The Salmagundi Club in Manhattan has a unique collection. Numerous palettes of artists from the past adorn the walls above the library bookcases. The club features the largest palette collection in the world.
I remember how thrilled I was when I spotted the palette of my teacher's teacher, Frank Vincent DuMond. Seeing his old oil palette and imagining him working on it made me feel a connection to another era. The experience was especially meaningful, because I have been influenced by his landscape green mixtures and his prismatic palette of colors. Of course, the crown jewel of the club's collection is George Inness' palette. Prominently displayed along with some of his brushes, it is an exciting addition to the collection.
I have always thought artists' palettes would make a great subject for a coffee table book. Each palette looks like a work of art with piles of dried paint along the sides. Some colors are distinguishable and others are not, due to oxidation of the paint. The patina in the mixing area shows obvious wear and tear and offers a topography of the artist's approach. All of them make you wonder about the working artists, which is a different experience than looking at their paintings.
A watercolor palette is very different from an oil palette, which is made of wood or Masonite. It usually has a smooth, white surface. Since the paint is transparent you would not be able to see your color mixtures if the palette were a darker color. Watercolor palettes also have wells for moist paint or slots for dry "pans" of color, which can be inserted and removed when empty.
During the 1800s, "Jappaned" tins were favored by the Victorian watercolorists. "Jappaned" refers to the lacquered finish of the surface. They were small, compact and great for travel. Back then, watercolor was considered to be a sketching medium, so it was a convenient choice for artists who didn't want to be bothered with the hassle of oils while painting on location. The Shilling Color Box was a popular palette of that era - over eleven million were sold between 1853 and 1870! There are photographs of John Singer Sargent using this type of palette as he sketched outdoors.
Most watercolor palettes today are made from molded plastic and are named after the artist who designed them. Two popular ones are the John Pike Palette and the Robert E. Wood Palette. I have used both but, prefer the Robert E. Wood palette because it has four divided mixing areas. I use about twenty four colors, so I need a palette with as many wells as the Wood palette has. It also fits into the drawer of a full French Easel, which I use when I paint on location. What I dislike is that the plastic is flimsy and breaks apart easily. The Pike Palette is made from a better plastic but the wells are shallow and fewer in number.
Ceramic palettes are too small and fragile for my use. In the past, I used the Holbein-type trays which resemble the "Jappened" tins of the past. Now and then, I've tried using them, but the mixing area is too small for my purposes. In addition, they're expensive. Most recently, a student suggested the Minshin Art No. 735 watercolor aluminum palette. It's an inexpensive alternative to the standard Holbein palette.
In the studio, I prefer to paint on enamel butcher trays. They're rectangular, and have a large area for mixing. I use several: one for my reds, a second for my cooler colors, a third for greens, and a fourth for general mixing. They feel arty and inspiring to work on.
How many colors do you use when painting? How large a mixing area is comfortable for you? When choosing a palette for yourself, consider your needs.