As I said in the first post in this series, our palettes are our toys, and they are as personal to each artist as any beloved toy would be. There are as many opinions about what’s best and what isn’t, as there are palettes and paintboxes available.
I am no dictator on the subject of these toys, and you don’t have to pay attention to anything I say unless you want to. I also must state the disclaimer that I receive NO free product from any manufacturer, and my opinions are completely based on experience.
I have been a professional watercolorist for over 40 years – in the fields of fine art, commercial illustration, and graphic design. You can’t work with a medium and its tools for that long and not get to know them well – and form your own opinions about performance and quality.
If you don’t have much experience, this post might help you out. If you have lots of experience, you may still learn something new.
I’ll start small. Size is important for sketchers or art journalers who work on site – sometimes holding their paintbox and sketchbook in one hand while standing and painting with the other!
Two paintboxes are popular in this category, one made by Sakura, and one by Winsor Newton.
Here is the Sakura Koi set . . .
The Koi set comes with 12 or 24 colors. You see this set in use all over the internet, and I love a lot of the Sakura products, but not this one – for several reasons.
The pros are that there are 24 colors in a small space, the intensity of the colors is not bad, and there are sweet little sponges for blotting your brush right in the palette.
But the colors are more “chalky” than brilliant. That would be ok for beginners, but I find the paints also have a rough surface (like fine sandpaper) when you wet them with a brush, and when you apply the paint to paper. You can “feel” it. The sensation is strong enough that I will not use any of my good brushes with this paint because I am afraid the hairs will get worn. The surface of the paint also cracks when dry. And a third “con” is that the pans are not movable so you can’t rearrange them, and they are not replaceable. You can tell that I have barely used this set at all.
My favorite small paint box for sketching outside with my journal is the 12 color Cotman set made by Winsor Newton.
The great thing about this set is the quality of the paint. Cotman is the best student grade paint I know of, and with some colors, I can’t tell the difference between the Cotman version and the professional Winsor-Newton.
The size is perfect, and the palette is easy to hold – even in the same hand that is holding your sketchbook if necessary. The half-pans are removable and can be rearranged, or replaced with W-N artist quality half-pans if you want to move up.
This set is available for $16.99 at Amazon with Prime shipping. A great deal.
This paintbox measures only 2.5 x 5 inches closed, but there are even smaller options available – which are quirky enough to deserve their own post. Very clever and very cute.
When working at home or in your studio, you have the option of using larger palettes and more colors.
I can never get enough of color and am always caught in the spot between wanting lots of colors at hand and not having the desk space for a huge palette.
This is compounded by the fact that a palette box should have a cover – to protect the paints when you are not using them. When you are using them, the cover is open, doubling the footprint of the palette.
I need some degree of portability even at home, because I paint in my garden in Summer, my greenhouse in Winter, and my inside office when the greenhouse isn’t cozy enough. I also drag my paints along when I work at my gallery.
So far, this is an unsolved dilemma, but let me share what I have tried so far. I have some favorite workarounds.
A desirable feature for me in a palette is a slanted well, which looks like this . . .
instead of this . . .
I use drops of water from a squeeze bottle to moisten the paint. Some use a misting bottle but I don’t like wetting what I am not using at the moment. Either way, in a regular half pan, the water runs down the sides of the cake, or sits in a depression in the middle of the top if the cake has been used. As the water sits, more paint melts and you get a greater ratio of pigment to water. Heavy color. The result is that you must go to a mixing palette and add water to get a lighter value of paint.
In a slanted pan, the water sits around a blob of paint, and the rest of the pan is essentially a mixing palette. You can pull some liquid paint up the slope and dilute it instead of having to do that outside the pan. If you want a heavier pigment load, you can pick the paint up from closer to the blob or even from the top of it.
Take another look at the slanted well picture above, and you can see what I mean.
Slanted well palettes are available in very inexpensive versions at places like Hobby Lobby for $2.99, but beware when the palette has paint wells on the cover side as well as the base. Like this . . .
Guaranteed that most paints will fall out of the pans once they have dried and you close the cover. M Graham and other brands that contain honey, will not fall out, but most others will.
Here is a handy trick to try with any palette where the dried paint falls out of the pan.
Before filling the pan, coat the bottom with a thin coat of rubber cement. Let it dry for just a minute or two (still tacky), and fill the pan with your watercolor. Let the paint dry and it should stay put in the pan. If it’s a slanted pan, put the rubber cement only where the blob of paint will be, not in the part that will be your in-the-pan mixing area.
My favorite slanted pan palettes are made by Mijello and you can find them on Amazon with Prime shipping. The largest has 33 wells, and it is my favorite (the first picture in this post). The wells are big and the best thing is that the well area lifts out of the box.
This means I don’t have to deal with an awkward open cover. I just use a small separate mixing palette.
This 33 well version is available at Amazon at the following link, and there is also a 24 well version. The smaller, 18 well palette does not lift out.
Adding Paint Wells to a Palette
Many times, we find palettes with too few paint wells and lots of mixing area.
Some of that mixing area can be used to add more half pans.
The first thing you need is empty half pans (or full pans if you prefer). Google and you will find many sources – some on Etsy. The second thing is industrial strength double-stick tape, which has a red liner and is available at most art and hobby stores – or Google “red line tape” to find it. Here’s an Amazon link:
Get at least the 1/4″ width.
Use the tape on the bottom of the half pans and stick them in the mixing areas. Place them so the lid will still close.
And finally, the type of palette I like least of all . . . the metal ones. You may love them, but I don’t. I find them impossible to hold with the double covers open and the pinchy hinges, they are awkward on my work surface, and the pans get wiggly in their clamps with use.
I have several of these from earlier times when they were all that was available for high end brands like Schmincke and W-N.
Luckily, those metal holders lift out.
I buy those packs of magnetic sheets that are meant for making business cards into magnets (office supply stores) and cut pieces to stick to the bottom of each half pan. The half pans can then be placed back into the palette in whatever order you wish, and you have room to add more pans. This works really well.
That’s a half pan on its side in the foreground, showing its bottom covered with magnetic material.
So, that’s what I know about working palettes at the moment. There are some terribly clever tiny palettes to talk about, and I will tell you about them in another post.
Meanwhile, as I was poking around Amazon for links, I saw that they are still offering what I think is the best deal on the planet.
It’s a Mijello Palette (insert does not come out) with 36 slanted wells, and 36 tubes of Mission Gold Watercolors. If you don’t know the brand, it is pretty awesome paint. Brilliant, intense color, creamy, non-toxic ingredients and no thickening agents. Pro Artist grade of course.
$67.88 for a $279.99 set?! Here’s the link:
If you missed the first two posts about watercolor palette use, go to the Home Page of the blog and scroll down a few posts.