Is This The Perfect Travel Watercolor Palette?

travel watercolor palette

This is a photo of my first ever watercolor palette:

my first palette

I found this in a tiny art store in my home town of Coventry. It was thanks to this that I first discovered watercolor painting.

(The art shop doesn’t exist anymore… It was in a street called “Spon Street” full of medieval buildings that survived the bombing raids of the 1940’s… I loved going there to buy new pencils and art supplies).

Even though I cherished this little palette, looking back it probably wasn’t the best choice 😕

Today I want to show you what I think is the best travel palette for watercolors… and I’ll explain my reasons why.

Choosing a travel palette for watercolors

The main drawbacks with tiny palettes like the one above are as follows:

  • The mixing surface is tiny
  • The palette came with a pre-selected choice of paint colors
  • It uses tiny half pans that make it difficult to pick up paint.

And all of these limitations can affect the way you paint…

A good palette provides a place to store paints and protect them from dust. It should be practical to use, and have a decent mixing area for making good-sized paint puddles 🙂

I also recommend you buy an empty palette so you can fill it with your own choice of paints

And so… This is type of mixing palette I would suggest you use:

travel palette recommendation

This is a Holbein aluminum folding palette

I actually bought this palette a while ago, and then completely forgot about it!

It was only recently when I started thinking about my travel palette setup that I found this in the bottom of a drawer 🙂

I’ll show you how I set this up in a minute, but first let me tell you why I think this is a good choice…

1. You only need a limited color palette

There are lots of different versions of the Holbein palette with different numbers of paint wells. But as you can see, the version that I chose only holds 13 paint colors – which is plenty! 

If you choose your paints correctly you only need a limited range of colors to mix just about any color you want

I think using a limited color palette is an advantage – it makes color mixing less confusing and you’ll learn about the properties of your paints quicker…

2. Built in wells vs. pans

You may have noticed that this palette features built-in paint wells rather than the empty compartments or slots designed to hold individual plastic paint pans.

With this design, you don’t need to buy or fill watercolor pans. Instead, you can simply squeeze paint directly from the tube into the wells.

I love this for a couple of reasons!

Firstly, I’m not a fan of watercolor pans! And I find half-pans even worse… They’re just too small to fit a medium-sized brush for picking up paint effectively.

Secondly, filling your own watercolor pans can be tedious! It often requires filling the pans in stages, allowing the paint to dry between layers. The cake of paint contracts as the moisture evaporates and sometimes they end up falling out of the pan!

The ready-to-use paint wells in the Holbein palette avoid these issues. You can squeeze tubes of color directly into the wells and forget about them.

I like quick and simple solutions, so that suits me fine 🙂

Additionally, the wells are open on one side, allowing you to lay your brush in the paint more easily than with a closed pan.

3. Large mixing surface

As you know… watercolor painting relies heavily on the use of water. To work effectively in this medium, you need to create fairly large puddles of paint. If the mixing surface is too small, you can’t mix up a decent quantity of paint, and you’ll be forced to repeatedly remix new puddles.

Another benefit of Holbein-style palettes is its large mixing wells. The mixing surface is generous compared to some other folding palettes. There are 3 good-sized mixing compartments next to the paint wells, and the whole of the lid doubles as a mixing surface 🙂

benefits of the holbein travel palette

How to prep a watercolor palette to prevent beading (breaking-in)

I’m going to show you how I set up this new palette. But first…

One of the challenges with new mixing surfaces is something known as “beading”. This is where watercolors form droplets or “beads” instead of spreading out evenly, making it challenging to mix colors properly. The new shiny surface is “hydrophobic”, meaning it repels water.

The Holbein palette is made out of enameled metal, but the same problem occurs with plastic. Over time, palettes will break-in and become less water repellent – but who has the time for that?

The best way to fix this is to rough up the surface beforehand. This can be done using something slightly abrasive like a magic eraser. 

(Some people also use baking soda mixed with a little water, or even toothpaste!)

scuff up the palette to prevent beading

However, don’t use anything too abrasive like sandpaper – this will create deeper scratches that can cause staining.

Here you can see the difference this makes to the spread of the mixing puddles before after roughing up the surface:

how to prevent a watercolor palette from beading

The paint colors in my palette.

