A painter’s palette is used for laying out the paint you’ll be working with during your painting session. We’ll instruct you on how to use a palette in this lesson.
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).
Examples of painters using mahlsticks in historical paintings:
The wood of the palette 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?
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 Oil Painting
Traditionally, palettes were made from wood—the best being pear or mahogany, but other types of wood were also used. Pear and mahogany both have very tight pores, meaning that there’s less drag on your paintbrushes and they will last longer and not fray as easily. Specialty palettes made from these woods can be pretty pricey (over $100), but you can get a plain wooden palette from the art store for just a few dollars.
An inexpensive palette from the art store. This palette came with some plastic palette knives and was under $10 for the set.
New Wave is a company from Pennsylvania that makes some really incredible, specialized palettes. They’re lightweight and ergonomically designed so your arm and wrist don’t suffer from hours of holding it. Some of the cutouts also fit on your waist or hip, allowing the artist to have a choice of holding positions. Check them out: http://www.newwaveart.com/Products.aspx
Richeson oil palettes are a less expensive alternative and can be found at just about any art store: http://www.dickblick.com/products/richeson-wooden-palettes/
Palettes can be made from a wide variety of materials.
These palettes are made from wood and covered with a smooth, white plastic material (melamine), which makes clean up easy.
Though traditionally used with watercolor paints, plastic palettes can also work for oil paints.
Palette paper comes in a book (like a sketchbook) and has a waxy feel to it. When you’re finished painting, you don’t need to clean off your palette—just rip off the used sheet and throw it away. These can be useful if you’re traveling with your paints and won’t have access to a cleaning station.
Some glass palettes are designed to be held like the wooden palettes and others are just flat squares of glass that lay on the table next to your work station. They are typically made of tempered glass so they don’t break easily. The nice thing with glass palettes is that they are really easy to clean. Even if you forget to clean your paint off after each session, they can easily be scraped off the glass with a razor blade or a still palette knife.
Plexiglass or Acrylic
If the glass palette sounds interesting to you but you’re afraid you will break it, you can opt for a plexiglass or acrylic palette as an alternative.
From Beginner’s School tutorial instructor, Cynda Valle:
I always have two palettes; one has mounds of all the colors I have laid out and the other is for mixing my own color mixture on. After a week or so the mounds of paint develop a thin skin of drying paint. I just skim off the skin and keep using the color; the larger the mound you lay out, the longer the color will last before drying too much to use. I use two cookie tins lined with tin foil for the job, replacing the tin foil on the mixing palette often so I always have a clean place to mix. I use tin foil because I use the little nooks and crannies in the tin foil to pull the paint filled brush over to transfer the paint from near the ferrule (where it shouldn’t be) to the end of the brush where I can use it. If you’re going out plein air painting, though, tin foil won’t work because of the glare off the shiny surface! However, in the studio it’s my palette of choice.
You will notice once you begin our oil painting demonstrations with Cynda Valle that she is using yet another kind of palette. You can see in the screenshot below that she has a slab of brown MDF (board) under a piece of clear saran wrap. The brown tone under the saran wrap helps her to gauge the colors effectively (as we discussed above in What Is A Palette?) and the saran wrap helps with easy clean-up.
Palettes Of Famous Painters
This is Whistler:
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:
To see more historic artists’ palettes, see this article here: Photographic Portraits of Famous Artist’s Paint Palettes by Matthias Schaller
Since we’re on the subject of history and famous painters’ palettes, here’s a fun 3-minute video from the Baltimore Museum of Art:
Holding Your Palette
Look at this painting of artist Antoni Piotrowski holding his palette. This is the correct way to hold it.
When you get your palette, there will be a hole and a divot in the side of the palette. See the red arrow pointing at the divot here:
Hold your palette in your non-dominant hand and put your thumb through the hole with the divot farther from your body and towards your fingers. The thumb hole will be sloped on two edges–make sure that your thumb is resting on the slope that is closest to the outside part of the divot. If that’s a sharp edge there, then your palette is upside down…flip it over! The sloping is there to make the palette more comfortable to hold for long periods of time.
The divot is primarily for your other fingers so you can both grip and support the palette comfortably and hold extra brushes in your non-dominant hand. Ideally, you want the palette to rest on your forearm.
Here I am holding a small, rectangular palette in the correct way:
Now you don’t always have to be holding brushes, but you can. Think of your non-dominant (for me, the left) hand as your personal assistant. It has everything you need: paints, mediums, brushes, and well, if you’re messy like me, a sleeve to wipe it all off on.
A palette can also refer to the colors you use while you’re working.
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. Titanium 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. 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. Naphthol Red Light, Quinacridone Magenta, Dioxazine Purple, Pthalo Blue (green shade), Pthalo Green (blue shade), Anthraquinone Blue, Hansa Yellow and as always, Titanium White.
This is a very personal thing, and every artist lays 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. See our Basic Color Theory lesson for more about this!
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.
Here’s a typical example:
Source: Catherine Tonning, http://blog.catherinetonning.com/organizing-your-palette-work-space-and-art-supplies/
This artist is also using a piece of glass for mixing colors. 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!
If you’re using our Traditional Oils Recommendation List for paint colors, this is how I would lay them out:
- Titanium White
- Cadmium Yellow Medium
- Permanent Green Light
- Pthalo Green
- Manganese Blue Hue
- Ultramarine Blue
- Quinacridone Red
- Cadmium Red Light
- Transparent Red Earth
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.
Here is a video of artist Kevin McSherry talking about his palette and how he likes to organize it. The colors he is using are different than what we have on our recommendation list, but you can see how he’s laying out his palette anyway:
While you may be thinking your palette will look like this:
The truth is, 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.
It’s handy to have a palette knife for laying out and mixing colors. Metal is best and you’ll want something relatively small so you can keep the color in one area.
The palette knife can also be used to scrape paint off your palette when it’s time to clean up, scrape paint off your canvas, or even apply paint on to the canvas! They usually run somewhere between $3 and $20. The one pictured above is a good general palette knife. Its handle is off-set so you don’t get your fingers in the paint while you’re mixing or cleaning and the sharp tip is good for picking out small bits of color. Remember to wipe off your palette knife on a rag between mixing colors—you don’t want to turn your beautiful colors into mud! For more on palette knives and how they can be used to apply paint to the canvas, see our Oil Paintbrushes lesson.
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.
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. Use your palette knife to scrape off any paint that’s on your palette, then once the wet paint is removed, use your rag or a paper towel to wipe down the remaining paint. You can use your solvent to remove any bits that don’t come off right away.
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 cadmium, you’ll need to contact your local recycling center for proper disposal.
If you’re using a wooden, 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. If you have a lot of colors but not enough of any to keep, then you can mix them all together and make a neutral color for later use (I generally use these neutrals to tone my canvas or lay in an underpainting).
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!
Exercise One: Try Out Your Palette
Once you have purchased your palette, try using it! Put it in your non-dominant hand and practice holding it correctly. After you’ve mastered holding it, add a few brushes to your hand and see how it feels.
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: Oil Surfaces