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  • Writer's pictureDanny McShane

You Gotta Pick a Palette or Two... or Three.... or Four...

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

A watercolour palette is one of those things that can be taken-for-granted simple or fiendishly fascinating to many painters. The function is simple enough, then with experience different ways of painting and using pigment give rise to preferences in palette designs and layouts and even preferences for different palettes for particular projects. My ideal was to find one palette to suit me indoors or out, and I think with a little flexibility and occasional use of an auxiliary palette I'm pretty much there now, and I was surprised to find it was one of the cheaper options.

When it come to mixing paints indoors any white ceramic, enamel or plastic plate or tray will do 90% of the job. Butchers trays, enamel plates, sandwich trays, saucers all work fine. For a few pounds a lightweight plastic multi-well palette that can be comfortably hand-held or used on a table top will last indefinitely. When plastic gets stained, a quick scrub with a little toothpaste on a paper towel removes even the most staining colours remarkably well. Indoors, your paint supply and your mixing surface can be separate – a paintbox and a mixing palette; or tubes and palette -and you can set up for each painting as you like.

For outdoors (or for more convenience indoors) a combined paintbox and palette with a lid that can close to keep paints moist or prevent wet paint spilling is ideal. There are designs for dry paint (pans, cakes), tube paint (which can also be squeezed into pans) and for combinations of both. Even dry paint will get wet on top when you use it, of course, so dribbles can be expected if you pack up in a hurry.

If you use dried watercolour, either bought as pans or squeezed from a tube and allowed to dry in a pan or paint well, your first decision is going to be whether to use half-pans or full-pans. This choice might be made to suit your brush sizes which in turn may be influenced by your preferred paper size. Bigger paper means you typically need more paint at a time to deliver an uninterrupted wash before bits of it dry. The ratio always seems to be far more extra paint is needed than the extra paper you have to cover, in my experience anyway. Full pans have the advantage that you can pick up paint more easily with the side of a brush trather than just with the tip. Half pans have the (sole?) advantage of portability, and can widen your colour choice for minimum palette size. A half pan of a seldom used colour or a ‘nuclear’ colour that you still want to have readily available makes sense. Mixing full pans of workhorse colours and half pans of of‘racehorse’ specials can make a lot of sense.

The ‘mechanics’ of pan based palettes are pretty similar and simple. Something holds the pans in place. The interesting bit is the kind of mixing space you get. on the palette. One issue with larger palettes (24-48 pans, say) that have pans in multiple rows can be getting clean access to interior pans, and the risk of (fact of) contamination of adjacent pans. This isn’t usually a big issue but if you need lots of wash with larger brushes I’d steer you away from this set up. This disadvantage can be minimised to some extent by your colour layout within your palette, so that adjacent colours are less likely to harm each other (no staining blue beside yellow, for example). Pan sets with just two rows, separated by a space for a brush or pencil, can still deliver 12 full pans or 24 half pans, or a combination. For urban sketching (line and wash) I regularly use a compact 12 half pan palette, or a 12 full pan one with some half pans in it.

Winsor and Newton Cotman paints are student grade watercolours available in hard pans (usually half pans -the full pans are getting harder to find). I’m quite fond of them, especially for sketchbook work, but the other plus of the Cotman range is they come in a huge range of really clever palettes. In quality plastic they are good enough to be worth buying even if you never use the original paints supplied in them. Strangely W&N don’t seem to offer all these palette designs with their professional pan paints, though there are some. My first paint set was a 24 full pan Cotman set, and the palette is a delight to use. Either of the two W&N Cotman sketching palettes I have is almost always with me in my sketching bag.

For tube based paint, you can decide if you like to use the paint fresh from the tube or squeezed into a pan or well and dried. If you dry it, it will behave very like pan paint. For precision painters, botanical artists, and small brush users generally this is a very economical way to go, being much cheaper than buying pans -even a 5ml tube will fill a 2ml ‘full’ pan 2.5 times, and cost about the same as one full pan. Using wet paint as it comes from the tube, and picking it up wet with the brush uses paint up much more quickly. How much more quickly? I’d guess four to ten times! Is this crazy? Well, no, it can be worth it to get deep rich colour and interesting mixed washes, but it does take some experience to get it right. You know how some watercolours can look unintentionally ‘thin and dry and pale’? Stronger pigment mixture is the remedy, and learning about mixture thickness and water content is much easier with fresh tube paint than dried. Student quality paints are ideal for developing ‘paint handling’ technique -a few tubes of primary colours will reduce the inhibition that can come with your expensive artist grade paints. That said, there are some pigments that are so powerfully tinting and staining that even used from dry they are more than strong enough to do the job. Such pigments can happily live dry on an otherwise fresh palette. That’s how I typically use my cadmium red or viridian, having some dried paint in a pan or half pan even on my ‘wet paint’ palette. You soon get to know which colours you motor through quickly and with which a little goes a long way.

