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How to Build the Handy Hiker’s Color Journal

This is the first in a series of articles titled Stained Glass as an Other Language (SGOL) that discusses the overlap in the vocabulary and grammar of various arts and crafts with the craft of stained glass.

Finished front of the Handy Hiker’s Color Journal

When you take walks in botanic gardens, zoos, beaches, forest trails, or even urban landscapes, how often do you say to yourself, “Oh, I would love to paint that!” and you take a photo only to be disappointed with the colors, unable to catch the moment’s mood. If you paint it, the painting might be stiff and emotionless.

There is a method to quickly transcribe what you see without setting up painting equipment that can give you better results than working from a photograph.

In this article, I share how to make and use a helpful tool, the Handy Hiker’s Color Journal.  I learned this method at a two-week Penland School of Arts and Crafts summer intensive nature journaling session instructed by the late Western North Carolina great painter Robert Johnson.

At the end of the article, I discuss how this technique can be used off the trail, in a library, and a stained glass studio. 

Preparing the Chart

Once you have constructed the Handy Hiker’s Color Journal, expect to get a lifetime of use from it.

  1. You will need 12 tubes or dry pans of watercolor, preferably choosing a combination of cool and warm for each hue.
  2. You can use what paint you have or buy paint. In my basic palette, I have the following. 
  • three yellows
    • lemon (cool), non-cadmium yellow (warm), and yellow ochre (warm)
  • two siennas
    • raw sienna and burnt sienna
  • two reds
    • non-cadmium red (warm) and quinacridone magenta (cool)
  • two blues
    • thalo blue (cool) and ultramarine blue (warm). I use the spelling “thalo” instead of phthalo to help with initialing later on.
  • one green
    •  hooker’s 
  • one brown
    • burnt umber
  • one grey
    •  Payne’s  Gray 

You will not need black. You can get a lot of rich dark tones using color. You can get a 12-color set with Payne’s grey for an inexpensive but professional set. Always choose a professional grade. Watercolors last, and you will be glad you got good pigments. 

Other Supplies: brush (around #8 round), paper towels, thin, smooth watercolor paper 8” x 11”, such as hot press 190 gsm.

Step 2. Print the blank watercolor mixing chart on an 8 1/2”  x 11”  hot press (smooth) 190 gsm paper. You will need 8 x 11 in the final construction, but printing on standard size means you won’t need to worry about where the margins fall and can trim it for the best fit. 

Step 3. Set up your chart. Don’t paint yet. Here is how.

Write the name of each tube color at the top (title) of each matrix, as you see below.

Matrix of cadmium yellow ready to paint.

Start writing the initials of your other colors down the left-hand side of the matrix, starting on the second row. Always leave the top row for the title tube color. Repeat for each matrix—title tube color across the top. Skip a row. Initial each of the other colors down the left side.

Slowing down and getting in the zone

Mixing and painting your swatches should be done without consideration of time.

Have a wet paper towel to blot up any mistakes. You can twist the end of the towel to blot up tiny infractions. 

Start with the top row of the first matrix. With a slightly moist brush, pick up a dab of that matrix’s pure paint and dab it on the left side of the top row. Add a little water to your brush and pull the paint to the right, making a graded wash. After you fill in the top row, Mix a 50/50 ratio of each other color on a clean section of your palette, put a dab of the new mixed hue on the left of each row, and pull it across using a moist brush. Do a graded wash for each row.

Later on, you will imagine each row of washes having ten levels of dark to light. Dark being 1 and the lightest wash being 10.

Constructing the Journal is Easier than You Think

Once you have your materials, the construction is cake. I have tried to use archival materials below, but you can substitute what you have. You also do not need an adhesive-backed film to protect your chart.  A piece of 8” x 11” mylar or acetate can work, although the result might not be as durable as with the adhesive-backed film.


1 pc. 8″ x 11″   ⅛ “ masonite or hardboard flat panel as the supportive backing

1 pc. 8 x 11 mat board

1 pc  about 12”  x 15” clear adhesive plastic cover  or Grafix adhesive-backed film

 (you can use extra adhesive-backed film to cover any artwork. It is archival.)

Sturdy, sticky, preferably white tape. Cloth medical tape will work, but you can also use Mavalus or duct tape. Do not use masking tape, which has a short lifespan.  

Finished front of the Handy Hiker’s Color Journal

Pc. of 3 ¾ “ x 11” watercolor paper for pocket. 

Stack of 8”  x 11“ watercolor paper for sketching. Cut these down from large pieces using a paper cutter or craft knife and straight edge. Odd sizes like 7” x 10” can also be stored in the pocket you will construct in your journal. 


straight edge and craft knife

cutting surface


Step 1. Making the front:

Sandwich the color chart between the mat board and the clear film, with the color chart facing up. Of course, you want to see the color chart. The purpose of the clear film is to protect it. The mat board adds strength to the back of the chart. Center the film on the top. Remove the film backing and start in the center, press outwards, fold over the edges, and smooth on the back. 

Turn your sandwich over and place the 3 ¾“ x 11” piece of watercolor paper to the left of the matboard. Tape the edges, leaving the right edge of the paper open. This serves as a pocket to store sheets of paper, as seen below.

The left pocket serves as storage for art paper.

Step 2. Making the back

Make corners to secure work-in-progress

You must make corners to hold your paper on the masonite or hardboard.

