How (and why) to color chart all your art supplies

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Color charts haven't always been a big thing in my creative life.

In fact, I can give y'all the exact date my love of coloring with color charts began to blossom: October 21, 2016, the day I bought the 96 set of Tombow Dual Brush Art Markers.

It wasn't their fancy quality or their large quantity that inspired me to color chart these watercolor pens (I had owned the 150 set of Prismacolor Premiere colored pencils for over two years by that time, and it had never occurred to me to take the time to chart those pencils), but rather some dodgy reviews. 

Reading online that some folks reported pens arriving on their doorstep dry and out of ink (yes, I bought these on Amazon...but, in my defense, in 2016, Tombow had yet to become popular in the United States, and my pursuit to find this set at a brick and mortar art shop had been frustratingly fruitless), I was determined to learn the quality of my set before the deadline to return them hit. It seemed ridiculously wasteful of my time and paper to pop open 96 caps two times over (dual brush = two pen nibs, twice the caps) and dab each pen's brush and bullet tips on printer paper to be sure they were all fully inked markers, so shortly after my new pens arrived I pulled out some tag board, drew and labeled 96 hearts (I know - I'm a nerd), and began creating my first coloring tool color chart. 
My first color chart, and I still use it to this day!
Forgive the crazy HCWT logo all over this pic;
it was 2016 when I snapped this, and I had SO much to
learn about being a creative business owner! Times have
changed, and so have my font preferences:)
Thanks to those dodgy reviews inspiring me to quality test my new markers by creating a color chart I discovered two important things: A. I did have a pen that had issues (one of my markers wasn't dry, but the ink it held was completely colorless - yes, Amazon sent me a whole new batch of markers), and B. a fabulously time saving and creativity boosting coloring strategy!

How I use color charts when coloring (by myself & in a group)

Before I started color charting all of my art supplies, settling on which art tool I was going to use and which colors I wanted to work with took SO much time -- if I had an hour to color, I would spend at least 30 minutes of it going through all my art supplies and coloring books, perhaps doing a bit of color swatching to see what sort of texture I wanted to work with (all coloring tools have a different visual feel to them when used on different paper qualities), and then combing through bin after bin of pencils, markers or pens, trying to decide on colors. Typically I would end a creative me-time session beating myself up because I had: A. made a mess I now had to clean up, and B. didn't get anywhere near to finishing a coloring page. I was using the coloring strategy of a child who only had access to a 64 box of Crayola Crayons and a 48 set of Spectracolor colored pencils, and yet here I was a full grown adult artist, a person who had so many art supplies that they now took up an entire small closet! If I was ever going to finish a creative project in a timely fashion, I needed a new color selection strategy, and that's where creating my first color chart came to the rescue.

When I sit down to color now, the first thing I do after choosing an illustration is reach for all of my color charts.
All of my charts as of 2 weeks ago took up my entire drawing desk!
Of course, I forgot to add 2 charts in this photo as I was
 using them, AND I have since charted my two largest
 Faber-Castell pencil sets - color charting is a never ending story:)
With all of my charts spread out in front of me, I flip through them, slowly looking over colors and textures to decide which coloring tool I'd like to create with. As I do this, I'm visualizing how each collection of colors might play out together on my coloring page. Now that I'm a consistent creator of color charts, I can say with confidence that every brand has its own version of every color imaginable - not all ROYGBIVs are created equal, y'all, and sometime you've got to mix and match between makers to get your best collection of colors.
Every single color chart I make is uniquely its own animal.
I chart when my brain can't focus on more complicated tasks, so
I go with the flow of my chaotic mind when I create a color chart;
perhaps this buzzing brain shows in the final charts,
 but that only makes me happy - my charts show I successfully used art
 to get through a tough head space yet again:)
After I have chosen my coloring tools, the next stage in my process is to do nothing but stare back and forth from my color chart(s) of choice and my coloring page...or well, it would *look* like I was doing nothing if you happen to come upon me in the middle of a coloring project. I am actually doing another level of deep visualizing, pulling colors from the chart in my mind, coloring them into a space on the illustration, sometimes even going so far as to mix them or layer them in my imagination. Before beginning to put crayon, marker, or pencil to paper, I have had many completed colorings of a single coloring page pass by my mind's eye, loads of color trial and error in my brain, before I ever make a single mark. 

