How to Make a Color Journal

I started keeping a color journal a few years ago to record favorite colors and palettes. Little did I know how profoundly it would influence and inform my artwork, and change the way I perceive color and the world around me. No matter what type of mixed-media art you love, color is a powerful key player. Today I’ll show you how I create and use my journal, and how it’s made me more open to trying color mixing and different combinations of colors.

I use various types of journals for my color notes, some ready-made and some hand-bound. Paper is definitely something to consider; I prefer watercolor or mixed-media paper, but sometimes I throw caution to the wind and use a journal because I like the cover or the size. Yes, I am that shallow.

Currently I’m working in a Moleskine Art Plus Sketchbook because it’s a nice size, has heavyweight pages, and a pretty, bright red cover. This book usually stays in my studio—I make color notes in my sketchbook/art journal, then transfer them later to my color journal. I like to have time to think about color, so I usually don’t create anything on the fly.

A common technique you’ll see in the book is a color palette based on a photo. When I’m out and about and see a color or color combination I like, I’ll take a quick snap and analyze it later to see what colors it reveals. Often there are surprises, on many levels.

In this photo of moss on stone, notice how blue the stone is, and how it plays off the complementary orangey-golds. I didn’t do any color correcting, but took the picture when there was an abundance of blue light. I remember the shades being gold and gray, and was pleasantly surprised by what the camera picked up.

Color journal inspiration
The complementary shades of blue and gold in this photo of moss on a rock pop next to each other.

I took this photo of the beach in Kennebunkport, Maine in November, past the peak autumn color time, when dried leaves were piled up on the sand. I was intrigued mostly by the textures in this vignette, but when I took the photo I realized the colors were incredibly beautiful and rich. That surprised me, because I’m not a big fan of earth tones, especially browns. Why do I love this palette? It reminds me of gray flannel and saddle leather, the feeling is very moody, and it makes me want to drink a big cup of hot cocoa.

Beach photo as color inspiration
I’m not much into earth tones, but I love the mood and colors of this photo.

When I created a palette from the photo with watercolor in my color journal, I examined the picture first on my computer screen so I could really see the details and nuances. I noticed pale pinks in the shells, deep slates in the stones, reddish-brown tones in the leaves, and one ochre pebble. After swatching the colors I realized that earth tones are more interesting and complex than I thought, and that adding a pop of an unexpected color (in this case, pale pink) can completely alter the trajectory of a palette.

Color inspiration palette in a color journal
I used the beach photo as a palette inspiration in my color journal, discovering hidden hues.

One of my favorite colors du jour is Payne’s Gray, which I discovered quite by accident when I couldn’t find black acrylic paint. I knew about the color but never really explored it, but when I brushed on this gorgeous deep shade of gray-blue I instantly fell in love. The color reminds me of stormy skies and landscapes at dusk, and I find myself using it a lot for monochromatic drawings, shadows, and backgrounds.

I decided to see what differences there were in different color mediums and brands labeled Payne’s Gray. This was also a great excuse to take a trip to the art store–always a win. In a spread in my color journal I compared two acrylic paints from different brands (Liquitex Heavy Body and Blick Studio Acrylic), and two same-brand watercolors from Daniel Smith, Payne’s Gray and Payne’s Blue Gray. This was my first time trying Payne’s Blue Gray, which has a stronger blue cast than its cousin, almost like an intense navy. I also tried out a Stabilo Point 88 marker in Payne’s Gray, and two watercolor pencils, Caran d’Ache’s Payne’s Grey and Derwent’s Blue Grey, which seemed to have a smidge of teal in it. Testing out various brands of the same color is a great for building a reference you can use again and again, especially when you’re looking for a precise shade.

Payne's Gray color mediums in a color journal
In this page from my color journal, I explored different types of Payne’s Gray color mediums.

Yellow is also not a favorite color, although I noticed the other day that it’s the most-used shade in my watercolor palette because I use it a lot for mixing. But pair yellow with gray and I’m all over it—the juxtaposition of the warm and cool tones is stunning. I decided to try out the Payne’s Blue Gray to see how it stood up to yellow, and loved the results. That hint of blue makes the yellow pop even more. Payne’s Blue Gray? Nice to have you aboard.

Payne's Gray color experiment in a color journal
After swatching Payne’s Gray color mediums, I used one shade for this watercolor painting.

Color wheels are great for mixing colors and creating palettes, and I use them often in my color journal. Sketch one by hand, or use a stencil—here I used Pam Carriker’s Hue Tint Tone Shade stencil from StencilGirl Products for a little watercolor color test. I wanted to see how many colors I could create, starting with the same color every time. For one wheel I started with hot pink, and for the other, turquoise.

I discovered how complex and rich colors become when they’re mixed with unexpected shades. For example, I got a vibrant chartreuse by mixing hot pink with yellow and green, and a pretty orchid by mixing hot pink with ultramarine and turquoise.

These mixed colors fill the outer row. For the middle row I mixed the color with black to get a shade. For the innermost row I mixed the color with white (I used gouache) to get a tint. This little exercise reminded me not to rely on safe yellow + blue = green formulas, and to experiment and play with color to achieve unique, interesting hues. Also, I’m not big on pastels, but I happen to love that inner circle of muted hues. Who knew?

Using a color wheel in a color journal
I use color wheels to do a deep dive into color mixing explorations.

I tend to get into color ruts, using the same colors and color combinations because it’s easy and I don’t have to think about it (turquoise and magenta, I’m looking in your direction). So when I want to jolt myself out of my stupor I consult my color journal, and I always find an exciting palette to work with. Using this technique I’ve truly broadened and strengthened my art practice. Besides that, it’s really, really fun. You won’t be disappointed.

This blog was originally published on 8/26/17. It was republished on 7/21/18.

The world of color is a great rabbit hole to dive into—try some of these terrific resources to get started, and see where your color explorations take you!

Art Lessons Color Explorations Series: Collector's Edition
In Art Lessons Color Explorations Series, Collector’s Edition, discover 12 individual lessons all about ways to use color. Each features a companion video.
Color Page by Page: Using Color Wheels in Art Journals video with Pam Carriker
See how many ways you can use color wheels in your art journals in the video Color Page by Page: Using Color Wheels in Art Journals, with Pam Carriker.
Acrylic Color Explorations by Chris Cozen
Become a master of color when you use the techniques and ideas in Acrylic Color Explorations by Chris Cozen.
Incite 2: Color Passions
Pages of color inspiration await you in Incite 2: Color Passions by Tonia Jenny, featuring 100-plus examples of mixed-media art inspired by color.


Art Journaling and Lettering, Blog, Mixed-Media Techniques

5 thoughts on “How to Make a Color Journal

  1. This is so helpful and I love the links. Thank you!

    Would you mind sharing how you created the name/date boxes in the first and sixth images? It looks like they’ve been rubber stamped, but I’m not sure.

    Off to the studio….


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