Picking the Best Oil-Paint Palette for You (Plus the Only Cleaning Tip You'll Ever Need)

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If you've got a disposable plastic dinner plate, you have a painting palette. Just saying: Many artists, myself included, started out with one of those.

But you don’t have to go that basic — there are plenty of inexpensive palettes that will let you paint more comfortably and efficiently, not to mention with a lot more style.

From simple plastic to ergonomically designed wooden palettes (so beautiful, you'll feel almost weird mucking them up with paint), palettes for oil painting come in a zillion materials and styles.

What to Look For in a Palette

First, you don’t want a palette with cups or indentations for the paint. Oil paint has body and can hold its ground on your palette without mingling with other colors (until it’s invited). A smooth, flat palette allows room for that mixing and mingling to happen. And mixing color is where the magic begins, so don't choose a palette that cramps your style.

Choosing the Right Palette

Glass Palettes

My first “official” palette, after I threw out the plastic plate, was a glass cutting board. Still a makeshift solution, but one that actually works well. Glass is easy to clean, and a cutting board uses tempered glass, which is much stronger than picture glass. The only problem is that the “right” side is textured, and the back typically has little silicone feet. No problem: You can easily take the foot off with the blade of a glass scraper.

One of the best things about a glass palette is that you can set it on a toned surface that matches whatever color you've toned your canvas . If you're working on a gray gessoed canvas, put gray paper under the glass palette for a more accurate sense of the lightness or darkness of your paint mixture.

Wood Palettes

You know those wooden oval-shaped palettes you always see artists holding in movies, like in those Paris scenes of oil painters along the Seine? There's a reason why those palettes are classics. They're fantastic and inexpensive, and they're actually my favorite palettes to use. I’d suggest getting a fairly small one with enough mixing room for your painting style. You're meant to hold those palettes in your hand as you're painting, and the larger ones get heavy fast!

What I like about a lightweight wooden palette is that, as you're working, you can hold it in the same light as the painting and match colors more easily.

Feather’s Touch palette by Cappelleto is a great choice. It’s super lightweight and has a fine-grained, smooth finish that comes lacquered and ready to use. If you choose a raw wood palette, you'll need to season it with oil or finish it with lacquer. Dry and uncoated wood absorbs more paint and tends to stain.

Prepare a raw wood palette by sanding it lightly and rubbing it with a light coat of linseed oil. Wait a day and repeat, sanding lightly between coats. You can use lacquer instead of oil, but that can get messier, since lacquer goes through a sticky phase when it's drying.

Setting Up Your Palette

Squeeze your colors out around the perimeter of your palette in color-wheel order. That way, you can easily find the next cooler or warmer hue to mix. Place warmer earth tones like Burnt Sienna near the reds, and cooler Raw Umber near the blues. Leave extra space around your white to keep it clean.

Remember to set up your palette the same way every time, so you can easily find what you need. You'll thank yourself for making your painting process so much more efficient.

Keeping Your Palette Clean

Here’s the most important tip for cleaning your palette: Always do it at the end of your painting session. You don't have to clean off the unused squeezed paint, but get rid of all the mixed paint.

Yes, this will be hard to do, especially at first. You'll be thinking, “But that’s the perfect color! I'll never be able to mix it again!” Not true.

If it feels less risky, you can create a key by saving a smear of an important mixed color on a piece of paper, and adding a note about where you used it. You can even write down the recipe, more or less. But the more you paint, the less you'll need specific color notes.

If you clean your palette when the paint is still wet, you'll have so much more time to paint when you pick it up again. Trust me on this. Clean your palette at the end of each session (forgive me for repeating that, but it's so important). Then you won’t have to waste time and energy scraping dried paint off before you can start again. Plus, you don’t want dried flakes to get into fresh mixes. They add an annoying, funky texture.

To clean either glass or wood, use your palette knife to lift mixed piles of paint from the mixing area. If the piles are large and you really don’t want to waste paint, mix those mixes together to create a neutral gray. Save that as a new color, but make sure there's no dry, crusty paint in it.

If a thin layer of the old paint stays behind, apply a light coat of solvent (turpenoid, Gamsol, etc.). Give it a moment to soften the paint stain, then wipe it vigorously with a paper towel (many artists swear by Viva).

Next, use a paper towel moistened with oil to wipe up any residue, steering clear of the squeezed paint on the perimeter. For a wood palette, this has the added benefit of reconditioning the wood.

Storing Your Palette

If you don’t paint every day, it’s a good idea to store your palette and paint in a sealed palette box. Not planning to paint again for another week or so? Put the sealed palette box in the freezer — seriously. The freezing temperature will slow down oxidation. Masterson’s Sta-Wet Palette box works well if your palette fits inside of it. The box seals tightly. 

Soon enough, these cleaning and storing habits will become second nature. The routine might sound like a lot to remember, but it's all about making the process smoother, and giving you lots (and lots) more time to do what you really want to do: paint!

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