Which watercolor palette should I choose?

A pile of palettes: Art Toolkit Pocket Palette (open on top), on top of an Art Toolkit Folio Palette (closed, with a Kolbie Blume sticker on it), Sylvan Clayworks Wiggle Wells (top right), Sugarhouse Ceramics Travel Palette (bottom right), moon-shaped palette I got from a Kolbie Blume mystery supplies kit, all inside a Richeson enameled butcher tray.

Typically when I talk about “choosing your palette,” I mean choosing which colors to paint with. But this post is on the physical item, a paint palette. Because this is an extremely low-stakes decision, of course I have written one of my longest posts about it.

In watercolor, a palette has two possible functions: mixing and storage. You can use the same object for both purposes, or different ones. Here are some basic considerations:

Mixing Considerations

  • The best material to mix on is ceramic. Paint spreads and mixes well on it. Watercolor paint can bead on plastic. Still, some highly-regarded mixing palettes are made from hard plastic. Sanding plastic can make it more amenable to paint spreading.
  • The best mixing surfaces are white, so you can see the colors the way they’ll look on the white paper. 
  • Mixing surfaces may be flat (so you can spread out your piles of paint and make trails between them) or divided into wells (so you can keep watery mixes separate).

Storage Considerations

  • Pigment storage wells are smaller than mixing wells. They may be integrated into a mixing tray, or you may have separate solutions for mixing and storage. 
  • Pigment storage wells do not need to be ceramic. There’s no advantage. 
  • Some storage tins have removable pigment pans that can be rearranged.
  • Palettes come in all different sizes and numbers of pigment wells, depending on how many paints you want to have on hand. Some artists have multiple storage palettes for different situations.
  • Most artists seem to like to arrange their paint in rainbow order in the palette, or ROYGBIV followed by earth tones. In a round palette, you can make a color wheel.

There are a ton of options, which means a ton of possible choices to make. Don’t worry, this is a low stakes decision. You can always use up the paint you’ve stored in the palette and change your mind. 

With palettes, even more than other equipment, your preferences are everything. What kind of palette you use will not show up in your painting. Your choices are entirely about how you like to work. For that reason, it was really hard for me to choose at first. How am I supposed to know how I like to work? Yet, it’s hard to get started until you have something to put your paint onto/into.

Palette Questionnaire

I’ve devised a short questionnaire that will help you figure out what you might like. All of the “conclusions” are just options I know about, not affiliate links (or even links at akk: why should I link to them if they’re not paying me?? google it!) You never need to get my exact recommendations – there are plenty of options like the ones I suggest.

Onto the questions!

Do you just want a mixing tray?

I’m going to get this out of the way first. If you don’t want a palette for storage, most of the rest of the questions will be moot. (Or you may want to come back to this question if you decide from to go for a storage palette that doesn’t have integrated mixing.) Here are your options:

  • If budget is a major factor, go to Goodwill and pick up an old plate. White, ceramic, perfect to mix on, and cheap! You could also demote an existing plate in your home to a paint mixing plate, ideally one you will not mix up with your eating plates.
  • An enamel butcher tray is spacious, lightweight, and inexpensive; perfect for mixers who prefer one, big mixing space. Some artists, like Nita Engel, use this as their storage space, dabbing piles paint in rainbow order around the edge.
  • If you want little compartments to keep your mixes separate, a daisy well is a convenient option found in many art stores.
  • You could also keep your mixes separate in individual little stacking bowls.
  • Consider patronizing a local ceramicist (go to a craft fair or search Etsy for your location), or a small business like Sylvan Clayworks, Sugarhouse Ceramics, Ellie Panda Pottery, and [insert your area ceramicist here]. This is not necessarily the cheapest option, but my one-of-a-kind mixing palettes mean more to me than mass produced ones. And they are often produced with more care and attention to detail because they’re designed by the people who use them. 

The rest of the questions will focus on helping you narrow down your storage options. 

What paint format do you have – pan or tube?

Pan: Most dry paint pan sets come in a tin already (or they fit best in their own branded tin), so the storage question is resolved for you. You only need to decide how you’d like to mix. Loop back to “Do you just want a mixing tray?” 

Tube: You can use any palette. The traditional way to work with tube paint is to squeeze a bit into the pigment well of a palette, allow it to dry, and rewet it when you’re ready to paint (essentially, work with it as if it’s a DIY dry pan.) Refill from the tube when it runs out. Because your paint starts out liquid, it can fit in any well.

Is your tube paint student grade or artist grade?

