The butcher tray: A great palette for acrylic painting


by Robert Conway

After years of fumbling around and using anything lying around as a palette for my acrylic paintings (including albums, CDs and ripped up pieces of cardboard) a friend of mine suggested to me what I consider one of the greatest inventions ever conceived by mankind, the butcher tray palette. What a revelation, a non disposable painting palette, one that would last forever through anything, this was a totally new concept for me. I had tried to use other palettes(wood and white plastic) before, but it took would take so much valuable time and effort to clean the damn things I did not see the point in actually reusing them. Well this all changed when I bought my first butcher tray which I would still be using today, but because I got lazy this one day and used oil paints with it, it became unusable after a while, that stuff was not coming off anytime soon, oh well lesson learned.

These trays were designed in that era known as by older folks as ‘the time when they built things to last,’ and they are made out of solid steel and coated in a white oven baked porcelain enamel coating that make them practically indestructible. This porcelain surface is super shiny which means it is great for mixing paint and it makes the clean up a breeze, all I do is fill it up with water in the sink and in an hour all that dried paint just separates and floats to the surface and I just skim off the paint, wipe the tray down and I am ready to roll again. Another great feature about the tray is that the middle area of the pan is raised which means that you can have water collecting around the edges for mixing, this is great when you want to use a lot of washes like I do, especially when I am working on a koi painting which requires a lot of thinned out paint to do my various layers and water effects. With a butcher tray palette you can also have your paint, water and brushes all in one area which makes it so much easier to work with, especially when you really need focus on your painting it is good to know that everything you need as you work is all in one place. I strongly recommend getting some kind of cover for your butcher tray because this way you can cover it all up when you are finished for the day(I use a flat sheet of plexiglass now with tape on the sides, aluminum foil always works in a pinch) and the next time you work with it all of your paints and mixes with still be fresh and you can be ready to go since nothing has dried out that is going to save you time and money since you will be wasting less paint. One of the reasons I stopped using oil paints was because of the big clean up I had to do when I finished and cleaning out those brushes was always such a chore, but with this method I just put my brushes in the edges of the pan with the water, close the lid and go to sleep and I am good for the next day.

March 11, 2014

44 thoughts on “The butcher tray: A great palette for acrylic painting

  1. Nice tool. When I did acrylic painting, I kept my paints I was using in margarine dishes, and I used plates for palettes. I’d stack the plates and margarine dishes. Also used a blow dryer to speed up the drying process. Forgot about those old techniques.

    • yeah I was spending so much time looking around the house for things that would make a good palette for the day that sometimes I would get distracted and end up plopped in front of the TV for the rest of the day.

  2. What a good idea! I’ve been using disposable plates, which are ok but not ideal when you want to do washes. I’m definitely going to look for one of those. Thanks.

  3. Great tip, thank you for sharing it!
    I once painted with oil colors, but had to stop, because just as you said it takes too much time to clean the tools.
    Now I’m using acrylic colors only for coloring my polymer clay creations, so I use plastic covers of yogurts etc. as my palette, this way after coloring is done I can throw them away with no worry for cleaning. However doing so the remaining colors can’t be saved for later.
    One of these butcher trays with a lid could be a great help, though I’m afraid it won’t be easy to find one with the lid.

  4. I bought a butcher tray for watercolor painting probably over 20 years ago and am still using the same tray. When I painted with acrylics I used a sheet of ordinary window glass with white paper taped underneath it and held around the edges with masking tape. I liked that a lot because I could just scrape the dried paint right off with a razor blade. I never bothered to try to save acrylics from one session to another–they usually dried out even before I had finished painting for the day. Interesting to see how you’re using the butcher tray for your acrylics!

  5. My instructor gave me this tray. Been using it for my acrylic painting in the studio. Practical, easy to clean, time-saver.

  6. These are great! I’ve been using one since college for acrylic paints. I found that putting a damp paper towel in the bottom and putting a piece of tracing paper on top will help keep larger amounts of acrylic paint from drying out.

  7. I LOVE this thing! I purchased one almost 7 years ago when I worked at Dick Blick. I got it on sale because the company was discontinuing the size and I LOVE IT! I paint in Oils, but it still works like a charm

  8. I have one of those, but I still haven’t used it yet. My work area is a constant mess (how?? I seriously just cleaned, but there’s not more than 2 inches of space anywhere!) so I never have room for it…

    Have you tried a porcelain dish? I used acrylic in one meant for watercolor and somehow the color stained it. Maybe I just left it too long without cleaning it…

    • oh you should try it sometime, it makes everything more organized and the paint just peals off. I just have the tray in front of me with some brushes and everything else is off to the side.

  9. Butcher trays have been used by artists for decades. However, you may also wish to try one of the covered palettes which will keep your paints fresh for much longer. I also use a pad of tear-off sheets inside my covered palette for ease of cleaning. Check out Jerry’s Artarama or Cheap Joe’s or Dick Blick.

  10. I’ve been wanting some of these forever. I have been using lids or foam plates. I guess one of these days I’ll get ’round to it.

  11. hi Robert, thanks for the reminder, I found my tray to start using again. Glad Press & Seal wrap is super sticky wrap and is a little better than foil for me. I like using Corelle plates, they don’t stain, unbreakable too. I’m glad to read your blog!

  12. The best system I’ve used is glass. A round piece of glass with a beveled edge. You can buy them sometimes at Michaels for tables and etageres. For oil, you can just put the glass with your brushes in the freezer and you’re good to go the next day. Either way, easy cleanup by scraping it off with a razor blade.

  13. Robert… shame on you. You didn’t mention that the butcher tray most definitely shows when it is time to clean your water – because as you reach into color with your brush – the unwanted tint or shade becomes readily apparent against the white of the tray. Otherwise … a great job.

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