Tuesday, 10 July 2012

What's in (on) a palette?

On my new blog I posted the palette I'm currently using for watercolour painting. It's been going for about 2 weeks, fed from tubes of paint. I normally clean the gaps between the main areas of colour when they get this full. This works well and saves me wasting paint. I was going to clean this one off completely, however, which explains why it looks so full of muggy paint (after last night's fateful session).
In fact, the colours stay clean for longer than it might appear.

After trying out any number of different commercially recommended palettes, I have come to the conclusion that melamine is the only surface perfect for watermedia. Watercolour cleans off under the tap (hot water works faster than cold). If I've used any staining colours, I rub those areas with a creamy cleaner (do not use abbrasives!) to finish the job, then rinse off with a washing up liquid to make sure there is no grease on the palette. Acrylics clean off by soaking the palette, preferably in hot water, for a bit, then the old paint simply flakes off. Use a plastic palette knife or other non-scratching tool if you find that easier.

Later that day. I was going to clear all the paint off, but under hot running water the  in-between bits washed off leaving so much usable paint that I decided to carry on using it. You can see from this photo that the paints are now clean and ready to use again. The shadow is me taking the photo!

cleaned up melamine tray
I'm using the word palette to cover anything that  serves the purpose! Many painters use whole tables or other really large surfaces; some use plexiglass or glass, or ceramic tiles, or plain china or pot plates.  Paper picnic plates are less satisfactory. Most of them absorb oil or water fairly quickly. Eating off them is OK, painting off them less satisfactory! But that said, the main thing is that it works for you!

The palette in these photos is a large white melamine tray. I have two of them. When one of them gets out of control (like in the first photo!) I start the second one and use any paints still usable on the first tray before washing it clean at the end of that session. The advantage of using a tray is that it has raised sides. Before painting, colours have to be reactivated. I use a water spray. The raised edges prevent any paint going off at a tangent. The tray is left in a flat position, of course. Otherwise the colours would run into each other, which is not the same as mixing them intentionally!

I don't use the trays for acrylics unless it's a single session job, for the simple reason that  acrylic paints dry fast and are then unusable! Instead, I have two pairs of melamine plates. I can seal the paint-holding plate quite efficiently by putting the second plate exactly on top  and face down so that there is a space between. Before closing the plate I spray the acrylic paints lightly with water (not heavily as they would run into one another). This method conserves paints for days on end. I haven't got an acrylic palette on the go right now, but will have soon. I'll post an image then!

Oil painting palettes are traditionally made of wood in various sizes and cut with a hole for the thumb. You can now get them in plexiglass, which is rather nice, but on the whole, the cleanest oil paint palette is a throwaway one. These sometimes also have a thumb hole, but not always. This is, however, also the most extravagant system as once the paint-laden greased paper has been peeled off it's really hard to continue using it, so for convenience and continuous use you need at least two lots of disposable palette packs, the more so if you need more paint than one sheet will hold or are working on more than one painting and using varying paint selections!

I don't use a lot of different colours on one painting, but possess a large selection in each medium because it's good to have a choice, especially if one is improvising, and because I can't resist new hues! Of course, painting a portrait requires a totally different selection of colours from a seascape. The challenge of painting both or everything with a severely limited palette might attract some, but many (like me) prefer to have choices. It's good to remember that in the old days pigments were rare and expensive and painters could not afford many themselves. They often started with grisailles (monochrome, usually greys, as the term implies) and for economic reasons only added colour much later as glazes. Glazing is of course still a major painting technique, but life is much easier these days! We do not need to imitate eras when things were scarce, extortionately priced or hadn't even been invented After all, we use electric lighting, synthetic brushes, acrylics and other mod cons!

I still haven't mentioned those dreadful plastic palettes that come in all shapes and sizes and are used more by inexperienced painters than anyone else, until they find out that the surface stains irrevocably and no kind of cleaner can resurrect the pristine whiteness of the new article and preserve the smooth surface needed! Some of them are, however, nicely shaped, and have practical wells. Some artists have developed their own palettes to fit their needs and some even offer them for sale. Others use enamel butcher's display trays, which are as effective as the melamine ones I have. Unfortunately I haven't been able to find any enamel trays in Germany, but you may be luckier where you live!

My advice would be to keep off plastic.

If you travel around doing watercolours, the best solution is probably a tin container with pans. The inside surfaces are useful as palettes when opened out and easy to clean off. You can refill your pans with tube paint. That is more economical and convenient. 

Especially oil painters using wooden palettes often do not clean them up at all, but add to the piles of used paint. This makes the palette increasingly heavy, however. Not my cup of tea at all. 

You can, of course, paint without using a palette at all. Especially for oil glazes this is quite a good idea. But painting acrylic straight out of tubes or bottles is probably unwise, as the paint dries fast and would deteriorate very quickly. 

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