On Watercolor Palettes: Portable & Paintboxes (5 of 6)
On Watercolor Palettes: Portable & Paintboxes (5 of 6)
This is a follow-up article on my previous post where I’ve shown my studio palettes and talked about them in fair amount of detail. Today I’m presenting my opinions and thoughts on portable palettes, or paintboxes. These are meant to be taken out in the field. There is, of course, a number of portable palettes out there that I can’t simply cover simply because I don’t own them. But I still think that what I present here is a good and varied selection that covers most of the paintbox types that are out there.
Why and When of Portable Palettes
As I explained in my previous post, I am exclusively concerned with studio painting. I am not an impressionistic kind of painter that is prompted by a strong emotional reaction to a natural phenomena to immediately capture it on the canvas. I do strongly feel outdoors and connect with nature on a deep level, but this emotional charge doesn’t prompt me to paint then and there, rather it replenishes my energy and allows me to recreate the experience on my own terms. Of course, this approach doesn’t exclude using a portable palette, as I still sketch outdoors. I use pen and paper though and don’t color my sketches. If I were to use paint in the field, it would be either to block in shapes with value or capture a certain color combination.
That being said, I did use portable palettes in the past. I used them indoors as my studio palettes as well as outdoors. Some types of portable palettes are more suitable for studio work than others but I enjoyed their company nevertheless. They really are companions, one could say, as their specific character very much affects us and the way we work. Especially in the outdoors conditions where there’s necessity for speed. A pretty, luxury metal palette may be inconvenient to carry around for its higher weight but its luxurious nature and superior layout may help us enjoy the experience more. This, to an extent, reflects our personality and the way we choose tools that we buy and use.
Probably the widest variety of portable palettes can be seen it the huge community of urban sketchers. You can find many of them on social media and see what tools they use. It is always inspiring to look through the pictures. There you can see everything from high end palettes to quite rudimentary ones – though they serve the purpose perfectly well. After all, in the end it’s not about the tools, not about the palettes and brushes but the results – our paintings. Our palettes are important part of the process but they have a specific type of function. To carry our paint and enable us to work freely on what really matters to us.
While studio palettes are mostly available in plastic, portable paintboxes are most often made of metal. There are a few plastic ones that are cheaper and, to an extent, more convenient but metal is definitely used in majority of cases. This is most likely due to two main reasons. Firstly, metal can be shaped, bent, layered, punched, etc. without the risk of it becoming unstable, brittle and prone to cracking. Secondly, metal can take a beating. It can be lacquered, which is a very durable outside finish. Unless it chips off, the metal underneath is absolutely safe, keeping the integrity of the box intact regardless of the outdoors conditions. Metal boxes can withstand falls and very rough handling. The better one’s are enameled inside, which too provides years and years of perfect working surface.
Of course, there’s a difference in durability even among metal boxes. The durability to a large extent depends on the quality of manufacture, used materials and methods of finishing.
Portable Palette Examples
Let’s now take a look at a select number of portable palettes that I own.
1. Plastic Paintboxes
In the previous article on studio palettes I’ve shown that the majority of studio palettes is made of plastic. However, there’s comparatively few plastic paintboxes. Plastic paintboxes are not bad though as they are light and fairly durable, making them a more convenient companions where weight is concerned.
1.1 Winsor & Newton Plastic Palettes
The couple of plastic paintboxes I have here are made by Winsor & Newton. Winsor & Newton are one of the few traditional paint companies. They make their paint available in tubes as well as pans and they make paintboxes that allow you to carry them conveniently. These pan-paints are designated mostly for field work because they are dry and re-wettable, hence more convenient to carry around than tubes of paint. These are obviously not intended for producing finished work though I’ve seen some artists use the pan format even for studio work. It very much depends on anyone’s personal approach to watercolor. I also seen professionals use these small dry pan-paints very successfully in the field.
Personally though, the only occasion where I could see myself using them is when I’d want to record a specific color harmony or make color notes on my sketch. That being said, many urban sketchers (or illustrators) work on much smaller scale and mostly use paint to dress up their drawings, for which I can see them being perfectly viable.
Generally speaking, plastic paintboxes from Winsor & Newton are made for their lower end paint line “Cotman”. Their “Artists’” line of field palettes is mostly metal and higher quality. Regardless of the material used though, all of these are made to fit their pan paint format and all of them are very well made.
