Watercolor Palettes

I once suggested to my son while he was packing for a ski trip that he rent skis at the lodge rather than go to the trouble of hauling his state of the art equipment on the airplane. He looked at me like I was stupid, and after thinking about it, I admitted that he had a point. If my mother had counseled me to rent a watercolor palette on a painting trip rather than take my own, I would have looked at her like she was stupid, too.

Why? Because a palette is a painter's single most important and most personal choice of equipment. "Palette" means both the physical receptacle for paint, and the colors chosen by the artist. This second meaning that defines the more abstract concept of color choice is very important when we think about painting: does a particular artist have a subdued or vibrant palette? A wide or limited palette? In coming posts I'll talk more about artists' "color palettes" --now let's take a look at the palette as a tool.

Pike's Palette with stall inserts from Daniel Smith

Pike's Palette with stall inserts from Daniel Smith

Unlike an oil palette, a watercolor palette has permanent stalls that stay filled with paint. FILLED with paint--which I emphasize to you painting students out there. Don't be parsimonious with your watercolor pigment because it's expensive. No art alchemy magic will transform a meager little dot of dried up paint on your palette into a rich, glowing wash of color on your paper.

The large middle area of a Pike or similar brand palette is as useful as the generous stalls are, providing plenty of room to keep puddles of pigment separate when adding water, and helping to avoid the "mud" mixes that watercolorists struggle with.

I arrange my Pike's palette like a color wheel, starting on the left with yellows and on to warm reds, then turning the top left corner to cool reds, through violets to blues, and then turning the corner to greens and earth colors. This logical, predictable arrangement allows me to choose colors quickly and accurately. The smaller stalls at the bottom (from Daniel Smith Art Materials) are useful for storing extra pigments that I occasionally use.

Homee watercolor palette

Although I like my large Pike's for both studio and field work, sometimes when traveling with less gear I'll take a more portable palette, like the one above that came with me on a painting trip to India. I chose a brighter assortment of pigments than usual (thalos and quinacridones) anticipating working in a place with more varied and vibrant color than I find in New England.

My third palette is the travel model shown below, tiny enough to throw in my bag with a brush and sketchbook. While I wouldn't want to be limited to such a small mixing area for full-fledged landscape painting, it's surprising how much bright color can come out of such a small receptacle.

Schmincke travel palette

Schmincke travel palette

Winslow Homer's palette below provides an exception to my rule of "fill your stalls with clean pigment, and provide yourself a large mixing area."  Art is all about exceptions to rules--and looking at the glowing color that came out of Homer's grimy little palette reminds me that painting is a kind of alchemy, after all...

You can see a sketchbook I painted with the small Schmincke travel palette here.

Your comments are welcome below! Feel free to leave your name and website address.