Palette types — pros and cons

February 15th, 2020

Having written last time about how I tend to lay out a watercolor palette, I thought it would be appropriate this time to show you some of the actual palettes I use and point out some of the pros and cons of each type, along with how I have adapted them to suit my own purposes. There are many manufacturers and numerous variations of these and similar palette designs. My intent here is not to list or compare them all but to show you several possibilities and some of the benefits and drawbacks each design might have.


Palette---Tom-JonesA standard large table-top palette (like this one by Tom Jones), provides a good number of individual color wells. Many include a fitted lid to help keep paints from drying out. This general design is available from a variety of manufacturers in both plastic materials (some more prone than others to cracking and staining) and ceramic (heavy but durable).

Pros: The large mixing area allows for a lot of free-flowing color mixing and includes enough space that supplemental colors needed for a specific painting (such as the green-gold shown here) may be temporarily added.  I also like to keep a bit of kitchen sponge available for both cleaning the palette and to draw excess moisture from my brush.

Cons: The downside is that it takes up a lot of space on (ideally) a flat surface. Lightweight plastic lids may tend to crack.

Adaptations: If more well space is needed, the larger wells on some types may be divided with “walls” created by strips of hot glue. Paint names can be written on removable tape along the outer edges of the palette.


Palette-Cheap-Joes-piggybacCheap Joe’s version goes a step further than most tabletop models by providing a PiggyBack palette that fits into the lid of their large plastic table-top palette.

Pros: The PiggyBack can either hold additional colors or may be used, as I often have, as a slender travel palette, using the lid as the mixing tray. The palette and lid are not attached so may be used separately or set atop each other to save space.

Cons: This setup does not allow space for a sponge. The plastic stains from certain pigments (but is cleanable with isopropyl alcohol). When set on an easel tray, the lightweight plastic (particularly the lid) is subject to getting blown around in the wind.  Note that paint introduced into any travel palette should be allowed to dry flat before transporting or any pooling paint may migrate into nearby wells, as the yellow paint has done here.

Adaptations: I add paint names on slivers of tape between the wells so they can easily be replaced if I change colors. I have also added a spot of white gouache on the lid, and allowed it to dry, for emergency touchups in the field.


Palette-Cotman-half-pan-pocA more traditional travel palette is represented here by a Cotman half-pan field version. Alternative Cotman field palette designs may include a water bottle and attachable cup.

Pros: This particular pocket-or-purse-sized palette came with a small #5 round brush, which fits into a specially designed groove next to the paint wells. The half pans allow for a greater variety of colors, and the small mixing wells in the relocatable tray (shown here attached at the right), can double as supplemental color wells. With the exception of a flexible plastic thumb band around the hinge side (which gave out after many years of use), both the brush and the sturdy plastic casing have held up extremely well. Individual, half-pan cups for the paints are removable and can be replaced with half as many full-sized pans if preferred.  (But be aware that not all pans and half-pans are made to the same dimensions so may not be interchangeable among all manufacturers.)

Cons: Cotman paints are the student grade made by Winsor-Newton, so, though not bad, they aren’t my usual choice for colors.  Again, note that tube paint introduced into a travel palette should be allowed to dry flat before transporting. Even dry pan paints should be permitted to dry again after use to prevent spillage.

Adaptations: I unwrapped the individual pans and removed the dry blocks (pans) of Cotman paint, replacing them with tube colors from brands that I prefer, and allowing them to thoroughly dry.  I also modified the setup by adding a thin bit of sponge both under the brush tip to absorb any remaining moisture after use and by taping another piece into one of the mixing wells (thin enough, even when swollen with moisture, to allow the box to close). I also taped a list of paint colors to the underside of the removable panel on the right for reference.


Palette----En-Plein-Air-ProThe En Plein Air Pro Travel Palette is a somewhat larger travel setup with more wells, intended to accompany the En Plein Air Pro Travel Easel. (Their standard watercolor palette, which fastens onto a tripod, is similar to the large tabletop design shown above, with a generous central mixing area surrounded by individual wells.)

