A painter’s palette is used for laying out the paint you’ll be working with during your painting session. For watercolor, many artists squeeze their favorite set of paints into their palette, then cover and re-use the same palette repeatedly. In this lesson, we’ll go over different types of palettes you can use and how to lay them out.
Here are the topics we’ll be discussing:
What Is A Palette?
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.
Different Types Of Palettes For Watercolor Paints
Wooden palettes aren’t recommended for watercolor paints–they are designed specifically for use with oil paint. Instead, you’ll use something more like this when you’re using watercolors:
When working at home or in your studio, this is the ideal palette. Your palette should have separate wells to hold the different colors of paint you have squirted from the tubes. It should also have at least one large flat area to mix your colors and to add more water to the pigment as you work with different thicknesses of paint. You won’t add water to the wells of paint except for maybe a spritz from your spray bottle once in a while. Mostly, you will be making little puddles of water on the flat mixing area then dipping your wet brush into the well to pick up a little paint and add it to your puddle until you come up with the color and saturation you want.
One of the most popular palettes on the market is the John Pike palette. The Big Well John Pike palette has wells big enough to fit a 1.5” brush and there are several flat mixing areas for your paints.
It also has a lid to keep your paints fresher longer, and you can also use the lid as another mixing area.
The Quiller Palette or Robbie Laird Palette are very useful because they allow you to lay out your colors like a color wheel. This helps with color mixing if you set it up correctly. It is easy to see what the complementary colors are because they are directly opposite each other on the color wheel and your palette. Don’t worry if you’re not sure what a complementary color is just yet—we’ll get into that a bit later!
These run about $20, but if your budget doesn’t allow for that, very basic, round palettes can be purchased at craft stores for usually about a dollar. If you use one like this without a cover, it is a good idea to cover it with plastic wrap when you are done (like Press and Seal). You will also need a separate plastic white tray for mixing your colors.
In fact, you can just use a white plastic plate—waterproof styrofoam plates can work as a palette if you are only using a few colors. Just squeeze three colors into three opposite corners of the plate so you have lots of room for mixing in the middle. Your paints may get a little cross-contaminated, but if you aren’t trying to use pure hues, you should be okay.
Occasionally you will have a need to cover a large area of your paper with a strong juicy wash and it may be difficult to get enough paint premixed on the flat mixing tray. In that case, some artists will use a cupcake tin or baby food jars to mix up different colors of paint in the proper consistency.
You don’t want to get a clump of straight pigment on your brush, so squeeze the paint into the cup and add a little water then mix for several minutes with a brush so that the pigment is completely dissolved and the paint is all an even consistency. Test the color and add more water or more pigment to get the desired value. This is useful when you have a large area to cover with a lot of color. For most beginners, however, you should be just fine with using the paint in your regular palette.
There are other techniques for watercolor besides using a brush. After masking off areas with frisket*, some artists may pour pre-mixed paint directly from a jar or dish onto the wet paper. This technique isn’t as accurate as using a brush, but you may come up with some interesting results!
* Frisket, or masking fluid, is a mixture of latex and ammonia that is applied to the surface in order to mask off the areas that are not to be colored by a given application of paint. Applied with a brush, it is allowed to dry first before applying paint over the top. When the paint has dried, the frisket can be peeled off to reveal the fresh surface below.
If you’re going to work outside (see our lesson Painting En Plein Air With Watercolors for more info), you may want to get a palette suitable for traveling. This Mijello Fusion Airtight and Leakproof Palette folds up for easy transportation:
Small, travel kits are also available in art stores. Their color selection is usually pretty limited, but depending on the kind you get, they also contain a small brush and a water container.
This travel set from Winsor & Newton is $96 online.
You can get a basic set like this for about $20:
These small kits are okay if you are only doing small watercolor sketches (5×7, etc). For more typical size paintings, however, you are going to want a palette large enough to put at least a 1” brush in the well and enough mixing area to mix up enough water and paint for a wash (a flat layer of diluted color) across your paper.
If you’re handy, you can always make your own travel set of watercolors!
Exercise One: Make A Travel Palette
There are many containers you can use to make a travel watercolor palette. A tin from some mints will work well.
Go to the art store and buy small watercolor pans like these:
Fill each pan up with a color from your tube of paints and let it dry on a flat surface overnight. The next day, you can attach your watercolor pans to the inside of your mint tin with some rubber cement or other strong adhesive.
That’s it! You’ve made your own travel watercolor palette!
Prepping Your Palette And Laying Out Your Paint
Before you start using your brand new plastic palette, you’ll want to rough up the surface a little bit. If you don’t, the paint will bead up (ideally you want it to lay flat). Use the rough side of a clean, dry kitchen sponge to scrub the mixing tray and the inside of the lid to your palette. Here’s a helpful video by Wendy Froshay about this technique:
If you’ve purchased tubes of watercolor paint, you’ll want to lay them out keeping the color wheel in mind. If you’ve purchased a pan with the colors already laid out, then they’ve done the work for you. Check out the Basic Color Theory lesson for more about the color wheel.
You should have your paints and palette by now (if you don’t, see our Watercolor Supplies and How Much do I Need? lesson) so let’s go over how to lay them out on your palette.
Thinking about the color wheel, lay out your paints so they move from purple to red to orange, yellow, green, blue, and back to purple. If you have more wells than colors, then leave some empty ones between colors. For example, if you are just using warm and cool yellows, reds, and blues, then leave some space between the warm yellow and warm red to add an orange, or leave a space or two between the cool blue and cool red to later add a violet.
