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

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

kidney shaped artist 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 actually has more than one meaning. It can either refer to the actual tool an artist uses to mix colors on or it can refer to a selection of colors used to make up a color scheme. For the purpose of this article, when palette is mentioned, I am talking about 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 a variety of 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 Palettes

An oil painting palette is a stiff, level surface that an artist uses to arrange and mix paints on. Any flat surface can be used for one, however, those made from hard, inert, and non-porous material make the best palettes. These would include wood, plastic or waxy 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 that is specifically designed to be held in the hand and rest on the arm between the elbow and thumb.

wooden artist paletteWooden Artist Palette — This is the most traditional type of artist’s painting palette and was the type used by the Old Masters. Today’s manufactured wooden palettes are sealed with a varnish or lacquer. If you desire to do so you can make your own, however, it is very important that the palette is first 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 properly seasoned, you will end up with a palette that will absorb all the oil from your mounds of paint and you will soon find yourself working with paint that seems much drier than when you first squeezed it from its tube.plastic kidney shape palette

Plastic Artist Palette — Plastic is another popular material for an artist’s painting palette. Plastic palettes are durable enough to withstand solvents and work well with oil paint. Much like wood, they can be scraped clean but are a bit more adaptable to soap and water than a wooden palette. Usually these are made of a non-staining, white plastic.

tear off paletteDisposable Artist 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 easily rest in the hand and against the forearm. Paint colors can be 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 paint to be arranged in neat rows. Rectangular shaped palettes also fit well 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. This is because they worked their paintings in stages and fewer colors were used 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, then you need a large palette to hold them all and to 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 about how to set up your palette, plus other useful information.

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