How to Look at a Painter’s Palette

© Copyright 2017 Nicole Sumner, Ryerson University.

A palette is a thin board used by painters to mix and develop their product during the painting process. Palettes have been used by painters for many centuries and have become useful tools for artists, but they can do so much more than just aid in the artistic process. If examined closely, a palette is able to tell us a good amount about the painter who uses it, perhaps as just as much as their art can.

A palette is an extension of the painter. The painter will hold the palette with one hand, effectively immobilizing that limb. The palette acts as a replacement limb for that hand and the painter will be as reliant on the palette as they would be with their hand. This creates a personal attachment between painter and palette, with painter viewing the palette as an extension of their own body. The painter treats the palette the same as they treat their own body, therefore the state of a painter’s palette can tell us a lot about them.

Sumner, Nicole. “Painter’s Palette.” Photograph, Ryerson University, 9 February 2017.
Sumner, Nicole. “Painter’s Palette.” Photograph, Ryerson University, 9 February 2017.


In the photo above, we can see the condition of this painter’s palettes are not in the best shape. The paint on the mixing palette is dry and cracked, indicating the age of the paint and how long it has been left there. It is clear that the artist has not painted in a very long time and not bothered to clean their palette. The length of time between cleaning may indicate that the painter is a messy individual who does not prioritize tidiness or the appearance of cleanliness. We can see from the watercolour palette is also very messy and the paint has spilled outside of the paint dishes. The state of the palette displays a chaotic nature and we are able to see the aftermath of their brushstrokes, which are brash and careless.


The watercolour palette gives us a further view inside the mind of the painter because we are able to view their colour preferences. The painter’s favorite colours are very noticeable in the image, with the most popular being so thin that the palette’s bottom shows through. What can the levels of these paint dishes tell us about the painter? In this case, we can see that the majority of the colours used are bright colours, with the darkest colours such as black and brown having the most amount of paint left. Our painter prefers lighter colours such as green, blue, pink, yellow and orange. If we examine what association these colours have in the modern world, the majority of these colours are related to nature or are seen as positive colours. Perhaps this means that our painter is a lighthearted and generally happy individual with an appreciation for nature.


Is it possible to accurately depict a painter solely on their paint palette? Perhaps not. Artists are complex and multifaceted individuals who are difficult to predict, much like most other humans. However, through their palettes we can see little pieces of their artistic process, whether through the way they mix their colours or by their colour choices. In understanding their process, we can better understand how their mind works and what some of their values are. This may lead to a better understanding of the painter’s personality and emotions. We may not be able to determine an individual purely by looking at their painting palette, but it’s a good start.

Sources Attributed:

Elkins, James. How to Use Your Eyes. New York, Routledge, 2000.

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