There are about as many palettes as there are artists. Pretty much, any flat surface can be used as a palette, although some are far superior to others.
A palette can be as simple as a Styrofoam tray or as elaborate as a hardwood oval, imported from Europe with a thumbhole cut into it and engraved with the artist’s name on a brass plaque.
The traditional hand-held palette comes in various sizes and shapes with a hole to accommodate the artist’s thumb for ease in holding it horizontal for long periods. This stems mainly from the artist standing at an easel to paint on a canvas that may be large and require him to move from one side to the other. This allows the artist to have his paint with him at all times and reduces the amount of movement necessary to continue working. These palettes are available in wood, Plexiglas, plastic and safety glass. They are ideal for the artist whose work is large or if it is inconvenient for him to have a table adjacent to his easel.
When an artist has a table near his work area, he can abandon the traditional palette. He now has many options available, and these range from items pilfered from the kitchen or garage to specialty palettes designed for different media at exorbitant prices. If an artist finds himself working in a number of media in various settings, over time he will acquire a number of palettes. This is not excessive. Just as an artist has a selection of brushes and palette knives, he needs various types of palettes to do his job efficiently.
Any Old Flat Surface May Do
One popular palette is a butcher’s tray. These are enamel trays, which have a high lip and a non-porous finish. These are extremely sturdy and will last a lifetime. Since they have a lip, they are suited to water media, whether using watercolor or acrylic paint. A piece of plastic wrap can be stretched over the lip to keep the paint moist if the artist needs to stop work and wishes to preserve his paint for later use.
When using oil paint or acrylic and the paint will not be runny, any flat, non-porous surface may be used. If the artist is working on a white canvas, it may be useful to use a white surface. This is practical in that he can see what the paint he is mixing will appear like on the canvas. There should be little or no texture on the surface so he can easily scrape or wipe clean the area with no residue. Plastic or acrylic is lightweight and easily portable, if the artist plans to work plein air. The lightweight and non-breakable characteristics makes for ease in packing a travel paint kit, and does not burden the artist with excessive weight.
Another palette for use with acrylic, oil, casein, alkyd and egg tempera is the disposable paper pad. They are available in a number of sizes, typically 50 heavy sheets per pad. The paper is coated so there is no bleed through and is easily disposable. This type of palette is great for the artist who may work in short sessions, sporadically and wants ease in preparation and cleanup.
In a similar vein, an artist may choose to stretch plastic wrap over his palette of choice. This makes cleanup a snap, although it is not suitable if the artist does a lot of work scraping and blending paints with a palette knife.
An alternative great palette for the plein air painter is a Styrofoam tray. They weigh virtually nothing and can be easily disposed of when the painting session is over. They come in many sizes and are free or very inexpensive. These are also very useful for the student who may be attending an art class and wishes to cut down on the amount of gear they need to bring to class.
Compartments, Wells and Cups
There are also self-contained watercolor field kits that incorporate wells for paint, fold out palettes and containers to hold water. These are necessarily small, but are lightweight and easy to transport for outdoor painting and sketching.
The watercolorist sometimes finds compartmentalizing their paint to be a practical method. Art suppliers have a variety of watercolor palettes that contain wells to hold paint surrounding a common mixing area. When using large amounts of water to make washes, the paints are safely segregated along the perimeter of the palette so they are not polluted with other colors or diluted with water. Many of them have lids to seal out air and keep the paint fresh for later use.
There are trays that are similar to the compartment trays, but have removable cups with snap on lids. These cups can be sorted, removed and replaced. This method allows the artist to have ready-made cups of various colors that may be utilized on the palette without needing to wipe, scrape and remove paint from a section of a standard palette. This is useful if the artist tends to use many colors or changes his mind about color choices.
Browsing any art store or on-line art supplier will produce a huge number of variations of the basic types of palettes. Choosing the palette that is right for an individual is often based on experience as well as the medium used and the setting in which the painting is done.
Like a mechanic collecting an array of tools, the artist will also collect any number of palettes. This is not a case of one-size fits all, trial and error is sometimes the best way to weed out inferior methods and tools.