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What is a Palette?

By Matthew F.
Updated May 23, 2024
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A palette is a tool on which a painter keeps and mixes paints while painting. It can be a board of wood or of plastic, and can be held in the painter’s arm or on the ground, a table, or a wall. Palette sizes, compositions, and uses can be varied endlessly, though the most common perception is of a thin, curved wooden surface held in the hand, with dabs of paint around the edges and a mixing area in the center. A palette is convenient because it offers the painter the needed paints and the mixing area for quick application to a brush.

Generally, a palette features a sampling of the colors needed by the painter. Often around the edges or in separate compartments, the painter pours or squeezes paint onto the palettes as needed. A palette can contain as many as a few dozen colors, and offers areas and surfaces for mixing the paints. The artist has only to dab the brush in one paint, apply it to the mixing surface, then dab the brush in another paint and mix the two on the surface.

The conveniences of the palette make it an almost essential tool for all small-brush painters. The palette is often held in the hand to offer quick access while directly in front of or over a painting, but can also be stored on a desk or away from the painting. It can be small enough to hold or too cumbersome to be held easily with one hand while working.

A popular 21st century palette is composed of sturdy plastic about the size of a large notebook. It features around sixteen large compartments suitable for many brush strokes worth of paint; a large mixing area; and a plastic surface easy to clean and wipe free with water and a sponge or towel. The palette is generally lightweight and thin, making for easy storage and transportation.

Other modern palettes are made of metal, glass, or ceramic, and can be specialized for certain types of paint. The wet palette is a moistened palette used for acrylic paints to keep them from drying out. Ceramic has become popular as a tool used to keep paints from sticking to the palette, and often common dinner plates can be used. A palette can also come with many accessories, such as palette cups, which hang from the sides and allow further space for mixing and thinning of paints.

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Discussion Comments
By kylee07drg — On Aug 06, 2011

I use a sheet of stained and sealed balsa wood as a palette. It is thin and round. The diameter is about the same as that of a medium pizza.

The palette has no slots. I just squeeze paint around the edges of it and mix them further inward. I try to allow plenty of space between mixing areas so I don’t get any unwanted combinations.

I mix my colors with a palette knife. It has a small, flat blade ideal for pressing paints into each other, and it lets me scrape paint back toward the center of the mixing area if it starts to stray.

After using a palette with so much surface area, I don’t think I could switch to something small, even if it had compartments. I really like the space, and I’ve gotten used to working on a flat surface.

By lighth0se33 — On Aug 05, 2011

Since I am operating on an extremely tight budget, I use an empty egg carton as a palette. I have to be gentle with the styrofoam when stirring, because it is very easy to poke through accidentally. Despite that, it is the perfect choice for me.

I get twelve separate slots in which to mix my paint. That is more than I can say for several palettes that I have seen for sale in craft stores.

The steep design of the slots is ideal for keeping the paints separate. I can fit plenty of paint in each slot.

Perhaps the only downside to my egg carton palette is that I have to dispose of it after I have used all of the slots once. I cannot clean it, because I would have to scrub it, and it couldn’t hold up to the pressure.

By shell4life — On Aug 05, 2011

I have a homemade wooden palette that uses yogurt cups for mixing bins. I had my husband take a piece of wood and cut out nine cup-sized slots so that I could securely fit the containers down in the holes.

The size of the cups is plenty big for mixing paints. I just squirt the colors I want to mix down in there and stir them with popsicle sticks. I kept the lids to the cups so that I can store the paint for later use.

To keep my acrylics from drying out, I moisten a paper towel and lay it across the palette while I paint, exposing only the color I am currently using. When I store the paint, I cut a section of moist paper towel and fit it over the mouth of the cup before snapping the lid down to lock in moisture.

By OeKc05 — On Aug 04, 2011

I use a small metal palette with six compartments for holding paint. I do not squeeze the paint into separate compartments and mix it in another, however. Since I only have a few slots to work with, I squeeze the colors that I will be mixing together into one compartment, guessing at the amounts of each.