This mental coloring exercise was absolutely not possible for me before I had developed my color charting habit. Yes, a box, bin, or display case full of art supplies can show you a gorgeous array of colors, but let's be honest, no colorful plastic pen case, no brightly lacquered pencil covering, no color-coordinated pen cap EVER represents its color well, and how could it? Plastic and varnish are highly reflective, so light dances off the colors we see in unexpected ways, thereby making us think we are choosing an entirely different color! Since adding the creation of color charts to my coloring process, I haven't completed a coloring page I didn't absolutely love, which is why I am such an advocate for them in my coloring & creativity workshops (every coloring retreat, virtual or otherwise, begins with a color charting moment).

My coloring pages that I have been less than thrilled with have always been colored in community. Coloring with friends and family is about the conversation and the creative connection I get to share with those closest to me, both things that thoroughly engage my brain. There is no room in my head for deep visualization about color and technique when I am enjoying my creative community, so in these types of coloring environments, I opt out of my color chart visualization technique and instead simply color with the first thing that my hand picks up (an exercise in spontaneity that I also enjoy). 

That being said, I always bring my color charts to the party when I color in community! Coloring in a group usually means physical space is going to be tight - no single table is ever large enough for a collection of coloring enthusiasts and all their supplies. Using color charts helps free up space as sheets of paper replace bins and bins of coloring tools on the table; everyone now has more elbow room, and folks can spread out and get creative comfortably. Color charts in group coloring also help younger coloring enthusiasts with sharing. Children can investigate their supplies and color choices much easier with color charts (it is difficult to "hog" a large color chart), and seeing the huge long list of single colors somehow helps them to understand that there is only one black, one red, one white in every box of pencils or crayons, so logically there will have to be some turn taking if, for example, everyone is coloring a Halloween themed illustration.

How to make color charts

There really is no wrong way to make a color chart of your art supplies, but over the years I have learned there are better ways than others. Here are the "protips" I've got to share:

1. Choose the proper paper for each coloring supply.

Charting watercolor pencils? Use a large sheet of inexpensive watercolor paper. Charting markers? Use a piece of thick white cardstock. Charting crayons, gel pens, or colored pencils? I have found tag board works great for these tools, and it can be found inexpensively in bulk. For the charts to be of the most help, you want them to show exactly what these coloring tools are capable of on the paper they were designed to be used on; charting your colors on plain copy paper or lined notebook paper doesn't give you the full picture of your art tools' color properties.

If you are charting a watercolor or water soluble coloring tool,
I cannot stress enough to use watercolor paper!! Here I charted
my 120 set of Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer watercolor pencils on
Canson XL 140lb cold press watercolor paper. It is inexpensive,
found easily on Amazon or at Wal-Mart, and makes for great
practice paper!

2. Be sure to make your swatches of color big enough for your eyes to see all or most of your colors in one glance. 

In the case of color charts, size really does matter! If this means that you need to use two sheets of paper instead of one if your collection of pencils or pens is behemoth, so be it. A color chart is suppose to be a time saving and creativity inspiring strategy, not an eye strain. I speak from experience - I crammed 150 itty bitty circle swatches of color onto a single sheet of paper when I created my Prismacolor Premiere colored pencils chart, and it is my least used, least enjoyed, least helpful color chart of them all.
My Prismacolor Premiere 150 set color chart is a life lesson learned.
I was too worried about "wasting paper," too worried about the
time it would take me to create a proper chart, and so I created
this miserable thing...BUT it is better than nothing, and I learned
LOADS from this experience!

3. Take the time to swatch the unique art properties of each pencil or pen. 

If you are charting regular colored pencils, create a swatch that uses a variety of hand pressures, from firm to feather light, so you can see the full range of color intensity each pencil has. If you are charting watercolor or water soluble pencils or pens, leave space on your color swatch for adding clean water to each blob of color so you have an example of what using the coloring tool to its fullest extent looks like. This does mean creating color charts can be time consuming, but it is an investment in your future creative pursuits, and IMHO, well worth your hours (yes, hours - a really useful color chart is likely to be the result of more than one me-time creative moment, but like they say, good things take time).
With this 120 set of Faber-Castell Polychromos colored pencils'
color chart I wanted to show each pencil's personal color
gradient (these pencils are SO smooth and lovely to color with). To do
this I colored a firm-to-feather-light pressure scumbling gradient for each
pencil on stiff tag board. It took me two days to complete this chart,
but the benefits I will reap from having all this detail right in front of me
every time I use these pencils are well worth the time!

