Palettes & pigments: famous artists' use of color
May 30, 2010 7:01 AM   Subscribe

Why preserve Van Gogh's palette? - an exploration of color from the actual layout of various artists' color palettes - Degas, Delacroix, Gaugin, Moreau, Renoir, Seurat, Van Gogh. (via Neatorama)

A few more links exploring color and artists' tools
- Whistler's tools, including oil and water palettes, paintboxes, brushes, and more
- Vermeer's palette explores the various pigments that Vermeer used
- Color inspiration from the masters of painting - from Colour Lovers
- Colour in painting
- Paintboxes of the artists
- Paintbox
- Victorian Artists' Paint Box - antique c.1850
- Exhibit of painting tools - from a young British artist Brian Hatton in the late 1800s - early 1900s
- The man who heard his paintbox hiss - article about Kandinsky and synaesthesia
- Man mixing coloured paint - 1360-1375
- Illustration of "the famous Master Eyckins" from Nova Reperta - Jan Van Eyck is credited for introducing oil as a medium for mixing paints
posted by madamjujujive (15 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
including oil and water palettes, paintboxes, brushes, and more

oops - should be "oil and water color palettes..."
posted by madamjujujive at 7:51 AM on May 30, 2010

These are great...I have no idea why I never looked for artists' palettes before. Thanks!
posted by eatyourlunch at 8:08 AM on May 30, 2010

Wow, this is incredibly awesome. Any good painter knows how important "palette organization" is. When I first went to Art School, everyone in Painting 101 had the same problem, nobody knew how to mix colors, and everything tended to turn out an ugly middle brown. Our teachers had the stupid idea that they shouldn't actually instruct students in technique, or else their work would all end up looking exactly like their teachers. I had the same problem, so I usually applied paints straight from the tube, and bought a ton of useless colors that I easily could have mixed, if I knew how to do it accurately.

So, after dropping out, and then coming back about 20 years later, having occasionally dabbled in painting over the years, I am back in Painting 101. I had the same old problem mixing colors, so did everyone else. This really irritated me because I used to be a digital color retouching specialist at a prepress house, I had excellent color abilities, but I could not get the pigments to do what I already knew how to do with Photoshop or whatever.

Then one day, a friend of the instructor came in to class to visit her. He walked past my table, looked at my palette, and asked, "what the HELL are you doing? Didn't anyone ever teach you how to mix colors?" I said, no they don't teach that here. So he showed me in about 2 minutes how to organize my palette and mix a color. You get two colors of each primary (R/Y/B), a warm and cool, for example with red, you get alizarin crimson (cool) and cadmium red (warm). Then you put two daubs of each of the the warm/cool primary colors next to each other, around the top of the palette. Then a big pile of white at the bottom (no black, real painters don't mix with black). Then you drag pigment down with a palette knife from each of the two warm//cool primaries towards the center of the palette, mixing the exact warmth/coolness of red you like in the center. Then once you get the hue you want, you add white to get the value (lightness) you want. You can do this with more than one primary too, for example, mixing warm/cool red and warm/cool yellow hues, mixing together for an orange, then adding white to the desired value.

The guy showed me this technique with one color, red, and I stood there dumbfounded. I asked him where he learned that and he told me he studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. I decided that I was getting a markedly inferior art education at my school. I wanted to ask the guy a million more questions, but I didn't know what to ask. I just asked him what else I needed to know, and he said that's all I needed to know, and then he smirked and walked off.

Suddenly my work exploded in quality. The other students noticed the change in my work, and asked what happened, so I showed them the palette trick he had shown me. Suddenly everyone else's color mixing improved overnight too. Even the teacher asked me what was going on, I showed her and she just said, "oh yeah, that's a good method."

