A painter’s palette is used for laying out the paint you’ll be working with during your painting session. We’ll instruct you how to use a palette in this lesson.
Here are the topics we’ll be discussing:
When you think of a palette, you probably think about the ubiquitous artist palette—a funny-looking oval of wood with a hole cut out for the thumb.
This is the most typical type of palette. The reason is that it’s designed to rest on the forearm of your left hand (although if you’re left handed, you would flip it over and use it on your right arm!). With the thumb holding the palette, the fingers are free to hold brushes and a mahlstick (a wooden rod with a soft, fabric knob on the end used to steady the hand of the painter). The wood is thin and therefore lightweight, making it easy to hold for hours at a time. Another reason for using wood was its nice, warm brown color. For centuries, artists have toned (lay a thin wash of paint down) their canvas with warm brown colors, making the shift in color perception from the palette to the canvas very slight. Remember colors appear to change based on their surroundings, so if you mix your paint colors on a brown palette then apply them to a white canvas, they’re going to look different than you intended.
Why did the artists hold the palette instead of setting it down on a table?
It’s not that these artists didn’t have access to tables to set their palettes down on, but when you’re painting from life and concentrating on your subject, you break your concentration less when your paint is close to your body. Imagine you’re staring intensely at a still life and you know exactly where you need to put the next color. If you have to look away and move to a table to fetch your color, you break the focus that you just had and your next stroke won’t be as accurate.
Wooden palettes aren’t recommended for acrylic paints. The wood is very absorbent and the paint will stain the palette, plus it’s harder to clean than say a plastic palette which can just be rinsed off in the sink.
Different Types Of Palettes For Acrylic Painting
Sta-Wet palette (Note: if you have purchased the Ravenna tabletop easel, the Sta Wet 912 palette fits nicely on the outside for transportation).
A covered plastic palette, good for acrylics and watercolors.
Palette paper is a disposable, coated paper designed to hold paint.
A small plastic palette is good for acrylics and watercolors on the go.
This is a wood palette box with a glass palette in the bottom. Glass can be very easy to clean (paint just scrapes off) but needs to be kept on a flat surface. Don’t break it!
There are also traditional-shaped palettes made out of tempered glass. These work well for acrylic and one big advantage is that you can put a piece of colored paper underneath it to see how your paint will react against other colors.
If you decide to use a palette like this with a thumb hole cut out, see our discussion “Holding Your Palette” in Oil Palettes.
Palettes of Famous Painters
Here are some other palettes (and self-portraits) from famous painters. I included their self-portraits so you can see their color choices in action as well as what the artist looked like. Some of the portraits even show the artist using the palette!
Notice how they all go about setting their palette up differently:
Auguste Renoir’s palette fits inside a box with all of his paints and brushes, so we can tell by looking at this that he painted on location (plein air) a lot.
This meticulous setup of paints suggests that Delacroix premixed all of his colors before starting work on a painting.
Paul Gauguin’s palette has hinges in the center, meaning that it could fold up when he wasn’t using it. This is a huge bonus when you’re painting outside and have a lot of things to carry! The small pegs on the right side of the palette keep the two halves separated just a little so if he wanted to fold up his palette and move, the paint on the two different sides wouldn’t mix together.
We can see here that Van Gogh is picking up colors with a dirty brush (see how the blue is mixing in with the white paint just under the thumb hole). This means he was likely mixing colors on his canvas instead of premixing colors like Eugene Delacroix.
Since we’re on the subject of history and famous painters’ palettes, here’s a fun video from the Baltimore Museum of Art:
In addition to being the thing that holds your paint, a palette can also refer to the colors you use while you’re painting.
Of course, palettes (color selections) have varied through the centuries and different art movements have each had their own particular palette.
Old Masters (Rembrandt, Rubens) would use more muted, earth tones. Colors include: lead white, burnt umber, raw umber, burnt sienna, raw sienna, yellow ochre, Naples yellow, vermillion, and ivory black.
Impressionists (Monet, Cassatt) stayed away from black at all costs and their palettes are often very soft in nature. Colors include: titanium white, cadmium yellow, viridian green, French ultramarine, alizarin crimson, vermillion.
Modern painters (Audrey Flack, Lichtenstein) have very bright colors, often made synthetically (not ground from natural materials). If it’s hard to pronounce, it’s probably a modern color. Colors include: napthol red, indanthrone blue, quinacridone magenta, dioxazine purple, pthalo blue (green shade), pthalo green (blue shade), anthraquinone blue, hansa yellow and radiant white.
Okay, enough history. Back to laying out your palette!
This is a very personal thing, and every artist sets out their palette differently. A good rule of thumb is to find what works for you and stick with it every time you lay out your palette! That way, you don’t waste time searching for the color you need, you know exactly where it is and can even find it without looking. Imagine if your computer keyboard layout changed every time you tried to write an email. It would be confusing to find the right key, right? But because the keys never move, you’re able to type more quickly and—if you’re a pro—without even looking at the keyboard. Same thing goes with your palette.