Student Grade: Some student grade paints don’t rewet well – that is to say, if you let them dry and then rewet them, they’re less vibrant than out of the tube. If that’s the case, the “traditional way to work” I described above may not work for you. 

You may want to skip getting a storage palette, and just squeeze a bit of wet paint onto a mixing tray when it’s time to paint. Loop back to “Do you just want a mixing tray?”

Another option would be to get an airtight palette, like Mijello Fusion or John Pike, which allows you to store wet paint and keep it wet for days/weeks while you work on a painting. 

Artist Grade: You can most likely work in the traditional way, and use any palette. 

Do you think you’re likely to change your mind a lot about your color choices?

Yes, my color choices are up in the air: A palette with removable pans may be the way to go, so you can change your mind about which colors you even want and what order they go in. When I tried to use a palette with non-movable wells (like, a solid piece of ceramic with some dips in it), I was always stressing out about, “What if this isn’t my final color selection? Should I leave some spaces? How many?” Or I’d allow my palette to dictate my paint choices: “I can’t get another yellow because I don’t have a slot for one.” As an indecisive person, life’s just easier with removable pans. 

Getting two palettes compatible with the same trays will allow you to choose your colors in one while moving others to the “B team.” 

Palettes with removable pans include: Art Toolkit, Meeden, and Whiskey Painters.

No, my color choices are pretty locked down: You can use any palette, including those with or without removable tins. You just need to make sure the number of wells is right for your extremely locked-down color roster.

Palettes with non-removable wells include: Tom Lynch (18 wells), John Pike (18 wells), San Francisco Slant (8 small + 4 large wells), Stephen Quiller (24 wells), Etchr Mini (19 wells), or anything from a local ceramicist. 

Do you think you might use this palette for travel or plein air (painting outside)?

Yes, I want to take it everywhere: You may want a portable travel palette made from lightweight materials, such as metal or plastic, rather than a big, heavy ceramic palette. 

The smallest palettes that I know of are Art Toolkit, Meeden, Whiskey Painters, and Etchr Mini (notable for being small and compact and ceramic. You just have to be okay with teensy tiny pigment wells.) John Pike is larger, but plastic, so it’s lightweight. 

No, I’m pretty much just going to be at my desk: You can use any palette, big or small. 

If you like to spread out, palettes designed by Tom Lynch, John Pike, and Stephen Quiller are acclaimed options. Of these, Lynch and Quiller are ceramic. Jack Richeson, the maker of the Lynch and Quiller palettes, also have other ceramic options in various sizes. 

Is your home dusty? Do you have pets?

Yes to either: You will want a palette with a lid to prevent your paints getting scuzzy. (I think all of the palettes I’ve listed so far have built-in or optional lids. It’s just an additional consideration.)

My Palette Journey

I have tried various options and my current choice is Art Toolkit Folio. I like that the wells are removable and magnetic, and you can arrange them any way you please, including having some larger and some smaller. I prefer the medium-size well, and the Folio lets me store 30 of them! This suits me down the ground because I can never decide which colors I want in my palette and I was always up against color number limits (and indecision limits) on other palettes. I have their Pocket Palette as well, so I can swap pans in and out between the two tins. 

Although I haven’t done much plein air painting (or much travel, in the pandemic), I like that these palettes are super-portable. (Even the larger Folio fits in a jacket pocket.) When I do paint outside, I like being able to use my regular equipment. 

Because this palette includes limited mixing space (there’s a bit inside the lid but it’s not ceramic and I’m not in love with it), I typically use a separate mixing space. My present favorite is the Sugarhouse Travel Palette. The six small wells and two large wells are all I usually need to mix up several colors for a small painting. I like that it’s compact and rectangular, and that Sugarhouse makes a padded bag for it; it’s easy to store and even to take with me. 

I’m also hanging onto the Etchr Mini, which was my first palette, even though I rarely use it now. It is just so cool to have a ceramic palette that is portable, even though I found the wells almost impossibly tiny to work with (and I like small wells!), and I overthought the color order. 

The professional studio artists who address this topic in posts or books I’ve read will tend to recommend the larger palettes, but they just didn’t speak to me. 

Like so many things, I think this ultimately comes down to “find the thing that sparks joy and go for it.” As a beginner, it was easier for me to adapt the way I work to a palette than to figure out how I work and then back my way into the “right choice.” Don’t be afraid to just go for one (whichever you like best, or a random one). If it’s the “wrong choice,” you can change your mind later; the worst that happens is you waste some paint.

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