The colors I chose for this palette are as follows:

  1. Paynes gray – Pigment number: Pb29+PBk9
  2. Burnt umber – Pigment number: PBr7
  3. Burnt sienna – Pigment number: PBr7
  4. Quinacridone rose – Pigment number: PV19
  5. Pyrrol scarlet – Pigment number: PR255
  6. Raw sienna – Pigment number: PBr7
  7. Hansa Yellow Deep – Pigment number: PY65
  8. Lemon yellow – Pigment number: PY175
  9. Phthalo Green Yellow Shade – Pigment number: PG36
  10. Cobal Teal Blue – Pigment number: PG50
  11. Phthalo blue Green Shade – Pigment number: PB15:3
  12. French ultramarine – Pigment number: PB29
  13. Ultramarine Violet – Pigment number: PV15

These are all Daniel Smith paints, and with the exception of Payne’s gray they are all single pigment paints.

My objective with this palette was to have a selection of paints that are high in chroma (in other words brightly saturated) and to cover a large range of hues.

You can see on this color map taken from my “Successful Color Mixing” course, these paints give me a good distribution of hues for the whole color spectrum. In other words I can achieve a large “gamut” of mixing possibilities…

gamut of paint color choices

These paint choices are an extension of the “split primary palette” (including a warm and cool version of each primary color) and the “secondary palette” (which includes secondary colors like green and purple to expand the chromatic range of the palette).

I’ve also included some convenience neutral hues like grays and browns 

Setting up the travel palette

Like many artists, I arrange my paints in a logical sequence, grouping similar colors together according to the spectrum. 

Most folks refer to this as “ROYGBIV” ! for red – orange – yellow – green – blue – indigo – violet – the acronym for remembering the sequence of hues that make up the color spectrum.

Using the color map as a guide, you can see I started with gray and neutral brown colors then worked my way clockwise around the color circle, pigment by pigment, ending with purple. 

sequence of the color arrangement

This gives me the following setup:

travel watercolor palette setup

Now simply squeeze the paints into the palette in the order you want and wait for them to dry 🙂

I find it’s best to leave tube paint to dry because dipping your brush into fresh paint uses a lot of pigment and can be wasteful. They won’t lose any of their properties once dry, and all you need to do is reactivate them with a little water before each painting session…

What’s your preferred palette?

I’m setting up this Holbein aluminum folding palette for travel, but it can easily serve as your home painting palette too!

Here’s why I like this palette so much

  • It’s portable! Take it anywhere…or store when not in use.
  • No fiddly pans: Fill it with tubes, which I find better value.
  • Choose your own colors: Customize your palette with your favorite paints.
  • Big mixing surface: Ample space to create large paint puddles.

So what’s your favorite paint palette? Let me know in the comments below 🙂

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  1. Thank you for sharing these tips!
    I am using a copy of Mijello’s blue palette for up to 18 paints.
    Yet, I haven’t filled all of them, which gives me a space to experiment with new paints. I fell in love with the big mixing surface immediately.
    However, I am also a fan of tiny metal palettes, which are perfect for plain air and may be more attractive due to cuteness. I shall keep in mind that I don’t paint big, therefore my brushes are not too big for these tiny pans of paint as well!

  2. Find all your articles so helpful and easy to read. As a beginner THANKYOU for the time you spend helping us on our painting journey 🇦🇺 Cheers Helen

  3. I appreciate how you explained the advantages of wells over pans, particularly how larger wells allow for more effective use of a medium-sized brush. Your article was thoroughly enjoyable and informative.

    I’ve always been dissatisfied with the color sets in premade watercolor pan sets I would buy, so your detailed color palette was incredibly helpful. Next time I visit the art store, I’ll be sure to bring your color list and give it a try. Thank you!

    1. Great article! I just bought a Holbein with 24 wells (they were out of the 13 well version) and suspect I’ll like it better than my ceramic meeden with 14 wells some of which are too small to use effectively. Thank you for this great article!!

  4. I began my palette adventure using household crockery. Then on to those plastic circular thingies. I liked them because I could slide into a ZipLock to keep the paints moist, but they didn’t have enough surface to mix on. Now I use a plastic version of your aluminum palette and am content – for now.

  5. This was so timely! I just tried to make this decision yesterday. The most important thing you said (for me) is this small palette will allow me to learn the mixing properties of my paints!

    I’m off to the art store.

    Tgss as nj yoy.

  6. Thank you so much for this article. All the information was so helpful. You are such a good teacher!

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