top of page
Painting Menu

Watercolor Palettes

Which one is right for you?


Palettes for watercolor come in all shapes and sizes. There is no perfect palette - whatever you use you will eventually get used to, but some make the job of mixing and organizing paint easier than others. Let's explore this often overlooked piece of equipment.

Large and small plastic watercolor palette

Large and small - plastic palettes are cheap and practical. After a few years they start to yellow and should be replaced to make assessing your color mixtures easier.


Why use a palette

An old china plate makes a great mixing surface, but colors will eventually run into one another and you will end up with a hard to control mess of pigment and water.

A palette with seperated wells to hold colors and a number of independent mixing areas makes it much easier to keep things under control

Large plastic watercolor palette with sloping paint wells

In the studio where size and weight are not a problem I like to use a large plastic or metal palette with a sloping bottom on the paint wells and a couple of large mixing areas. I combine this palette with glazed ceramic mixing dishes when working on large paintings

Alizarin watercolor squeezed onto sloping palette well showing accumulated sludge at bottom of well

Squeezing paint onto the upper end of the sloping well allows the mixing debris to accumulate in the bottom of the well, keeping the squeezed out paint reasonably clean.


Using your palette

The idea of a palette is to provide a number of wells to hold and separate colors squeezed from your tubes and to provide areas to mix and dilute those colors.

Squeeze out plenty of paint. I like to put about half a teaspoon of each of my colors into every second well. Leaving a well between each color keeps the colors cleaner and makes mixing easier.

Large plastic watercolor palette

To mix a color I first dip my brush in the water then wet a patch on the mixing area of the  palette. 

How Much Paint?

Don't worry about squeezing out too much paint. It will remain usable on the palette for years. I try to squeeze slightly more than I think I'll need for the painting I'm working on. Fresh paint is nicer to use and is easier to mix with than dry paint.


Mixing Darks

To mix darker tones use less water. For extreme darks use just enough water to make the pigments mixable. Don't wash your brush out between colors as this will dilute the mixture resulting in a paler tone. Dipping from one color to another dirties the surface of your colors slightly, but the advantage of being able to create extreme darks far outweighs the slight inconvenience of having to dig under the surface to find clean pigment when required.

Folding enamelled watercolor palette

This enameled metal palette is one of my favorites. The dirty appearance of the colors is due to the cross contamination from mixing darks. To find pure clean pigment it is a simple matter of washing the top surface of any of the colors with a wet brush.

I rarely wash the mixing surface of my palette. Most of the colors I use are tertiary colors (mixtures of the three primaries). The sludge on the palette is always a good starting point for most colors I need.

Watercolor palette with indipendant gouache pallette
Gouache Palette

To avoid polluting my watercolors with gouache I have a small section cut from an old plastic palette attached to one of the mixing surfaces on my watercolor palette. 

The red rectangle above outlines the piece of plastic palette used to mix gouache.


The colors along the top are used to tint the white gouache, avoiding any contamination of my watercolors. Just a small amount of white gouache in any of the watercolor wells will make it go opaque and muddy.

Washing your Palette.

I rarely wash my palette. The only time I find it necessary is if I need a clean area to mix a pure, transparent wash (for example a glaze of Cobalt Blue or Permanent Rose). Usually I am using mixtures of the three primary colors, so starting with a dirty area of the palette then adjusting it to the hue I am after causes no problems.


I don't use opaque yellows so I don’t have to worry about the mixture going muddy. If you are using Cadmium Yellow, Yellow Ochre or any other opaque yellow, then it is probably safer to wash your palette before you start mixing.

Some people like the idea of starting with a fresh clean palette. If this helps put you in the right frame of mind to paint, then washing your palette is a good  idea.


Color Arrangement

I don't use many colors, so I have plenty of room to lay them out. The four main mixing colors I use are Quinacridone Gold, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, French Ultramarine Blue and Phthalo Blue. These are separated by empty wells along the left side of the palette.


Above these, separated by a few empty wells are my three glazing colors Permanent Rose, Aureolin and Cobalt Blue. Down the bottom is Phthalo Green. The empty wells are sometimes used to temporarily hold the odd colors I don't generally use. 

The important thing with this arrangement is not so much the layout, but the fact that it is the arrangement I use all the time. I don't have to think where colors are on the palette - after a while it all becomes second nature. 

Once you find an arrangement you are happy with, stick to it.

Color arrangement on a watercolor palette
Traveling Palettes

Traveling palettes come in various sizes, materials and levels of complexity. Some are fiddly and complicated with loose and detachable parts that are easily left behind. Some are great for quick sketching, but too small for anything bigger than a pocket sized pad. Others are bigger and heavier than necessary. 

When choosing a travel palette, try and find one no bigger than you need, as light as possible that closes with a decent seal to stop wet paint leaking out. What ever you choose, keep the arrangement of pigments always the same so you will get used to the palette

Various types of watercolor palettes
 Pans or Tubes

Pans have more pigment and less binder but take some time to soften up with water before you paint. Tubes are fresh, wet and ready to use as soon as you squeeze them onto the palette. I use both, but prefer the consistency of fresh tube pigment over pan colors. The ease of mixing pure, concentrated pigment from a tube results in more intense darks. This greater tonal range gives our work more impact.

Watercolor tubes and pans


No matter what type of palette you choose, be consistent with your color arrangement, squeeze out at least enough pigment for the painting you are working on and don't worry about your palette developing a dirty, well used appearance. At the end of the day it’s not what the palette looks like that matters but what comes out of it.

Author: John Lovett

bottom of page