Choosing Your Watercolor Palette: A Complete Guide

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Navigate the plethora of palette options to watercolor at home or on-location.

There are as many watercolor palette options as there are colors. It’s limitless.

Whether you like to draw and paint out and about in the world or at home using photos, it can be difficult to navigate the many watercolor palette options out there. 

This is a guide to help you pick a palette for every situation: arranging your go-to colors, storing your entire collection, and traveling with your supplies. 

Keep reading for my favorite options with large mixing areas, portable to-go sizes, huge palettes for storage, a dedicated work surface, and a few DIY palette projects.

portable prefilled palettes
All the companies shown (and many more) sell their watercolors in pre-filled pan sets that are quite convenient and portable.

The Basics of Watercolor Palettes

You can buy watercolors in a tube or in a pan, and neither option is right or wrong

Tube watercolors can be bought individually or in sets. Many watercolors simply aren’t sold in anything but a tube, so you’ll see this option a lot. You can also place tubed watercolors into a pan to make them more portable.

Pan watercolors are frequently only sold in sets.

Pre-filled pan sets can be a convenient way to get started with watercolor sketching. The color selections are often made for an optimal range of color mixing or based on a pre-selected theme, such as landscapes. 

Their highly portable containers usually have space for a brush and a mixing area and the packaging is storage. Here are a few of my favorite pre-filled pan sets.

empty pans
Robax Well Liner (for 85-well palette) and a standard half pan

Making Your Own Pan Set

Many sketch artists have a favorite color palette that they use again and again. 

Think you’re a DIY watercolor sketcher too? To customize and make your watercolors a bit more portable, put them into pans and make your own watercolor palette. 

Pans come in full and half size, or well liners are an alternative option. The standard rectangle and square pans are easily placed in a variety of palettes. They snap into place so you can move them about freely from one system to another.

Well liners were developed for a specific brand of palette, by Robax Engineering; and they are sized depending on which of their palettes you choose. The convenience of all of them lies in the ability to move them easily around the palette and to protect the palette from staining colors.

DimensionsFull PanHalf PanPan / Well Liner
Length30 mm (1.18 in)19 mm (0.75 in)Depends on Palette
Width19 mm (0.75 in)16 mm (0.63 in)
Height10 mm (0.39 in)10 mm (0.39 in)
Capacity3.0 ml1.5 ml

So how do you choose what’s best for your situation? 

A good rule of thumb is to choose a palette with a well and/or pan size based on the paint brushes you use most often. 

Full Pan / Larger Wells or Liners

  • Favor big washes of color
  • Limited color palette
  • Large brush strokes

Half Pan / Smaller Wells or Liners

  • Detail-oriented
  • Lots of color choices
  • Smaller brush strokes

A Breakdown of Watercolor Palette Options

For the purposes of understanding sizing, a favorite travel watercolor paint brush was placed in each of the pictures below for reference. It is a Silver Brush Black Velvet #8 Round Voyage travel brush.

Palettes with Large Mixing Areas

Palettes with a large mixing area have a place for squeezing out your tube paints rather than inserting a pan. You could still place a pan into the well, but they aren’t specifically designed for this purpose.

glass palette
Mijello Bulletproof Glass Palette

Bulletproof Glass Palette

The Mijello Bulletproof Glass Palette has 4 mixing areas and 36 wells. It is extremely lightweight, durable (hence the bulletproof glass!), and folds shut. 

The palette is very easy to mix on the surface. If you use both upper and lower sides of the palette, do make sure that your paints are dry before shutting it closed, and keep it level.

Big Brush watercolor palette
Sterling Edwards’ Big Brush Watercolor Palette

Big Brush Palette

The Sterling Edwards’ Big Brush palette was designed with large wells, that are great for putting small amounts of watercolor in, straight from the tube. 

The inner ring of wells is much larger, for mixing colors in a larger quantity and applying them with a brush of up to 2 inches in size. The central area is great for mixing smaller amounts. Made of plastic, it comes with a lid.

Stephen Quiller Palettes
Stephen Quiller Palettes in ABS Plastic and Porcelain materials

Stephen Quiller Palettes

These palettes are great for organizing your paints in a split primary organization based on warm and cool color mixing. It comes in an ABS plastic or porcelain version

Porcelain can be a lovely surface for color mixing upon. Unlike plastic or metal, the colors don’t contract. They simply flow together and mix. While porcelain is a more expensive surface for a palette, it is also available in a wide variety of sizes, depending on your budget.

