Creating a Color Palette


Color is as important to me as are the lines drawn on the page: it’s what gives a sketch its mood. Over the years, I’ve refined my palette by filling my paint box with the colors most important to me. While I miss using some of these colors while sketching on location, I find this limited palette works well for most subject matter.

To create a palette that best fits your needs, I recommend using half a full sheet (22″ x 30″) of watercolor paper. I use Arches 140 lb. hot press. I like to create a small puddle of paint for each color, leaving room on the page to add additional colors later. I also leave space between each color on the sheet, and label each with its name.

After creating your color swatches, look closely at each color to determine which are warm and which are cool, which are opaque and which transparent. Decisions about which colors to use in your palette will come through experimentation. Now use the remaining half sheet of watercolor paper and mix different colors together to see which combinations best fit your needs.

My palette consists almost exclusively of cool, transparent colors. It’s not that I don’t use the colors red or yellow, but I use cool versions of red (leaning towards pink or purple instead of orange) and yellow (leaning towards green instead of orange). Even the blues I use are cool. For example, I stay away from Ultramarine Blue because it’s a warm blue. Choosing a cool palette allows more freedom with paint mixing. When blending colors, keep in mind that warm colors and cool colors generally don’t mix well. Scarlet Lake Red (warm) mixed with Manganese Blue (cool) makes mud, not purple. Some people use all warm colors on their palette, but to my eye, their finished paintings look hot.

I use Winsor & Newton paints (from the tube). Here are the colors that I use in my kit:

Permanent Magenta
Permanent Rose

Scarlet Lake Red (semi opaque)
Windsor Orange

Quinacridone Gold
Windsor Yellow

Green gold
Olive green

Hooker’s green
Permanent Sap Green
Cobalt Green

Cobalt Turquoise Light (semi opaque)
Prussian Blue
Manganese Blue Hue

Paynes Gray (semi opaque)
Windsor Violet

Vandyke Brown
Sepia (semi opaque)
Burnt Umber

With all of these beautiful, cool colors on my palette, I can freely mix and blend without making mud. I try to limit myself to two colors per cup but there are so many I love that I often squeeze in three.

I reserve Scarlet Lake, Cadmium Yellow, and Windsor Orange for isolated areas because they don’t mix well with the other colors. But I don’t want to leave them out since they add warmth and life to my paintings.

“Base” Colors
There are three colors I consider my “base”: Vandyke Brown, Paynes Gray, and Green Gold. Generally, I add these base colors to other colors to darken them or to give a color added depth.

Painting Sketchbook Covers

Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 7.44.47 AM

After spending months drawing in my sketchbook, I’m reluctant to finish the last page. The completed book is filled with places I’ve traveled, friends I’ve met, and delicious food I’.ve eaten, all wrapped up in memories. But starting a new sketchbook is exciting too. I often think about the places I’ll visit and the people I’ll meet while drawing within its pages. If I’m lucky, I’ll discover a new drawing or painting technique that I’ve never tried before. Although the pure enjoyment of drawing is my main purpose for sketchbooking, I intend to improve my drawing abilities along the way.

I used to draw in Moleskine sketchbooks but now I make my own. Either way, the technique for painting the cover is the same.

  1. For the base, I paint gesso on the front of the book in a loosely painted rectangular shape, then let it dry. I repeat this two more times, lightly with sandpaper between applications to remove the bumps and brush strokes. Sometimes I add a small dab of color to the gesso to soften its brightness.
  2. Then, using a dampened paper towel, I rub a small amount of earthy acrylic colors on top of the base to provide visual texture and depth.
  3. Next, I sketch my subject on the cover in pencil and then draw over my pencil lines in permanent ink. If I make a mistake, I can use sandpaper to remove the offending line and then rub more color into the resulting white area.
  4. Once my drawing is complete, I paint the shapes with color. Sometimes, for texture, I spatter watered down acrylic paint over the finished piece with a toothbrush to add depth and texture. After letting the cover dry overnight, I’m ready for my next great sketching adventure.

