Palettes: Wet vs Dry
It's been a while since I have written an in-depth article regarding tools of the miniature painting trade. Recently a question came up that made me think it was high time for this discussion since it seems to rarely happen.
Many of you know that I teach. When I teach, I recommend students bring dry palettes because of the core technique I teach-Two Brush Blending (2BB). It confused a few people when they saw a recent post on my Arcane Paintworks FB Page that included a shot of a wet palette. I want to give some information regarding palettes, the use they are intended for, difficulties with each palette type and how to properly use the palettes when miniature painting.
A dry palette is any typical plastic, ceramic or wooden palette that most of us think of when we think about painting. It's a palette that typically has cups to contain the paint. Sometimes the cups have flat bottoms and other times the cups have round bottoms. You always want to choose a palette that has a round bottom to the cup. The reason for this is it will keep your paint wet longer. The reason I point this out is because I see a lot of people trying to use palettes that have flat bottoms to them and their paint dries a lot faster. This is because in a flat bottomed palette the paint is spread out more evenly across a flat surface so it will dry much quicker than if it is pooled in a spherical shape. A lot of times, mistakes occur with more frequency when paint dries too quickly. Thusly, always look for a palette that has several cups with round bottoms.
Here are some examples of dry palettes:
The palette on the Right with the flat bottoms in the wells, I don't recommend. You want a palette that has rounded wells, like the other two pictured here. The paint will pool in the rounded wells and the more paint sits together in one small pile the longer it will stay wet. That means paint will spread out on flat surfaces such as the wells in the palette on the right. As the paint spreads out it dries faster.
Flower Palettes are another standby that I see recommended a lot in the painting community. Instead of being designed for painting, I believe these were designed for bead work. At least, I've seen them in more beading aisles of craft stores than I have painting aisles. At any rate, these appear to be similar to the palettes above but I still find their cups to be a bit too flat for my taste and the paint dries a lot quicker. These also tend to be more expensive especially if they are the ceramic versions.
Dry Palettes are good for techniques such as 2BB because you can control the amount of moisture that gets into the paint. The paint also will dry slower as discussed above which is what you want for 2BB so your paint has adequate working time before it dries on the mini. If it's already drying in the palette it's going to continue to do so on the mini at a more rapid pace. This is when people start to see streaks or bath tub rings on the model where they applied the dot of paint and tried to blend it out.
Even though I use dry palettes most of the time there are times I use wet palettes. As evidenced by this photo I posted last week:
So, the question I got was, "When do you use a wet palette over a dry palette?" Well, the answer for me is simple, "When I want to glaze". Glazing is a different technique than 2BB. It's a bit more precise if more fiddly. However, it's a great way to get interesting and smooth color transitions on a model. It's also what gives paint work that soft look. Glazes will always soften any blend on a model. It also helps keep the richness of color present. Even when I 2BB most of a model, I almost always finish off with glazes.
Now, wet palettes are also handy during other times. When I was in Australia in January and February, that's their summer, it was freaking HOT! I tried teaching a few classes where the paint was baking into my dry palettes.I had to use a wet palette just so I had some wet paint for more than a minute.
A wet palette is exactly what it sounds like-a palette that is wet! The one pictured above is the Masterson's Sta-Wet Handy Palette. It's a great size to paint minis as well as for travel considerations. It's not too big, about the size of A4 paper.
It's a plastic tray with lid, then a thin layer of sponge (usually the same type is found in most kitchen aisles at the supermarket though they seem harder to find in the US than overseas . . .), and then baking parchment over the sponge. The sponge should be wet with a thin layer of water glistening over the surface of the sponge.
The palette does come with a type of porous paper but for miniature paints you always want to use baking parchment. Not the paper that comes with the palette, not wax paper, but baking parchment. Here's why . . . this palette wasn't designed for miniature painters. It was designed for fine artists that use tube acrylics. These tend to be a lot thicker than the acrylic paints we use on minis. They are also water soluble and need to have some water present to keep them wet for long periods of time. The paper that comes with the palette is meant to have really thick paint sitting on top of it. Instead, miniature paint is more like a thick water color. It's more akin to gouache in terms of consistency and it will seep right through the porous paper onto the sponge and become a mess.
Baking parchment is a non stick surface but still has some traction to it. Unlike wax paper. The other issue with wax paper is that the wax can start to peel and get into the paint. Baking parchment is cheap, easy to find, and works really well. It lets the moisture from the water surround the paint on the palette without seeping into the paint directly. That is what is pictured on my palette above, a strip of parchment.
The wet palette can keep your paint wet for days when the lid is shut over it. You can also extend the life of your paint by wringing out the sponge, putting the parchment back on it with your paint on the parchment, close it up and stick it in the fridge. The moisture from the fridge and the sponge will keep the paint good for about a week in my experience.
I use both types of palettes and don't recommend one over the other in general. Both are good for different purposes. They have their uses and it's important to learn how to use everything available to you as a painter in order to be a more fulfilled, enriched and learned painter. No reason to shun one technique over another. Gotta learn 'em all!