There’s nothing like a brand new watercolor palette to give your creativity a kickstart. But the problem with a new palette is the paint tends to bead up when you mix colors on it.
How do you prevent watercolor paint from beading up on a palette? The beading will eventually go away just by using the palette. Allowing the watercolor paint to dry on the palette and cleaning it off seems to speed up the process. Using cleaners or scuffing the palette with abrasives aren’t very effective solutions.
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In the above YouTube video, I try breaking in my Mijello Fusion watercolor palette with baking soda and toothpaste.
I think the reason some artists have success with toothpaste, cleaners, or other substances they they break the surface tension of the water which helps the paint to lay flat on the palette.
I don’t like the idea of contaminating my palette with cleaners, I discuss this further in the section on using toothpaste to break in a palette.
My recommendation is to use the palette and the beading will eventually go away. In this post, I include photos of my plastic and metal palettes that I’ve been using for a while and they don’t bead up at all anymore.
So if you just bought a palette and you feel like returning it because it beads up–just hang in there. The beading will go away and you will enjoy using it. I’ve broken in a number of watercolor palettes and they all make the watercolor paint bead up in the beginning.
Porcelain palettes don’t seem to have this problem, it happens more with metal and plastic ones.
Round Porcelain Palettes
from: Blick Art Materials
Why Beading Is a Problem With Watercolor Palettes
Certain types of palettes are very receptive to water. I have a small porcelain palette and it creates a nice and even pools of color when I mix colors on it.
By contrast, a new plastic or even a metal palette is slick enough to cause the water to bead up on the surface.
Have you ever seen how rain beads up on a freshly waxed car? This effect is what I’m talking about. The surface of the palette repels water so much that the surface tension causes the water to create tiny beads on the palette instead of a smooth puddle of color.
The problem with beading is that it makes it difficult to judge the colors as you mix them. The tiny beads of watercolor paint seem to be darker than how it looks when you apply it to a paper.
The water also seems to cling to the brush more than to the palette. This can be frustrating when you’re trying to mix a large wash for a sky or other large area of a painting.
How to Prevent Beading on a Watercolor Palette
Over the years I’ve heard other artists recommend cleaning the palette with various cleaners. Some even recommend using sandpaper or a kitchen scrubby to scuff it up.
In my video demonstration, I try cleaning my palette with all of these products and none of them work that well.
In fact, the coarse sandpaper actually damaged my palette, it created scratches that made the palette more difficult to clean. The scratches caused the paint to bead up in a strange pattern which is worse than before.
Scratches are unattractive and will trap the pigment which makes them stand out. They also make it more difficult to keep the palette looking clean.
Another problem is using an abrasive may make your palette more prone to staining. Plastic and metal palettes are susceptible to staining in the long run but sanding it may make it worse.
In the sections below, I test out the most popular recommendations.
Use the Palette a Few Times to Break It In
Just using the palette will eventually eliminate the beading problem. This issue with this approach is that you’ll have to put up with the beading for the first few paintings.
I normally just power through this process and eventually the beading problem goes away. Below are a few of my watercolor palettes that I’ve been using for mixing colors. They all have broken in and the watercolor paint doesn’t bead up on them when I mix colors.
The John Pike watercolor palette is great for painting in the studio. It’s large and it has a lid which you can use for an extra mixing area. I have been using it for years. You can purchase the Pike Palette on Blick.
Below is a light wash of Ultramarine Blue on the mixing area of the Pike palette. Notice how it doesn’t bead up at all.
I also have a leftover tin from a set of QoR watercolors which I use as a mixing palette. As you can see in the photo below, it also doesn’t bead up when I mix colors on it.
Beading was a problem with these palettes when they were new, but now they work perfectly fine.
When I mix watercolor paint on these old palettes the paint lays flat and creates a nice and smooth puddle of color.
With use, the beading will completely diminish.
How to Break in a Palette Faster
After breaking in a number of watercolor palettes, the thing that I noticed is it seems to be the act of letting the paint dry on the palette, and then cleaning it off is what breaks it in.
I don’t know why this works. The gum arabic in watercolor paint can make the surface more receptive to water. This sounds logical, but QoR watercolor paints don’t use gum arabic as a binder and they have the same effect.
It may be that using the palette creates tiny scratches in the surface or that some of the paint residue remains on the palette and prevents it from repelling the water.
