How to Set Up an Oil Painting Palette

You can make a complete mess of your oil painting palette, or you can set it up the smart way.

oil painting palette

Nothing is worse than being really into your painting only to discover your palette has left a trail of oil paint all over you, your space, and pretty much everything within a 5′ radius.  But if you set up your oil painting palette the smart way, it minimizes mess while maximizing painting time.

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Before You Start

If you are using a brand new palette, you need to prime it by adding thin coast of oil to both sides and allowing it to soak into the raw wood. Make sure you never leave an oil-soaked rag lying around as it can spontaneously combust!

If you add paint onto an unprepared palette, it will leave colored stains. When you build up a nice patina of oil on your palette, it creates a desirable mixing surface. Learn how to safely prep a palette. 

Know Where the Paint Goes

First, make sure that when you place paint on your palette that you place it on the outside edge. This may seem counterintuitive because it feels safer when our paint is in the middle.

But to use a palette most effectively, you also need space to mix your colors. And the more space, the better when it comes to keeping you in a steady work flow. Without enough space to mix, you have to interrupt your painting session to make a clean mixing spot on your palette.

This is why artists place their paint on the outside edge of the palette, as it maximizes the amount of real estate for mixing their colors on the interior. See the illustration below.

how to mix oil paint

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Organize Colors Light to Dark

The next most important step when setting up your palette is to make sure you place your paint on the outside edge in the correct order.

If you place light colors directly next to dark colors, you are more likely to pollute the colors. If instead, you keep your light colors as far away as possible from your dark colors, you are less prone to cross-contamination.

oil painting palette

New to Oil Painting? Use These Colors.

If you aren’t sure which colors to put on your oil painting palette, fear not! Here is a handy guide for a basic color palette that can help you tackle most painting challenges.

Ivory Black

Ultramarine Blue

Viridian Green

Cadmium Red Light

Cadmium Yellow

Titanium White

I hope you now have confidence on how to set up an oil painting palette that minimizes mess and maximizes painting time.

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What do you think about this method of palette prep? Do you do it differently? Let me know in the comments below.

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One Comment

  1. Can you talk about how you would lay out your mixtures when you’re mixing on three or four axes (everything but a little yellower, all of the above but a little bluer, all of the above but a little greyer) e.g. in creating skin tones?


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