If you have the John Pike palette and all the colors, it will look something like this:
Some artists group their earth tones together (if you are using them from the tube instead of mixing them). If you have a circular palette with outer wells, those are a good place for them. Otherwise, it is useful to put them closest to the color they are associated with (e.g., Burnt Sienna near the oranges, Yellow Ochre with the yellows, etc.)
It’s helpful to label the wells on your palette on the outside with the color that’s in there in case you forget or can’t tell (sometimes it’s hard to tell the colors apart). Use a sharpie or other permanent marker to label the wells. If you change your color later, use some rubbing alcohol to remove the marker. You could also use some masking tape if you don’t want to write directly on your palette.
When you squeeze the paints into the wells of your palette, don’t just put a tiny blob in each one. Fill it up so that the paint is touching all sides of the well. The reason you do this is so that your paints stay nice and fresh and don’t dry out when air gets on the sides or underneath. See this quick video by Joe Miller of Cheap Joe’s Art Supplies on how to fill up your wells:
Cleaning Your Palette And Saving Paint
You do not need to clean out the paint wells each time you stop painting with watercolors since the paint is reactivated with water. You want to have a clean area for mixing colors, so you use a spray bottle and damp paper towel to clean off the mixing tray when you’re done. Cover your palette and store it until the next time you are ready to paint. When you come back, your paints will be hardened, but your wet brush will get the paint flowing again. If the individual wells get some of the wrong color paint in them, just spray a little clean water into the well and dab the erroneous color off with a paper towel.
A palette can also refer to the particular color paints you use while you’re working. With watercolor paint there is more to think about than just the color when you are choosing your palette, however. Watercolor paints have different properties in terms of staining, transparency, and granulation. As you get more experienced with watercolor, these properties become extremely significant.
Watercolors are usually transparent and, because of that, have a luminous quality to them that is unique to watercolor paints. The white you see in watercolor paintings is generally the white of the paper showing through. Watercolor paints can be made opaque by adding a white gouache paint to them, though this can result in duller and heavier looking colors.
Watercolor purists don’t use white paint in their paintings. There are even some watercolor associations that do not allow paintings in their competitions where the artist has used white paint. Their goal is to highlight the wonderful reflective transparency of the medium. However, today many watercolor artists are actually called “watermedia” artists and employ not only white gouache paint, but also acrylic paint, ink, collage, or even pastel together with watercolor to make creative watermedia paintings.
Albrecht Durer was able to effectively use both opaque and transparent pigments in his representations of insects and other natural elements that he is well known for:
Later on, in the 17th century, Anthony van Dyck started utilizing the transparent qualities of the paints by layering veils of color and allowing the white of the paper to stand in as highlights. This had a rich and brilliant effect that became very popular and was copied for centuries after. This is still the watercolor purists way to use the medium! “Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck, . . . pioneered the use of translucent watercolor washes. The artist allowed the blank paper to shine through the pigment, playing as important a role as the watercolor itself. From van Dyck’s time on, watercolorists viewed their medium as an interaction between color and paper.” [Getty]
In the 19th century, as watercolors became a more accepted fine art medium, artists began exploring just how far they could push watercolor paints. J.M.W. Turner excelled at using opaque watercolor or gouache colors. He would combine both transparent and opaque effects—utilizing the lightness of the transparent washes for skies and also the heaviness of the opaque paints to create the weight of things like rocks and boats. Turner also blotted the paint off the paper to reveal highlights and occasionally scratched directly into the paper to get pure white highlights.
The colors we recommend for beginners are all transparent or semi-transparent to give you the full experience of luminous watercolors.
Alongside this shift in transparent versus opaque colors, the colors on the palette have shifted throughout time as well.
In the time of Albrecht Durer, color palettes were pretty muted and mostly featured earth tones. Colors include Burnt Umber, Raw Umber, Raw Sienna, Yellow Ochre, and Vermillion.
By the 1800’s, artists had access to more pigments and could purchase paint from shops instead of having to source and grind their own pigments.
Impressionists and post-Impressionists used vibrant paints to capture a mood different than the academic styles of the past. Colors include Cadmium Yellow, Viridian Green, French Ultramarine, Alizarin Crimson, and Vermillion.
Then in the beginning of the 20th century, color exploded! Man-made pigments became available and in much bolder, brighter colors than ever before. Back in the day, many colors were “fugitive”, meaning that they faded with time. With man-made pigments, artists no longer had to worry about their paintings becoming washed out over time. If you’re interested in the more technical specifications of lightfastness in watercolor paints, check out http://www.handprint.com/HP/WCL/pigmt6.html
Tip: if the name is hard to pronounce, it’s probably a man-made color. Colors include Napthol Red, Quinacridone Red, Dioxazine Purple, Pthalo Green (blue shade), Pthalo Blue (green shade), Anthraquinone Blue and Hansa Yellow.
Exercise Two: Choose A Color Palette And Experiment With Your Selection
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 first try mixing them with the colors you have.
Knowing what colors and styles you are personally drawn to will help you make an informed decision on the colors you decide to put on your palette. Are you more drawn to the earthy tones of Albrecht Durer? Or the bright, bold colors of Emil Nolde?
If you’re having a hard time picking out paint colors, try using this color chart from Windsor Newton: http://www.winsornewton.com/na/discover/resources/colour-charts/professional-water-colour
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: Watercolor Paper and Other Surfaces