Monday, August 16, 2010

Porcelain Enamel is King!

         Today I want to show you my choice for a watercolor palette.  I am constantly queried at art shows about materials, paper, studio equipment and the like.  After teaching workshops for the past few years, I see a recurring problem with watercolor palettes.
     Palettes fall into several categories, and in my opinion they all work against you, save one.  When you arrive at the art store, your choices regarding palette options are even more limited. 
     So my first suggestion is to order Dick Blick’s master catalog.  This gives you the widest range of materials to choose from.  Watercolor palettes generally fall into three categories:  plastic, porcelain heavy weights, and the butcher’s tray.
     Plastic palettes will generally be molded versions of the same basic thing:  paint wells surrounding a larger flat mixing area.  Some have tops that seal, some fold, others are round, and still others imitate an oil painter’s thumbhole palette, but are designed for watercolor.  All are totally useless.  The design of the plastic palettes, though restrictive, isn’t the worst of their problems for the artist.
    The main downfall, for me, is the difficulty they present when it’s time to clean.  Some watercolor paints will pop right off the plastic as they dry and harden.  However, most of the cadmiums and ultramarine blue won’t be so quick to leave.  The nature of these paints require scraping to remove the old paint.  I prefer to use a one-inch putty knife to remove the bulk of the paint.  But the putty knife will cut into the plastic’s top layers in no time.  The time and effort it takes to clean plastic palettes scratches them off my list.
     The second choice for palettes is the heavy porcelain container types.  These are easier to clean, but I think due to production costs, they are always small.  The configuration changes regarding well design, but they are all around 8–10 inches and have small mixing areas.  This why I reject them for the serious painter.

     This leaves my friend, the lowly butcher’s tray.  A butcher’s tray consists of a metal tray painted with porcelained enamel.
     The sizes vary, but I prefer the 11x15 inch tray.  Blick sells this tray for less than $15.  Mine is over 15 years old and is cleaned at least once per day.  The 11x15 size gives you plenty of room for mixing.  
    The tray is convex in shape so excess water tends to move to the edges.  You will love this palette after fighting with the other two.  Here’s how I clean my palette after a day of painting:


First, take a plastic scouring pad (I buy mine at the Dollar Store)) and scrub all the loose paint with water. 

Now take the putty knife and scrape all the remaining paint daubs off the porcelain.
     One more round with the scouring pad and you’re done.  Total clean up time is 3-5 minutes tops!

     My water container is also porcelain enamel.  It’s an 8x14 inch roasting pan that belonged to my grandmother; same easy clean-up and lifetime durability. 
     The water container will get paint build-up over time.  I use a little CLR (a lime-dissolving chemical at Wal-Mart) to soak the pan, and then clean with the pot scrubber.
    Here’s the two clean pair ready for a new day’s worth of painting.  Now that we have a clean palette, it’s time to apply some paint.  Tomorrow I will show you my preferred color choices for my palette.  Good luck and see you tomorrow.

All content and photos © Mark Kohler Studio.


  1. thanks for the info on the palletes. i use the plastic ones and they are hard to clean. i was in san antonio this weekend and was at a mom and pop art store and i saw the pallete you use for ten bucks. should have bought it but decided to get paper instead. next time. appreciate all the info you provide

    luis garcia
    mission, tx

  2. Glad you can use the info. This art business is full of choices and I just pass on what works best for me.