4. Make your color charts uniquely your own.

Whatever mood you're in the day you decide to color chart your art supplies, go with it! Feeling triangles? Create swatches of colorful triangles! Feeling blobs of scribble scrabble? Embrace your messiest self! Have fun creating your color charts - this is a serious art tool you're making, but the process of making it should be filled with silliness and enjoyment! Half of the reasons I hear coloring enthusiasts haven't picked up a color charting habit is because it feels like a "waste of the precious little creative time" that they have. To avoid that feeling, match your color charting time with another favorite pastime -- listen to some music, a podcast, or an audio book -- and now you have the most enjoyable sort of multi-tasking that there is! Of course, if your brain is listening to media, the likelihood of making a "mistakes" while you're color charting is relatively high. Try your best to be open to these lapses in attention and perceive your "errors" more as unexpected bits of character in your color charts rather than "imperfections."
Mistakes in color charting are least for me.
Little numbers on shiny pen caps or pencil sidings? My trifocals
do not perform well under those circumstances, so I make number/name
errors frequently. To save on paper I have had to let that $hit go, if
you will, and I highly suggest you do, too:)

And, while we are accepting our own mistakes in color charting, if you happen across an art supply maker's lapse in color naming judgement and you're not feeling the words they chose for particular shades and hues, change them! This is YOUR color chart, and it should make YOU happy!

I am SO OVER art supply companies using the word "flesh" as a
color name!!! I never see a brown shade, or a red shade, or
a yellow shade labelled "flesh," only shades of peach, salmon, coral,

 or pale pink. Human (and animal - maybe they are referring
 to the flesh of pigs by naming this trio of pencils this way??) "flesh" 
comes in a myriad of colors, and for heaven sake, and it's
 high time our art supplies represent that rainbow OR 
stop using the word "flesh" to name a color EVER!

Color charts may not be "art", but they are creative

Becoming a color charter of all of my art supplies, from artist quality colored pencils to primary school markers, literally changed everything about my creative life. I have 23 color charts...counting (I have two new Crayola coloring tools I've yet to sit down to chart - a 24 set of Crayola Color Sticks, and a 12 set of Crayola Slick Stix), and each charting experience was absolutely time ridiculously well spent! Through charting my supplies I learned about the properties and limitations of my new coloring tools as well as where I might best use them. My color charts have become a vibrant storybook of my creative life; each of my charts is uniquely its own thing, and each of my charts represents who I was and what I knew as an artist at the time I made that particular chart. My charts may not be "art," but they have most definitely helped me on my path towards feeling like an Artist.

If you aren't already a color chart maker (or if you have been wanting to become one, but it just seemed like a daunting task), I hope this blog post has provided you with the proof and resources to become one - we all deserve to have our very own amazing color charts!


  1. How would you chart pens that do not have names/numbers to identify them?

    1. Excellent question! For sets that don't have factory pen/pencil indicators, I make names up and then snap a photo with the pens (it's usually pens that do this) next to their swatch of color and new name:)

      ⬆️My blog post on markers & pens has examples to look at🤓

  2. How do you handle color charts when you may add new colors in the future? Ex: favorite marker brand comes out with a new palette. Do you create a new color chart so you can keep like colors grouped together, or do you just add the new colors to the existing chart where you can find room?

    1. Oooh, interesting question! Typically I tend to save up until I can afford to buy a colored pencil or marker set’s full color collection (I love having ALL the colors if I can🤓) so I haven’t had to adjust any of my color charts for that type of media.
      Paint comes in infinite colors, is much more expensive, and has a limited self life, so for those charts I typically add where there’s room or just begin a new chart with the additional colors that may not be *as* detailed as the earlier chart (for ex. I cross-swatched my first 18 different water colors—an enormous chart that took many, many hours. I have since acquire many more colors, but rather than chart them in the same fashion with all the colors I have, I do a simpler color study and keep it near my watercolor charts), but it is still very handy.
      I have also recently begun a color swatching sketchbook where I swatch all sorts of supplies and bands together in new color collections that interest me. If one of my favorite makers came out with a new collection of colors I didn’t have I probably would chart them in this sketchbook, I think.
      Regardless, the best charts are the ones you feel are easy to use, so my question to you is this: how does your heart feel it would like to see new colors of an adored brand charted?🤔 I hope you’ll share with me your answer!💚

  3. Have you tried to create a single chart of all brands by colour? For example all the oranges?

    1. Hello, and thank you for this great question! I have not created a color only chart (though have been sorely tempted to, especially when I have a big project with a deadline—I’m very much a research/experiment procrastinator🙃), but I have created single color of all brands swatch cards when I’m trying to make color and media decisions for a piece, and I find it incredibly helpful:) I do have an extensive collection of colored pencils, so a color only color chart would be spectacular to look at so…maybe someday I will attempt it—gotta find paper big enough!🤓


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