Pros: This palette has several more wells than most of the other travel palettes I’ve seen. It also provides a bed large enough to store several brushes. And it includes a thumb hole so the palette can be either kept in hand or laid on a flat surface, such as a lap or an easel tray. The well lid cover helps to keep any still-moist paints in place within their wells when closing up after use. And the mixing wells in the main lid have slight ridges between them to help separate individual puddles of paint mixtures.

Cons: This palette is larger than many travel palettes, so it won’t fit comfortably inside a pocket or purse. Although I haven’t used it much yet (it’s a recent acquisition), I do anticipate some leakage from well to well, despite the interior well lid, if the kit is closed up with still-wet paint and not packed flat. This can compromise the purity of the colors in adjacent wells. But that is true of any travel palette. (Staining from this kind of leakage is evident between the wells of the PiggyBack palette above.)

Adaptations: I’ve taped a list of the paints onto the well lid for easy reference, and have included a bit of sponge in the well provided for brush storage. Again, I’ve added a spot of dried white gouache in one corner of the well lid for emergency touchups in the field.


Palette-QOR-metal-storage-bAnother palette design you may encounter is illustrated here by the metal box provided with (the larger) QoR Modern Watercolor set. (The small sets come in smaller boxes with both fewer and smaller wells.)

Pros: An advantage of this type of box palette is that I can keep the tubes with the palette for replenishment as needed, along with a few other miscellaneous supplies.

Cons: The temptation with this kind of arrangement is to fill the (shallow) cups randomly with the colors needed for a specific painting. This leads to less efficient mixing and the need to clean off any residue for the next painting, which tends to waste expensive paint.  I find it more helpful to maintain a consistent arrangement, which is difficult to do when the cups are distributed as these are. This layout is also more conducive to developing the bad habit of mixing within or between the home wells rather than in the larger “mixing” well, which offers very limited space.

Adaptations: Note that this palette is currently in transition. As the pans empty, I will eventually move the blues in the second row from the left, up one spot, leaving the quinacridone magenta separate from the manganese blue, with which it now shares a well. The combination of the two colors is beautiful, but it is difficult to keep them from unintentionally blending when they are kept so close together—a situation that occurred when I needed to add magenta (a cool red) to an already full palette.  I have since eliminated one of the less-used colors to make room for the change. Overall, I feel that the disadvantages of this design outweigh the benefits.


Conclusion: Of these designs, my favorite is the standard table-top (or tripod-mountable) style, which provides a generous, adaptable mixing area surrounded by a large number of wells large enough to easily accommodate at least an inch-wide brush.

For short travel jaunts and quick-sketch convenience, I usually prefer the Cotman pocket style palette.  For even easier painting, this palette pairs well with a waterbrush, whose self-contained water reservoir precludes a need for a separate water container and an extra hand or surface to hold it.

For longer plein air excursions, when I am likely to carry an easel and want a wider range of colors from which to choose, I expect to opt for the En Plein Air Pro Travel Palette.

National Art Exhibition Opens

February 7th, 2020

I thought I’d throw in an extra blog this month to let my followers know that my painting “Getting to the Point” is appearing in the National Art Exhibition this year.

"Getting to the Point," by Charlotte Mertz  (10"x8" watercolor, #190906w)

“Getting to the Point,” by Charlotte Mertz
(10″x8″ watercolor, #190906w)

The exhibition opens today (February 7) at the Visual Arts Center, Punta Gorda, Florida, and will run through March 24, 2020.

Palette organization

February 1st, 2020

The question sometimes arises as to how best to organize a palette. There are a number of ways to do so, depending on what medium you are using and how many colors you intend to use, as well as your own working methods and personal preferences.

While oil painters may separate their colors into value ranges (darks, mid-tones, and lights) to keep any white additives out of their darks and black additives out of their lights, watercolor are not handled in the same way. This is because, with transparent watercolors, darkening with black and tinting with white rarely come into play. In watercolor, tints are produced by increasing the proportion of water to paint, and darks through using a lower proportion of water and/or the addition of supplemental hues. Although I have begun to include a bit of white gouache in my palettes, it is solely to reclaim lost points of white, not for creating tints.


As I do with oils or acrylics, I find it easiest to lay out my hues in the order in which they would appear in a color wheel (no matter the shape of the palette configuration). But when I set up a watercolor palette, I virtually ignore value in lieu of temperature bias.