Even if you prefer paints in tubes, like I do, you can simply carry them separately and refill empty pans. The pans will serve as paint wells in such case. Tubes can even be carried inside some larger boxes (left). That particular paintbox is modular, which means that the pan holders can be taken out. What kind of tubes and how many will they hold depends on the specific type of box you have. The one pictured here allows for 4 tubes and 8 full pans for example, or 2 tubes and 12 full pans, etc. This box, however, only fits the Cotman tubes, which are quite thin and I’m unsure if you can fit regular Artists’ tubes. But that certainly is something to be experimented with whatever paintbox you have.
The mini, or pocket, paintbox (right) is very convenient to carry but again is probably only good for very small work as the size of the wells is quite tiny. Still, it is very well made and pretty durable. Fits half pans or you can simply fill the wells with tube paint.
Both of these (and all other plastic boxes I’ve seen) come with a thumb ring for convenient field work.
1.2 Winsor & Newton Field Box
Here is an exception to a rule – Winsor & Newton Field Box which is made of plastic yet I believe it comes with “Artists’” quality paint instead of “Cotman”. It is a cute little thing that is extremely compact and has an integrated bottle of water, cup for the water, several mixing areas and a good amount of space for pan-paints. It even includes a small (too small if you ask me) brush and sponge.
I have even adjusted it so now it can hold full pans and a tube of paint or two. This is very convenient for someone like me, who only takes paints out to record color harmonies and put down value shapes to complement their sketches as it doesn’t take much space and water and cup is included.
Eye for detail. Despite this box being made of plastic, it feels very sturdy and durable.
Thumb ring is included and works well.
As you can see I fitted four full pans and some “Cotman” tubes in the box. However, when you get this box new, there’s a hinged holder for half pans in the middle which hold the pans in place. I decided to break it off to get some extra space and I never looked back. But be careful as it is not possible to put it back.
The bottle doesn’t hold much water but it does its job. Very convenient and shaped to fit into the box perfectly. One side is even shaped as a flat mixing well.
You can see here the box in scale with a 1″ brush. It is a small box but one that is still very functional. It is really not a gimmick but fully featured paintbox.
2. Metal Paintboxes
2.1 Metal Paintboxes by Winsor & Newton and Schmincke (and others)
These paintboxes are in principle pretty much identical to the above plastic paintboxes in that they don’t have integrated paint wells and are designed to hold half or full pans. These, however, are very durable and can take quite a beating!
I’ve been gifted the Schmincke paintbox (top) by a friend and throughout the years he owned it he already put it to good use. There are scratches, dings and dents in the metal but the box is perfectly functional and ready to go. Metal paintbox is definitely a worthy investment if you’re interested in using the pan format.
The downside to these is that they only came with a pre-selected set of pan paints. This is generally true for the boxes made by paint manufacturers. I have also seen these boxes unbranded but the quality was atrocious and I wouldn’t spend any more money on those. I would always go for boxes produced by the big companies like Schmincke or Winsor & Newton. Of course, there may be great alternatives which I just don’t know about. If you do, please let me know in the comments down below, feel free to link your pictures of them in your comment as well.
Except the Schmincke box there are two Winsor & Newton boxes, which are both very well made. They are heavier than the Schmincke, which is surprisingly lightweight considering it’s metal.
As you can see on the images above, these boxes are pretty well made and are not small at all. The Schmincke and large W&N take full pans. Schmincke takes 36 full pans, larger W&N 18 pans and the small only takes 4 full pans and 17 half sized ones (though you can adjust it easily so it takes more full pans). So even if you were using this palette for studio work and your procedure didn’t require a huge amount of pre-mixed washes (really depends on your personal painting approach), then I can well see you successfully using one of these both in the field and for your studio work. And even I can see myself using one of these. I would only need an additional tray of some kind where I would do my mixing. This, however, breaks the work flow and I would surely get too distracted.
My favorite of the bunch is the Winsor & Newton Heavyweight paintbox. These are not cheap because they come with Artist’s quality pan-paints. They are built like a tank though. I really love this box and ever since I’ve bought it I was looking for opportunities to use it. I used it as my studio palette for quite some time but despite the relatively large lid with mixing wells I found it too small for the kind of work I do. I, personally, prefer the properties of my studio palettes.