This palette works well for me, because it is easy to clean. I paint with acrylics, so I only have to rinse it with water and use a soapy old toothbrush to scrub the partially dried paint away. Then, I simply dry it off with a towel and store it in my art box.

By lonelygod — On Aug 04, 2011

For those that enjoy painting when you are traveling a good idea is to try and find a palette that is built into a carrying case. These are available in a lot of materials, but for myself I prefer metal because it is solid and cleans up easily.

The palettes in carrying cases are quite large and are good for those that are more serious about art. They aren't super expensive, but I suspect they would be out of the budget for those that are more casual painters.

One of the best features of traveling case palettes is that you can wait to clean up your paints until after you get back home. Just secure the case proper side up and everything should stay as it was when you first packed up.

By manykitties2 — On Aug 03, 2011

For those that are starting out painting you can buy very inexpensive palettes at art shops and online. The plastic palettes are a great choice as they last forever and come in a variety of sizes. I find that they are really easy to clean and depending on your needs they come in a variety of compartment sizes.

For myself I like those that actually don't have too many segregated compartments. I find a simple flat plastic surface with a bit of an edge to keep the paint from dripping off is best. One thing that comes in handy is if you can find a palette with a bit of a texture to it. I find the paint mixes better or a rough surface.

By SZapper — On Aug 02, 2011

@sunnySkys - Using picture frame replacement glass as a palette is really good idea!

I took a painting class awhile ago and everyone seemed to favor the plastic kind with the compartments. Everyone really liked the large mixing area that type of palette provided.

I did see a few people using the palette paper too. I think that is a good option is you don't feel like dealing with cleaning your palette!

By sunnySkys — On Aug 01, 2011

When I was in college I took a painting class. I didn't really enjoy it, but that's another story.

Our teacher encouraged us to use glass palettes. Since we were all college students, most of us didn't have very much money. Our teacher told us to go to the store and buy some picture frame replacement glass. I remember I got mine for under $5!

The other painting supplies were quite expensive, so I was really happy to get the palette cheaply.

By ysmina — On Jul 31, 2011

@burcinc-- There are actually lots of options for palettes if you want to paint outdoors. I personally prefer painting outdoors because at least there is plenty of air circulation and the odor from the thinner won't get to you

You can use the palettes you already have outside and keep some containers to store the extra paint and then wipe it all off with some thinner when you're done.

If you think that you absolutely cannot clean up, you can still use disposable palettes or wax paper by taping or gluing it to your palette so that it doesn't fly off from the wind. This is actually a really easy and affordable option. You can just take off the paper and throw it away at the end of the day.

The other option I can think of is to get one of those wooden palette box sets. It's basically a palette and a box container that goes with it. You place the palette inside the box when you're done and worry about cleaning it when you're home.

I think you're going to enjoy painting outside a lot, I hope one of these options work out for you.

By burcinc — On Jul 30, 2011

What kind of palette would be best for painting outdoors?

I want to paint outdoors but I don't know how I'm going to manage clean up outside. At home, I use both wooden and glass palettes but I also have everything I need to store extra paint and wash and clean the palettes.

I don't know how I'm going to clean them outside without making a mess and getting paint on my belongings and car.

I have thought about the disposable paper palettes but if it's windy outside, that will be a problem too.

Any suggestions?

By bear78 — On Jul 30, 2011

Cosmetic brands have adopted this term for their makeup products as well. It's really the same idea. An artist's paint palette has all of the colors the artist would need. Similarly, an eyeshadow palette has all of the shades of eyeshadow that a person would need for that particular look. One color is an overall shade, one or two are crease shades and another is a highlighting shade.

There are also larger eyeshadow and makeup palettes that have tens of shades and lip palettes that have various lip sticks or lip glosses that you can conveniently carry around.

I don't think that a paint palette and a makeup palette are very different. I think that both painting and makeup are art and a palette is an artist's tool!

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