The pigment in the dry paint may also act a mild abrasive when you clean it off, which helps with reducing the slickness of the palette. This is probably more true with granulating colors that have coarser pigment particles.
Using Toothpaste and Baking Soda to Prevent Beading on a Palette
Toothpaste and baking soda are two common recommendations for preventing watercolor paint from beading up on the palette. Below are the results of my tests.
In my first test, I use a dab of toothpaste and use it to buff the right side of the palette. After about a minute of scrubbing, I rinse it off under the sink.
The paint still beads up when I test it out with a wash of Ivory black.
I repeat the process just to be thorough but I end up with the same results.
There may have been a slight improvement but it doesn’t seem to be worth the trouble.
I think the reason why toothpaste and other cleansers work for some artists is they don’t thoroughly rinse off the palette. The toothpaste or soap residue probably helps to break the surface tension of the water.
To test this idea, I applied the toothpaste with a paper towel and wiped it off without rinsing under the water. The paint didn’t seem to bead up as much.
Cleaners and Soap
The toothpaste experiment gave me the idea of using soap to break the surface tension of the water.
I applied a small amount of hand soap to the left side of the mixing area of my palette, which is brand new.
It did seem to solve the problem, the paint didn’t bead up and it created a smoother puddle.
But this is only a temporary solution. The beading problem will return when you clean it.
Even if this works, it’s not a good idea to introduce toothpaste or soap into your paints. You have no idea on how these cleaners will react with the paper and the paint in the long run.
This is why I don’t recommend using cleaning products like Mr Clean Magic Eraser, even though some artists claim that it works.
After conducting the toothpaste experiment, I tried using baking soda to break in the palette.
Baking soda is mildly abrasive and is useful for household cleaning.
I sprinkled some baking soda into the mixing area of the palette, and then added water to form a paste. Then I scrub the palette with it for about the same amount of time as the toothpaste.
The results were about the same as the toothpaste, the palette still beads up when I mix paint on it.
Cleaning the palette four times, twice with baking soda and twice with toothpaste and it had very little effect upon the way the watercolor paint beads up on it.
There was a slight improvement but it didn’t seem like it was such a great result for the amount of effort it requires.
Should I Rough Up My Watercolor Palette to Prevent Beading?
No, using abrasives on a watercolor palette isn’t a good idea. Coarse sandpaper will put scratches and in your palette and it will make it more difficult to clean. Fine sandpaper won’t scratch it but it doesn’t solve the beading problem very well either.
In my video, I use 600 grit sandpaper to rough up a watercolor palette. I didn’t want to risk ruining my new palette so I tried it out on the back of an old palette that I no longer use.
At first it appears as though the fine sandpaper solves the problem. However, later in the video I test it again and it still beads up.
Also, when I look at the palette from an angle, the part that I sanded definitely has a duller appearance than the rest of the palette. It may make the palette more prone to staining.
Coarse sandpaper has lower grit numbers. I tried out 150 grit sandpaper on the palette and it definitely removes a lot more material. Finer grit sandpaper is more for polishing while the coarser grit sandpaper is much more aggressive.
The results were worse than if I didn’t do anything at all. Not only did it bead up, the scratches create a strange pattern in the paint that’s even more distracting.
I don’t recommend using sandpaper on your watercolor palettes.
Should I Use a Scrubby to Rough Up a Watercolor Palette?
Using a kitchen scrubby or scouring pad on my watercolor palette didn’t have much of an effect upon the beading problem. Another concern is that it may be aggressive enough to create scratches.
I used the scrubby to scour the watercolor palette. It really doesn’t offer that much improvement as you can see in the photo below. You also have to consider that some brands of these scouring pads are more abrasive than others. The ones that I used are the Scotch Brite Non Scratch Scrub Sponges.
For this reason, I don’t recommend using a scrubby on your watercolor palette.
If you decide to try it anyway, make sure that you test it out on an inconspicuous area to see if it causes scratches.
Having your watercolor paint bead up on the palette is annoying but it’s simple to fix–just use it and the problem will go away!
Cleaning products and abrasive materials aren’t really necessary. Cleaning products contain numerous ingredients that haven’t been tested for use in watercolor.
In my experience, it seems as though allowing the paint to dry on the mixing areas is what helps to break it in, you might want to try this out to see if it helps. The dry, leftover paint in the mixing areas is still usable too. You can come back to a painting the following day and use up old color mixes.
I know the beading is frustrating but keep in mind that it’s only temporary.