Watercolor Palettes, Part 1


Watercolor palettes, with their jewel-like collections of color, are as much a toy as a tool, and the variety of formats and functionalities means you could play with them forever. But that same variety of details means that there are some tips worth knowing . . .

The photo above shows a very well used, yet very pristine watercolor palette. A little sloppy, but the color in each pan remains true. How did that happen?

Close your eyes and conjure up images of watercolor palettes and boxes you have seen on the internet There are thousands of them (or millions?).

The more they are used, the messier, and some say, the prettier they get.

But there is a danger in the messy part, and that is the loss of the very clean and brilliant colors that attract you to watercolor in the first place.

The problem is the pollution of colors in the pans by other colors. Your original colors get lost in the “mix”, and you can no longer access the brilliant yellow (for example) that you started with.

Some of the well-used palettes I see online have become a lot more like mud palettes, especially when the artists mix a lot of “grays”.

“Homemade” grays are made by mixing complementary colors with each other (red/green, yellow/violet, blue/orange) because part of what makes them complementary is that they can dull each other. Even when these grays are created in the mixing areas, the dipping back and forth between the two complement pans to pick up paint, dulls the colors in both of those pans.

Pan Pollution is not good.

Clean, brilliant color is important to my style, so I must avoid the palette pollution process.

It is not a difficult thing to do, but it is “mindful” because you have to pay attention to what you are doing, and it takes some time.


That’s really the whole thing in a nutshell, but it’s not automatic.

It’s about “controlled dipping”.

When you are so involved in painting that you dip your brush in your coffee mug once in awhile, it is likely you might forget about practicing controlled dipping. (It’s a good idea not to use water containers that resemble coffee mugs, BTW.)

Here’s a short course in controlled dipping:

Lesson 1 – No Double Dipping

Never, ever, ever, dip your brush into more than one color pan to mix colors. Example: pick up some yellow, then some blue to make some green. The blue pan is now polluted and cleaning that up is not easy.

Lesson 2: Water, Water, Everywhere

You have been told many times that two water containers are necessary – one for accessing clean water, and one for cleaning your brush. The same theory is good for mopping floors. Or so I am told by folks who do that kind of thing.

You dip in the clean water cup, pick up paint from a pan (this is for painting, not mopping), paint on paper, swirl your brush tip in the cleaning water cup, blot on paper towel, and repeat – with the same color or another color.

Let’s look at what is really happening here.

First, you are not going to have the patience to clean the brush every time you re-dip in the same color. If you had that kind of patience, you wouldn’t be using watercolor in the first place.

So, that clean water cup is taking on a tint of color#1. Even if you try to sneak up and dip real quick.

When you move to the color #2 pan, after cleaning your brush and dipping in the “clean” water cup, you are carrying a tint of color#1 to the #2 pan.

You get the drift, right? After a very short time, your clean water is not clean, and your cleaning water is not cleaning because all that washed-off color is in there and remains in your brush.

So, the two water cup theory is no good even without an accidental coffee cup in the mix.

What to do?

Use LOTS of water cups.

Here is my set-up . . .


This is NOT a portable set-up, and the very thought of trying to use it outside on even a slightly breezy day, gives me giggles. Portable, we will talk about later. This is a studio idea.

I use those small plastic Dixie cup refills that you find in hundred packs at the grocery store. Before anybody gets their environmental undies in a bunch, I clean and re-use them until they are toast, and then I poke holes in the bottom and use them to plant seeds. I will probably never need another hundred pack.

The rest of my set-up: a small pitcher – this one hand-painted in Mexico because I like to use pretty stuff when I paint, and two empty Gelato containers because I like to use tasty stuff when I paint. These do not have to be Gelato containers, but they are a lot more fun to obtain. Any rather large container will do.

I use a different “clean” water cup for each color family.

Let’s take my “Yellows” cup as an example. I can dip away happily in my Hansa yellow pan, and even in my deeper yellow pans for shading, and my “clean” water cup will get more and more yellow as I go, even though I clean my brush between colors. I only put about 3/4″ of water in the cup in the first place, so this happens fairly quickly. When I have to return to using my light yellow, I dump the water into a gelato jar, and start again with clean water from the pitcher. I might even clean the cup with paper towel at that point.

The yellow pans in my palette remain absolutely pure and clean.

I fill one Dixie cup half full to use for brush cleaning, and also dump and refresh that one often.

But I have a secondary cleaning jar and that is the other gelato container, filled half full with clean water. AFTER cleaning my brush in the cleaning container and blotting, I then swirl it in the big jar to insure extra clean.

There are other benefits to this system as well . . .

Coffee mugs (and wine glasses) stand out from this arrangement and do not get accidentally dipped.

You can’t leave your brush standing in these Dixie cups because they will tip over and make a mess to punish you for something you should never do in the first place. Leaving a brush standing on its head in a water container will permanently ruin the brush’s hairdo in no time.

If you feel this system has too many Dixie cups to knock over, you can use this neat little jar palette the same way . . .


I found it at Hobby Lobby for $4.99.


Little jars all have caps and this is more portable for traveling, and there’s the bonus of mixing wells – where you should always do your off-paper color mixing . . .

But the subject of mixing wells takes us to our next post.

To be continued . . .



  1. I like this a lot. The next time I get my watercolors out, I’m going to try to do a better job of keeping those pan colors authentic. I can see this method of using many cups and dipping the brush often as zen-like. Thanks for this information, Jessica.

  2. seems elaborate at first, but once you get the habit of it, I bet it becomes second nature. and the benefit of having all those pure colors….wonderful! Thank you for sharing!

  3. This blog post is full of useful information. Thanks for pictures of how it actually works for you. I will try this.

  4. I’ve always experienced the problem you talk about. But you are the first artist who has ever acknowledged that the two water container system doesn’t work. I’ve always tried to paint very close to a sink and just get up over and over. Is healthy but distracting.

  5. I love your ideas. I have always used old ice cube trays to do a similar thing. Looking forward to part 2.

  6. Great post and tips, and I agree, very easy to quickly get mud. Thank you!

  7. Great lesson! Got me inspired again… As for those little Dixie cups, they may now be recyclable here in Eldorado since they have added SO many things we can recycle now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *