On Watercolor Palettes: Studio Palettes (4 of 6)

On Watercolor Palettes: Studio Palettes (4 of 6)


I am a studio painter. Exclusively. My routine does not include plein air painting although I did some in the beginnings of my journey. I haven’t spent a great deal of time actually painting outdoors, except for drawing in the field, for which no palette is required. That being said, painting out of doors is excellent practice. No one should ever think they’re too good to paint out in the field because only there is the connection between man and nature reinvigorated in such a way that is impossible to achieve otherwise. It also rewires the brain to work faster, more efficiently and more effectively, translating what is seen into that which is truly essential.

Even if you’re an avid outdoors painter, you most likely work in the studio on more accomplished pieces. This is where a studio palette comes in. There are extremes, of course, as some painters take their portable palettes indoors to work on large pieces and others who bring their large studio palettes outdoors. And that’s fine with me. I am all for minimalism and simplification. After all, most of these studio palettes are very light despite their dimensions and can be successfully used outdoors. The only reason for my classification of studio vs. portable palettes is purely to provide some distinction in order to differentiate between the two main types.


The two main choices that studio palettes offer as to the material they’re made of are porcelain and plastic.

Plastic is, of course, not an example of a very sustainable material (yet we produce it in ungodly quantities). If you’re environmentally conscious, you will most likely consider this aspect when selecting your palette. Modern plastic palettes are very durable, there’s no doubt about that. They’re really well made and unless taken into the field on regular basis, they’ll provide years and years of good service without the need of replacement. Discarding them may be a problem, though some of them seem to be made of recyclable plastic. It is necessary to note that despite the ability to recycle the plastic, the process included is not environmentally-friendly at all. On the other hand, porcelain manufacture is substantially cleaner. The raw materials used are totally natural. They can be found practically anywhere in the world, and their extraction does not result in a harsh, negative impact on the environment. Very little waste is produced during the manufacture as most of the raw materials can be recycled.

Environmental considerations aside, porcelain wins over plastic from practical point of view as well. Porcelain reacts to water very well and so when handling your washes on the palette, porcelain will show off the value and consistency of the wash much clearer. Judging color is also much more accurate. Porcelain is white, much whiter than plastic palettes – especially after some time has passed. This assures that you can be more confident about the wash strength before applying it to the paper. Another point is that they are much more easy to clean. And unless you drop them, they are virtually eternal.

To be fair, there are a couple of downsides to porcelain as well. The cost is one. They are more difficult to manufacture and are not as cost effective as plastic palettes, hence the cost is higher. In some cases, the cost is not that high, so if you shop around, you may find one for slightly more than its plastic counterpart. Secondly, the weight is much higher. Those painters using studio palettes for their outdoor painting would most certainly find carrying around a 5 lbs. porcelain palette inconvenient. Finally, they break. They are extremely thick and very tough, but obviously they can break much more easily than plastic ones when improperly handled, e. g. when accidentally dropped.

And so there are factors regarding material to consider when choosing your first palette. I sure don’t say that plastic is bad and porcelain good or vice versa, but certainly these considerations come into play since companies offer us choice.

You might have noticed that I mention plastic and porcelain while omitting metal. This is because there’s not many studio palettes made of metal. There are so-called buther’s trays that are enameled metal but that’s not really a palette, just a large mixing tray. There are no others than that I can’t think of. Portable palettes, on the other hand, are mostly made of metal, because metal is more versatile when making compact folding palettes and is very durable against impact.

Studio Palette Examples

Let’s now take a look at a number of studio palettes that I used in the past. With each palette I photographed a 1 inch flat brush for better sense of scale and proportion.

1. Artists’ Porcelain Daisy Palette

The most basic one out there, this little palette has no lid but provides enough space for mixing paint. Unfortunately, this is not a palette that can be loaded with paint. Paint needs to be squeezed fresh into the well. This, of course, is a good way to build a habit of using fresh paint every time but it can certainly be inconvenient to clean up the wells when switching colors, as there’s not that many of them. Also, this is a lidless palette so remaining paint is guaranteed to dry unless covered with some kind of lid.

