Great Low-Cost Paint Palettes for Watercolor and Gouache

December 12, 2012

Above: A selection of white, glazed ceramic plates from World Market. The smooth square one that is center top is approximately 8 inches square. Click on the image to view and enlargement.

Whether you have gifts to buy for an artist friend or are trying to stretch your own art supply budget there are great in-studio palettes to be found wherever discount china is sold.

On a recent trip to the World Market I found the above dishes. I have found similar dishes at Target, Pier One Imports, and similar stores. Go where the stores carry open stock. Look for plates with smooth glazed surfaces (so they won't absorb your paint). I get white, unpatterned dishes because they give me the maximum mixing space without any "visual interference" for when I'm blending colors.

I use these plates in the studio for my palettes all the time. You can see an example of an in-use palette here. It's the oblong sister to the square palette at the center of the above photo.

I use the smaller dishes (which have a slight depression) for mixing a large wash of a certain color that I might want to save over the course of a painting. If I want to keep the moisture content of the paint high when I stop for the day I will place the small dishes is a long, flat Rubbermaid™ container into which I've also placed a small square of folded wet paper towel (just in one of the corners). When I open the container the next morning the paints are still close to the same consistency and I start painting right away—the moist paper towel keeps moisture in the closed box and keeps the paint fresh.

Important Caveat Placed in the Middle of the Post so You Don't Miss It: 
NEVER, EVER, use a plate that has been in contact with paint for food, even if you wash it. Glazes are porus, even if they don't look like it. Keep your dishes segregated. I don't even put my palette dishes anywhere in the kitchen, and never in the dishwasher. 

I have found sushi dishes that are long with 3 sections. These are great for keeping my colors organized, reds, blues, yellows. I then use a larger plate for actually mixing colors. 

I haven't used the "ying-yang" plates at the bottom right yet but they are a great configuration for monochromatic palettes. (Downside: they don't stack well—always check that if it matters to you.)

The best thing about all of these plates—they were inexpensive. I think the large square one was about 3 dollars. The small dishes were only 99 cents each.

I have a stack of similar plates in the bathroom (on a rack where I keep such things). So there is always a fresh plate to start a new palette.

People at my November 26, 2012 gouache demo saw both a used square palette, and a fresh rectangular palette that I laid out just for the demo. If I'm going to use a lot of colors I will put my colors out along the edges of the plate in a color wheel formation. If I am working with a limited palette I will just put out a couple colors. Over time additional colors added may get a bit jumbled so it's good to keep the color wheel in mind even then (though I admit that I don't).

For people just starting with gouache I would recommend that you keep your whites on a separate plate. When and if you put them on the main plate I recommend that you place them apart from each other to keep them straight. I keep titanium white at the top of my plate (defined by how I usually work with my color wheel) and the zinc white goes at the bottom (so it's alphabetical for the whites). You can of course tell them apart by look, but sometimes I'm painting in rather poor lighting conditions and if they were closer together I might inadvertently pick the wrong one. It's just been easier for me to have a habit.

Stephen Quiller recommends using titanium white in his books and places two blobs of that white on his palette. One blob is on the cool side of the palette, the other is on the warm side. He then only mixes his cool colors with the blob on that half of the palette and vice versa. I think this is a great way to keep from inadvertently contaminating your cool and warm pigments. (I use only one blob of any white I'm using and tend to pull from one side or the other of that blob, and ultimately live with some contamination or put out new white blobs in a new place on the palette.)

I am a bit of a klutz yet I can say that in 20 years of using ceramic plates for in-studio palettes (before that I used plastic palettes divided into wells, with covers that never sealed properly) I have never broken a palette. If I were to, however, it would be a quick clean up, and an inexpensive loss.

I have also found that using palettes like these plates takes up less workspace on my drawing board or desk than the large plastic palettes I once used. The mixing areas of these china plate palettes are easier to clean. Ultimately I find that I I have wasted less paint, so not only are these plates inexpensive but over time they provide additional savings I can put back into purchasing more paint.

The one disadvantage to these palettes is that they are not useful for field work, only studio painting sessions. But that doesn't bother me a bit. I love my portable travel palettes.

Advantages To Using Inexpensive China Plates as Paint Palettes for Gouache and Watercolor Summed Up:

1. Inexpensive, readily available, many sizes and configurations to suit your needs. (That's really 3 reasons in one.)

2. Easily replaceable if broken.

3. Easy to clean (whether it is just a quick clearing of some of the washes that have pooled on the plate or you want to start over and clean the plate completely). (Plastic palettes get scratched easily and take on stains from the pigments, potentially making it more difficult for you to judge your color mix.)

4. Plates like this for are also useful palettes for fluid acrylics. Some plates (if there are some imperfections) can be more difficult to clean, but typically the dried paint scrapes off easily. (For tube acrylics I use a Masterson Sta-Wet Palette.)

    • Cate in Dundee
    • December 12, 2012

    That was a forehead-smacking moment, Roz, that tip for two blobs of white for warm and cool mixing. Duh. Why didn’t I think of that!

    I’ve been using cheapie china plates lately for acrylics. They’re great for the small amounts of paint I’m using, but for bigger canvases I use little bowls for mixing pools of paint. Hardened acrylic will often just peel off the china surface, but if not, I find a quick spritz with window-cleaner loosens it enough to sweep off with a paper towel.

    • Leslie Schramm
    • December 12, 2012

    I’ve a Mijello Bulletproof palette for watercolours, ( Try not to go where I’d need it’s bulletproofness though ) but have quite a few white saucers, from jumble sales for pennies, and my only Limoges “porcelain” is a 4 section square plate, bought in the factory as a second; got a funny look saying “it’s for paint” ; apparently it’s a chef’s tasting plate. Just perfect.

  1. Reply

    I love these dishes too! My favorite is an escargot dish. It has a bunch of little wells in it where the snails go.

  2. Reply

    White Corning wear divided plate is my favorite cheap mixing area… I LOVE how paint mixes on the plate as opposed to how it mixes on a plastic palette… added bonus to the CorningWear plate is it won’t break if I drop it. I also got some heavy serving dish type plates at Wal*Mart and have a eye out on eBay and at garage sales for a white deviled egg plate (the ultimate palette I think)… haven’t found one yet. If you see one around let me know.

  3. Reply

    Great tips here, especially since….I know Santa is giving me a set of M Graham gouache…and I will be experimenting…oh, probably Christmas morning! Life without opacifiers is looking darn pretty……

  4. Reply

    Leslie, I’m unfamiliar with the Mijello Bulletproof palette. When I visit to see the puffins I will get a first hand look! I think a Limoge chef’s tasting plate is “just perfect.”

  5. Reply

    That would be a wonderful dish, escargot wells, Lisa! I’ll keep my eyes open.

  6. Reply

    Capt. Elaine I will have to check out WalMart! Corning Wear sounds perfect. (I have broken one of those however, years ago—we have all tile and wood floors and I think it may have had an imperfection, but it hit the title and the tile survived. It was a plate from a series of odd plates from graduate school and I’ve never had another.) Ah, deviled egg plates. Aren’t they wonderful! I’ll keep my eyes open.

  7. Reply

    Santa is being very nice to you!
    I hope you have great fun with you new set and find many new plates you can enjoy as palettes!

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