This is the second of my two posts on palettes (view my first post if you haven't already). Here we’ll discuss the differences between palettes, and see palettes from civilizations thousands of years ago. Yes, they used watercolor paints very similar to ours today!
This is a palette made of a single piece of ivory. It is inscribed with the hieroglyphics of the pharaoh Amenhotep III (ca. 1401-1353 BCE) as well as the epithet “beloved of Re.”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has in its collection a precious painter's palette that dates back to 1390-1352 BCE. There is still paint in the wells! The turquoise-colored one I'm guessing may be a copper paint that has tarnished over the centuries. (I have not seen this palette in person, so that guess may seem right or completely wrong if I had.)
This round palette from Pakistan is from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC. It dates to about 200 BCE to 100 AD.
The round palette, also from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has been carved out of schist rock and includes seven wells around the perimeter and a center well. The center well, I am conjecturing, is presumably for water. It is from Pakistan (ancient region of Gandhara) and is about 6 1/2" in diameter.
The above palettes are for watermedia. How do we know? First of all, water soluble paint is what was available in ancient times. (To see more on various types of paint used over the centuries, see my blog post, "19 Influential Watercolorists of the Gilded Age.") Secondly, they follow the criteria for a watercolor palette.
Criteria for a Watercolor Palette
- Has an edge around the perimeter to contain the water and paint.
- Has wells (depressed areas in the surface) to contain the paint.
- Is plastic, glass or porcelain -- or stone. Watercolor painters do not hold their palette in their hand when they paint, so the weight of a porcelain or stone palette is not an issue.
- Has mixing areas for the paint (I personally use additional surfaces for mixing sometimes).
- Are designed to be used flat or at a slight angle.
Criteria for a Oil Paint Palette
- Is frequently oval-shaped. It Is the iconic “palette” everyone thinks of as a palette.
- Is flat and has a thumbhole so the artist can comfortably hold the palette with the non-dominant hand while painting. Also, the shape allows the artist to hold brushes in the same hand as the palette.
- Is lightweight wood, so the weight doesn’t wear out the arm while painting.
- It has enough area for paint arranged as the artist prefers, with an area for mixing additional colors.
Many watercolorists sit to paint, since their palette needs to be flat, and the angle of the painting is often flat or a very slight angle. Most oil painters paint standing up. They move around often to review their work in process.
John Singer Sargent painting. From the collection of the Museum of Fine Art, Boston.
John Singer Sargent is shown in this photo painting on a hillside. He has an umbrella to block the sun and another umbrella (white) to bounce back some light onto his surface to eliminate shadows on his painting. He is holding a palette in his non-dominant hand, so I presume he is painting in oil, even though he is sitting down.
For more on Sargent’s painting techniques, see my blog post, "Laundry in the Hands of John Singer Sargent."
Watercolor paintings definitely benefit from being propped up as they will be viewed when finished, to make the kind of assessments and adjustments that an oil painter makes.
Homer is another of my favorite watercolorists. Here we have an image of his palette with his notations about the paints that are included. Through infrared spectroscopy and other analysis, his paints included colors that were (or were similar to): Burnt Umber, Prussian Blue, Indian Yellow, Hooker's Green (New Gamboge and Prussian Blue), Vermilion, Burst Siena, Cadmium Yellow, Van Dyke Brown, Red Lake, and others.
Winslow Homer's paint box and palette. From a temporary exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, "Watercolor Box Belonging To Winslow Homer, 1900-1910."
Here is a secondary palette, as I mentioned in part 1 of this essay. I, too, sometimes use extra palettes for additional colors and additional mixing space.
From "Homer's Paint Analysis," JAIC 1980, Volume 19, Number 2, Article 6 (pp. 103-105). A secondary palette of Winslow Homer, with his signature
and notation about paints.
Here is a self-portrait of the artist Caterina van Hemessen. She is painting in oil on a wooden panel Notice her diminutive palette.
Caterina Van Hemessen, Self-Portrait, 1548, oil on panel, 32 x 25 cm, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel.
Van Henessen's palette has the colors she would be using for flesh tones. She would mix her colors on the painting rather than on the palette. I don't know enough about early oil painting to suggest from this that she had other palettes with other colors, or scraped this one when she had completed the flesh colors.
Notice she has her right hand and arm balanced on a stick to prevent her hand and sleeve from touching the panel. This stick is called a "mahl stick" and they are still available today for oil and watercolor painters. The word is from the German and Dutch maalstok or "painter's stick".
Adaptation is Part of the Process
As discussed in the previous post, I use The Quiller Palette. (I have four of them.) It’s also the one I recommend to my students. Once I found this palette, it made sense to me. It helped my organize my thinking and seemed to make the painting process easier.
Starting to paint with my Quiller palette set up in a color wheel configuration. I'm spraying the paint with water to reinvigorate them at the start of a painting session.
But, even though I use the Quiller palette, I don’t use the same hues or paints that Stephen recommends; I have my own preferences. Plus I have a variety of different palettes for unique situations. (Two of my Quiller palettes are at the bottom in the center.)
A selection of some of my palettes. Most shown are for painting plein air. They are small enough to fit in a small daypack or even a pocket.
In my world, on my palette, having a clean surface, being set up following a color wheel, and being familiar with color theory helps me avoid muddy paintings. The "messiness" of these palettes is typical of my work in progress.
"The palette is one of the most important tools in the history of oil painting and its affect is one of the least studied aspects in art history."
So, we’re back to the question of "what works for you?"
My advice: Test out a few options and use the one that makes painting easy, pleasurable, and rewarding for you!