What to Know About an Artist’s Oil Painting Palette, Part 1

What is there to know about an artist’s oil painting palette? You’d be surprised.

Artist's Painting PalettePerhaps one of the most iconic symbols of the fine artist is the artist’s painting palette. They are often taken for granted; however, the palette is one of the most important tools an artist uses. There is much to consider about the palette, and this article covers some interesting points.

Palette (noun):
(1) A thin board or slab (traditionally made of wood) on which an artist lays out and mixes colors.
(2) The range of colors used by an artist for a particular picture.

“Palette” is one of those words in the English language that has more than one meaning. It can refer to the actual tool an artist uses to mix colors on or refer to a selection of colors used to make up a color scheme. For this article, when an artist’s oil painting palette is mentioned, I refer to the surface an artist uses to mix paint on.

There are many types of palettes available on the market for oil painting artists. They are made of various materials, from wood to paper to plastic, and they come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. It’s a matter of personal preference which type, shape, and size you choose to use.

Types of Artist’s Painting Palettes

An oil painting palette is a stiff, level surface that an artist uses to arrange and mix paints on. Any flat surface may be used for one; however, those made from hard, inert, and non-porous material make the best palettes. These would include wood, plastic, or wax paper.

Palettes can also vary in size and shape. The most commonly known type of painter’s palette is made of a thin piece of rectangular or classic kidney-shaped wood specifically designed to be held in the hand and rest on the arm between the elbow and thumb.

wooden Painting PaletteWooden Painting Palette

This is the most traditional artist’s painting palette and was used by the Old Masters. Today’s manufactured wooden palettes are sealed with a varnish or lacquer. You can make your own if you desire to do so; however, a wooden palette must be properly seasoned before using it with oils. This can be done using plain shellac or linseed oil and rubbing it into the wood using a rag. If it is not seasoned, you will end up with a palette that will absorb all the oil from your mounds of paint, and soon you will find yourself working with paint that seems much drier than when you first squeezed it from its tube.

plastic Painting PalettePlastic Painting Palette

Another popular material for an artist’s painting palette is plastic. Plastic palettes are durable enough to withstand solvents and work well with oil paint. They can be scraped clean and are more adaptable to soap and water than a wooden palette. Usually, these are made of a non-staining, white plastic.

disposable Painting PaletteDisposable  Painting Palette

These are pads of waxy paper that come with or without a thumb-hole. The top sheet is torn off and used for a painting session. When the session is over, the sheet is disposed of. This makes for a quick and easy cleanup. Some artists find this type of palette convenient, particularly for the classroom or “Plein air” painting.

Palette Shape and Size

Artist’s oil painting palettes come in a rectangular or classic kidney shape. The kidney-shaped variety has a thumb-hole at one end and is made to rest in hand and against the forearm easily. Paint colors are arranged around the edge of the kidney-shaped palette and are easy to access. On the other hand, rectangular palettes appeal to other artists because they allow the paint to be arranged neatly in rows. And rectangular-shaped palettes fit nicely inside art boxes and field easels when taken out on location.

Some palettes are large, while others are smaller. Many of the Old Masters preferred to use a small palette because they worked their paintings in stages, and fewer colors were needed for each painting session. A smaller palette meant they had more control over their paint. Some of the larger palettes used by artists today are adapted to the modern method of having every color in your paint box on your palette at one time. That can be a lot of colors! If you have that many colors to squeeze out of their tubes, you need a larger palette to hold them all and give you ample room for mixing.

Whether you use a rectangular or kidney-shaped palette, a large or small one, it is a matter of personal choice as to which you choose to use.

To Be Continued…

This article is continued in Artist’s Oil Painting Palette, Part 2. In part 2, you will learn how to set up your palette, plus other helpful information.

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