How to Make a Wet Palette
(and Why You Should Bother)
Over the course of more than two decades of painting miniatures, I've used all kinds of palettes - dishes with little wells, pieces of porcelain tile, old CDs, waxed paper, water-color paper and they all have the same issue: the paint dries out rather quickly. Despite significantly thinning my paint with water and even using additives like Slow-Dri (a fluid retarder by Liquitex), I would invariably end up with a lot of little chips of dried paint on whatever palette I was using and need to get more paint from the pot again and again and again. The working time was just too short for my (admittedly glacial) painting speed.
I was introduced to the wet palette in Jeremie Bonamont's painting class back in the summer of 2007. I was converted in minutes. It worked better than anything else I'd ever tried and I've never gone back. What's the big deal? Put simply, the wet palette keeps your paint wet. It's a suspiciously basic concept, but I've never seen it executed so well. The paint absorbs water from the parchment paper which in turn absorbs water from the paper towel or sponge beneath it. The moisture you're constantly losing to evaporation is immediately and automatically replaced. It's not infinite of course; the palette will dry up eventually. But under normal conditions, a wet palette allows me at least an hour of working time with any single dab of paint, which is significantly more time than I had, even with Slow-Dri.
There are a number of wet palettes commercially available, but the few I've tried worked no better than this home-made one and cost a significantly more. Some of them actually close and seal, the idea being that you can trap the moisture and store the mixed paint until later. I've never found that to be necessary myself, but if that sounds useful to you by all means purchase one. Before you spend the money though, I'd highly recommend trying a DIY version to see if it fits your painting style.
You'll need just four things to make a wet palette at home.
- Baker's Parchment Paper. This is the most important component. As far as I can tell the brand is irrelevant, but it must be parchment paper - not waxed paper or butcher's paper or something else, parchment paper. The 30 sq ft. roll of Reynolds Parchment Paper I bought at the grocery store cost less than $5 and I may never need a second roll.
- Paper Towel or Sponge. This will hold the water and provide a reservoir for the parchment paper. I prefer a piece of paper towel folded in half to double the thickness (and thus water retention). Even fine sponges have more little voids in them than a paper towel, and those voids keep the water from flowing up to the parchment paper, so the paper seems to dry out faster. On the other hand, sponges are reusable. On yet another hand, sponges need to be washed occasionally to avoid a musty smell.
- Plastic Tray or Plate. This will hold the wet towel or sponge, so it needs to be non-absorbent. My example uses part of a thin plastic box, but a small plastic plate, a piece of Tupperware, or even part of a blister pack or clam-shell packaging from a miniature works equally well. Whatever you use should have at least a small lip so that if you pour more water than your paper towel or sponge can hold (which will probably happen sooner or later), it won't spill all over your painting table.
- Water. Whatever kind of water you're using to thin your acrylic paints - tap, bottled, distilled, holy…
Cut appropriately-sized pieces of paper towel and parchment paper. I prefer to work small so my example is only a few square inches. If you work on a lot of miniatures at a time or like to have lots of colors on the go at once, you'll want to use a larger tray and larger pieces of paper to make a larger wet palette. You'll want to make sure both the paper towel and parchment paper are small enough to lay flat in your tray. If either is too large, they won't have uniform contact and the wet palette won't work as well.
Place the paper towel on the tray and add water. You'll want to thoroughly saturate the paper towel. It's hard to pour too much. As long as your paper towel isn't floating away, a little extra water is fine.
Place the parchment paper on the saturated paper towel. It will immediately start to absorb water from the towel and as it does, it will curl up and then gradually flatten out again. Just let it do its thing until the paper stops moving.
Smooth out the parchment paper. Using the tip of a finger, flatten the parchment paper as much as possible. This will allow it to absorb the maximum amount of water from the towel. The white spots in the photo below are bubbles under the parchment paper. These will prevent the water from flowing up into the paper properly, so you'll will want to push them toward the edge of the paper to get rid of them. Also, you can see the corners are still a bit curled up, so…
Flip the parchment paper over. Pick up only the parchment paper; just peel it off the paper towel, turn it over, and put it back down. Smooth out any wrinkles or bubbles. This will ensure the paper is saturated and will lie as flat as possible. Note there are fewer bubbles now that it's been flipped over and smoothed out. The wet palette is ready for paint.
It may be worth noting that the parchment paper is the working surface of the wet palette. Avoid getting paint on the paper towel or tray. It's not really a problem per se; it's just messy and not especially useful.
As I mentioned before, the wet palette will greatly extend the working life of your paint, but it will eventually dry out. You can extend the viability of the palette components by adding a bit more water when you notice the parchment paper or towel starting to dry out. I typically pour a bit of water onto the tray next to the paper towel and let the towel absorb as much water as it can.
Once the parchment paper is covered in paint, it can be replaced with another piece or flipped over again to use the other side. I tend not to use the other side of the paper because once a side is coated with acrylic paint, the paper just doesn't transfer water as well.
Hopefully this will encourage you to give a wet palette a try. If you have any suggestions to improve this article, feel free to email me.