Learning that one little palette trick was the turning point in my artwork, that was when I learned what it meant to be a painter, and to have the media work for me, rather than against me. I wish I could find the guy and thank him for what he taught me, but I surely never will, so I've returned the favor to many other fledgling artists, who were all similarly dumbfounded about how simple, yet how important it is. Only once you've mastered this simple method, you can go on to break all the rules, like these famous painters apparently did, judging from the radical methods (from sloppy to fanatically organized) they used on their palettes.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:14 AM on May 30, 2010 [55 favorites]

Wow, CDS- I took art at a community college, and the first thing they did in any painting class was teach us how to mix pigments, plus explain basic color theory. I don't see why any teacher or art would waste student's time by just letting them muddle through that stuff.
posted by oneirodynia at 8:25 AM on May 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well, yeah, like I said, I decided I was getting an inferior education. But my school was a bit weird in that regard, they had a notorious problem with students doing work that slavishly emulated their teachers. In reaction, teachers stopped teaching the core techniques that were the whole reason a student would want to work with that teacher. Presumably, students would give more value to the things they learned the hard way, through research or maybe trial and error. And none of them would have learned it the instructor's way, so it would be impossible to emulate their techniques.

Anyway, most students either came in to a class knowing this stuff from their own basic education, or figured it out somewhere in the middle of the first semester. Then the teachers would do some color theory. I was more of a fanatic about color theory. Our school had an original 1963 edition of Josef Albers' "Interaction of Color" in their special collections, I decided to check it out. It had not been checked out for over 15 years.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:37 AM on May 30, 2010

Alan Ebnother, featured at the George Lawson Gallery in San Francisco, likes to work with tonal colorings in his characteristic impasto style.

Thank you madamjjj, as always.
posted by netbros at 8:37 AM on May 30, 2010

Palettes don't betray that much which is useful, in comparison to finished paintings. None of the colours, organisation or technique evident on a palette necessarily have any relevance to what an artist is trying to achieve or how he created the paintings which made his name. They are a record of the last materials and the last bit of activity that happened on that particular surface. The works on museum walls which make a reputation are a tiny fraction of what occurs in a studio. Painters experiment. Painters paint all kinds of things. Painters use palettes to mix paint to paint pictures later destroyed, wild and unusual experiments unseen by anyone except the artist alone. Collaborations, lessons, experiments with new materials, all of which may be evidenced on a palette. Seeing evidence of this kind of thing fleshes them out slightly, but it's unreliable when compared to the evidence on a finished canvas, in a document, or in an artists own writings.

Technical analysis is interesting, but illuminates only what happens to be on the palette, and that can be anything. Palettes are discarded with regularity, and different palettes are used for different things. When an artist dies the palette left behind provides evidence of the colours used at the last working moment, and not much more. Poignant and collectable curiosities, but as far as the ideas and methods of a painter go, paintings tell us almost everything we need to know.

Pages have been filled analysing Gauguin's palette and exploring his painting method. He and Van Gogh were obsessed by colour. Gauguin devised and wrote about his own laws of "derived colour." They wrote letters, exchanged ideas, experimented, analysed and recorded almost everything. So much is known about their working methods that in the Wildenstein Institute's Catalogue Raisonné of Gauguin's paintings half a page is devoted to their use, consumption and opinion of a single shade of blue (Prussian.) The guesswork in the article about how Gauguin painted, dreamt up after looking at a photograph of one palette he might have used for an unknown purpose - decorating a tambourine? painting one of the wooden clogs he was known to carve? - are silly and pointless. Of course he cleaned his palette. The palette might illustrate the way he painted one unknown thing, on one unknown occassion, but valid insight as to why Gauguin is Gauguin? Nope.

Those palettes are from the the RMN in France, the photos have been pulled from their archive. Why preserve Van Gogh's palette? It's interesting memorabilia, like his hat, paints etc.
posted by fire&wings at 8:47 AM on May 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Ah, f&w, you look but you are not seeing beneath the surface. Yes, in a sense, every painting is its own autobiography, and is a record of thousands of small decisions by the artist. But a palette is the spectrum of choices the artist chose from, and how he chose to organize those choices. Artists are creatures of habit, and palette methods are well developed over a career. Although the choices of colors may change depending on what one is painting, techniques within a single medium (like oil painting) rarely do. These palettes are a snapshot of one moment of decisions of the artist, with some vestiges of longer term working processes in the dried paints on older areas. It might be illustrative to examine several of the palettes within the Guardian article specifically.

