Lesson 1 - Why Palettes Matter and Tubes are Best

Choosing watercolour palettes

Surprisingly, many books on watercolour technique almost completely ignore the question of what you should mix your colours in, leaving the beginner to struggle on, using the lid of their first box of paints or ‘upgrading’ to a white dinner plate.

It matters hugely what palette you use because to state the blindingly obvious watercolours are thinned with water and water runs all over the place. So if you use a flat surface, quite soon the puddles of water all join together and you end up painting with mud and to make matters worse you probably won’t even know what colours the mud contains!

The very worst kind of palettes are the non-white plastic trays sold to keep A4 in and I’ve seen heaps of these used because they have the ‘advantage’ of a lid which can be used to keep the paint moist. Don’t use them, except for A4 storage or perhaps as a kitty–litter tray.

bad watercolour lid

A slight improvement is the white dinner plate I mentioned earlier, as you can see the colour of your paint more easily and you can keep your paint high and safe on the rim (if you use tubes!) The trouble is you only have one flat area to mix in and you will end up with more mud.

plate as watercolour palette

A visit to the local art supply shop yields several purpose made palettes. The first is a small round disk with ten tiny hollows that would only work for tiny paintings. However, it’s so light you’d have to chase it round the table with your brush and outdoors it would become airborne very quickly.

basic watercolour palette

The second one is a kind of hybrid that is really designed for oils but at least it has five separate big mixing areas but if you picked it up to use like an oil painter pretty soon you’d be back with mud and it’s so light it to would blow away outdoors as well.

better watercolour palette

Over the years the very best sort I’ve found is a really weighty ceramic palette 8inches (20cm) in diameter with 7 deep mixing hollows .It certainly won’t blow away and you won’t need to chase it round the table. It costs more than the others but you will only need to buy it once. The one I’ve got I’ve had for 30 years and I’ve never found anything to better it.

best watercolour palette

Pans or tubes?

One of the biggest choices when starting out (besides what colours to buy) is what form you should buy your paints in. Watercolours come in two quite distinct forms; small blocks of hard dry paint called pans, or tubes of soft paint.

 The pans are usually grouped together in boxes and to start with look great. A small box of pans looks very inviting, particularly to the beginner and with its tiny brush seems to hold such promise, its diminutive size carrying only a tiny sense of threat, whilst having the obvious advantage of being small enough to slip into your pocket (with a sketch pad) so that you are set up for some serious holiday painting.

watercolour pans

However…. There are some very significant problems which come with this box of promises, which the manufacturers are in no hurry to point out.

1- Often the colour’s names are printed on a separate sheet of equally tiny paper and sooner or later you will lose it. Why this matters will become clearer as we go on.

2- You will have to ‘work’ the paint with a wet brush to soften it before it can be mixed with water and this scrubbing will quickly knacker the cute little brush.

3 -The amount of useable paint you can generate is relatively small so you will be limited to making very small watercolours (I mean A5 or less) or if you use bigger paper you will be endlessly frustrated by having to do several remixes for one ‘wash’ which just does not work.

4 -The complete beginner might be tempted to use the lid as a palette with its clear mixing places but this is only really workable if you need only the tiniest puddles of paint.

5- Unless you are extremely careful with your cleaning after every painting session, your box will end up looking very muddy indeed and you’ll barely be able to tell one colour from another as each pan of paint will be contaminated by one or more of the other colours. And it is frustratingly easy to get ‘foreign’ colours down the side of the pans and these colours are very difficult to remove (like milk spilt down the back of a sofa cushion that cannot be reached) and in all likelihood your box of promises will end up looking like this…

messy watercolour pans

You will be tempted to throw the paints in the corner and give up using watercolour altogether because clearly it’s a useless, frustratingly messy bloody medium.

The simple rescue remedy to all these hassles is to use tubes.

Tubes are more expensive initially (though you are getting more useable paint) but the tube colours have several distinct advantages. The main one being that each time you open a tube of paint you will find paint that is soft and ‘clean’ and ready to mix. The softness means your brushes will last far longer and the clean fresh paint is uncontaminated which is a huge positive.

With a little experience you will learn to squeeze out as much or as little paint as you need into a palette of your own, so you can paint full-sheet, bright Fauvist extravaganzas or the tiniest of miniatures without wasting any paint, the choice is yours. You can drop them in the grass or carry a whole zoo of them jumbled in a carry bag or tin but each time you open any tube the paint will be clean and ready to roll.

If you end up painting your tubes as well as your paper (which often happens) you can add your own sticky label with the colour name on when the tube label becomes illegible.

To be fair and even handed the only problem I have ever found with tubes is that if you leave a particular colour for a year or so the lids can be difficult to remove. The best solution is to warm the top with very hot water (or a match if you want to live dangerously) and unscrew it with the help of a tough rag, and then clean both the cap and the top of the tube with a small scrubbing brush so it does not happen again.

So, my advice would be to use tubes whenever you can. If you already have a box of pans which you don’t want to get rid of because your spouse/kids/parents or lover bought it for Christmas, then simply add tubes one at a time to replace the colours you use most often until all the pans are used up. One nice thing, talking of Christmas, is that tubes of paint can make convenient and useful little presents and with a bit of discreet nudging it should not be too difficult to acquire what you need.

The next section is going to be all about what particular colours are useful to start off with and importantly how all the colours fit together, and of course – brushes, which you can’t really do without, as well as the small matter of the paper you paint on. See you then soon.