Cut  two pieces of tape-one  about 1 3/4 “ long and one about  3 ½ ” long

Stick the adhesive sides together, leaving overhanging sticky edges. 

Place across the corner of the front of the hardboard, sticky side down. Fold over and press on the back to secure the corner in place. 

Tidy up the back with a craft knife, cutting a nice angle. 

Repeat for all four corners. These corners will hold your art paper. This paper-holding side will be referred to as the right side in the following step. 

Step 3.

Now it is time to put the back and front together— making a spine for your journal:

You will need two pieces of 11” tape, an 8 ½” piece, and the front and back of your journal.  You can cut the tape as you go.

Lay an 11” piece of tape adhesive-side up on your table.

Lay your front right side down and your back right side up, leaving about a ⅛” gap between them. You will place and center the front and back on the adhesive side of the tape, pressing firmly to make a tape spine.  Do this carefully so you get everything lined up. 

The spine won’t be strong enough with one piece of tape, so lay a second piece on top and press to smooth. This second piece of tape will overlap the left corners of the hardboard, so you will need to trim the corners.

For extra strength, put another 8 ½“ piece of tape on top of the spine directly in the middle (top to bottom) of the spine so that it will fit between the corners. Smooth all your taping and open and close your journal to work its new spine. 

The finished opened journal, spine down and spine up.

Fill your journal pocket with watercolor paper, saving one piece of paper to place on the masonite side, gently slipping each corner into the corner holder.  Grab a pencil, and hit the trail! You can leave your paints at home.

The Color Chart in Action

When you stop to sketch, you will use your color chart as a reference. Lightly pencil in a scene and elements of the scene and code the colors. With this method, paint when you get home.  An erasable non-photo blue pencil, the Prismacolor Copy-Not/Col-Erase #20028, will create very light lines that you can draw over with graphite later if you want.

Here is how to color-code your drawing. 

Use light, erasable penciled initials of the colors and color combinations you see in your subject. 

For example, burnt umber and yellow ochre mix would be coded as BU + YO. 

Use gradation numbers to further code:

Imagine each row on your color chart is graded from 1 to 10. You will code your drawing with the color combination and the grade. 

For example, a mountain range is usually seen in different gradations as the mountains go further into the distance but might surprisingly get darker in the furthest distance. For this scene, I noted this was a  T+ BS color (thalo blue + burnt sienna), and I numbered each mountain the gradation number. 

Mountainscape coded with numbers to remember gradations within a certain wash

Note on gradations: Trees are often light in the front and darker around the curves towards the back. Darker values often push back, and lighter values often come forward, except in the case of a mountain range where atmospheric perspective often causes the further mountains to be lighter than the ones in the foreground. Close observation is the best way to know.

Note on warm and cool colors: Warmer colors can feel forward, whereas cooler colors can seem further back and be used in shadows. Different times of the day and artistic interpretations also come into play, and observation is key.

How This Translates to Stained Glass

The stained glass artist works in color much of the time. Choosing colors for some pieces can be difficult for a couple of reasons.

Taking a large piece off the shelf for matching can be a hassle.  Secondly, it is hard to imagine colors working next to each other.  This is where the Handy Hiker’s Color Journal can be useful. 

You can color code glass you want to use in a piece and experiment with watercolors before taking any hefty glass off the shelf.  

You can also color code glass you might want to buy, looking at your sample packs if you have them. I am holding up a beautiful Bullseye sample I don’t stock in my studio. I can see that it works in much of the thalo blue matrix. 

This Bullseye mottled texture is in the thalo matrix.

It is also possible to make copies of commercial patterns (see this oriental stained glass pattern below) on watercolor paper and paint multiple variations until you find a color combination you like. Or, if you have a limited glass inventory, you could paint with specific glass colors until you get the harmony you love.

The same process can apply if you draw chromatic inspiration from a book source, such as these Milton Avery paintings. 

Looking to Milton Avery for palette ideas

The colors in these paintings could be a good starting place for an interesting limited color palette. 

Here is a pattern I have drawn, and I can see how a few different colors would look before I start cutting the glass for the beetle. Maybe the Milton Avery colors would work. I will let you know.

Key Takeaways

If you can’t commit to plein-air painting but want the immediacy of being in the environment, this nature journaling method combines plein-air with nearly the speed of working from a photograph.

The camera can be a good tool for taking notes of objects and scenes you cannot take back to the studio, but most cameras have limits on certain colors. My camera, for example, does a bad job of picking up blues. And often, drawings from photographs lack the energy felt in the subject’s presence. 

My zoo drawings, for example, are much better than my drawings from photographs of the zoo. Since animals are moving, I have to draw quickly, and the immediacy and energy are better. 

For the stained glass artist, working with scraps is one thing, and I often do work from scraps and can adjust my glass choices on a lightbox without much trouble. However, I would rather plan my glass if I commit to a large or complicated project. Another advantage of this color chart is that it can be taken to clients’ houses to match their color themes.

A watercolor mock-up is a lifesaver. I have ruined otherwise excellent pieces by not planning better in advance. 

Your Handy Hiker’s Color Journal will give you freedom on the trail. You draw, code your colors, and keep walking. The HHCJ will give you a chromatic platform for commercial and custom stained glass.

My newsletter, Patterned Visions, addresses cross-craft theories in action and how-to guides for stained glass artists. This article is #1 in SGOL, Stained Glass as an Other Language. You can get Patterned Visions delivered to your inbox


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