I talked a little about choosing a watercolour palette in my article Getting Started: Watercolours, but since there are an endless variety of palettes available and forum threads spanning more than 150 pages about people asking for advice on and showing their beloved collections of watercolour palettes, I thought it would be worth making a separate post that focuses solely on selecting a palette or paint box.
Therefore I’ve put together this list of factors you should keep in mind when you’re deciding on a purchase. Some of these factors will naturally influence each other (for example, metal paint boxes will almost always cost more than plastic ones). I can’t tell you which one to buy – that’s going to depend on your budget and painting style – but hopefully you’ll be well-informed enough to cut down the time you spend wading through search results or visiting various art supply shops.
For a lot of artists, cost will be one of the main deciding factors of the palette or paint box they choose. Regardless of your budget, you’ll always be able to find a palette to suit you. If you’re struggling to make ends meet, most art supply stores sell plastic palettes in a variety of shapes for under $5, while those who are shitting hundred dollar bills can opt for a custom made metal paint box for upwards of $400, such as the handmade palettes crafted by Little Brass Box (yes, I absolutely am bitter about the fact I can’t afford one of these boxes and jealous of those who can. So sue me 😛 ). There are also plastic or metal boxes available in the $20-40 price range, as well as porcelain palettes, which vary depending on size and place of purchase. For those who are new to watercolours and aren’t sure if you’ll like it or not, I’d recommend buying either a cheap plastic palette or a metal box for under $30 if you can find one, and spend the extra money on good quality artists’ paints or paper; after all, while the choice of palette is personal to each artist, it’s not going to make a difference to the quality of your painting.
Plastic vs. Metal vs. Porcelain
Paint boxes come in either plastic or metal, as do palettes, which are also available in porcelain. Plastic palettes are typically the lightest, but they also stain far worse than the other two types, especially if you use phthalo colours a lot. They also tend to turn yellow over time, which can affect the accuracy of colours you’re trying to mix. Some metal palettes stain as well, but they’re usually easier to clean, and porcelain rarely stains at all. The downside of porcelain is that it’s heavy, and most porcelain palettes are rather bulky and can be fragile. However, if you do want to go with porcelain, you don’t necessarily have to buy a porcelain palette from an art supply shop; many artists simply buy cheap white porcelain tea-cup plates from homeware stores or chain retailers, as these can be stacked for compact storage and each one can hold a lot of paint and water. Metal or aluminium boxes are generally reasonably sturdy, though the enamel on them can chip or peel (especially on cheaper brands).
Studio or Outdoor Painting
Where you paint will play a huge part in determining what sort of palette you should get. Those who paint outdoors in the field will find that a smaller, lightweight palette or box is preferable, though it will also need to be durable to cope with being dropped or knocked around in their bag. This rules out most porcelain palettes, as they are both heavy and easily chipped or shattered. Cheaper plastic boxes will also be cracked easily, but there are some sturdy plastic paint boxes in the higher price range. A Pochade box may be worth looking into, as they come in a variety of shapes and sizes and can be filled with whatever supplies you wish, and usually have a stand or easel built into the lid. Being made from wood, these boxes are heavier than plastic or metal, but they keep everything contained and protected while you are travelling. However, even the smallest ones are expensive, so for a lot of beginner artists, they may be beyond your budget.
If you paint mostly in your studio, you have a lot more flexibility with your palette or paint box choice. Some studio artists are happy painting with pans, but some find these pans too small and fiddly to use with large brushes (especially with half pans, or even quarter pans, which in my view are really only suited for pocket sketchers or novelty mini paint boxes). For these artists, large plastic or porcelain palettes are probably the better choice, along with tube paints that can be either squeezed out fresh for each painting session or squeezed out onto the palette and left to dry until they are needed. If space permits, you could have multiple palettes, for example one with your regular colours and one with ‘guest’ colours you’re trying out, or different palettes for different subjects.
Though it’s possible to find one palette or paint box that suits both indoor and field painting, many artists instead choose to buy two separate palettes, having a small pocket box for outdoors and a larger, flatter palette for studio use.
