Setting up a watercolour palette

July 10, 2015 | 33 Comments

I have a tradition of setting up a clean palette for a big overseas trip, and this time I even bought a new paint tin. So as I was putting my palette together, I took some photos to explain my process.

Here are three great blog posts, that I highly recommend you read. They fill in the gaps of my post… and show you much nicer looking pans.
Brenda Swenson on filling a palette
Jane Blundell on filling half pans
Jane Blundell on ‘ramp’ filling pans 

I fill my pans in two passes – filling to the corners with a toothpick and then coming back in a week or so to top up. Daniel Smith paint shrink quite a lot and many crack too! Each pigment behaves differently, so after a while you will get to know the differences. Cerulean Blue(Chrom) is very runny, Quin Gold shrinks and cracks a lot. I sometimes add a drop of Glycerine to the drier colours – but as I am heading to a hot humid climate did not do so this time. I don’t expect to use Quin Gold much so I might not bother topping it up.

I like to ‘ramp’ fill my pans but sometimes don’t bother or the paint is too runny to achieve it easily. How smooth my pans turn out is completely a matter of how much time I put into neatening the top surface of the paint. As you can see I didn’t have a lot of time this year. Both Jane and Brenda make beautiful palettes… my pans don’t look as messy in real life but macro photography reveals every bump. But hey – the bumpy tops will soon be smoothed out by a little water and the stroke of my brush.

Make sure you label your pans with enough detail that you will be able to know down the track exactly what it is. And yes, I occasionally get the letters mixed up!

This time I have given my Daniel Smith three weeks to cure. Winsor and Newton can be used the next day! Sometimes, in an emergency I put in the oven for an hour or two on a VERY low heat – 50C. I find this works a lot better than using a hairdryer.

I have a new paint tin! (Art Basics Tin from The Art Scene for approx $25.00)

There are a lot of different portable palettes on the market but I find this one the best. When mixing paint, I prefer the feel of metal to plastic. This size is compact enough but with folding trays has just enough mixing area. If it was larger it would be less easy to handle (balance with other tools if sketching standing up) and take up more room on a cafe table  – both of these are important.

I remove the metal clips*  from the bottom metal sheet so I can put more than 12 pans which is what the tin is designed for. I fix my pans to this sheet by ‘blu tac’. You could do this direct to the bottom of the tin, but I find it MUCH easier when replacing a single pan, to be able to take all paints out – they get fairly messy after a while, and it is good to be able to air and separate the pans if there is a threat of mould growing.

* Correction: My Dad removes the metal clips for me!
His description of the process: To remove the steel clips from paint trays, place tray in vice (or clamp down) and drill out the four punched fixings from the clip side. Use an electric/battery operated drill with a twist drill bit slightly larger than the punched fixing area, then use a file to remove any burrs around the hole on the reverse side of the tray.

A new palette needs to be cleaned so that the paint doesn’t bead on the surface of the mixing area. I use an abrasive cleaner like jif or gumption. Avoid using tissues to wipe your palette as they often have oils in them – paper towel (kitchen paper?) is better.

When you pack more colours into a metal tin like I do, it might be hard to close as the lip of the mixing tray interferes with the pans. I have had problems before – once I bent the mixing tray so the lip was flatter but then found that some of the paint from my pans was coming off on the tray (you can see this happened today in my old tin in the above photo). This is mainly a result of doing a lot of sketching in a hot humid climate and not drying my palette and soaking up excessive moisture before closing it.

So I now put a few spacers in between the pans – very low-tech pieces from the lid of an ice-cream container. You also want to have the blu tac as flat and even as possible – otherwise the pans don’t sit flat.

When travelling, I make up a few extra pans  of colours that I know I will go through a lot of. Last year in Brazil (right!) my extra colour ran all over the place so this year I am wrapping them up individually. I am never sure if there will be Daniel Smith paint at my destination, and don’t want to risk having fresh paint spread all over my other colours.

Artists who do put fresh paint in their palette en-route often ensure that their palette is always horizontal. My palette is always in my front pocket and is always vertical!

Subscribe to my mailing list for my monthly newsletters including first notification of my new SketchingNow Online Sketching Courses and face-to-face workshops.


  • Liz Steel says:
    I found magnets moved too much in sideways movement.

  • Liz Steel says:

    thanks Sherry!

  • Jody Bryan says:

    Nice post, what is blue tack? I use magnet tape.

  • What fun! Your paint pans look like mine usually do after awhile of use!

