How to Choose a Watercolor Palette

art art supplies gouache painting watercolor

There’s no ONE perfect palette that works for everyone… but with the help of this article (and video below), you can find one that works for YOU and your situation!

As the host of the Watercolor Summit®, I’ve had the opportunity to learn from and interview some amazing professional artists -- and they all use different supplies.

Today we’re focusing on palettes, but if you want to learn the exact tools that are used by your favorite artists, including brushes and paints, check out our free Watercolor Favorites video series.

There are sooo many palettes, but I want to categorize them by surface. There’s metal, plastic, ceramic or porcelain, and disposable, plus a bonus palette type that I’ll share at the end.

Watch the video below, or scroll down to keep reading!

Metal Watercolor Palettes

So let’s talk about palettes made of metal… we have portable folding tins with half-pans and/or whole pans, and also butcher trays that many artists use for their paints.

The pros of metal watercolor palettes:

  • Unbreakable
  • Lightweight
  • Inexpensive
  • Non-staining
  • Interchangeable (tins with pans)

The cons of metal watercolor palettes:

  • Half pans can damage brushes over time
  • No happy medium with mixing area size - either pretty small, or super large
  • Can be hard to see colors in a half pan or whole pan
  • Some staining
  • Beading (goes away after time)
  • Butcher trays can collect dust and fur

Plastic Palettes

Now let’s look at plastic palettes… we have folding palettes, small plastic well palettes, and large covered palettes like the John Pike palette.

The pros of plastic watercolor palettes:

  • Inexpensive
  • Lightweight
  • Unbreakable
  • Large mixing areas (John Pike)

The cons of plastic watercolor palettes:

  • Staining
  • Beading
  • No covers (collect dust) unless John Pike

Ceramic/Porcelain Palettes

My favorite palettes to use for watercolors and gouache are made from ceramic or porcelain! You’ll see why in a second.

Ceramic palettes can be made specifically for paints, like this one, or you can use a wide array of dishware and serving ware instead, like plates, platters, bowls, and trays.

The pros of ceramic watercolor palettes:

  • Excellent for color mixing
  • Non-staining
  • May have sloping wells
  • Can be inexpensive if using plates or platters from a thrift store or discount store

The cons of ceramic watercolor palettes:

  • Breakable
  • Heavy (especially bigger ones)
  • More expensive for painter-specific palettes

Disposable Palettes

I haven’t personally used disposable palettes, but you could always use a styrofoam plate in a pinch, OR, if you use gouache (an opaque watercolor paint) you can use a disposable palette pad, like our artist Andrea Fairservice uses in her Watercolor Summit® class.

Bonus Palette Type: Airtight Palettes

If you use gouache or you like to keep your watercolor paints wet, an airtight palette may work great for you. You can use this kind (like Andrea uses), or a basic ice cube tray (like Drew Europeo has used to store her gouache paints).

How To Choose a Watercolor Palette

Here are some other things to consider when choosing a palette for yourself:

  • HOW do you paint? Do you like having a really big, flat mixing area, or are you fine working in a small area?
  • Do you like to keep your paints really clean? (The left-brained, analytical side of me goes crazy when my dried paints get dirty. I don't mind mixing them in a large area - it's actually pretty fun - but I like to keep the pure pigments themselves clean.)
  • How many colors do you have? I’ll explain below why you may not need as many colors as you think.
  • Do you need to travel?
  • Is this a permanent palette, or one just for a project?
  • Do you work from wet or dry paint?
  • How much room do you have on your desk?
  • Do you live in a dry climate? Mixing paints on a flat surface will make them dry faster if you live in a dry climate because there is more surface area exposed to the air. Instead, try a palette with wells, which helps keep your mixed paints wet longer.

Here’s what I wish I knew before investing in all of these palettes and paint colors…

It took me a long time to figure it out, but I finally cracked the code on color mixing and understanding warm vs cool colors, and it completely changed the game for how I use my paints and palettes.

If you’re fuzzy on color mixing and color theory, my online class called Stop Making Mud simplifies the whole process in just 90 minutes. It’s super affordable and it will help you completely rethink what colors you even NEED to keep on your palette, to the point where you may only want six colors. Sound crazy? Click here to learn more.

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