Seurat: color theorist extraordinare, organized similar to what I described. Extremely limited range of primary colors, typical of pointillism. I note the photo shows the palette upside down from how it would be used in actual painting.

Degas: A hard working palette, also shown upside down. White in the corner, and a bit of yellow, to drag down into the central mixing area, to make lots of pastel values. On opposite corners, what appears to be umber and terre vert, fundamental earth tones that mix with almost every color and also white. No evidence of primary colors, which must have been applied direct from the tube to the palette and mixed with the earth tones + white. This is an obvious reflection of much of Degas' work.

Delacroix: this is not a painting palette. The amounts of colors are too small to apply to a painting. Perhaps it was sold as a curio, or used as a color chart. Examining the RMS collection, there are several autographed palettes, some are obviously working palettes but have been scraped clean. We can deduce nothing, unless we can closely analyze the specific color swatches.

Van Gogh: skipping a few palettes, we get to the point of the article. I can instantly see this is a palette from Van Gogh's earlier works like "The Potato Eaters" rather than later, more primary colorful works like "Starry Night." This palette is more representative of early Dutch oil painting (e.g. Rembrandt) which used a small range of earth tones with very few primary colors, mostly because primary colors and even white pigments were very expensive. A full spectrum of colors could be suggested by contrasts within a small range of colors. A large daub of black is apparent, showing again, the darkened tones of his earlier work. Black and earth tones were cheap, and Van Gogh was cheap.

Aside from Delacroix's aberration, I can instantly feel these palettes in my hand, look at the colors, and connect them immediately with the techniques apparent in that artist's works. Artists traditionally learn to paint by looking at paintings, but these rarely seen objects give us a hint of the actual working process of the artist. They are of interest to painters, as well as technical art historians who could use them to determine exact pigments used by an artist without having to do destructive testing to an actual artwork. I have even seen palettes used to get a fingerprint of an artist, to authenticate another work with a similar print. Oh yes, there is so much of interest here, on many different levels. Yes, people are fascinated by these glimpses into an artist's work process, I have even written about this subject. These test sheets and palettes show one aspect of an artist's work, his color choices, stripped of any imagery. It represents the artist working out his choices before they go on the painting.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:56 AM on May 30, 2010 [10 favorites]

This is cooler than it has any right to be. Thanks, mjjj!
posted by runningwithscissors at 9:58 AM on May 30, 2010

In addition to the color mixing, I love seeing the actual palette itself, that simple piece of wood with the hole to hold it with. Such an elegant tool.
posted by girlhacker at 12:51 PM on May 30, 2010

this is excellent.
posted by puny human at 2:47 PM on May 30, 2010

Thank you madamjjj. It would have been interesting enough with the single link, but the links underneath are really well-researched. Show-off!

In addition to the color mixing, I love seeing the actual palette itself, that simple piece of wood with the hole to hold it with. Such an elegant tool.

Elegant to the point of practical perfection. Funny to see that my brother paints with more or less the same palette used 200 years ago. I suspect as long as paint is used, the artist's palette won't change at all.
posted by three blind mice at 3:11 PM on May 30, 2010

I feel like I've learned more about painting from reading the first article and the comments than I can remember from several years of after-school art lessons in my youth.
posted by immlass at 4:19 PM on May 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


(what art school charlie ?)
posted by sgt.serenity at 4:41 PM on May 30, 2010

Gee, I don't know if I should say, sarge. I don't have many nice things to say about my old art school, so perhaps it would be unkind to name and shame them. Suffice to say, I used to work in the same studio where Grant Wood once taught painting. You can figure it out from there, if you care to.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:07 PM on May 30, 2010

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