: Crazy system!

How often do you buy new watercolor paint? Do you stick to the same color or try new ones? If you like experimenting with new tones you probably face the problem of testing your paint.

How to know what awaits you with this new color? Do you just integrate it into your painting and hope it will work out?

Do you put a few strokes on a random piece of paper to see the color first? Or do you mix it with every other color from your set?

Everyone of course has their own approach. 

Here is how we test our newest members of the watercolor family.

Testing watercolor paints

I (Yana) have a whole system of testing watercolor paints. There was a time I felt super nerdy and created a special book where I laid out all the colors I had. It was a lot of work and time spent, but once it was done, I have got a full review of the features and qualities of all paints. Not to mention I was also immensely proud of myself. 

Below is an algorithm I use to test each color:

Place color by section (color group: reds, yellows, browns, blues etc)

  • Flat wash 
  • Gradated wash 
  • Opacity
  • Staining ability
  • Mixing combinations

Now, let’s discuss each item on the list.

Color Section

Color Section

Essentially, we can simplify every color and categorize them by color groups. If you look on the flip side of the paint tube you will see a pigment content. It will look something like “PY 53” (if contains a single pigment) or “PY 43, PBr 7, PBk 7” (if the paint contains multiple pigments). Where “P” stands for “Pigment” and the next letter stands for the color, like “Y” – “Yellow”.

It is important to understand the difference between the color of the paint (yellow, red, pink, violet etc) and the pigment content of that paint. Those are not the same things! Color is what you see on paper, and the pigment is the powder of which the paint is made.

Each paint has its own pigment recipe, and every brand “cooks” its paints in its own way. You can make a swatch of some paint, for example, “Magenta Rose”, it will look like the bright pink color on paper. And then investigate its pigment content written on the tube and it would say “PR 122” – Pigment Red 122. “Magenta Rose” – is a marketing name a brand chose for this particular paint. Most of the time brands will have similar or same names, and you can expect a similar color. But the recipe of pigment content is different with each brand. That’s why you can take 5 different “Magenta Rose” paints and get 5 slightly different tones.

In my book, I decided to categorize colors into 7 groups: Yellow, Red, Brown, Blue, Violet, Green, Black.

watercolor pigment contents

I would check the pigment contents, see which pigment is primary there (depending on which tone an actual color is leaning to) and select a color group for this paint. Lots of times a marketing name would not correspond to the pigment content of the paint. 



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For example, Carmine, Madder Lake Red or Red (from Shin Han brand) all look like pink. Very bright juicy pink colors. And yet I put them into my Red color group because their pigment contents are actually only red. More than that, there is no such thing as “PP” – Pigment Pink. At least I have never seen that! All pink colors in watercolor are made of red pigments. Another good example of a confusing color and pigment content is Caput Mortuum (one of the new Rosa colors I’ve got for the test). It clearly looks like brown color when you swatch it, but the pigment content says “PR 101”. Nothing near to brown! That’s why this mysterious color goes to my red section of the book.

Watercolor Paint Tube

With the Yellow color group, I decided to put all paints that have PY (Pigment Yellow) and PO (Pigment Orange). Sometimes the paint would have PR (Pigment Red) in its content, but the color looks like bright yellow. So, I would put such paint under the Yellow color group as well. This happened with Gambodge Hue paint which has PY 150 and PR 209 in its pigment content.

So, you got the idea.

Now, every color section has a page with tiny rectangles of colors and another page with larger rectangles. Each rectangle is devoted to one color and its features. 

Flat wash

Watercolor Flat wash

Now to the testing part.

I write the marking name, the brand, and pigment content on top of each rectangle to keep track of my collection. This is an example of my section of brown colors.

I divide smaller rectangles into 2 parts. The left side is devoted to a flat wash. I color it in with a smooth even layer of paint to see the color in its purity. Just the right amount of paint and water to have a clear look, not too concentrated, not too diluted. 