This means that I pay attention to not only primary and secondary colors but also to the tertiary colors that are created by bending the primaries and secondaries toward their neighbors on the color wheel.

Separating the colors by temperature helps to maintain consistent light/shadow effects on turning forms and helps me find truer complements when looking for interesting gray tones.

Watercolor palettes are usually designed with wells or cups to keep the colors separated. Besides separated wells, most have a flat mixing area. This is the type I prefer to use, because it allows me to create interrelating puddles of the colors I have selected from the wells (which are filled with more colors than I will use for any one particular painting). It also limits how often I will be tempted to dip into one of the wells with a brush containing a different color, thereby compromising the purity of that well. (When deeply involved in painting, it’s easy to forget to rinse existing color out of the brush before dipping into the “home” well of another color.)

I try to limit my initial colors to only three or four, laying out unadulterated puddles of those few colors and mixing from those puddles any variations that might be needed. This practice both maintains color harmony within the painting and conserves space in the mixing area.

When I lay out puddles of my selected colors (chosen directly from the home wells) into a mixing area, I try to leave plenty of space between the primary hues to allow room to mix adjacent colors in varying proportions, which creates varying degrees of temperature bias. This is difficult to do if mixing space is very limited. (Though since watercolor, by its very nature, runs and mingles while water evaporates from the mixing tray, overlapping and value changes are bound to occur. So if you want to keep your sanity, precision and strict control of hue probably should not top your priority list.)

As an example, when I select a red and blue (primaries) for my palette, I may also choose a purple/violet (a secondary). Or I may leave that space empty, in which to mix the red and blue primaries together to create my own violet secondary hue between. As I blend my own violet mixture, I may add a bit more red on one side of that purple puddle, and a bit more blue on the other side of the purple puddle to create the tertiaries. The reddish violet could be considered both a “warm purple” and a “cool red”; the bluish violet is a “cool purple” and a “warm blue.” And each of these tertiaries may be slanted even more toward the adjacent primary (red or blue) or toward the secondary violet. Because of the flowing nature of watercolor, the visual temperatures within this extended violet puddle will vary and may interact and blend even beyond my initial intention. There’s no point in fighting it—it’s the nature of the beast. If precise color is critical, keep your blended puddles separate from any “parent” puddles.

If a large quantity of a color is needed for an extensive wash, I may mix it in a separate, deeper container to ensure that the color remains as consistent as possible and that (because of the more limited surface area) water evaporation (and therefore value change) occurs more slowly.

I always try to make note, either with replaceable labels or on a list, both the specific colors used (and brands if they vary) and their relative position in the palette. Particularly when a palette is new or revised with the addition of a new color, this technique makes it easier to differentiate similar colors and to know which color is needed to replenish any given well.

Next time I’ll discuss several different types of watercolor palettes I use, the pros and cons of each, and some of the adaptations I’ve made to simplify my work.

Fine art as conversation

January 15th, 2020

I recently read an enlightening little book called “How to Make Conversation,” by Daniel Wendler. Most of us learn how to talk when we are quite young. But many of us have never properly learned to converse in a give-and-take manner, both permitting and actively encouraging all parties to participate.

Some people love to talk and seem to do it nonstop, never inviting the listener to respond or contribute additional ideas beyond expecting an occasional head nod to assure the speaker that they are still present (even if not actually listening anymore). Others are reticent about speaking up or offering unsolicited comments, so can be difficult to draw into an beneficial exchange of ideas.

It made me begin to think about art in a similar way.  As artists, are we encouraging a conversation with our viewers, or are we merely making a flat statement and expecting unquestioning agreement, with no room for viewer input?  Are we either “sermonizing” or “theorizing,” or are we encouraging an enlightening discussion through our work?

If a painting’s concept is either so mundane that no one cares, or so esoteric that few can understand it, the potential power of interaction is lost and, like listeners who continue to nod as their minds wander from a speaker’s endless rambling, viewers may stop thinking about our art and turn away.

A conversation is not unilateral but an exchange of ideas, thoughts, reflections, and insights.

