What kind of painter’s palette are you using? Find out everything you need to know about how to prepare, clean and preserve a wooden palette for oil painting.
Have you ever wondered how you should treat a wooden palette before painting with it? And what’s the best way to clean a wooden palette after you’re done painting?
Keep reading, I’ll explain how to keep your hand held wooden painting palette in perfect condition for oil painting!
Table of Contents
When I first started painting in oil paints I was instructed to use a pad of disposable palette paper on which to mix my oil paints. I never really questioned this methodology and continued to use palette paper for nearly the next two decades. It seemed to be a convenient way to mix paint and something I just got used to. I always had a small table near my easel and mixed my paints on the table.
With the proliferation of artists sharing their techniques on the internet and via various forms of video I noticed that most professional artists used a hand held wooden palette. You know, that old looking kind of painter’s palette that has almost become the cliché form of clip-art that means “art”.
I thought that maybe giving one of these wooden painter’s palettes was worth a try. On my next trip to the art store while I was picking up some stretcher bars I ended up buying a wooden palette for around $8. It was an oval style palette measuring about 14 inches across the longest dimension. The wood felt mostly raw and if was prepared in anyway by the manufacturer it didn’t appear to be prepared in any durable way. I read up on some various ways to prepare a wooden palette for paint mixing and got to work. More about that in a moment.
The Problem With Palette Paper
Besides being a wee bit wasteful, relying on disposable palette paper has some disadvantages especially when compared to a wooden palette. For starters you can’t comfortably hold a pad of palette paper. It has to lay flat on a table. This means you’ll constantly have to turn away from your painting to mix your colors and reload your paint brushes. That turning motion, although seems short in time, will consume massive amounts of time over the course of say one year. You lose hours of actual painting time having to turn and reach. A wooden painter’s palette brings all your paints right to your hands. It moves where you go!
Once you get used to a wooden palette using palette paper gets really annoying. Having colors right near my brushes saves so much time and has become so much more comfortable!
Preparing a Wooden Palette for Painting
You can use a raw, untreated wooden palette for painting but you won’t like it very much. The oils from your oil paints will seep into the wood and dry your paints out. It will also be harder to scoop up the paint blobs with your palette knife. This would get better with time as the wood soaks up the linseed oil from your paints and builds up its own layer of a pseudo-varnish, patina-like sort of finish.
I recommend preparing your new, untreated wooden palette before you start mixing paint on it. There’s 2 general routes you can take:
- Hard Varnish Treatment
- Oil Treatment
I’ve tried preparing a wooden palette using both methods and although I think the linseed oil treatment is far superior I’ll cover both techniques.
Hard Varnish Treatment of Wooden Palette
Any varnish type of material that will not conflict with your oil paints will suffice. Note that this must be a varnish that will not dissolve with your painting mediums or solvents as well. Wood lacquer, which can be found in any hardware store is a fast and inexpensive way to seal your wooden palette. Note that lacquer contains extremely noxious fumes and should be used in an extremely well ventilated area.
Apply lacquer to your wooden painter’s palette with a brush in an extremely light layer. Let it dry for a few hours and add an additional coat. In between coats you can sand out any bumps that may form or become apparent. Two or three coats will give you an ultra-smooth palette that can be used to mix oil paints in 24 hours or less. Your palette will look like a fresh ice skating rink; my is it shiny!
Please note that although the lacquer has dried it has not changed it’s chemical state like dried paint or dried oil will. The lacquered surface can be re-wetted with lacquer thinner. Don’t use lacquer thinner to clean your wooden palette if it has been prepared with lacquer; rather use mineral spirits or your regular painting solvent of choice to clean your palette. Lacquer thinner will remove your lacquered finish. Yikes…all that hard work right down the drain!
Oil Treatment of Wooden Palette (preferred)
Treating your brand new wooden palette with oil is my preferred method for preparing it. While this method takes longer to get your artist’s palette ready I think it’s well worth the wait. To prepare the raw wood of the palette you’ll need some boiled linseed oil, the inexpensive kind you can find at any hardware store in the metal pint can.
Lightly sand the palette’s surface to remove any bumps and to open up the wood grain; this will make it absorb the oils more efficiently. Dip a rag into the boiled linseed oil and wipe the oil completely over the top of the palette’s surface (the surface you’ll be using for oil paint mixing). Let the oil soak into the wood for 30-60 minutes. Then use a clean rag and wipe off all excess linseed oil from the palette.
After letting the wood palette dry overnight you can repeat this process of lightly sanding (not too much now), reapplying boiled linseed oil, and wiping off the excess oil. Three coats will take you three days to complete but the finish on the palette is amazing. You’ll have a beautiful looking palette that most importantly works really well. The dried linseed oil will prevent your oil paints from absorbing into the raw wood unlike when the palette was new and untreated.
Varnish vs. Oil
Although the varnish method of preparing a wooden palette takes far less time I find its surface to be a little bit hard for my taste. I like the soft feel that the palette treated with boiled linseed oil has to offer. Once dried the linseed oil is quite resistant to most solvents…even lacquer thinner.
How To Clean a Wooden Palette
The secret to keeping any palette clean is not to let paint dry on it. Fortunately oil paints take quite some time to really harden up so even if left overnight you won’t have too hard of a time removing most of the paint.
Here’s how I clean my wooden palette after painting:
- I scrape off as much paint as I can with the side of my palette knife.
- Next I use a baby wipe or two to remove any paint residue that has been left. It’s amazing how good baby wipes are at picking up oil paint! They have become my secret cleanup weapon!
- Finally I use a paper towel or clean rag to wipe off any residue that the baby wipes have left on the wooden palette.
Once in a great while I will use some mineral spirits on the palette if I feel that there is some newly dried paint that is being stubborn.
Caring For Your Wooden Palette
Aside from the cleaning instructions described above your newly treated wooden palette should be good for many years. The palette will slowly attain a painted patina but this in my opinion makes the palette work even better. You’ll begin to see a hazy version of where you put each color of paint. It actually helps you stay consistent with your palette’s setup. It also looks really cool, like you’re an old master painting wizard!
Avoid scraping down your wooden palette with anything sharp. I cannot stress this enough. The side of your palette knife is as sharp as you should allow. You’ll hear so many artists talking about how they use a razor or a window scraper to remove paint from their palettes. This method of cleaning a palette works well on a glass palette but is disastrous on a hand held wooden palette. Don’t be tempted. You’ll slice through your palette’s finish, nick the wood and create annoying slices and chips in your palette. Now you have a palette that used to be smooth and now it isn’t.
A while back I put together a video depicting the steps involved when treating a wooden palette with boiled linseed oil.
Hopefully I’ve inspired you to at least try a handheld wooden palette for a couple of paintings. Sometimes old habits die hard but when they do sometimes we are much better off 🙂