"Art is the only way to run away without leaving home" (Twyla Tharp)

Watercolours ...

Greetings card © Vicki Lee Johnston

I hope this year has been a fruitful one for you - I know many family and friends have had a hectic time of it and felt the year has been a whirlwind.  That's certainly how I feel but a lot of things have been accomplished despite the busy-ness and has led to thinking about ways to savour the things we enjoy and make what we do more manageable and organised so we don't get bogged down with stuff.  Decluttering is a big part of the process, not only our belongings but also the way we work, to only have what is beautiful and useful in our homes and workspaces.

I love colour, especially watercolour - and I find the pigments fascinating also. The more I learn about pigment properties, the more I realise that the colour I choose in the first instance can save a lot of time in the long run.  How many times have we gotten further into a painting only to realise that a colour is not behaving the way we want, either it's too opaque, we can't lift it because it's heavily staining, the colour is granulating when we want a smooth wash ... if we familiarise ourselves with each pigment it can avoid a lot of problems and potentially save a painting.

My first teacher showed me how it was possible to make hundreds of colours from only six, a warm and cool choice of yellow, blue and red.  The colour charts above are the very first thing I painted and I learnt a lot about colour mixing.  However I had no idea that there was so much more to it!

After frustrating errors with watercolour finishes I became more interested in why these problems were happening, why I couldn't lift a colour, or why my colours weren't smooth.

 Soo many colour charts!  Learning how each pigment works ...

As you can see, I have done a lot of homework and tried to familiarise myself with each colour and divided it into cards showing the range of colours and properties for each one.
However, it's all very well having the colour charts in a nice filing system, now it's time to find the watercolours I need for a painting and because I have too many they reside in multiple tins and drawers and I find myself becoming a bit disorientated before I even begin laying the first wash.  I  wanted something to house all the stuff I need to get going, for it to be easy to find, easy to sort and categorise and still look neat once packed away.  Although things can get chaotic during a painting, I like to be able to pack things away in their place.

My studio, loads of places for all the stuff!
The most recent painting involved painting a lot of different leaves and quite a few colours.  This is when I realised my system wasn't working.

 I haven't worked out yet whether I prefer tubes or pans, but I am leaning towards watercolour pans.  I have bought a lot of empty watercolour full size pans and fill them from my Daniel Smith and Schmincke tubes but tend to buy Winsor & Newton pans due to recommended use by the manufacturer.

 I posted a question asking for suggestions in the  Botanical Artists Facebook Group, where you get loads of advice from fellow artists.  So many ideas were given which were very helpful.  Ultimately we have to find what works for us and in this situation I need storage and organisation, something to keep all the colours and charts in that I can take out of a cupboard or close up at the end of the day and it all looks neat.  It's not specifically a travel case, although it could easily be used for one, but if I were travelling I would definitely minimise my watercolours and tools and travel with a smaller setup.

This case was the perfect solution, it's a make up carry case but you could easily get a fishing tackle box or sewing basket, a wooden box, etc.  I liked the way the sections opened up and made it easy to see everything.    My husband very kindly cut up flyweight stiffener into squares for the base and also strips to fit in between the rows to allow for detailed labelling.  You could easily use foam core board for this job.  I find the tins which hold pans leave little room for labelling and if you want all the pigment info it's a bit fiddly, it's also not easy to take the pans out and use elsewhere.  I tend to splash around a bit and make a right mess in a tin!  Using this system I can easily take out only the pans I need and use them with my china palette.

When you first open the case

The sections fully expanded

I decided to use each square section for specific colours, top right are yellows, top left reds, bottom right blues, bottom left violets, browns and grey/black.  

Each pan is described by using an erasable pen on a sticker label and pasting it to the flyweight strip.  Of course you could also use foamcore board to put the base and sections it as well.  I wanted a decent space so I could see everything at first glance.

I leave all my colour cards and charts together at the base of the case.  The watercolour pad I used to make these charts is a perfect size to fit inside the case and under the tiers for easy access.

Underneath those charts are small boxes containing all the tube colours which I have used to fill the pans, all in their own colour sections relating to the trays above.  I also fit my colour strip fan in amongst those boxes, you can see it laid out below, with all the colour strips relating to the pigments in the case.  This colour strip fan is wonderful for choosing the right colour for a botanical subject as you can easily hold it over the subject and see through the hole punch area to get the closest match.


My new case with a rainbow of colours and colour charts and all the technical information needed!  It can be kept in a very small space and is portable.  I know it will save me a lot of time working out the colours I need - whether they be transparent, opaque, granulating, staining, single pigment, etc.  It will become second nature and eventually I will probably minimise the colours I use down to a much more manageable size.  You could also easily fit paintbrushes and a few ceramic palettes in the case so it's a very worthwhile option if you are feeling a bit disorganised and finding getting started on a painting frustrating due to chaos in the studio.  As mentioned before, this is more of a hold-all than a travel case, you don't need to take the whole kitchen sink when you travel or are out in the field!

My next painting is well under way,  very short deadline on this as it is due for an exhibition in early January.    

© Vicki Lee Johnston

I hope you find this blog post helpful and it encourages you to find a system that works for you.  We all work differently but most of all our creativity doesn't have to be limited to our artworks.  

"Necessity is the mother of invention" 

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  1. Your card is lovely Vicki. The work you have done studying colour is - wow - and offers a number of new ideas for me. Thank you for sharing .

    1. My pleasure, often my colour charts are as a result of procrastination over an artwork but keeps the brushes and watercolour moving. Thank you for the lovely compliment.

  2. So interesting! Thank you for sharing. I am off to make a colour fan like yours straight away!

    1. Thank you! The fan is such a great reference and saves a lot of time, enjoy

  3. I've just come across your blog and so happy I did! Really beautiful work! I sell antique and vintage botanical books and love seeing the work of botanical artists. Kindest Wishes, Katie