Setting up a watercolour palette

July 10, 2015 | 25 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!


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