Small and Travel Palettes

Travel palettes are great for sketching on location and some extremely tiny and portable options have come out on the market.

Etchr Mini Palette
Etchr Mini Palette, 37-well edition

Etchr Mini Palettes

The Etchr Mini Palettes have either 37 or 19 wells in a tiny porcelain kit, with mixing tray, swatch card and a felt-lined tin. It is so small, it fits in the pocket of my jacket.

Meeden Watercolor Tin
Meeden Watercolor Tin

Meeden Watercolor Tin

A favorite portable palette for a limited palette of colors is the Meeden Watercolor Tin. Once open, the mixing area folds out to reveal the pans available inside. Both full and half pans of watercolor can be inserted and reorganized as needed.

Pocket Palette by Expeditionary Art
Pocket Palette by Expeditionary Art

Pocket Palette

Want something smaller, but just as durable? This tiny Expeditionary Art Pocket Palette is business-card sized. It has magnetic pans, with a mixing surface opposite on the lid and is available in a myriad of configurations.

Storage Palettes

If you prefer to sketch on location and watercolor at home, a Robax storage system might work better for you. They’re prized for their storage capacity as well as the vast number of palette configurations and capacities. 

Robax 95-well palette
Robax 85-well Palette with half-pans inserted

85-Well Palette

This palette holds the entire range of 83-colors of QoR watercolor paints, with two empty spaces for your favorite convenience mixes. 

The center of the palette has a mixing area, which can also hold an available ceramic mixing plate. And did I mention that it has an optional spinning base?

If 85-wells is not nearly enough, consider adding another smaller palette into the center.

41-well Robax Palette
41-well Robax Palette / Insert

41-Well Palette

This 41-well Robax palette stands alone, with its own lid, to hold my gouache colors. Since I haven’t purchased every single color of gouache that Royal Talens makes (yet), I put them into well liners, which can easily be moved to different positions in the palette. There is still a small mixing area in the middle of the palette.

Combined Robax palette
Combined Robax palette with insert to a total of 126-wells

126-Well Palette

You can combine both Robax units for a whopping 126 wells. And did I mention it has a lid? Did I mention that it has traveled in my carry-on luggage on more than one occasion? I won’t say it is portable….but I will say it is possible!

Waffle Flower Water Media Mat
Waffle Flower Water Media Mat

Palette as Work Surface

If you like to watercolor in a cafe or anywhere a table is available, a work surface that doubles as a palette could be a great solution. Here is a tool that is especially handy for social sketchers who like to film their progress. 

The Waffle Flower water media mat has a white silicon surface that was designed with neatness in mind. It is non-slip, waterproof and heat-resistant (if you are impatient and want to pull out a hair dryer or heat tool). It is not a rigid surface. It is meant to be used on a flat table. 

The white surface is non-glare and fits up to a 9 in. x 12 in. sketch in the work/mixing area. It also is perfect for video taping your progress and has marks along the border for standard social-sharing formats.

If you use small amounts of media, it dries quickly on the surface for rewetting, but this allows the surface to be rolled up and easily placed in your bag. Or simply pick it up and move to another spot to sketch.

Cathy Johnson's Watercolor Palettes

DIY Watercolor Palettes

Cathy Johnson shows you how to create your own do-it-yourself palettes with everything from refilling commercially purchased palettes to repurposing candy mint tins. It’s worth a look!

The DIY Watercolor Watch

Frans Koene created his own miniature watercolor watch to make painting easier while he’s painting outside his home. 

The Choice is Yours

So that was indeed a plethora of watercolor palettes. 

From the sublimely portable to the ridiculously large: each palette has a place in and around my home. And more often than not, I also have a few in my bag whether traveling by car or by plane, or simply sketching around town.

We have gathered many of these items in an Amazon shopping list for your convenience. Check them out and let us know what you think!

I love art supplies and when I want to know the latest toys out there, I ask my pal, Sally Lynn MacDonald. She knows everything — she’s always going to stores and trade shows, talking to manufacturers, and making loads of art with all she picks up.  Now Sally Lynn has agreed to join Sketchbook Skool as our resident expert and blog columnist so we can all learn about what to get and how to use it. 

— Danny Gregory

8 mins

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