2.2 Art Materials S. A. Metal Paintboxes
The following palettes are the closest to studio palettes I found and I could see myself using them comfortably in the studio on regular basis. (I’m afraid I’m teasing you with a palette that is very hard to find. I’m not sure if it is even available anymore.)
There’s a story behind these metal paintboxes from Spain. I will be soon publishing a post on my major influences throughout the years where I’ll talk about it in detail but for now let me just share a short version. When I was starting out I didn’t have all the resources available today. Living in a post-communist country, the access to information was limited to say the least. There was very little to none western literature being translated and offered. There was, however, a great series of books from Spain published just around the time the iron curtain collapsed. They influenced my early work very much. In these books, all of the Spanish artists used the following paintboxes. I never dreamed of owning one. It was one of those things you’ve seen in a book and so it was not really real. These were the times that you had to actually travel somewhere to get it and the world globalization wasn’t even in our dictionaries. After internet became accessible, one day, while browsing through WetCanvas forums, I stumbled upon a post showing the exact same palette that I fell in love with years ago when I was starting out and read the books. There were info and links to the stores offering them. By them some stores offered international shipping. Fond memories overwhelmed me and I simply had to fulfill the little dream. There was something of a craze when I purchased them because many “palette addicts” from WetCanvas bought them from Spain around the same time. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that they no longer exist, though that would be a shame.
There were two stores from which I bought them. One came in black lacquer and blue plastic box (left) and the other came in white lacquer and paper box (right). But they are pretty much identical. Unfortunately, I don’t have my e-mails from that time and so I don’t know if you can still buy these because I cannot remember the store names. I think I found one after a while googling but they no longer have these on offer. If you’re in Spain and can provide more information about them, please let me know in the comment section below, I would be very interested to hear if they are still sold in Spain. Feel free to include a link in your comment if you have one, as other readers may find it useful.
The paintboxes are actually pretty large and the wells, both mixing and paint, are very large and very usable for studio work. On top of that, despite being quite hefty, I can see this palette being used very well in outdoor conditions.
The box itself has two large and deep wells for mixing (the inside of the lids basically). The lids are hinged and well made.
The one inch brush for sense of scale. As you can see, very much usable with two, even three inch brushes if need be.
The trays are removable. There is a thumb ring on the bottom of the palette so the space where the tray sits cannot be used as a mixing well.
The finish is well done, both outside and inside, though I can’t tell if it’s enamel or simply paint. Either way, well made and I think pretty durable. I think that if you can still find one somewhere you’ll be very happy with it.
UPDATE: Kind thanks go to my reader Tomas Mendez for looking these up and providing links. If you’re interested you can find these on Amazon.es and Arte21online.com. Very cool and really very reasonably priced for what they offer. Thanks also go to my reader Carmen for providing another website with art materials which carries the palette, Totenart.com.
2.3 Holbein Folding Metal Palette
A staple in the community, Holbein’s folding metal palette is one that is held in high esteem among amateurs and professionals alike. Probably the most famous example of artist using the Holbein palette is Joseph Zbukvic as seen on his numerous art films.
Many artists use their Holbein palettes for field work but some also use it as their regular studio palette. It is high quality and very durable. It is made of enameled steel, providing a very lasting finish. There are four sizes with different layouts (link to Holbien site: Metal Palettes). Watch out though as there are also aluminum Holbein palettes that look very similar to these. They don’t seem to be enameled but I cannot tell as I don’t own one.
I have the “500” model. It has 24 paint wells and 5 mixing wells. Holbein states that the palette has “a black japanned finish outside combined with a white enameled inside with a thumb hole allow for easy storage and transportation”. The size closed is 4-1/4″ x 9-3/4″.
This particular “500” layout, of course, is a little flawed in my opinion. When you close the lid, paint may drip down from the paint wells simply due to gravity. When closed, there’s no right side up. Either way you turn it, one side will drip. The largest version of the palette eliminates this issue by only having 6 additional paint wells on the lid, so if you omit using those, you can always keep the palette right side up.
The Holbein palettes have a so-called thumb hole, not a thumb ring. It works though I never liked using it very much.
This is truly a solid palette, but having the option to choose again, I would certainly get the largest version that has a massive well for mixing washes on the lid as well as adjusted layout for more convenient storage and carry. I could see myself using it fairly successfully for studio work. This is a workhorse of a palette that is not cheap but certainly isn’t as expensive as the next one.
