A great oil painting palette will greatly help your painting process and a lousy one can spell disaster! My favorite oil painting palette by far is the grey paper disposable palette by Richeson. However, there are so many options, I’ll spell out the differences and options for you to help you decide which one meets your needs and preferences best.
Kinds of Palettes
Unlike other mediums, oil paint allows you to premix strings of paint families into value strings. What a time saver! What a great way to get the color you need accurately and in the right value before you dive into painting! You’ll need a large palette for this though. Those cute little watercolor palettes with tiny wells just won’t be helpful with oil paints.
You’ll also need something non-absorbant so that the palette does not draw the carrier oil out of the paint.
Another consideration is strength. You don’t want to deal with buckling of your palette with a load of oil paint on it!
Tempered Glass Palettes
Tempered glass is highly favored by many professional oil painters for several reasons. The super-smooth surface is ideal for palette knife mixing of colors and makes a very fast clean up with a razor scraper at the end of each painting session. Some serious artists have an entire table top covered in tempered glass so that they can mix up large volumes of paint and still have a ton of mixing area.
Not designed to be portable, these palettes below are nevertheless quite durable and tempered for safety. This brand is available in clear or with a grey or white underside. The addition of plastic bumpers on the corners is a great safety feature as well as providing a good grip on your table surface. Available in several sizes.
If I had a large studio with dedicated painting space, I would recommend a tempered glass palette laid over a grey surface (paper or paint) over all other palette options. Alas, my issue is lack of dedicated studio space.
NewWave Posh Tempered Glass Palette
Coated Paper Palettes
Coated Paper palettes are ideal for my style of oil painting because I like a neat and tidy palette and one that I can wad up and toss into the garbage at the end of each day. I don’t have to worry about little fingers dipping into my mixes while I’m off cooking dinner and I don’t have to worry about taking ten minutes out of my day (or more) to clean my palette for the next painting session.
If you are a paint miser like moi, then you may prefer a larger mixing area and a small parent color area. Paper palettes are perfect for this. It’s also easy to use one sheet per color family, which will help keep your colors clean and mud-free.
By far my preferred palette is a disposable artist palette packet. It keeps my studio mess-free and helps me reset a clean start every time I sit down to the easel. This brand is my go-to favorite. It is heavy enough not to curl, just the right value of grey and has no thumb hole or hand hole.
I prefer the grey toned paper palettes in a square format with no thumb or hand hole:
There are lots of other brands out there, so shop around!
Butcher Freezer Paper
If you prefer a real budget option, just use freezer paper! It is nearly as good as the disposable artist palette papers (not as thick or durable though). The added bonus is that you can cut it to any length! I like to wrap it around my table top and tape it down underneath. I also cut small pieces into portable shapes and tote them along in my artist tote.
The downside to consider is that it is curly. You can reverse roll a piece, but it will wrinkle, which makes it annoying. Still, budget may win out for you!
Coated Paper Plates
If you have a bunch of these around the house, they may be a good option for painting small areas. They have all the advantages of being disposable and you can use several at a time – one for each major color grouping- which will help keep your colors clean. Who knew??!
Just make sure you don’t use uncoated paper plates. Those will soak up the oil in your paints and erase any advantage of using oil paints in the first place. Also finding paper plates without a color design on them is more difficult and the curved edges may be annoying to use.
Probably the easiest to find in the market are plastic palettes. The clear ones are problematic because you can see right through them and whatever you are looking at underneath is going to interfere with your ability to mix and discern colors. Of course, you can solve that issue by leaving the palette on your table top. In addition, light is going to reflect off the surface easily and create glare for your eyes. Not so good!
Plastic is going to scratch uber easy. If you use a palette knife to mix your paint, kiss goodbye that smooth surface. Plastic palettes are more suited to watercolor paints or gouache and I really can’t recommend them for oil painting.
Wood palettes are a very traditional choice and many artists prefer to use them over all other options. Wood palettes can run the gamut of fist-sized to mega-sized.
Wood palettes need to be conditioned before their first use to seal the surface a bit and help the clean-up at the end of each painting session. Soak a paper towel with linseed oil and rub the new palette down. Let it sit for a few minutes then wipe any leftovers off.
