What do you use to keep your oil paints from drying out? Do you cover your paints and palette? Do you place them in a freezer?

For almost 30 years I painted so regularly I didn’t worry about covering my paints. Online art training has changed that for me. Since I now squeeze in a couple of hours here and there- sometimes days fly by without touching my palette – I’ve found my old system doesn’t work out so well.

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I researched and experimented with a few different ideas. After purchasing materials, I would start working on one system only to have it morph into a better or different one. Finally, I built the cover that’s protecting my paints right now.

The finished oil painting palette cover to keep my paints from drying too quickly

The finished oil painting palette cover to keep my paints from drying too quickly

Early Experiments

In the late 80s and early 90s, I did try a couple of things: 1. I bought a Masterson Sta-Wet Palette for Plein Air painting and stuck it in the freezer between outdoor painting excursions. 2. I covered my palette with plastic wrap.

A photo of the Masterson Sta Wet paint palette

The Masterson Sta Wet paint palette

Neither approach to keeping my paints wet longer worked out well for me.

The Masterson Palette is excellent. The problem I had was scraping dried paint off the soft plastic when I neglected to clean the palette right away. So I could use my razor scraper I had a piece of glass cut to fit in the bottom and sealed it with caulking. Unfortunately, that made the palette a lot heavier. The lid also gave me trouble after a while when paint built up around the lid seal. It can still be handy for plein air painting, but today I would probably use a disposable palette pad inside rather than glass.

Covering my palette with plastic wrap was a hassle because the plastic would stick to the paints. It was also frustrating to try and get the palette covered before the static prone plastic folded over and stuck to itself. I found I was losing more paint and creating a bigger mess with the plastic than without it.

So, I decided that removing the thin paint skin occasionally was easy enough since I was painting most days anyway.

My Recent Palette Cover Experiments

That brings us to the options I considered over the past several months.

The first thought that came was to try out plastic wrap again because it was easy and readily available. We use the Kirtland brand in our kitchen, and it comes with a convenient slide cutter.

I also have some large 2-foot rolls to wrap my framed paintings for shipping to galleries and shows. So, I decided to make a large-roll holder with a slide cutter that would attach to the end of my palette table.

After finding parts at Lowes and ordering slide cutters online, and while I pondered over the best way to put it all together, I discovered a convenient plastic roll holder and slide cutter for 18-inch rolls on Amazon. I ordered that thinking it would save me time. I also ordered a couple of 18″ rolls of plastic wrap.

Some of the materials from my palette cover experiments using plastic wrap.

Some of the materials from my palette cover experiments using plastic wrap.

The holder came, but the plastic wrap never arrived. During the time I waited for the plastic wrap, I remembered what a mess using plastic wrap made in the past.

I decided I needed something that would be reusable, that would sit above my paints and cover both the paints and the mixing area, and that would be convenient while preventing the paint from drying too quickly.

That’s how the palette cover came about.

Construction of the Palette Cover (Plus Materials Used)

The nice thing about an enamel palette is that magnets stick to it really well.

So, I used the same magnets I used for my palette knife holder. The wood was 1×2-inch cedar boards. I glued a piece of plexiglass to the top so I could easily see my paints and position the cover perfectly each time. The glue was some heavy-duty adhesive I had leftover from a rock wall landscaping project.

Tools for constructing an oil painting palette cover to keep the paints wet longer.

Tools for constructing an oil painting palette cover to keep the paints wet longer.

Here’s a list of materials:

  1. Four 60 lb. pull magnets– they come with screws and have a hole in the middle to screw them to your board (mine came in a pack of 12 for $14.99). I used one on each corner
  2. Two 21-inch & two 28-inch cedar boards (I cut those out of an 8-foot board)
  3. A 21×30-inch sheet of plexiglass (cut from a 24×30 inch sheet)
  4. Loctite PL Max Premium adhesive
  5. A 1-inch Forstner bit
  6. A saw for the wood (I used a PVC saw with fine teeth that works great on wood)
  7. Bolt cutters to shorten the length of the screws that came with the magnets by 1/8th of an inch
  8. Clamps to hold the plexiglass in place while the glue dries
  9. Gloves to keep the adhesive off your hands – it sticks like crazy and is not easy to wash off
  10. A screwdriver
More tools for constructing an oil painting palette cover to keep the paints wet longer.

More tools for constructing an oil painting palette cover to keep the paints wet longer.

Once I cut the boards to size, I drilled a hole at each end of the 21-inch boards for the magnets. I was careful to drill the holes deep enough to get the magnets flush with the wood. I didn’t want them sticking up above the wood and creating a gap where air would enter under the cover. I also didn’t want them too deep in case that would prevent them from sticking to the table.

Then I added a layer of glue in the holes and screwed the magnets in. I wanted to be sure the magnets would never work themselves loose or pop out of the holes.

Rather than connect the boards to each other with screws, I simply glued the boards and the plexiglass together at one time. I applied a continuous bead of adhesive around the entire perimeter of the plexiglass – leaving a half-inch gap from the edge so there wouldn’t be too much overspill when I clamped pieces together.

I knew it might get messy not having the boards connected, but I decided it was easier than trying to avoid screwing the boards together with those magnets in the way.

With the plexiglass upside down, I placed one of the longer boards along the edge and clamped it in place. I did that for each board and adjusted slightly to get the boards squared up and tight with each other. I used scraps of boards to keep the clamps from damaging the plexiglass.

Clamping the Plexiglass onto the boards with glue in-between

Clamping the Plexiglass onto the boards with strong adhesive in-between

While clamping, the glue squeezed out from under the plexiglass. I simply left it as is. I figured the excess would help seal it airtight and I wasn’t concerned about how it looked. I might have clamped it tighter than it needed, but it seems to be working great so far.

The next morning, I took off the clamps, put the cover on the palette, placed weights on each corner, and left it for another day to allow the glue to fully cure while keeping everything flat.

Placing weights on the palette cover to allow the glue to cure fully without warping the cover.

Placing weights on the palette cover to allow the glue to fully cure without warping the cover.

Clove Oil to Slow the Drying

Clove oil has been used by artists for generations to slow the drying of oil paints. Clove oil is an antioxidant. Since oil paints dry by oxidation, the clove oil slows their drying by preventing or slowing the oxidation.

The nice thing about clove oil is that it is not a solvent and will not fill our studios with toxic fumes.

Some artists place clove oil in a container with their paints to slow the drying. Others add the clove oil directly to the paint.

After a lot of research, I would advise you to never mix clove oil into your paints. Paints mixed with clove oil do not develop strong firm skin. The dried paint will remain softer than oil paints without the clove oil which can (and likely will) eventually cause problems with conservation. Plus, it’s easier to damage the painting (the same thing happens with water-mixable oil paints).

The best option is to place clove oil on a cotton ball, a piece of paper, a sponge – anything that will absorb the clove oil and that can be moved around.

Clove oil to use on a sponge to under the palette cover to keep my oil paints fresh

Clove oil to use on a sponge to under the palette cover to keep my oil paints fresh

The first week I began by dipping Q-Tips into the clove oil and placing those in several places under the cover. It did slow the drying, but within a few days, the paints started skinning over.

Now I use 3 small sponges.

Conclusion: Does it work?

I’ve been using it for a month now and it works amazingly – so much better than I anticipated. It has effectively kept my paints and my mixing area from skinning over for up to 2 weeks.

I hope this gives you some ideas about how to keep your oil paint palette from drying out too quickly.

If you have other ideas that have worked well for you please share with our community in the comments below.

Now to get back to painting!