With a fresh paint palette, the shape and layout of the paint wells becomes more important

than with a dried paint palette or pan holding palette. You need some way to take paint from the well that lets you measure what you’re doing. A common approach is for the paint well to have a sloping bottom like a swimming pool. You can then draw a little paint from ‘the deep end’ up the ramp and adjust how much you are going to lift on every brushful. Now it gets a bit nerdy.

How wide and deep do you want your paint wells? To get the best from them you’re not going to fill them to the brim, so it’s not about paint capacity so much as brush access and how you pick up paint. Bigger would always be easier but you’re limited by overall palette dimensions and how many pigments you want to carry. These are all personal preferences depending on what and how you paint. Users of 2 inch wide hake brushes have diffferent needs from round brush users and will want a different palette setup.

I’ll describe the path my own preferences have led me down. I like to use pointed mop brushes and medium to large round brushes. Brush size numbering is manufacturer and even range specific, but typically 8-15 mm at the ferrule, plus a rigger for line work. For these I like a paint well a little wider than a full pan so I can stroke the paint onto the brush rather than poke the brush into it. I also want some room on the ramp so I can be delicate with the amount of paint I pick up. By this I mean I’ll paint some pigment from the mass of paint in the well onto the sloping ramp and then lift it from there if I only want a little. I also like there to be a lip at the top of the ramp. Some painters don’t want a lip here so it’s easier to pull paint out of the well right into the mixing area. I like the lip so I can remove excess piant against it and reshape the brush point on it if I’m using the paint directly from the well. I find I use about ten colours in most paintings, in a sort of ten from 20 choice and I’d get 90% of my painting done with a 14 well palette. If I add a few half pans of my less used colours that work well from dry by sticking them along the side of a mixing space, that works for me. The other palette consideration is how the mixing space is arranged.

Mixing spaces can be open or sectioned, and can have different depths. Some painters are happy on a single large flat mixing space and rarely mix a lot of wet wash (which would run off or use the whole space). I like to have separate spaces. Wipeability is handy for mid-painting cleaning when you need to mix new washes, so rounded internal corners are a big help, though not a deal breaker in practice. You can be much less precious about paint cleanliness in real life than you might think, though there are limits (and some pigments are vicious contaminators).

Ergonomics matter, especially if you want to hold your palette while painting. Some set the palette on a shelf or table, even outdoors, and I have one that has an adaptor to mount itself onto an easel. But if you want to hold it you might have a ring or T-bar on the back to hold by a thumb or finger, or a thumbhole to hold it like the traditional wooden oil painters kidney shaped palette. There are stick-on ‘phone and tablet’ holders available that you can add to most palettes to help you hold them one handed if your design doesn’t have anything. Or you might be happy to have none of these and just plain hold it. In that case keeping one or more empty wells or an unused mixing compartment might let you keep your hands cleaner.


So where does that get me to? I’ll go through the plusses and minusses of the palettes I use, starting with the indoor or ‘studio’ ones. These have the luxury of not needing to be specially portable and being easily supplemented by ad hoc mixing spaces. It’s the least constrained category, even to using mutliple palettes at the same time if you want so I hesitate to say much at all, but for what it’s worth, in roughly chronological order for me:

Studio Palettes

<Winsor Newton Cotman 24 full pan studio palette.

This palette is made from a good quality plastic and has removable W&N full pans. They can be replaced with Cotman or Artist Quality pans or refilled from tube paint. The mixing areas are very useable -with four large dished sections on the lid and 8 shallower sections on a detachable tray. The whole thing comes apart for easy cleaning under the tap (an advantage of non-toxic student paints). W&N do a 48 half pan palette in the same pattern.

<Generic Dial palette.

It’s best not to let gouache near your watercolour palette as it quickly contaminates other colours, rendering them dull and chalky. So at home I use this simple dial palette that lives in a drawer and never needs cleaned. The gouache simply reactivates with water, or I add a new dab from a tube. In the field I rarely use gouache but I’ve learned just to use it directly from tube for occasional highlights -just dipping a clean brush in the tube mouth.

Deep Flower Palette for preparing bigger washes) >

I bought this for a particular Full Imperial (30x22”) that would need a lot of wash ready to go. Haven’t used it since. A whole £1 wasted?.. or was it 50p?


Meeden (or other) 28 pan metal box palette with empty pans. I bought this to transition to artist quality paints from tubes.

I started off using them like pans, letting the colour dry. I wouldn’t go this route now, nor recommend it, as I think it’s more sensible to build up from fewer colours. The mixing arrangement wasn’t as good as the plastic Cotman palette I started with and didn’t get used so much.

