Monday, November 01, 2010

From the Desk: Palettes

In what may turn into a weekly sort of review post for me, I'd like to share my thoughts on porcelain palettes. For all of you that have very strong opinions about whatever you happen to believe is the best thing, I have nothing against it. Everyone has their own preferences for palettes, even among the top painters. Jeremie Bonamant swears by a home-made wet palette, Laszlo Jakusovszky uses porcelain spot plates, and Mike McVey reportedly used leftover pieces of plasticard. I've personally used all 3 (and some others), and keep coming back to porcelain palettes. So, let me share a little more about my experience.

First a touch of science, although not too much science. Porcelain is essentially, clay that is fired to fix its shape, and in the process forms some amount of glass. There are many varieties of porcelain, but for the purposes of paint palettes, they are fired at high temperatures and the formation of glass is part of what makes them impermeable to liquids. This makes them idea for using with acrylic paints. Acrylic paints (GW, P3, Vallejo, etc) are basically plastic polymers in a liquid suspension. When the suspension dries, it leaves the polymers deposited on the surface and they form into a hard(er) material. The suspension allows the polymer to easily form to the surface it is being deposited on. This polymer can however lose adhesion to its surface when too much moisture is applied (depending on the particular acrylic paint formula).

What does that have to do with palettes you may ask? Well, the advantage of using porcelain palettes is that the glassy surface makes for less surface texture for the paint to adhere to. I used to use a plastic palette and was always frustrated with trying to clean it. Well duh, the plastic has a zillion irregularities (seriously, I counted them one day) for the paint to adhere to, making it really hard to clean. Furthermore, if I didn't clean it thoroughly, further usage could result in small flakes of previously dried paint in the well to come lose and then show up in my brush or on my model. Porcelain palettes make that much easier to deal with...

To clean my palettes, I simply submerge them in water overnight and then the next day I can easily wipe out all the paint with very little effort. Now strictly speaking it doesn't take overnight to loosen up the paint, but I've got about half a dozen various palettes that I use, so having 2-3 soaking and out of action is no big deal so I'm lazy about it. The porcelain comes clean every time and dries easily. This defining feature is exactly why I use them almost exclusively now.

So what's the downside to porcelain palettes? They cost more than the plastic/metal ones for sure. About 3 times roughly. So if you're on a tight budget you may pass them up. They are also not as readily available, so you may have to order online.
When comparing them to wet palettes, well, it's apples and oranges. Porcelain palettes won't keep your paint wet and workable for hours (or days) like wet palettes can. I certainly won't argue that point here. And depending on how much time you've spent refining your wet palette, you may have the option of not having to thin your paints directly. When I experimented with wet palettes I will admit that I liked that feature about them. I could go from pot to palette and then in seconds my paint was properly thinned to the consistency I needed for painting. However, the trade-off here is maintenance. Wet palettes require more care than traditional palettes and you have to make sure they have plenty of clean water in them, and have a steady supply of parchment paper on hand. Honestly it's just a trade off that each painted must choose for themselves.

When it comes to shapes of porcelain palettes, I have quite a variety. I have two of the traditional 7-well flower shape, one large 12-well one, two 12-well spot plates, and a few plain tiles from a hardware store.
  • 7-well Flowers - I tend to use this for making washes primarily. The well is large enough to mix up plenty of wash and experiment with the consistency as needed. I've owned these for the longest. The ones pictured above I have owned for probably 5 years now.
  • Large 12-well - I rarely use this one anymore. It's handy for jobs where I need to wet-blend a number of colors together, but that's very specialized. In general I find that it just takes up too much space on my desk being approximately 9" in diameter.
  • 12-well Spot Plates - These are getting more and more use. Laszlo turned me on to these last year at KublaCon during one of his classes. Spot plates are typically used in scientific labs. This particular one measure approximately 4"x6". The wells are fairly small which is actually good since I end up wasting less paint.
  • Ceramic Tiles - Not pictured here, I also have plain ceramic tiles used for things like kitchen backsplashes. The tiles come in a variety of sizes. I use plain white 6" square tiles. I'll use these when I want something more like a traditional artist's palette and actively mix paints together on the palette itself. I don't do this very often since the disadvantage of the tile is there's nothing to prevent the paint from just rolling right off the tile and onto my desk. Generally it behaves fine, but like the large palette, this is a more specialized use.

  • If you're still reading this already lengthy post, I'd like to just make one last remark in closing. Palettes are a tool just like paints and brushes, and should never be overlooked. Experimenting with your palette will help you learn more about how you paint. Even though I rarely use a wet palette anymore (cause it annoys me more than it helps me usually), I'm glad that I forced myself to try it out for a couple months. It helped me learn more about my own style and techniques. Hopefully some of the information here was useful for you. Until next time, paint like you have a pair!


    Rob from Painted Addiction said...

    Great post, I've been using kitchen tiles for awhile now and love them, didn't know about the Porcelain ones, which sound even better. Will add them to my Christmas wish list I think. Keep up the great blog :-)

    grumhelden said...

    Great article, I use the wet pallete made from baking paper and kitchen roll at the moment, but was thinking of getting a good pallette, the plastic ones I had are useless, and now I know why :) thanks

    Viruk said...

    Very interesting test, lots of insightful comments. I've actually never used porcelain palletes but I can now see that they can be very useful (great potential for working with washes in particular!).
    I normally use wet pallette from Privateer Press (got one a while ago) and it serves me very well. I think that I will give porcelain a shot in the future.