Gradated wash

Watercolor Gradated wash

The right side of the rectangle is devoted to a graduated wash. Here I stretch the paint down gradually diluting it with water. I start from the most concentrated color and pull it down to achieve its most transparent look. This allows me to see how vibrant and thick the color can be as well as how light it can go.


Watercolor Opacity

On the right side of the rectangle, you can see a curvy black line. As I paint over this line, I am testing how opaque the paint is. We know that most watercolors are translucent, it is the specialty of the medium. However, there are some colors that are quite opaque and can easily create a dense layer of paint. With such colors, you will not see any other color underneath. Let’s take a look at our Caput Motruum here – it almost covered the marker line!

If the black stroke is not clearly visible under the layer of my paint it means the paint is opaque. This feature is important to know about when working on a complicated piece and using a glazing technique. 

Usually, tubes have hints regarding the translucency and opacity of the paint. You can find little special signs on the back of the tube to mark the opacity, for example a square. If the square is empty the paint is translucent. If the square is half-covered then the paint in question is semi-opaque. And respectively if the square is fully covered the paint is opaque. 

Even though you can find this info written on the tube I still prefer to test and see for myself.

Staining ability

Watercolor Staining ability

Let’s move to the larger rectangles I mentioned earlier. Technically I do the same with them: swatch the paint in the flat wash and in gradated wash. Since it is a larger space, I can get more info for myself. I could have saved some time skipping the small rectangles and just do the big ones. With the small ones, I can see more colors grouped together as opposed to larger rectangles that might take a few pages to show. Also, I did not really think that through when I started this book! Haha! 

Anyway, to test the staining ability of the paint, I make a flat wash on a big rectangle and then lift the pigment with a flat brush. I do it 2 times: once when the paint is still wet, the second time when the paper is dry. This gives me information on how easy it is to lift the pigment, whether it leaves marks on paper. Most watercolors can be completely removed from paper like they were never there. But there are also quite a lot of paints that stain heavily. They also do it differently depending on the wetness of the paper. Hence, lifting the pigment twice. On my example here you can see Viridian Hue from Shin Han. It was possible to remover the paint while it was still wet (top stroke), but after the paper got dry the paint was impossible to clear away (bottom stroke). As opposed to Mint from Rosa that can be easily removed from paper at any stage, it is not opaque at all.

Here I as well make a gradated wash but covering a pencil line instead of a marker line. The pencil is easier to cover especially when using opaque pigments. Once again, with the larger rectangles, I get more info on the paint’s abilities. 

Watercolor Mixing combinations

Lastly, I want to see how each color behaves when mixed with others. I mostly test complimentary couples to find the best match. Sometimes they give a perfect deep tone and another time – a muddy brown color. That is actually a really fun exercise to do and saves time for your future paintings.

That is how I test new watercolor paints. It surely takes time but if you like to keep things organized and be informed about your materials, this is a great way to do it! 

Recently I received 10 new colors from the new watercolor collection from Rosa. If you are curious to see my testing process in action, check out this video. I show everything described above:

With my testing book, I went “nerd mode” on a whole new level!

With all colors I had, I picked the best combinations for color wheels. I created colors wheels with my favorite colors writing down the primaries I used. Also, I created a warm color wheel and a cool color wheel using warm and cool primaries, respectively. 

Watercolor Complementary Colors

I also have a section where I tested the mix of all complementary colors to find the best secondaries. So, I have a huge table with colorings looking for the best green (mix of yellows & blues), the best violet (mix of pinks & blues), the best oranges (mix of yellows & reds). 

Watercolor Complementary Colors

Also, if you are curious to see how I applied those new colors from Rosa in actual paintings, check out this video.

I tried to stick only to new colors for the sake of the experiment. I think it turned out cool!

If you have your own of organizing your colors and paints, please share below in the comments! I am very curious to see what system other artists use. 

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