Artists’ Porcelain Daisy Palette

One more thing that the palette forces you to do is limit your  color selection. And so while I cannot recommend this as a long-term primary palette, I think it can teach you a thing or two when you’re just starting out on your journey.

Artists’ Porcelain Daisy Palette With a 1″ Flat Brush

There are several sizes and types of the Daisy palette, differing in shape, size and material. I have a porcelain variation in large size, which has 9 mixing areas and is 7 1/4″ (approx. 18 cm) in diameter. The wells are quite large but I still think they don’t provide enough room for mixing larger washes. I’ve seen illustrators use this palette successfully and I can see why. They don’t usually work with as large washes. For serious watercolor work on a large piece of paper I don’t think the palette provides sufficient space. It may, however, be a great tool for tonal studies and pre-painting sketches.

2. Frank Webb Watercolor Palette

Frank Webb watercolor palette is my personal favorite. It is a full size, open-well design with plenty of room for your paints as well as mixing. I didn’t really liked the idea of interconnected wells with the mixing area but once I got used to taking advantage of it, I just could’t see myself going back. The palette is quite large at 16″ x 11-1/2″ (approx. 30 x 40 cm) but it’s fairly light and sturdy.

Frank Webb palette

There are 25 wells for paints, which is quite a lot. I find it actually not abundant but very useful if I want to try a new color without reorganizing my layout. The mixing area in the middle is undivided. The fact that the transition from the wells to the mixing area is seamless assures excellent handling and paint accessibility. This is definitely the main selling point of this palette. And rightly so, the free access to paint is an extreme advantage once you get used to it. It allows for more fluidity and flow when handling paint.

Frank Webb Palette Lid

The lid contains additional mixing wells. There are three, each sized differently (papa, baby, mama – who gets the reference?) so they are as practical as can be.

You can observe by the color of the lid that the plastic indeed deteriorates with time. The color is no longer white but off-white turning yellow. It is actually much more pronounced in real life than on the photograph. My subjective feeling is that the material became a little bit more brittle than it was new as well.

Frank Webb Palette And a 1″ Flat Brush

The wells are excellent as I mentioned. They transition seamlessly into the mixing area and you can just drag paint from the well and mix with absolute ease. Another advantage of such open-well design is that the water that gets into them can be easily rid of by titling the palette slightly. As you can see, the size of the wells is pretty good as well, easily accepting large brushes while holding as large amount of paint as necessary.

I think this is one heck of a palette. I cannot say enough good things about it. Everything seems to have been thought of when designing it. And it doesn’t surprise me, after all, it’s designed by Frank Webb.

3. John Pike Palette

Probably the single one most well-known palette in the watercolor world, John Pike palette is considered to be the go-to palette by many artists. The design stood the test of time. I have been personally using this palette for years before switching to Frank Webb palette. If I had to switch from Frank Webb palette, I would more than likely go back to John Pike palette.

There are several strong points making this palette a classic. The material is very tough. I don’t think you can break it unless you intentionally try. And try hard. The wells are large, holding plenty of paint, allowing access with large brushes. The wells are elevated slightly, which assures that water doesn’t creep back into them, contaminating the paint. Furthermore, the lid is rock solid, sealing the palette very well.

The only negative aspect regarding the construction that I can find is perhaps the weight, which due to the heavy duty plastic is higher than most other plastic palettes. That being said, it’s still nowhere near porcelain palettes, it is simply a touch heavier than the rest.

John Pike Palette

As you can see the layout is fairly standard but well done. The wells are large, yet there’s 20 of them, which should be sufficient for most anyone’s needs. I personally like the 25 well layout of the Frank Webb palette but I could easily fit my full palette in here as well.