We might think of illustrative art as lectures—a visual retelling of established “fact” in the form, perhaps, of a written story. Decorative art “tickles the eye” just as flattery and platitudes “tickle the ear” without requiring or stimulating deeper thought.  There is nothing wrong with either of these art forms, and I certainly don’t mean to denigrate either, as both are valid and have their own uses. But whether they can be considered “fine art” is open for debate.

Fine art more closely resembles a discussion or conversation among two or more participants, the artist and any viewers.

The fine artist poses a concept—a topic—depicting it according to a personal point of view, but then invites viewers to attach their own reflections and understanding to what is presented. Viewers consider the information given or suggested, interprets it in light of their own understanding, background, and point of view, and creates some kind of explanatory narrative to continue the visual interaction. Such visual conversations often become verbal conversations when viewers voice their ideas to one another or directly with the artist.

The more the artist invites viewer participation in considering a work, the more extensive and fruitful the conversations (both visual and verbal) may become, drawing viewers back repeatedly to reconsider and perhaps rewrite their perceived narratives. The conversation continues and stimulates even more extensive revelations.

Is your art:

– a “gabble-monger,” with extensive, indiscriminate detail but leaving nothing open for discussion?

– a “snap-shot,” depicting the subject without revealing the artist’s personal response to it?

– a “conversation starter,” introducing the topic and inviting viewer participation?

Me? I hope to become more conversational with my art this year.

Making the most of what we’re given

January 1st, 2020

In mid-December, while on a cruise in the Caribbean, my husband and I found ourselves in the custom-designed cruise port of Costa Maya, Mexico. This port, far distant from any major town, was designed specifically for cruise lines to use as a jump-off point for tours to the sites of several Mayan ruins. But for those of us who had already taken such tours or who didn’t look forward to spending several uncomfortable hours driving back and forth on a tour bus, our alternative options for ways to spend our day were to stay on shipboard or to browse among the gift-shops and bars in search of something revealing a bit of the Mexican “flavor” we’d presumably come to experience. We chose to wander.

Living in Florida, an easy drive away from Port Everglade, cruises and land tours are no longer a novelty to my husband and me, so my goal on this trip was to paint, or at least to make sketches of some of what we would see. In Costa Maya, the Mexican ambiance is as carefully designed and manufactured as in a theme park to entice tourists to “buy local.” This approach is not one that stimulates my creative imagination or inspires great artistic concepts. So I narrowed my focus, looking for individual features that might catch my eye—a heavily laden coconut palm, perhaps, or …

1912---Costa-Maya-FlamingoI had never had the opportunity, before, to really study a live flamingo. So when I saw a small flock of birds (no doubt with wings clipped to ensure their continued presence in their picturesquely designed setting), I took the opportunity to sketch one—or more accurately, an amalgamation of several, since they kept repositioning themselves.  I also took a number of photos for future reference in regard to overall proportion, various angles, attitudes, coloration, and neck and leg convolutions.

1912---Costa-Maya-Coconut-CSimilarly, a cartload of coconuts had been positioned outside a shop in a consciously staged arrangement. It was indeed picturesque, and I liked the variety of colors represented.  Fresh green nuts filled the cart, many with the “wild hair” of the inflorescence, like umbilical cords, still attached. Older, more dried nuts lay stacked on the ground.

But as I sat on a nearby bench to set to work, a continuous stream of cruisers meandered by, often blocking my view. So I simplified the scene, studied it sporadically when the human parade occasionally split to permit a clearer view, and freely edited the literal scene to establish a credible impression of it in my sketchbook.

I began each study with a light, exploratory pencil sketch. In the case of the coconut cart, I then restated it with pen, adding some hatching to mark shaded areas in case impending rain moved in before I could add any color. A few quick strokes of color with a waterbrush captured my basic color impressions.

Only after I was well into the second sketch did I realize that I’d been holding my sketchbook up-side down for both studies! Ha!

Ah well. The sketches still serve their purposes, reminding me of the experience and supplementing my written journal of the voyage, as well as providing plein-air (on site) reference material for future paintings I may make in the studio.

Through this coming year, I wish you, too, a fresh outlook when prospects may at first appear dim, insights into “old news” that enliven and enrich your outlook, and the ability to laugh at and find hope and enjoyment in your circumstances even when everything seems topsy-turvy!