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Trail talk: a bespoke paint palette for backpacking

A puddle of watercolour may join a pencil or ink drawing in my trail journal. Despite Three Points of the Compass being an indifferent artist, this is enjoyable ‘time out’ . However, any extra weight in my pack matters, particularly if art materials are only being used infrequently. So I cast around for lightweight solutions.

For the past five years or so a small watercolour palette has often joined me on trail. First it was one of the little Winsor and Newton palettes, then a Pocket Palette. These superb and convenient little palettes are based around a business card holder. However I found that I wanted to carry an eight or nine paint selection with a slightly different configuration than was possible with the Pocket Palette.

When hiking I am not spending long at a halt and wanted something really lightweight and small that I could simply shake out, fold up and swiftly be on my way. I obtained the exact layout I wanted, for the number of paints I wanted, by creating my own mini-palette.

Pocket palette with removable pans filled with paint
Pocket Palette from Expeditionary Art is based around a business card holder with magnetic base holding removable pans filled with paint. Three Points of the Compass refined this concept for exactly what was required

What I required was permanently fitted, rather than removable, wells. For this I needed to build wells into an aluminium card holder along with additional wells for mixing. I found that a couple of inventive artists had done similar to what I wanted to achieve. So, I shamelessly took their ideas and tweaked to my requirement. Sorry about that…

Half an hour playing around with plastic strips and superglue can produce a quite nice bespoke palette, with exactly the size and number of wells required
Homemade 30g palette utilising a large size business card holder from Muji. Half an hour playing around with plastic strips and gel glue produced a bespoke palette, with exactly the size and number of wells required

The large aluminium business card holder from Muji is a well made affair that permits five shallow mixing wells to be created in the inside lid opposite deeper pigment wells in the main [business card] body. The number and shape of wells could easily be altered in any futher iterations. This palette also has white self-adhesive vinyl covering the inside of both top and bottom parts.

The Muji business card case weighs 19g when new and empty. It measures 93mm x 60mm x 8mm. Self-adhesive white vinyl is cut to fit the inside of both top lid and bottom card case then stuck in. Model makers 2.5mm x 4.0mm white strip styrene is used to create the wells. These strips can be purchased very cheaply in craft shops or online. I simply measured them off and snipped through them on a cutting mat with a large Wenger knife blade. Any rough edges were sanded down with glass paper, then, using a pair of tweezers to put them in place, individual strips are fixed in with super glue. They are glued on their short 2.5mm edge in the bottom to make deeper wells for holding paint, and on their wide 4.0mm edge inside the lid, to make shallower wells for mixing. The bespoke mini-palette weighs 29.6g when finished. Leave everything to dry then add my tube paints of choice.

Home made paint palette with a personal choice of quality watercolours
Home made paint palette with a personal choice of quality watercolours

A surprising amount of paint can be squeezed into the wells When filled with paint and again allowed to dry, for a couple of days with the lid open, the palette weighs 55g and forms part of my small art kit. The contents of this kit lasts me weeks on trail or when overseas. I keep a sports wrist band around it when stored inside my little sketching kit, this wrist band is worn while sketching and the little Pentel Aquash water brush I use can be wiped off against it when painting.

A nine colour palette 

For my limited palette I looked for high quality paints that are also all single pigment. Paint choice is a very personal thing and what I like may not be to everyone’s liking. This palette is based primarily around warm and cool primary colours with just a couple of extras such as an earth tone and two handy convenience greens thrown in, including my favourite- Perylene Green.

My nine colour palette- drawing from rear page of a trail journal
My nine colour palette- drawing from rear page of a trail journal

Some pigments can be a little hard to track down. I understand manufacture of the single pigment (PY153) New Gamboge stopped a few years ago. And if I wanted to buy the Quinacridone Gold as a single pigment (PO49) then I used to have to buy the larger 15ml Daniel Smith tubes as smaller tubes contained a mix of PO48 and PY150 pigments, but Daniel Smith have now totally run out of PO49, so it looks as though this is the end for this particular pigment as well as any other colours that used it. The lovely earth colour- Monte Amiata Natural Sienna from Daniel Smith isn’t the easiest of the PBr7 earth pigments to find either. Why do I include two wells of Perylene Green- (PBk31)? Because I use so much of it. Though I only part fill the two larger wells with this green as I can then puddle a required tone in those wells. This is a quite beautiful, moody pigment that works terrifically for shadows, skies, and hills, as well as mixing dramatically with other pigments.

  • Quinacridone Gold- (PO49). Daniel Smith
  • Hansa Yellow medium- (PY97). Daniel Smith
  • New Gamboge- (PY153). Winsor & Newton
  • Cupric Green Light (Phthalocyanine Green Yellow Shade)- (PG36). MaimeriBlu
  • Perylene Green- (PBk31). Daniel Smith
  • Cerulean Blue- (PB35). Winsor & Newton
  • Ultramarine (Green shade)- (PB29). Winsor & Newton
  • Monte Amiata Natural Sienna- (PBr7). Daniel Smith
  • Permanent Rose- (PV19). Winsor & Newton
Bespoke palette forms part of a lightweight sketching kit for use while backpacking
Bespoke palette forms part of a lightweight sketching kit used while backpacking

I have written a little more on the various art materials I have either used or considered for use on trail, here.

Home made mini paint palette
Home made mini paint palette can look a bit of a mess in use, but it is lightweight, and works

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