With watercolors, much of the beauty (as with other painting media as well, now that I think about it) comes with mixing paints to produce all the colors you can think of. Sometimes it is nice to get a tube of a particular color because you use it a lot, or because a mixed color does lack a bit of the luminous quality of a pure pigmented paint, but for most of watercolor painting, you can get away with just a few colors. The method of achieving a wide array of hues is through mixing them in varying proportions with one another and with water. However, to do this, it is important to consider what you are going to do the mixing on.
When buying a palette, you have to consider several questions:
- Do you plan to paint indoors or outdoors?
- Do you plan to move the palette around a lot?
- Tube or pan paints?
The first thing to think about before getting overwhelmed by the number of palettes is to consider whether you are going to be doing the majority of your painting indoors, or outdoors. This will help determine whether you need something designed more for portability or for being more of a permanent studio fixture. I know that I don’t plan on painting outside, and my desk – with several things pushed to the side – serves as my “studio”.
However, there are many different palettes that are meant to be portable. They are designed to have smaller wells for paint, they are rather small, and most include the feature of folding over so the paints are protected (or your bag is defended from the staining pigments. Note: watercolor doesn’t = machine-washable in all cases). Then there are palettes that simply have open wells or no wells and come with or without covers. These would be much more difficult to bring with you from place to place without a car. A car studio would be pretty cool though, now that I think about it!
Another factor is the longevity of the palette. It is true that you can use a paper plate, though plastic is better, to mix colors. In fact, among my extensive reading of other people’s experiences, many watercolorists couldn’t imagine painting with anything else but their favorite porcelain tea saucer or tray. Others are more than happy to buy a stack of plastic plates with pocket change at the supermarket for their mixes, and then just throw them away when they start a new painting. However, I prefer to use a palette that I can squeeze my tube paints into and just leave there all the time, with a mixing section attached. I think it is more economical with my tube paints and wastes less of them, especially since I am not too good at anticipating how much of each color I will need to complete a painting. This all means that I wanted to use something sturdier than a plate that would not discolor so that I could see the colors I mix before transferring them to the paper.
The next thing to consider is whether you prefer to use tube or pan paints, as there are certain palettes that are geared towards one or the other. They will all eventually work with tube paints that can be used to refill the pans, but the palettes with wells for tube paints are not designed to accommodate pans of paint. In other words, you can put the tube into the pan, but you can’t put the pan into the tube. They also have various sizes of mixing surfaces and wells for the paint. Also, the ones for pan paints will often come pre-filled with pans and will thus be more expensive.
Obviously, the material will affect the longevity of the palette. Plastic plates will discolor with time, and are relatively flimsy. The majority of the mixing palettes are made of plastic that tends to discolor over time. There is some merit to the tea saucer I mentioned earlier, as porcelain/ceramic or porcelain-coated mixing palettes are usually white and do not discolor over time. However, these tend to have fewer wells and are heavier. I have seen a few with covers, but they are not really designed for being lugged around to a painting site like the plastic folding variety.
Finally, we get to the investment portion. Well, you really don’t have to pay a lot for a plastic mixing palette. There are many that are under $10, and then there are the plastic plates or take-out container lids. The plastic palettes are the middle ranged ones and they come in shapes that are designed with portability in mind. Finally, the porcelain/ceramic palettes are heavier and comparable in price to the plastic, but I believe that they tend to be more expensive when you factor in how many pans you have in each. I do believe I have seen some porcelain- or enamel-coated aluminum mixing palettes as well, and these were quite expensive, on the order of ~$70-100.
Personally, I purchased a portable palette which was on the larger size so that I could fold it over and store it somewhere when it wasn’t in use. Then I don’t have to worry about it getting mucked up at all. The tradeoff is that the wells are not as large as some I have seen, and the plastic is already starting to discolor. However, there are several large mixing areas which are nice, and the whole set is sturdy enough.
I know that, in the future, I would like to try a ceramic type of mixing palette with wells and large areas to mix, because I am not a fan of the discoloration. However, as there are times when I move this palette from place to place, I prefer one that can hold my paints and safely transport them. I do like having more wells for paints now, as well, due to the fact that I am still experimenting on which colors I like the most and will make up my preferred set.
I am sure that once you start, you will end up with more than one palette as well. At least that seems to be a common feature among the many watercolorists I have had contact with.
Before I wrap things up, here is a tip for anyone reading this that doesn’t already know about using the plastic mixing palettes: Roughen the mixing surface with some smooth grit sandpaper or similar abrasive to prevent the water from beading. This lets you make nice puddles of mix which spread more evenly, giving you a better idea of what kind of a color and, more importantly, what kind of consistency you are working with.
And that is another post published. Let me know your thoughts at the comments section below, or feel free to email me!