2.4 “The Paint Box” by Craig Young
The queen of palettes! Yes, I too succumbed to the temptation to acquire one of these famous Craig Young palettes. I decided on “The Paint Box” model. If you’re not familiar with Craig Young palettes (external non-affiliate link), they are handmade paintboxes made from solid brass, enameled and coated with high quality automotive lacquer. The lids are hinged and provide good amount of space for mixing. Many artists say that CY palettes are “perfect” and “the best they ever used”. And while I recognize their amazing quality I still realize that there are palettes out there that provide better value (the law of diminishing returns). The CY palettes cost a pretty penny. I got mine as a gift, otherwise I would be unable to afford it. That being said, the paintbox is an excellent tool and works really well. It is a luxury palette but one that is worth it if money isn’t an issue.
Probably the most famous advocate for Craig Young palettes is Charles Reid. I’ve seen all of his films and I’ve seen him use several models of CY palettes. His current style lends itself to the use of smaller paintboxes that don’t require massive pre-mixed washes. He mixes on the paper and so this design works really well for him.
On the other hand, Alvaro Castagnet also uses this exact same palette as you see here, “The Paint Box”. He does work in a much more classical fashion, which does require more generous washes and he doesn’t seem to have any issues with using the palette.
As you can see from these two examples, and hopefully from all that we’ve talked about here and in the previous post, choosing one’s palette is an exceptionally personal matter. The fact that a specific palette is not the best fit for me doesn’t mean anything. That’s why I try to show and share my opinion and experience with each palette and put it into context. Perhaps this information helps you to make better sense of it before you decide to purchase the right palette for you.
Despite the fact that I don’t find it as convenient to use it for studio work doesn’t mean that the palette is too small. It measures 5.5″ by 3.75″ by 1″ and as you’ll see on the following images, there’s quite some space for mixing washes and paint.
As you can see, the model marked on the brass plaque is “The Paint Box” and my particular piece is #1130. I’ve had mine for a good few years now. I wonder where in the numbering is Mr. Young at this moment. It would be fun to know. If you have a more recent palette from him, please do share in the comment section down below.
A thumb ring is an optional feature. I regret opting for one as I don’t use the palette hand held and it really throws off the balance when it sits on a flat surface. The palette “dances around” and I have to use my other hand to hold it.
As you can see, the paint wells are not small at all. They are still larger than regular full size cake paint, which makes it fairly easy to use large brushes.
My one inch flat brush for scale.
The paint tray is a separate unit, much like on the Spanish paintbox. I actually purchased a spare tray and fit my full pans in them. This allows me to use various set ups and swap them out as I see fit.
Here you can see the three paintboxes compared side by side as to their overall size and shape.
All in all, this is a great product. Hand made from quality materials, very durable and well made. Certainly a luxury paintbox, really expensive and surely an investment, but one that shall serve well for decades to come.
Choosing a palette is such a personal matter. I mentioned that several times because I find it to be very true. Each of us has their own preferences, not only regarding the way we think about quality of our tools but our approach to painting can differ greatly as well. On top of that, we tend to evolve and grow. Our work procedure is more refined the more we practice and paint. As years go by our perception is altered, we’re more experienced and we can more precisely define what we like and don’t like. We abandon the old and accept the new for ours. I guess that’s why artists end up with so much stuff. But is that a bad thing?
The way we acquire experience is through experimenting and experiencing. I could regret buying so many palettes, paints, brushes, pens, etc. Instead I realize that all of it is what makes me who I am and where I am. The journey is mine to experience as it is your to experience yours. Therefore I want to encourage you to put your tools to good use. If you have few or many. Certainly be economically and ecologically conscious, recycle, reuse and give or sell what you don’t need to others. But never hesitate to experience your journey to the fullest. That doesn’t mean you have to spent your entire paycheck on a single palette. There are alternatives to everything. What I want to encourage you to do is to be experimental. Be playful, brave, try new things, new ideas, new concepts. Give your old palette a second life by trying new colors and new layouts. Find what works for you, what doesn’t. Reorganize your palette, push yourself out of your comfort zone. Most of all, have fun. Believe in yourself and follow your inner voice wherever it leads you. And our tools, paints, brushes or palettes in this case, are a vital part of that. Enjoy it, with all its ups and downs!
Please note this is an article repost.
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