Generic Mixing palette>

These are easy to find for £4 or less and provide great table top mixing areas and can be used in the hand via the thumbhole (watch out for handedness- lefty or righty). The little wells can take the tube paint colours you want for a particular painting session if you like to use them wet, or you could let paint dry in them. The mixing areas are fairly deep and I was never short of paint for Full Imperial sized work. The practical drawback for paint storage is not having a lid, so I used this mostly as a mixing area.

<Ceramic sandwich tray.

Perfect mixing surface, one large ‘compartment’. Good to just have available. Simples.

Arnold Lowrey Watercolour Palette and Lid.>

This palette has large colour wells in two rows at the edges so is great for access with large brushes. It has a big central mixing area and the idea is to make it easy to pull colour from the edgless pans into the mixing area and to manage the mixture strength in big washes easily. The paint wellls allow exess water to run off.

Arnold Lowrey designed this to be used at a tilt (left to right as it sits in the photo)for his method of water control and for loading the brush in a sweep from from the mixing area. I haven’t really taken to it. But it does have a lid, and came with

a large flat sponge cloth that can be dampened and kept under the lid to keep paint damp between sessions. The lid also has mouldings that make six large mixing areas and I’ve used that quite a bit.

And for plein air (urban sketching and painting outdoors):

Cotman Sketchers Pocket Box>

This compact 12 Half Pan set is often with me for Urban Sketching. The Cotman paints are long used up and it is now filled with Artists paint. You can either use paint in half pans and change the colours around, or simply fill the wells that pans would fit into directly with wet paint. The limitation is the relatively small mixing area of the lid, but it's well made, useable and can be cleaned in use. Comes with a tiny travel brush (that’s too small for me and how I paint),

<Cotman Whole Pan Sketchers Box

This is the 12 Full Pan version of the Sketcher’s Pocket Box and correspondingly bigger. It comes with three removable row dividers, 12 full pans, and the tiny travel brush. Mine has had the dividers removed to fit more pans in with all sorts of paint (simply stuck in with double sided tape, Blue Tack works too, as do Sticky Dots). This box doesn’t have the moulded wells the small one has. Not pretty, but very functional. I've also glued (Sugru) a piece of plastic on the end edge of this to hold a Frisk Water Cup. See my "Urban & Field Sketching Setup" post.

With either of these compact palettes and dry paint it can be tricky to get a lot of wash ready, for example for a blue sky, so I carry a tube of blue paint (Usually Cotman Cerulean for sketches as it doesn't granulate and works well for skies). A few selected tubes can be worth carrying as it's much easier to produce a large wash outdoors from wet paint.

Spare mixing space >

This was another £1 cheapy that I carry around in my sketch bag -at A5 size it takes up little room and gives me more mixing space if want it when using the compact Cotman palettes.

< Liz Deakin Watercolour Palette

I so wanted to like this one. It has deep wells for paint and deep mixing wells. It’s very well made and is my most expensive palette to date (~£18). Mine came with the optional screw -in bar attachment to mount it directly onto a wooden easel (you drill a hole in the easel where you want to mount it). This is a very well regarded palette, but for me the paint wells are narrower than I would like for the brushes I use. I’m currently swithering about removing some of the divisions between wells to get wider wells (but fewer of them, of course). I’d then make up the numbers by sticking a few half pans to the edge of one of the mixing areas. But it’s living in the ‘to do’ drawer for now. This palette doesn’t have a thembhole or any kind of finger ring on the bottom.

Frisk folding palette.>

So far, my favourite! (pictured here at the end of a painting session). This has turned out far more practical than I expected. This pattern is available from most art shops and is all over Ebay. The design seems ‘out of copyright’ shall we say. The quality of the plastic varies between brands (Frisk, Shinhan, Talent etc.,) and brandless versions, but I’ve been very lucky, having paid a few pounds and got a good one. If you think of them as consumables you won’t be disappointed and if, like me, you get a good one you’ll be even more happy with it. There is a smaller size commonly available and I have one but haven’t used it, but at £1.50 I didn’t miss the chance to buy it.

The design is similar to established metal enamelled palettes that are far more expensive and retains most of their functionality. Mine has 28 colour wells in total, laid out 12+4 on the base and 12 on the lid and 5 large shallow mixing areas that also have a bit of a trough along one edge that comes into play for larger wash mixes. Most of the wells (the ones along the long edges) have a ramp and a lip separating them from the mixing areas. The wells along the short edge are flat bottomed and a little larger in area. The sixth area is given over to the thumbhole and flap, some brush-holding holes (useless -it’s a very annoying place to have brushes!). I’ve stuck in some half pans for colours I use less but still want to have with me. I also carry bright yellows like this as with with wet paints they get dirty so easily and this way I’m only ‘risking’ a little at a time.