These two sketchbook covers were drawn from photos of the archeological wall paintings of Akrotiri on the island of Santorini, Greece. The original wallpaintings are thousands of years old.

How to Make a Sketchbook


After searching many years for the perfect sketchbook, I finally gave up on the commercial brands and decided to make my own. For weeks I stayed up all night tearing paper, threading needles, poking holes in mat boards, and utilizing all kinds of gadgets, until finally I created the sketchbook I had been searching for. Here are the steps I used to make my favorite sketchbook.

  1. Measure out and tear (using the side of a ruler) a full sheet (22″ x 30″) of Arches watercolor paper into eight, 7.5″ x 11″ sheets (a full sheet is actually 22.5 inches wide so the individual pieces will be 11.25″ long including the deckle edge). Make sure the paper’s front side is up (watermark is readable on front side). Repeat until 4 full sheets have been torn into a total of 32, 7.5″ x 11″ sheets.
  2. Organize torn sheets so all the deckled edges are together on the right side.
  3. Cut two mat boards 7.75″ x 11.75″.
  4. Wrap 2″ wide, book binding cloth tape lengthwise around the left side of each cut mat board, with approximately 1″ on top and 1″ on the bottom. This will give the binding more support.
  5. Sandwich the stack of paper in between the two mat boards with the deckled edges facing away from the taped ends. Take the book to FedEx Office (or any other office supply store that has binding), and have it spiral bound along the taped side. I had FedEx Office spiral bind my sketchbooks but it’s also possible to buy a spiral binding machine. Zutter’s Bind-It-all and We R Memory Keeper’s The Cinch are two products I’ve heard good things about and both have YouTube video demonstrations.
  6. Once your book is bound, use an awl to punch two holes into the back side of the mat board. (It’s a good idea to put a couple of layers of cardboard behind the mat before making the holds so as not to poke a hole through anything else.) Using approximately 21″ of elastic, push each end up through the holes and pull tight until the elastic is snug around the sketchbook. Overlap the two elastic ends and stitch them together with sturdy thread.
  7. Finished!

I recently purchased “the Cinch” for binding books. The tool works quite well and easily punches through mat board. I purchased the 1″ plastic spirals (it’s the only size they make) and found them too large. So I ordered the metal binders sizes (3/4″ and 1″) and they seem to work pretty well (I prefer the 3/4″). Ultimately, I like the binding better from FedEx Office but it’s not worth the hassle for me to drive and wait hours for my order to be completed. I think the Cinch will be my sketchbook binder of choice!

***Click here to see how to paint a sketchbook cover***

My Favorite Sketchbook Ever!

The sketchbook is an artist’s personal traveling companion, a place to record observations, thoughts, and personal musings and I never leave home without mine. But to find a sketchbook that I actually love to use, is as elusive as it is desirable.

I searched many years for a “just right” sketchbook and a few months ago, after several purchases each proved disappointing, I gave up on commercial brands. Determined to make my own, I bought sheets of Arches hot press paper, linen thread, needles, cloth tape, hole punches, and more. After measuring, marking, stitching, binding, looping, fretting, tearing, and throwing my hands up in the air, I finally landed, what is for me, a near perfect solution.

Its only deficiency is that the binding requires the purchase of a special tool or the help of a third party supplier. Though I tried for weeks to make a stitched binding that worked, it wasn’t until I had the book spiral bound that I found what I was looking for. The spiral binding allows me to tuck the finished pages underneath to save space and to occasionally tear a page out for a friend, sell to a buyer, or toss the occasional, unsightly drawing away. But most important of all, I have my favorite paper to sketch on.

Since making my own sketchbook, I’ve sketched my ramblings around town, hanging out in coffee shops, and roaming the countryside. In fact, I’m so pleased with my sketchbook, I just made two more. So my persistence paid off and now I can concentrate on my true love, sketchbooking.