John Pike Palette Flat Lid

The other downside is that the lid doesn’t provide further mixing wells. You can, of course, just flip it and use the inside of the lid as your tray but if you wanted smaller wells you’re out of luck. However, I don’t find this to be a dealbreaker.

John Pike Palette

Unlike Frank Webb palette, John Pike designed the wells so they are slightly raised above the mixing area. This way water won’t creep back in. This is a neat idea, though it may be as well a con as it is a pro. It depends on the way you work. The flow of the working procedure is somewhat inhibited this way but not dramatically. I personally prefer the seamless transition on Frank Webb palette. Getting used to this slight step wouldn’t be a problem though. Since this too is an open-well design, the water that gets in can be dealt with easily by gently tilting the palette to one side.

John Pike Palette And a 1″ Flat Brush

4. Robert E. Wood Palette

Robert E. Wood palette is made by the US company Speedball, which as a fact is of no real value but I found it interesting and cool. I encountered their products when practicing calligraphy but it never occurred to me that they may be the manufacturer of an artist palette.

As to the actual palette, at 12″ x 16″ (approx. 30 x 40 cm) this, too, is a full sized palette. It seems subjectively larger than the rest but obviously it’s very close in size to the other full-size palettes. It’s the way it’s designed that makes it look so oversize I guess. It features 24 paint wells and those, objectively, are huge! Stay away from this palette if you’re stingy! You won’t fill the well with a single 14 ml tube of paint I don’t think.

This palette, too, is made of plastic. However, it is quite different from any of the above. This plastic is very light and I find it to be quite supple. You won’t bend it, it’s not that supple but it does feel thinner and less sturdy. Thus far I haven’t had any problems with the palette cracking or anything of the sort though.

Robert E. Wood Palette

As I said, the palette is quite spacious. There are 24 paint wells and 2 main mixing areas. These two mixing areas can be utilized so that one is used for warm washes and the other for cool ones, so you can successfully avoid making “mud” (remember our discussion on warm and cool primaries?). Well this palette may aid you in that effort. It is actually a very viable way to force your brain to grasp this concept and practice it through use.

Robert E. Wood Palette Lid

You can find four more mixing areas, equal in size, on the lid of the palette.

Notice that the plastic is snow white. It’s true that this palette was not exposed to UV rays for as long as my Frank Webb palette but it seems to me that inherently this palette is made of much different type of plastic, maybe one that won’t be as affected with time.

Robert E. Wood Palette And a 1″ Flat Brush

The wells are very large and very deep. There is a slant in them, which may aid in accessing paint. I also found that if you dab a little paint on the upper half of the slanted side, your paint won’t sit in the dirty water dripping from your brush. That is a real issue with all of these closed-well palettes – water tends to get in there from the brush and contaminate the whole well. That is, however, just a matter of preference and habit. I could very well get used to it and it wouldn’t bother me, but it is something to consider.

5. Stephen Quiller Traveler Palette

A very interesting concept, the Stephen Quiller Traveler palette aims at providing the best of both worlds: generous proportions and portability. As the name suggests, this is the one studio palette that does want to go out to paint with you!

It is slightly smaller than other full-sized palettes, though not much. After all, it’s 11″ x 14″ (approx. 26 x 36 cm) in size. However, despite the similar proportions on the outside, the palette differs quite dramatically on the inside. If you’re at all familiar with Stephen Quiller, you’ll know what to expect: a color circle! Yes, this palette features wells organized into a color circle. It also features a fairly generous tray for supplies, such as brushes and tubes of paint, hence the name “Traveler”.

If your use of color is strongly based on the understanding of the color circle (or you want to get better at it), this palette may work for you really well. It strengthens your perception of the connections and relationships of colors as found in a color circle simply through practical use. It forces you to use a color organization based on the circular principle. I really love using this palette and think it may very well be underrated.