  • Rin Adams says:

    3M makes repositionable clear adhesive mounting squares that thusfar have been effective at holding plastic pans in a small tin for me. 🙂

  • Ana Reinert says:

    I was able to remove the clamps myself with a pair of pliers and some patience. I made a Hyperlapse video of assembling my travel case with magnets here:

  • Travis says:

    How did you remove the art basics logo? I can’t find ones anymore without branding 🙁

  • Liz! I have just seen on the Daniel Smith website that you are contributing to their new half pan sets! How exciting! Will they be available outside of America when they are released? I don’t have any DS watercolours and I see the “Sketching set” they are bringing out has 6 of the basic colours you recommend in your Watercolour Sketching Now course. I’m very tempted to hold out for this rather than buying the tubes straight away.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Jodie. Yes it’s very exciting but I don’t have any details of when – and I’m guessing that it will be available internationally. It’s designed as a starter kit so if you know what you want then it will be still best to just buy tubes.

  • Caroline Greene says:

    Hi Liz, I just wanted to let you know that I didn’t need to use a drill to remove the metal clips from the bottom sheet. I found I could do it quickly and easily with a fine, small-headed ordinary screwdriver: I gently slid it under the clip next to the pressed-in ‘dimple’, levered it upwards carefully and the clip popped off. Repeat on the other three dimples. It took under a minute! Maybe when your dad did yours they were built a bit stronger?!

  • Related articles: Homework #11 due March 25th
  • Janella Rollert says:

    I use a Meeden metal watercolor tin. The metal tray just pops out, no drilling!

  • Mike Brunet says:

    I have a silly question, using a 12 half pan set, and doing just light washes in an A5 sketchbook daily, how long do you think a set of 12 would last before I run out of paint.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Mike, its not a silly question but just one that is hard to answer. I would guess that it should last you a few months – but hard for me to gauge as I sketch a lot and use a lot of pigment.

      • Mike Brunet says:

        So the real cost in terms of paint is not very high. As such, maybe the real cost of nice artist-grade paints is not as high as some might think. If the equivalent of a 48 pan set can last a full year. The cost of the paper/sketchbook is the real cost. Am I wrong here?

  • Rockie Weymouth says:

    I’m trying to put together a similar palette to yours, Liz. I’m not clear on the function of the plastic dividers between the pans, and thus, how many/where they are needed(?)

  • Jen Lien says:

    Hi Liz, Have you tried the Daniel Smith watercolor sticks? I was at their store and the staff recommended cutting the sticks to put in half size pans.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Jen I have played with them a little but not tested extensively. What I did find is that they didn’t granulate as much as the tube paint.

      • Jen Lien says:

        Thank you Liz! I think maybe they are similar to watercolor pencils?? They are an attractive alternative to the DS tubes for travel and the pocket book.

  • Barbara Gabriel says:

    Can you tell us what paint colors are in the tin you’re showing, and the order you’ve arranged them in? I find that very helpful.

  • Stephanie says:

    Silly question – I know the mixing area of the paint tin should be cleaned first with a mild abrasive (baking soda, gumption, etc.). Is it necessary to clean the full or half pans before filling them with paint?

    p.s. I’m excited to start the course after I finish the 2020 group run of Foundations finishes in a few weeks.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Stephanie,
      The abrasive cleaner is for metal surfaces… most plastic palettes don’t need it. And I’ve never done anything to my pans! Enjoy the new palette. It’s a wonderful feeling!!!
      In fact I’m setting one up today ?

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Stephanie,
      The abrasive cleaner is for metal surfaces… most plastic palettes don’t need it. And I’ve never done anything to my pans! Enjoy the new palette. It’s a wonderful feeling!!!
      In fact I’m setting one up today

  • melinda mcnutt says:

    I have modified a 12 pan Medeen palette by simply taking out the tray and smashing the clips. I bought it on Amazon several years ago. I bend the “handles” back 180 degrees and turn over to place back in the center of the palette. I use magnetic tape to hold the pans in place. There are little bumps that I have to account for (they would be dimples if you have the tools to remove the clips and keep it “right-side” up.) It would hold 20 full pans but I don’t use that many. Spaces left for experimentation! I do fill 2 Hansa Yellow Light pans, one for mixing and the other for clean yellow. Of course, using 1/2 pans could expand the palette but that is too many colors for me. I don’t sketch standing up (bad back). I use some magnetic clips (hard to describe but they are usually used on metal file cabinet sides to clip papers) attached to my coroplast board upside down so that the magnet is up and I set the pan horizontally on it with one mixing area (the flap side) hanging off the top and the lid side setting on the board.

  • Clare O'Brien says:

    Dumb question maybe…why remove the clips vs just taking out the whole clip part and sticking the pans directly to the bottom of the palette?

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Clare – not a dumb question at all. If you attach the pans to the bottom of the tin it can be quite tricky to remove some of them when you need to top up or replace. So having them on the tray makes it much easier – take all of them out and then adjust as needed.

      • Clare O'Brien says:

        Great point! I removed my clips with a drill the other night. Super easy to just drill through the attachment points and the holes get covered with blue tac anyway. Mine’s a very tight fit with 12 full pans. My pans kind of get stuck under the rim of the outer case, but I’m hoping I can still pry them out when the time comes to clean/swap. Thanks for the help!

Leave a Reply