It was not until I switched from acrylic paints to oils that I understood the importance of an organized palette. As an acrylic painter, I used to haphazardly squeeze fresh paint onto my palette and mix away.

Years ago, when I made the switch to oils I enjoyed the longer drying time and workability of the paints, but I didn’t like cleaning up my messy palette. It made it difficult for me to salvage paint and keep clean pigments for the next painting session.

Then I realized that all my favorite artists used their own version of an organized, extended palette. David Leffel, Richard Schmid, Scott Christensen and many more, all use a basic set of pigments to suit their own artistic personality. These masters all use different cool and warm colors, but they have one thing in common – their palettes are organized!

The extended palette generally consists of a cool and warm hue representing each primary color. I lay out my paints in the exact order each time so I don’t have to ‘think’ about where my paints are – it becomes a habit.

organized palette
Lori’s organized palette

For example:

My Extended Palette

  • White:
    • Titanium
  • Yellow:
    • Naples Yellow (cool)
    • Cadmium Yellow (warm – medium most closely represent true yellow
  • Orange:
    • Cadmium Orange (cool)
  • Red:
    • Cadmium Red (warm – light most closely represents true red)
  • Blue:
    • Cobalt Blue (cool)
    • Ultramarine Blue (warm)
  • Brilliant Greens & Blues:
    • Viridian (cool)
    • Thalo (cool)
  • Duller versions of Yellow, Orange, Red:
    • Raw Umber (cool)
    • Burnt Sienna (warm)
  • Brilliant Red:
    • Alizarin Crimson (cool)

With these few colors I can duplicate virtually all other ready-made tubes of paint, including black. At times I do use Ivory Black, but never alone because it cracks. I can mix a deeper ‘black’ using Alizarin Crimson & Ultramarine Blue with a dash of Burnt Sienna.

There are a few colors on my palette (Naples yellow, Burnt Sienna, Raw Umber) that I could mix myself, but I use them so much that is easier to squeeze them from a tube. But don’t let yourself get too carried away with taking up palette space with more pre-mixed paints.

The more you paint and experiment, the more you will learn how to customize your own palette with pigments that suit your needs. Just be sure to organize your paints in the same manner each time!

For a visual of my palette be sure to watch this short & informative video:

You should check out these articles about color & more:

Use the Hidden Meaning of Color in Your Art & Design

The Importance of Value and Tone in Painting

lori3 Happy Painting, Lori

Lori McNee

Lori McNee is a professional artist who specializes in still life, and landscape oil paintings. She is an exhibiting member of Oil Painters of America, Plein Air Painters of Idaho, serves on the Plein Air Mag Board of Advisors, and is an Artist Ambassador to Arches/Canson/Royal Talens. As the owner of, Lori blogs about fine art tips, marketing, and social media advice for the aspiring and professional artist. As a social media influencer, Lori ranks as one of the Top 100 Most Powerful Women on Twitter, has been featured in the Wall Street Journal and named a #TwitterPowerhouse by The Huffington Post. She is a keynote speaker, has been a talk show host for Plum TV, writes for F+W Media publications including Artist’s Magazine, Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market, Photographer’s Market. Also, Zero to 100,000: Social Media Tips & Tricks for Small Businesses. Lori is also a member of the CBS Entertainment Tonight & The Insider Tweet Team.

15 thoughts on “Palette Tips – Organize Your Oil Paints

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  2. Marianna says:

    You’ve said the magic words…that’s when it becomes a habit and you don’t have to think about it.

    Habits can be good or bad – in this case the established habit makes it easy for you to accomplish your goals. To turn out fine works of art for enjoyment – yours and ours!


  3. Pingback: Show Me Your Painting Palette! | Learn to... Art!

  4. Kin Lee says:

    Thanks for your sharing your palette organising tip Lori, I’m going into my studio now to try lay out the colours just like in your video, and on a piece of glass i found in the bargain corner of our local Ikea furniture store.

    Thanks again, happy painting


  5. Karen says:

    I would add Yellow Ochre to the list. You just can’t make a decent ochre by mixing, and that was important to me because I used it a lot.

    I’ll post my palette to your facebook wall, but it isn’t being used for painting at the moment, so there is no paint on it. But it is very large, and paint was arranged in a circle with a large amount of white and less black in the inside circle. It was easy to clean since I could just use a scraper, and the large size let me use as much wet medium as I wanted.

    • Lori McNee says:

      Hi Karen, it’s great seeing you here as well as on my fan page! I look forward to the palette post. It will be a fun one. Yes, yellow ochre is a great color to add. I often add it to my palette, especially when I am painting outside. But, I can get a pretty good mix of my own, that’s why it wasn’t in the video.


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  7. Jodi B says:

    Hi Lori,
    What warm/cool Cobra palette do you recommend? I have a starter set of 10 but I’m unsure which are warm or cool. Just curious what you are using.


    • Lori McNee says:

      Hello Jodi, besides titanium white, I usually have a Naples yellow, cad yellow light/med, I use madder lake for cool red (they don’t have alizarine)/cad red light, ultra marine blue/cerulean. That covers the yellow, red, blue families. Then for my extended palette I add raw umber/burnt umber, and permanent green. Hope this helps!

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