Layout and Mixing Space
This is less of an issue if you mostly paint small (ATC or postcard format, or exclusively in sketchbooks) but if you paint anything larger than A5, you’re going to want a lot of space to mix up large washes.
At the start of this post I said that the cost of your palette won’t make a difference to how well you paint… But the layout of your palette might, or it might at least make a difference to how easily you can paint. Whether you put your paint in wells or just squeeze blobs of it around the edge of your mixing area, you want to make sure that you can access them all easily, and that you know where each colour is. Artists may have their paints in rows (for example, warm colours on one side and cool colours on the other) or arranged in a square or circle around the outside of their palette. Once you find the arrangement that makes it easiest for you to find and mix your colours easily, you should aim to get a palette that allows you to have this arrangement. On that note, once you find the arrangement that works for you, try not to alter this arrangement. Muscle memory can play as big a part in painting as in other hobbies, and if you go to mix a green, you could find yourself in trouble if you stick your brush into a blue paint well only to remember you put a new red paint in there the other day.
Pans or Tubes
The type of palette or paint box you buy will also be influenced by whether you paint with pans or half pans or use paint from a tube. Plastic and porcelain palettes are typically designed for use with tube paints; not for storing the tubes themselves, but for squeezing the tube paint into the wells. Metal boxes, on the other hand, are more self-contained and can be bought to house tubes (usually only the small 5ml or 6ml tubes; I’ve yet to find a paint box designed to hold 15ml tubes) or pans/half pans, allowing you to easily transport your collection of paints into the field. Some boxes even come with a selection of tube or pan paints when you buy them, though as mentioned in my watercolour article linked above and in my article Choosing Your Palette that discusses selecting colours, you may not get the exact colours you want (and may end up with colours you won’t use), so it can be more cost-effective in the long run to buy an empty box and then purchase the colours you want individually. The number of colours you use will also be important; if you prefer to only work with a handful of colours, you can usually get by with a smaller box or palette, but if you have 15+ colours in your arsenal at any given time, you will need more room to keep these colours. Boxes that are made to hold pans or tubes are typically more expensive than flat palettes, and they often have less mixing space.
On a side note, if you prefer tubes over pans but are having trouble finding somewhere to keep them, you don’t need to spend big bucks on a specifically-designed palette box with space for tubes. Art supply stores might have a relatively limited selection of options (and they won’t be cheap) but you can look elsewhere, such as the crafts or fishing section of your nearest large chain retail store. I got a fishing tackle box for under $10, and it has the added bonus of allowing me to alter the layout of the compartments, so I can organise my tubes by colour.
Before I wrap up this post, it’s worth pointing out that you don’t have to buy a palette or paint box. Many artists on the Palette Addicts forum thread I linked to above have actually made their own paint boxes. For small, pocket-sized boxes, pill containers or cigar tins can either carry individual tubes or have half pans stuck in with glue or magnetic tape, along with waterbrushes for added convenience. You can also re-purpose other containers like old make-up boxes; once the eyeshadow or whatever has run out, the compartments can be filled with a little tube colour. Larger boxes can be made with biscuit tins or plastic travel boxes for bars of soap and can often fit a small plastic palette in along with all the paints and some brushes. If you have children, chances are you’ve bought them a cheap set of kiddie watercolours at some point; once those are used up, there’s nothing stopping you from commandeering it and putting your own colours in (though it’s probably a good idea to buy them a new set for themselves if you do this, to avoid a tantrum 🙂 ). I’ve also seen some truly mini watercolour sets made out of mint tins; these typically can’t hold more than 6-8 colours but if you want a compact set just for sketching on your break from work, for example, this is all you need. Most of these options will be cheaper than buying a palette from an art supply store, and the materials needed to make one can often already be found in your own home.
I hope this post has given you some idea of what might be the best watercolour palette for you. That being said, you might end up going through a couple of setups before you settle on the one that works best for you. What sort of watercolour painting setup do you use? Let me know in the comments!