Filling your own pans or building your own watercolor palette always trumps purchasing watercolor sets. Watercolors that come with super affordable sets won't be high quality, and even with the best of sets, it's inevitable that you'll end up with colors that you'll never use.
There are plenty of standard watercolor palettes on the market, but not all are affordable, durable, and easy to carry. Not all of these that I've featured are dirt cheap (but most are!), but you'll still come out ahead if you DIY your own. You'll have the colors you love at a price you can afford. Now that's a prime palette!
If you're interested in putting together your own watercolor palette, here are some very affordable and portable ideas. I've used quite a few of these for myself.
12 Watercolor Palette Ideas
Click on the titles/links below to see details and pricing. (List contains affiliates.) Items are listed in order of the numbers above.
1. American Journey Nomad Tins & Pans
This is a new addition to the American Journey line, and with the exception of the compact set, the tins and pans are sold separately. I have the large tin, and it will hold 24 American Journey half pans, 12 American Journey full pans, or 15 Schmincke/generic full pans (see #3 & 4). There's no prepped mixing surface, but if desired, that's an easy DIY.
2. Honbay 12-Color Palette
I just purchased one of these to check the quality. Plus, I'm always looking for giveaway ideas. (Hint hint!) This little palette is as sturdy as the expensive name brand ones, and the pans are quite nice also. At this price, I highly recommend!
3. Meeden Empty Tins & Pans
This brand has been available for a while on Amazon. The pans aren't as high quality as the Schmincke ones (see #4), but the price per pan is hard to beat. Meeden sells the pans in sets that include various palettes, or you can purchase the tins and pans separately.
4. Schmincke Empty Tins & Pans
This was the first empty watercolor palette and pans I ever purchased, and though it's far from cheap, it has lasted! Schmincke's heavy duty full pans are all I use, in studio and in the field, because their convenience can't be beat. To keep my pan sizes consistent, I've stayed with this brand so it's easy to exchange colors or rearrange my pans into another palette.
5. Dollar Store First Aid Kit
I recently converted this $1 first aid kit into a palette that holds 18 full pans, and I use it all the time. (You can read more about it here.) It's the palette I currently keep at my desk because its compact size is a great space saver. It's also extremely portable, though some honey-based pigments stay too moist in its nearly airtight, plastic casing to transport those without incident.
6. Cotman Sketcher's Box
I've given away a few of these at the blog and this is also the palette that I recommend to beginning sketchers because it's so darn nifty. This box is affordable, durable, and super portable, and it also comes with a fairly decent albeit tiny brush. Cotman watercolors are fine for beginners, but when you're ready to upgrade, the prefilled pans remove easily.*
7. 24-Well Plastic Palette
I've been eyeing this one for a while because the price is amazing. It's rather large but still small enough to be portable, and the super-sized wells seem perfect for big brushes. For less than $10 USD, I think it's a steal!
8. Home Aid Artist Palette
I haven't tried this one, but it comes in an assortment of cute patterns, is extremely affordable, and includes 24 full pans. Very nice! I don't think there's a mixing surface, but again, that's an easy fix. If you're interested in a similar palette that you can DIY for a little less, see #12 below.
9. Reeves Small Folding Palette
You may have noticed these palettes in a lot of my giveaways, and I also use them at home. (Check it out in the lead photo here.) It's expensive online, but if you can track one down in Walmart's craft section, they're only $1.99 in the store. If you can't find one there, Cheap Joe's has a lookalike at an affordable price.
10. DIY Organizer Box Palette
Small plastic storage boxes are readily available and easy to refurbish into a watercolor palette. Check hardware and craft stores for similar containers, but if you'd rather not DIY your own, someone at Amazon has already done the work.
11. Jerry Q Portable Palette
This set is at Amazon, but I've seen this exact same palette marketed under other store and generic brand names. I'm pretty sure the watercolors are junk, but just like the Cotman box, the pans easily remove so you can pop in your own pigments.*
12. DIY Tin Palette
Last but not least, my brilliant artist friend Aneta converted her child's math set tin into a watercolor palette that holds 18 of the American Journey full pans. Follow the link to find this economical tin and take inspiration from her perfect DIY palette hack in the photo above. Thanks for the excellent tip, Aneta!
P.S. Many of you may be thinking, "But what about a mint tin?" Those work okay but most are too deep for correctly loading watercolor brushes, and I prefer to protect my tips! For more information on how to chose a palette and correctly load a brush, see this article.
*Note about #6 & #11... Most standard half pans will not fit in these boxes. However, it's easy to pop the dried paint out and reuse the existing pans. Also, the wells under the pans are sealed and can easily be filled with paints. Just thought you should know!
Bonus: Lucky #13 Palette Idea!
I couldn't go without sharing just one more! If you prefer a limited palette for portability and sketching, here's an idea... I recently picked up this large capacity business card holder and converted it into a palette. It holds seven American Journey full pans plus one half pan, or eight Schmincke full pans.
In the photo above, it's stocked with Schmincke full pans and placed alongside the Pocket Palette for comparison. It's slightly larger and heavier than the Pocket Palette and doesn't hold as many colors (unless you use half pans), but it can be put together for about a third of the cost.
There's no mixing surface and I'm not sure how well it will hold up under water, but it's extremely heavy duty and I love the generous yet compact size. The only issue is that the lip on the bottom edge originally covered a portion of my pans. I stuck a piece of foam under the edge to solve the problem. DIY done!
For more metal palette ideas, see this post.