When it comes to watercolor, paint swatches are an invaluable resource. Husband jokingly refers to it as "painting squares," but creating watercolor paint chips is a great way to learn about paints, pigments, and colors.
For a long time, I kept a watercolor swatch book. This was a fine way to organize things, but over time, my swatch sketchbooks grew into an eyebrow-raising collection. Not only that, I often like to test the same color on various papers, and there's no decent way to attach these additional swatches within the pages. (Stapler? Glue stick? Scotch tape? Yeah no.)
I've seen beautiful swatch binder systems (LOVE Denise's at In Liquid Color) with paint chips organized in extremely pleasing patterns, but my chaotic brain would go crazy with the slots. I imagined myself spending hours moving and rearranging the cards every time I wanted to add or remove a color. Yeah no.
I finally decided to go with the KISS system, which means painting swatches on individual cards and then organizing the paint chips in an easily removable and rearrangeable manner. It suits me, and it may suit you also!
Watercolor Tutorial: DIY Paint Chip Swatches
You can create watercolor paint chips from any size paper, but full sheets are usually the most economical—especially if you shop sales!
To create watercolor paint chips from a full sheet of watercolor paper, I recommend a few tools and supplies. Some of these items aren't totally necessary, but they do make things easier. Feel free to use your own substitutions.
Full sheet (22x30-inch) watercolor paper of choice
Sharpie chisel marker or similar
You'll also need a large, flat space to plan and cut. A level floor or dining table works just fine.
A few notes on supplies... A cork-backed ruler is highly recommended; this backing helps keep the ruler from sliding during use. I like X-Acto #11 blades; these finely tipped blades will cut through 2 sheets of 140# watercolor paper. I use a 16x22-inch cutting mat, and though I wish it were bigger, this size is big enough for a half sheet of watercolor paper and stores easily.
Watercolor Paint Chip Tutorial: Step 1
The first step is to make this big fat sheet more manageable AND still work for the card sizes. First, cut the long side of the watercolor sheet in half. This will create two pieces of watercolor paper that are 22x15-inches.
Watercolor Paint Chip Tutorial: Step 2
The second step is to cut down one of the halves of watercolor paper into 2-inch strips. I like to line up the half piece of paper on the cutting mat like so...
The pre-measured lines on the cutting mat allow me to cut the paper into 2-inch strips without marring the paper with pencil. If you don't have a cutting mat, it takes longer but you can easily make 2-inch marks across the 22-inch side of the paper and use those as a cutting guide.
Expert Tip: As I mentioned above, I've found that I can cut two, half-sheets of 140# watercolor paper at one time with a fresh X-acto blade. Just take care that the two sheets stay lined up together when cutting! Otherwise, you'll get wonky strips.
Cutting vertical 2-inch strips from the 22-inch side will use the entire half sheet and will leave no waste. Per half sheet of watercolor paper, you'll end up with 11 strips that measure 2x15-inches. Two half-sheets (or a whole sheet) will create 22 strips.
Watercolor Paint Chip Tutorial: Step 3
Before proceeding, decide whether you would prefer 2x3-inch or 2x5-inch paint chip cards. Both are useful, and I often make both sizes. Before you decide, it may be helpful to read to the end of this tutorial and watch the video.
Depending upon your preference, simply cut the 2-inch strips into 3 or 5-inch pieces or a combination of both.
I used a paper cutter to cut the 2-inch strips into my preferred card size, but a ruler and a craft knife work just fine.
A half sheet of watercolor paper will produce 55 2x3-inch cards or 33 2x5-inch cards. A full sheet of watercolor paper will create 110 2x3-inch cards or 66 2x5-inch cards.
Now the paint chip cards are ready to paint and organize! I keep my watercolor swatches on a simple binder ring. (See the lead photo at the top of this post.) The cards remove and rearrange easily. As my collection of chip cards has grown, I now keep a ring of blues, one of reds, etc.
DIY Watercolor Paint Chip Guide
For a handy, future reference guide, I've created a printable of the dimensions and cuts to make both sizes of the paint chip swatch cards from a full sheet of watercolor paper.
The 5-page PDF printable is available in my store and prints on 8.5x11-inch (letter size) paper.