This was originally posted on my Substack.



Way back in 2008, when I bought my first “set” of professional watercolors*, I bought an array of Winsor & Newton colors in tubes. At the time, Dick Blick (now they just call it Blick, but the OGs remember) had a special freebie; buy so many watercolor tubes, get a free book by John Barber about mixing watercolors.

*My first “set” was actually just a bunch of individual tubes that Amy Brown recommended as a good start.

I didn’t know who John Barber was back then, and owing to the incredibly large number of artists named John Barber, I still don’t have a clue. I am pretty sure it’s not famed maritime artist John M. Barber, but I think it’s a little odd that the JB who made so many color-mixing guide books doesn’t have any kind of web presence at all. That may be due to the fact that his author page lists his date of birth in 1932. I hope that when I am in my 90s you’ll forgive me if I don’t maintain an internet presence.

On initial inspection, the book didn’t look that interesting. The swatches on the front cover gave no indication of what little treasures were actually inside the book. Once I opened it I was blown away.

I don’t often talk about my time in classical art instruction as a student, because it was fairly short-lived and unsuccessful for me. My allergies, chronic fatigue syndrome, and asthma got the best of me, and I had to drop out and take incompletes. That was after I had gone to school for video game design, which turned out to be a for-profit loan scam.

I remember in one class JD Parrish had us make a bunch of swatches of color, which seemed like a punishment at the time. We wanted to draw, and paint, and be geniuses, and he wanted us to take some training wheels and learn basics. Boring! After we had finally painted all the swatches, he told us to start cutting them out and arranging them similarly to the wheels above. We thought he was nuts, honestly. I remember several of us sitting at a table together and just exchanging a look like, “why the hell is he making us do this?”

That was just months before I came across John Barber’s books by happy accident. Then it clicked into place why JD made us do what JB was doing. I have several color recipe guides, but I think that this is the best way of visualizing color mixtures.

Over the years I’ve made lots of little charts like these, which are better than nothing. At a glance, though, they are kind of jumbled, chaotic, and a little hard to track visually as the mixtures are very basic and run diagonally in close quarters with so many other colors. It looks neat, but it doesn’t provide as much information as you’d like. Of course you can fit a lot more colors into something like this than the cool wheels above.

Over and over I’d find myself getting that watercolor mixing guide out and looking in there for ideas and inspiration. Until a few days ago, when I discovered that something has happened to it. Either I loaned it out to someone a long time ago, and forgot, it is just hiding somewhere, I lost it when I moved, or maybe someone donated it on accident.

I figured I could still find one on the Internet and I sure did, for $85. A little too rich for my blood, even for my favorite color guide.

In my searching I found out that John has written lots of books on mixing color. It looks like he’s actually never written a book about anything else, which I found a little odd and interesting.

In each of his guides, John lays out how to make 2,400 colors out of a standard palette which usually features all the greatest hits. You know the ones, raw sienna, cadmium red, violet, rose.

His method of laying out these color mixing guides is probably the best that I’ve encountered for visualizing mixtures. At any rate, I was surprised and excited to find out that there are actually lots of John Barber titles, and I grabbed a new copy of the guide above for mixing in oils, watercolors, and acrylics for $20, and a used copy of The Watercolour Wheel Book for about $5, from ThriftBooks.

I’ll post again once I’ve gotten them and had a good look inside, and over the next few months I’ll be working on and eventually share a printable swatch card, or maybe two or three options, depending on what I come up with.

It’s been on my mind a lot since I noticed last summer that several of my watercolors were actually going bad. Not just drying out in the tubes, but actually FESTERING! Gah! I don’t know why, but a tube caught my eye and I thought, “I better smell that.”

WHY! WHY! I REALLY WISH I HADN’T. I still get chills and sometimes gag when I think about it.

I stopped everything I was doing on the Angel Tarot and went into emergency mode, quickly moving all my watercolors out of their tubes into pans, those little white squares they are sold in dry, instead. But then I was left with a huge problem – how do I keep track of what I have, what pigments are in them, if they are permanent, or toxic, or who made them?

And so I have spent most of my freetime lately making a portable-size catalogue of everything that I have, what’s in it, who made it, and so on. I really hated that swatching project JD made us do, and here I am all these years later, making approximately fourteen billion swatches of color. I’ll let you know if I ever finish this thing.

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