As to its construction, it is very light, the very white plastic reminds me that of Robert E. Wood palette. It feels similar and I suspect it may be manufactured by the same company.

Stephen Quiller Traveler Palette

There are three versions of the Stephen Quiller palette in total: the Traveler, standard palette and a porcelain one.

The Traveler version that I have is the smallest and includes a tray for brushes, convenient when you want to take it with you outside. You can store brushes, pencils and other supplies in there. It is not that wide though and you may have to leave some of the longer brushes at home. If you use it exclusively for studio work, this area may be used as additional mixing well.

The “standard” version features 24-well circle and it too is made of plastic. There are additional two wells at each corner. The “porcelain” palette is basically the same thing, with the same layout, only made of porcelain. I don’t have an experience with either of those, though the porcelain version is one I always wanted. However the import cost from the US would be ridiculous. If it ever comes to Europe I’m certainly getting one.

Stephen Quiller Traveler Palette

In the “Traveler” iteration the layout is altered quite a bit. There are 12 paint wells, as opposed to 24, organized as a circle. This, of course, is the basic color circle of 3 primaries, 3 secondaries and 6 tertiaries. It is an excellent way to limit yourself if you want to get good at mixing your colors, while still having plenty of options. Then there are additional wells on the outside edges of the main circle, 3 in each corner, making of total 24 paint wells. The circle is reserved for pure colors, while the outside edges can hold the muted and bonus colors. Another way to set it up would be to use the outside slots for primary alternatives if you like working with pure hues exclusively.

Stephen Quiller Traveler Palette And a 1″ Flat Brush

This palette, despite being a “portable” version has the widest wells of the three, because there’s only 12 of them. There’s a quite large enough mixing area in the middle. The lid doesn’t provide any additional mixing wells, though it too can be flipped and used as a mixing tray. The convenient tray for brushes can surely be used as an additional mixing well if necessary.

Overall, this is one of my favorites simply because of the cool concept. I think anyone interested in refining their color mixing skills may benefit from using one of the Quiller palettes.

6. Cheap Joe’s Original Palette

Cheap Joe’s Original palette is a little brother of the CJ’s Piggyback palette. This half-sized palette though is still substantial and provides enough space for paint and mixing. There are 17 wells in total, two mixing areas divided in the middle and two additional areas on the lid.

With its slightly more conservative dimensions of 12-1/2″ x 9-1/2″ (approx. 32 x 24 cm), this palette may be a great compromise when looking for a more portable solution. It is undoubtedly smaller than its full size counterparts. Yet the paint wells are still full size and mixing areas very generous.

Cheap Joe’s Original Palette

The palette is made of plastic which seems very durable and reminds me that of Frank Webb palette.

The mixing area is divided yet still provides enough space for larger washes. Like the Robert E. Wood palette, this may aid in keeping your warm and cool washes separate, thus preventing an accidental “mud”.

Cheap Joe’s Original Palette Lid

The lid provides two additional mixing areas.

Cheap Joe’s Original Palette And a 1″ Flat Brush

I am personally not a fan of these enclosed wells. They are large and accessible easily but water tends to get in there and make a mess. It is not easy to get it out of there by tilting the palette too, like it is with Pike of Webb palette. Still very usable though and I think that it is only a matter of habit.

7. American Journey Cavalcade Porcelain Palette

The final palette is one branded American Journey, which is Cheap Joe’s brand. From what I’ve seen and used, their products, including their line of watercolor paints, are really, really good. The Cavalcade palette doesn’t seem to be an exception. It is a hefty full-sized studio palette that I can’t quite image anyone taking out in the field. At 11″ x 16″ (approx. 28 x 38 cm) and 5 lbs. (2.2 kg) this is a monster of a palette. But it is made of porcelain and features 30 paint wells. There are two main, very generous mixing areas and additional two on the transparent plastic lid.