An advantage of using a wooden palette is that it is sturdy enough to support cups of medium clamped onto the edge of your palette like this:
Another advantage is that you can reuse the palette indefinitely. It requires scraping and cleaning after each session though, or you end up with a real mess like this:
Of course, oil paints won’t dry overnight in most cases, so you can revisit your painting the next day and continue right on with your colors that you previously set out or mixed. THAT is amazing and a deal changer for some painters.
That can lead to one jumbled-up palette though, with so many colors in so many mixes that it becomes a roadblock to locating the right color on the palette, or worse, interfering with your ability to color mix going forward.
Just take a look at this palette. Hunting around for that perfect shade of green you mixed half an hour ago is an exercise in patience and frustration with a crowded palette.
Many artists prefer working this way, leaving dried oil paint up to three inches high on their palettes. SHEESH! That would drive me completely bonkers. It reduces your color mixing area dramatically and looks out of control, in my opinion.
When I use a wood palette, I need to scrape that day’s globs of paint off the palette and then wipe off the remaining paint with turpentine or OMS soaked paper towel to get back to a naked surface for the next day.
If you adore the lure of a wooden palette, then look for a wood palette with a comfortable hand grip and with a thumb hole.
AND make sure you buy one intended for right or left hand use!
This one is large enough at 11 x 19 inches to give you room to work, but easy on the budget:
Here’s the thing with inexpensive wood palettes: they hurt. After an hour or so of painting, the hand and thumb hole start irritating my hand. I suppose you could wear a glove to protect your hand, but I think there are much better options out there.
If you prefer to hold a smaller palette, consider using this set of 12 palettes sized 8 x 12 inches. Having one palette set aside for each major color family will really help your paint mixes to not get the dreaded ‘mud’ look.
If I am going to paint a portrait or a large painting, I will use a very large palette like this one so that I have a large mixing area and can lay out as many colors from the tube as I think I’ll need in one go:
Storage is the big issue with my largest wood palette. It stays behind a large piece of furniture when not in use, so it is impractical for my frequent use.
This wooden palette is ideal for painters who paint for longer stretches of time because the thumb hole and hand grip areas are ergonomically designed for comfort without losing a large mixing area. The lower curved edges are cut to fit into your body torso and keep your mixing area to the side of your body a bit. Made of fine-grained white maple, this palette will last generations.
A large wood palette also lets me step back from the easel and take in a bigger picture while taking my paints with me. It saves a step of looking down at your palette and then looking up at your painting surface.
This palette is a wonderful addition to the marketplace! The hand and thumb hole openings have been padded with a silicone-like padding for heavy use. I know my hand and thumb get terribly irritated by the typical openings in most wood palettes. The New Wave solves those issues nicely while leaving enough room so that you can grasp the palette and several paintbrushes or a mahl stick simultaneously.
Colored a neutral grey, the palettes make it much easier to judge color values and hues than a white or clear palette. Extremely lightweight, these palettes are chip-proof, crack-proof and safe to put in the freezer!
Available for right-hand or left-hand users, they come in three different shapes and several sizes.
Make your own palette
Nothing is written in stone that you must buy a wooden palette if you have wood around your house! Even thin plywood can be used as a palette if you sand it well and seal it with linseed oil. I think you would be less than pleased with a raised grain palette though, so stick with a smooth-grained wood like birch or maple.
In a pinch, lots of surfaces can substitute for a palette. Here, someone is using a sheet of acetate as a temporary palette. It’s flimsy though, and I’m not sure how archival this is. Perhaps the paints would react to the acetate negatively. If you are just doing a sketch and you run out of disposable palette paper, then why not give it a try until you can get to the store, or get a delivery!
This fellow here is using an office page protector as a palette. It’s going to wrinkle and be very unsturdy to mix paint on:
MASTERSON ART PRODUCTS MAS100 Artist Palette Seal 16X12
This clever invention allows you to place your chosen palette within the box and seal the whole thing up with a tight fitting lid. This lets you preserve your oil paint and mixes for a long time – even letting your place palette in your freezer for a very long time. I do own one of these, but I only use it for acrylic painting, as I only squeeze out a small amount of paint at a time and can easily remix any color that I want.
If color mixing is a challenge for you, OR you get a little heavy-handed with your paint squeezing, this is a great option! Please note, this is not a palette, it is a palette preservation box.