Althought the design has two long rows of 12 paint wells I only fill the ones on the base side and consider the wells in the lid as tiny mixing spaces. This avoids the risk of paints running out when the lid is closed. Helpfully the wells don’t line up over each other when the palette is closed, which further helps avoid contamination.

I’ve been using this as my main palette outdoors and in now for about a year and it is lasting well and cleans up easily. Sometimes I’d appreciate slightly deeper or dished mixing areas, then I’d consider it almost perfect for me. The thumbhole is effective, and I ignore the brush-holes, choosing to extra pans of colour in that section. It closes, but doesn’t seal, so I carry it carefull flat in the bottom of my bag, especially if I’ve just filled it with paint. As it is, if I was starting out I’d buy this pattern for use with tube paints. It’s really very close to my ideal.

Palettes I like the look of, but don’t own (... yet?)

< Frank Herring Compact Palette.

These plastic palettes have four big dished mixing wells that look really useful, and the pan based paint section I could live with. People customise these for more or less pan capacity by covering the thumb hole , others remove some of the pan space divisions to give bigger paint wells for direct filling with wet paint. I like the simplicity and compactness of these. Should have spent my Liz-Deakin palette money on one of these instead.

Holbein 1000>

These are effectively the metal version of the plastic folding palette I’m using. Holbein have made a range of sizes (250, 300, 350 etc) with differing numbers of wells and overall dimensions. They are now an 'enamelled' aluminium.

<Binning-Munro style 'enamelled' brass palette.

For a spare £4 or 500 or so, these are hand made with a year’s waiting list. Why, I wonder, isn’t there a plastic version of this layout? It’s not so different from the generic folding plastic pallet, though the depths and sizes and dished ‘enamel’ mixing surfaces would be nicer to use. I’d probably be more comfortable with the cheapy, to be honest, rather than worrying about dropping and chipping or crushing one of these.


So what do I do with all these palettes?

Sometimes I’ll use more than one at a time, some have different groupings of colours or qualities of paints for diffferent applications and it’s convenient just to grab that palette. Some I use just to store pans and half pans of paint I’m not using. Some are ‘lenders’, and one mostly sits in a drawer feeling sorry for itself.

My favourite and my most used used is one of the cheapest, the Frisk pattern folding palette, size Large, that cost around £5 though can be bought for anything up to £20. The paint wells are quite shallow, as are the mixing areas. Shallow but broad paint wells are really a plus as paint gets refreshed constantly so doesn't get time to get too old, contaminated or dry. I've learned not to squeeze in too much of colours I seldom use and to use the biggest wells for my workhorse colours.

If I was starting out painting now, I'd buy the Cotman 12 Full Pan Palette to see if you like painting with reasonable dried paints -this does double duty for urban sketching being so compact, and can hold more colours if you play pan-chess with some aftermarket half pans. For tube paints, a set of student tube paints like Cotman can be found for under £20. If you want to start with Artist Quality paints I'd go for a few tubes of professional paint ( 3 primary colours or 6 (3 warm and three cool) and a Frisk or similar pattern palette.

There are far more palettes out there, so this is just my experience and thoughts about them so far. There's no need for it to be complicated and none of the shortcomings of any palette are insurmountable -we learn what we like to use as we go. Happy painting!

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29. Okt. 2023
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Hi Danny, if I put tube paint in a palette to paint with and there's some left in the wells, how do I keep it wet for next time, or does it just dry out? Also, how do you clean the paint in wells when it gets dirty?

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Danny McShane
Danny McShane
29. Okt. 2023
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My approach is not to worry too much about paint drying out, but to add at least a bit of fresh paint to colours I know I'll use each time I paint. This both gives me some fresh out of the tube paint available and softens the dried or part dried paint underneath.

Some colours dry faster and harder than others - like most earth pigments. Also, different brands use different formulations for their paints and the brands that are honey-based tend not to go so hard (or not dry out at all) on the palette. For that reason I like Jackson or Sennelier for earth colours (e.g. Raw Sienna, Burn Sienna, Raw umber, Burnt Umber) as they stay softer…

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18. Juli 2023
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I found that very helpful, especially your approach to 'contamination' with the use of pans and half pans in a wet palette. 'pan chess' made me laugh! I think you're right about expensive palettes not necessarily adding much and letting experience guide you. All the best, John G.

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Danny McShane
Danny McShane
20. Juli 2023
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Cheers, John. There are so many palettes out there I can see how they become addictive, but fortunately painting is more fun than palettes. One of my latest realisations was that you can vary how much paint you put in a wet palette according to how you use that pigment. How could I not have realised that?!!

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