***Click here to see how to make your own sketchbook***

Baggin’ for Chicago

Watch out Chicago, The Artist on the Road is coming your way! I’ll be in the City of Big Shoulders for six days starting tonight, visiting my wife’s family and sketching as often as time permits. What else do I want to do while there? Mostly I’d just like to hang out in the Loop and environs, and try a sampling of all the Windy City has to offer. Cafes, coffee houses, parks and beaches along the lakefront, the art district. No matter what we end up doing, as long as I can sketch, I’ll be happy!

My dad was nice enough to loan me his Rick Steve’s travel bag for the trip. While packing last night, I stopped to sketch his bag along with my own messenger bag that holds all my art supplies. Both bags are great to travel with.

New Messenger Bag to Hold My Art Supplies

For Christmas I put a STM messenger bag on my wish list and thanks to my mother-in-law, I got what I wanted. I don’t often ask for things sight unseen but the reviews for this bag were excellent and I had a good feeling about it too. Well, today I received the bag and so far I love it. My art supplies fit perfectly. I also like that it only has one clip on the main flap (no velcro!) which it makes it easier to open. A pocket (with velcro) located inside the bag is perfect for protecting my iPad and sketchbooks. Overall, the bag seems to be well made and the stitching should hold it together pretty well.

Don’t I already own a messenger bag to hold all my art supplies, you ask? Well yes, I do own a large Timbuk2 bag that worked great when I went to Greece last year but I find it too big for a day out sketching close to home (click here to see a drawing of my Timbuk2 bag). Now I’m more exited than ever to hit the road and find a cool place to draw once the weather improves. Rain, rain go away . . .

Watercolor of my Travel Bags

I painted my backpack and messenger bag (contains all my art supplies) while waiting to leave for Greece. I bought the backpack many years ago when I lived in London and I still use it regularly when I travel. The Timbuk2 messenger bag was a recent purchase and it has a good amount of internal compartments to hold my art supplies and the overall construction seems sturdy. I only have two complaints about this bag. First, the trim on the flap tends to stick to the velco and fray and second, the two water bottle holders on the sides of the bag are a little loose around the bottles I use. A good art supply bag is hard find because most are so poorly made, but overall the Timbuk2 bag is well made so I would recommend it. Lastly, my wide brim hat comes in handy when I’m drawing without a shade tree.

An Artist Yet to Be

When I was twenty-one I moved to London, England to discover who I was but not yet aware of the artist I would become. While there, I would sit for hours on rainy days and write in my journal. I went to London not only because it was a cool thing to do but also because it was a time in my life when I had few responsibilities like mortgages, kids, and car payments. Why not travel and be free like the wind? College I figured, would just have to wait. When I arrived in London, I got a job working as a hotel receptionist, and what I enjoyed most was meeting people from all over the world. I didn’t have a clear purpose initially, but while there, I found one. I attended theater performances, frequented museums, and while discussing art with friends over coffee, the idea of becoming an artist bubbled to the surface. I bought watercolors and started to paint, but felt entirely too self conscious. When I got down to it, I was even afraid of the word “artist” when applied to me. But I continued to paint nonetheless.

Today, as I discovered in London, being a creator of art is not always easy. It demands work from me everyday not only to keep the creative juices flowing but to pay the mortgage I now have too. But I wouldn’t trade the work I do for anything else. A creative job is demanding–but so is life. I live art and the artwork I create gives me life. I recently went to Greece as a traveling artist and writer and upon my return, published the book “The Artist on the Road: Impressions of Greece.” Looking into the future, I feel three activities will demand most of my creative attention: Outdoor sketchbook drawing, etching, and writing. My recent discovery of book making has allowed me to combine all my loves into one. Sketchbooking and Stories of my travels will keep me working and happily occupied, for a long time to come.