When you lay out your paint, keep the paints close to the edge of the palette so you have room in the center for mixing colors. I try to keep black on one side and white on the other so that they don’t get mixed together and muddy your colors.
It’s helpful to keep the color wheel in mind when laying out your palette.
The brightest colors will be near the edge of your palette. In the middle, you will mix the colors with white or black to soften or darken them. See our Basic Color Theory lesson for more about this!
Here’s a typical example:
This artist is also using a piece of glass for mixing colors. This will aid in clean up (just scrape off dry paint with a razor or wash off wet paint in the sink). If you have an old picture frame lying around, you can use the glass from that. Be careful not to break it or cut your fingers on the edges!
Usually, artists will lay out their colors from light to dark.
Notice how the light and dark colors on Whistler’s palette are opposite each other. This is a good practice to get into so you don’t dull down your whites with your blacks! The center of the palette is clear so he can mix paints in the middle.
While you may be thinking your palette will look like this:
As you saw above, they get messy! Really fast! And that’s okay!
These are much more realistic palettes:
It always starts off clean, but then you get into the painting process and before you know it, the palette looks like those pictured above.
If you’re using our starter recommendations (see Acrylic Supplies and What Do I Need?) and only need to use the first three essential colors, this is how I would lay them out:
- Titanium White
- Burnt Sienna
- Ultramarine Blue
If you’ve gone whole hog and purchased all 15 colors, this is how I would lay them out:
Or like this if you’re using a Sta-Wet palette:
Chances are you’re not going to be using all 15 colors at one time—it gets too overwhelming to have that many colors happening at once. You’re better off focusing on a limited palette—three to five colors. I just wanted to show you how I would lay out these colors based on the color wheel.
As I said above, you don’t need to lay out every paint color you own every time you start to paint. Consider what it is you will be painting and the amount of each you will need. For example, if you’re painting a sky with clouds, you probably won’t need much brown or black (unless it’s a stormy sky). You’ll want to have a range of complementary colors because your mind can play tricks on you—see our Color Illusions and Themes lesson for more about this.
A note about laying out colors:
Don’t scrimp on paint. Acrylic paint is pretty inexpensive and many beginners make the mistake of not using enough, which results in unsatisfactory results.
A note about mixing:
Some artists like to spend a while before they start painting mixing colors to match their reference. I know some artists who spend a lot of time doing this before they even pick up a brush! Other artists mix colors directly on the canvas. Mixing on the canvas is a very common practice in the modern era. Old Masters (pre-19th century) used to mix colors beforehand, but since the advent of Modern painting, mixing paint directly on the canvas has become acceptable.
It can be difficult to premix acrylic paints because of their fast drying time, so unless you’re using a retarder gel (that slows down drying time), you may be better off mixing as you work.
It really is personal preference. I would suggest playing around with both to see what you feel works best for you and the style you’re going for.
A note about palette placement:
If you’re right-handed, you’ll want to keep your palette and water containers on your right side when you’re painting. Conversely, if you’re left-handed, keep them on your left. This makes it easier to pick up paints and not drip water all over the place!
Cleaning Your Palette And Keeping Paint
When you’re finished painting for the day, it’s a good idea to clean off your palette so you can start fresh the next time you paint.
If you’re using a Sta Wet palette, you can simply close the box lid and the paint will stay moist for several days. If you won’t be painting for longer than that, make sure to keep wetting the sponge/paper towel in the bottom of your stay wet palette to make sure your paints don’t dry out.
If you’re using a disposable palette (palette paper, paper plate, etc.) and student grade (non-toxic) paints, you can crumple it up and throw it in the trash. If you’re using artist grade paints that have warning labels for toxic pigments such as cadmiums, you’ll need to contact your local recycling center for proper disposal.
If you’re using a glass or plastic palette, you will want to store any leftover paint to use later. For this, it’s helpful to have some cups to keep the paint in.
These can be purchased at the art store for less than $5 usually. Label your paints so you remember which one is which! The paints won’t keep indefinitely—you’ll probably want to use the paints before the week is up.
An alternative would be empty baby food jars or other small jars—go look in your fridge right now and see how many jelly/olive/sauce jars have just a little left in them. Use the rest for meals this week then clean and keep the jars for your paints!
Empty jars also work well as water containers for cleaning out your brushes.
Exercise One: Choose A Color Palette
Choose one or two of your favorite artists and look at their color choices. Can you identify some of the colors they are using? Make a note of the colors and try mixing them with the colors you have. You’ll be surprised with how many different colors you can make with just a few paints! Keep track of what colors you’re using and how much of each so you can complete exercise two.
Exercise Two: Experiment With Your Selection
Once you have mixed the colors of your selected palette, lay out a swatch of each on a canvas or white paper. Make a note of what you mixed to arrive at your desired color.
Want to share your selection? Send us your experiments and a note about why you chose the colors you did using our submission form!
Key Lesson Learning: You’ve learned about the different meanings of the word “palette”, seen historical examples of palettes of some well known painters, and the importance of paint placement on your palette.
Next lesson: Acrylic Surfaces