American Journey Cavalcade Porcelain Palette
American Journey Cavalcade Porcelain Palette

The palette is styled after the Cheap Joe’s Piggyback palette, which is the older brother of the CJ Original palette above.

Again, as with Robert E. Wood and CJ Original palettes, here are two mixing areas for cool and warm washes. I personally like a single mixing area but that is really a matter of preference and working procedure.

American Journey Cavalcade Porcelain Palette

Enclosed wells again, not my favorite solution but nothing extraordinarily inconvenient.

American Journey Cavalcade Porcelain Palette And a 1″ Flat Brush

Final Thoughts

All of these palettes are great – you can’t go wrong with any of them. What a cop out conclusion, right? But it is true. The thing is to know yourself and your working procedure. Then you can select the one that will work for you, not against you – simplifying your painting process instead of making it more difficult. In case you’re just beginning and can’t tell what your preference is (been there!) try to listen to yourself anyway. Don’t try to pick the one future-proof perfect palette. You evolve, your work evolves, your preferences change. Listen to yourself as you are right now, support your way of thinking as it is at this moment. That’s the best advice I can give you – always listen to yourself, however far into the journey are you. If you are fascinated by color relationships and the color circle, perhaps consider Quiller palette. For more methodical work on smaller scale you may consider the Daisy palette or you can choose Frank Webb palette in case you like to work intuitively and with more fluidity and rhythm.

There is, of course, a greater number of palettes on the market than what I list here. It’s not feasible for me to go out and buy every single palette only so I can review it. And this is not meant to be a review, per se. Just as selecting your color palette, choosing a physical palette can be daunting. It is, however, a part of the process of becoming an individual artist and complements the way you think and use color in your work.

Art is just as much about the supplies as it is about the paintings. Through the tools we use we can enjoy a different part of the process and ourselves. I shouldn’t like to stress supplies too much, because they are less important than the painting concepts, but they are a necessary part of the process. We artists definitely enjoy our tools very much and we love getting more. Palette is a very important part of our setup because it can hinder our workflow when not selected or set up properly. It can also improve it and enable more fluidity in our working procedure and retrain us to think in a new way, exploring avenues of color and life we haven’t thought of before and live richer, more colorful lives.

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  1. susan

    I use a denture cleaner on my plastic pallets, mix up the pellet in a little water, paint on and let it sit for a bit…cleanes great!
    Great article, I have a couple of pallets, I really want the frank web which is more the way I paint, thanks

    1. Hi Susan,
      Great “hack”!
      The Webb palette is what I use 99% of the time. It’s a worthy investment.

  2. Edo

    Great article Dan! And very helpful!
    I always go back to the Pike palette, love the large mixing space.
    You can almost see how strong your mix is on paper with the Pike palette.
    If you have a palette with deep mixing wells you have to get used to the deeper colour of a such mix.
    Thanks it was nice to read!

    1. Hi Edo, thanks!
      Yes, the Pike is a classic. You can’t go wrong with it. The layout, well size and material are great. No wonder it’s become so popular.

  3. susan

    I clean my plastic pallets with denture cleaner, I read this somewhere and it works great. If it is really stained I will make a paste with it and leave it on for a while. It never gets out the staining blues all the way but it works better than anything else I have used.

    1. Plastic palettes can be difficult to clean but I don’t find the slight discoloration of the paint wells really bothersome. However, somebody else may find your experience valuable. Thanks for sharing Susan.

    2. Ginette

      The best way to clean a plastic palette is with a dry Mr. Clean magic eraser…it will clean all the heavy and stubborn stain of paint…try it and you will be amazed.

      1. May 21, 2018
        Thanks for chiming in Ginette. Yes, that may very well be one of the most effective ways to clean palettes without going with chemicals. I remember Joe Miller from Cheap Joe’s using it but I don’t quite remember if indeed for palette cleaning or removing paint from a painting. Either way I’m glad to hear it works for you and I’m sure others will find your advice beneficial.

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