Setting up a Palette for Oil Paintings

How you set up your palette and what type of palette you use whenever you start a painting is your first big decision. Fortunately it is not a difficult decision to make. This hub will guide you through the process of choosing and setting up your palette to begin an oil painting.

A palette is basically a flat surface used to hold and mix paints on. Everyone knows the image of an artist holding an oval palette in his left hand with a convenient hole in it just for his thumb. Palettes such as that are pretty easy to find at any art supply store but they aren’t particularly great for painting with. Generally speaking I prefer to have my palette on a more stable surface than my left hand and I prefer more room for mixing paint than a palette I could comfortably hold would allow. An ideal palette for oil painting is much larger than most people would expect; it should allow plenty of room for colors and for mixing.

A disposable palette pad can be bought in different sizes and it carries the advantage of being able to throw your used palette away when you are finished with it. Their big disadvantage is that in any extended painting the sheets will generally wear out, especially if like me you prefer to mix your paints using a palette knife. Some better art supply stores sell palettes closer to what we made in art school. These palettes are ideal for mixing oil paints but do require to be cleaned when you are finished with it.

Any palette you choose to use should be neutral in color so that you can accurately see the colors you mix.

To make your own palette you will need one piece of white foam board, one piece of glass cut the same size, and duct tape. I recommend 9X18 inches because it allows enough room for mixing paints but is still small enough to be portable if needed. Place your glass and foam board together and tape the edges well with duct tape. Reinforce the corners with duct tape as well. If the tape wears you can replace it as often as needed. For a studier palette use particle board painted with white gesso instead of foam board and assemble your palette the same way.

Any palette that is flat, stable, neutral colored and large enough for you mix paints on will work.

The most basic way that I teach my students to set up a palette has a warm and cool shade of each of the three primary colors and black and white. Most artists are familiar with the color wheel. I teach my students to follow the color wheel when they set up their palette. I will place white and black pigment in the lower left corner and my brown pigments in the lower right corner. I use the remaining palette to draw an imaginary triangle. Each point of the triangle will be designated for one primary color. Any secondary colors would be placed respectively where they would belong if I was constructing an actual color wheel on my palette. It is not necessary or desirable to have paint for every color of the color wheel.

The color wheel is the basic theory from which I base my technique for setting up a palette, however actual pigment is much more complicated than the color wheel. Every color of pigment has a warm and cool shade. For my palette I use one warm and one cool shade of each of the three primary colors according to the color wheel. The pigments I use are cadmium yellow light and cadmium yellow medium, cadmium red light (or medium) and alizarin crimson, pthalo blue and Prussian blue. I use titanium white and ivory black for my black and white pigments, and burnt sienna and burnt umber for my browns. Occasionally I will yellow ochre with my browns.

Note: I’ve also had luck using a simplified palette of cadmium yellow medium, cadmium red medium and cobalt blue. It seems to be very similar to the Impressionist palette.

Having both a warm and cool shade of each pigment allows for more versatility in mixing colors. I think that mixing colors from their primaries helps to unify a painting and lends it a naturalistic feel, but it also tends to mean duller secondary colors and a good violet is very difficult to mix. For that reason I will occasionally choose pigments of secondary colors to include in my palette.

I think that this is the way to set up a palette for maximum versatility, but I think it is preferable to set up your palette based on the type of painting you want to make. I do this by taking my basic palette and eliminating those pigments I know that I do not want to use, I then have more room to add pigments within the range that I am painting in; more shades of red, or metallic pigments for example.

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Comments 5 comments

SopranoRocks profile image

SopranoRocks 4 years ago from Upper Peninsula, Michigan, USA

Would love if you embedded a photo of your personal palette into this HUB (labeled with color names?). And maybe some links to online stores that sell palettes.

I am a charcoal/pencils artist but would love to learn oils to add some color into my life and create larger more permanent pieces.

Thanks for the info!

bernie gurrey 4 years ago

great pages thanks

Jeremy Pittman profile image

Jeremy Pittman 4 years ago from walker la

Very useful information, thank you for this. My wife is a budding artist and I'm sure this will help her.

rich_hayles profile image

rich_hayles 4 years ago

I agree with SopranoRocks, a couple of links and a picture would be fantastic if you have some time to add to this hub.

Really well written and a credit to Hubpages.

nateismguru profile image

nateismguru 4 years ago from Richmond VA Author

I'll post photos as soon as I have the time.

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