How to Choose the Right Watercolor Painting Palette for Best Results

Choosing the right painting palette is a critical step in the painting process. This article goes over the features to consider for best results.

As you venture into your watercolor journey, choosing the right painting palette will be an important part of the equation. There are a variety of palettes to choose from - so how do you know which one is right for you? Like with most things, trial and error will teach you what works best for you. However, being educated about each type is the best first step.

Key Takeaways

1. Choosing the right painting palette depends on the type of painting you choose to do.

2. There are three factors to consider when selecting a painting palette: type of paint either tubes or pans, number of colors you use, travel or studio painting.  

3. For beginners, airtight palettes with at least 12 paint wells are the best option to consider.

Key Features of Paint Palettes

When choosing the right palette for your purposes, there are several factors to consider. First, will you be using pan or tube paints? If you prefer to paint with dried pans of paint, you will need a palette that has compartments to accommodate either half or full pans. If you prefer tube paint you will need a palette with larger wells (compartments) to hold wet paint. Many painters who use pan paints will refill their pans with tube paint and let it dry in the palette.

Second, how many colors will you be using in your palette? Palettes come in many sizes to accommodate various numbers of colors. They generally come in 12, 24, 36 and 48 compartments or wells. Another consideration is the amount of space you will use for mixing colors. Generally, the more colors you use the more space is needed to mix them. Additionally, the larger the surface you paint on the more paint you will need to mix. So mixing areas are important.

Finally, Will you be using your palette exclusively in your studio or will you be traveling with it? Large plastic or ceramic or porcelain palettes are great for a studio environment but are usually too heavy and cumbersome to travel with. Pan paint palettes are usually made of plastic or metal and do not have an airtight seal because the paint is stored dry. If you prefer tube paints, then and airtight and leak proof palette is your best choice. They are available in various sizes and are suitable for studio, plein air and travel.

The Variety of Palettes

There are a plethora of palette options made from different materials, with different shapes and features. Each has its own pros and cons.

Studio Palette

Open studio palettes come in a variety of shapes, sizes and materials. They can be round or square, plastic, metal or porcelain. They are best suited for an indoor environment because they are large and open to the air, although some are available with lids. A benefit of a studio palette is its large size, so you have lots of room to play and mix colors. They also have many large wells to keep your paints clean and separated. A disadvantage to most studio palettes is they don't have lids. If you don't have a lid, you can also add plastic wrap over the top to keep your paint wet and fresh for up to two weeks. Another downside is that studio palettes are not portable so if you want to travel or paint plein-air you will need a second palette loaded with paint.

Butcher Tray Palettes

A butcher block palette is made of metal and finished in white porcelain. They are available in a few sizes to suit your needs. This type of palette is especially useful for mixing large amounts of paint for large areas or larger paintings. If you’re only looking to mix a few colors and need big pools of color, this palette is a great option. An advantage to the butcher tray is the porcelain surface is ideal for creating smooth pools of paint that are easy to see and don't bead. A downside to the butcher tray is that it has one larger mixing area so it can be difficult to keep your colors separated and there are no wells to store your paint. If you’re painting something with lots of colors this type of palette might not be best for you.

Airtight Leakproof Palettes

Airtight palettes are the most versatile of all palettes. They can be used in the studio or for plein air and travel. If you need your palette to be portable, choose an airtight palette. They feature various numbers of paint wells to store tube paint and usually have a few separated mixing areas. An advantage of an airtight palette is that your paint will stay wet for long periods of time because they aren't exposed to the air.

Pan Palettes

These palettes are specifically designed to house half or full pans of dry paint. They are available in a variety of shapes and sizes in metal or plastic. They will accommodate between 12 to 36 pans and usually have room to store a brush as well. Pan palettes are ideal for travel and plein air because they are compact, can many dry colors that won't leak in your luggage. Another advantage to pan sets is that you can easily mix and match different pans to suit your painting adventures. A disadvantage to a pan palette is they are designed for use with dry paint only. So, if you prefer to use wet paint from tubes this is probably not the palette for you.

Final Thoughts

When considering the variety of palettes, it can be overwhelming. For beginners, painting palettes with multiple wells are a must. If you have decided to paint with dried pans of paint, then your choices are limited. If you use tube paints the most versatile choice to begin with is an airtight palette. If you are like most watercolorists, you will eventually try out many types of painting palettes until you find what’s best for you!

Interested in learning more? 

Check out our YouTube video on the best painting palettes with Arts of Course instructor Jess Rice.

Read "16 simple things to know to begin with watercolors and create successful paintings" by clicking here.

Categories: Watercolor tips