I’ve always been suspect of historical painter’s palettes. One reason is that a lot of my old ones are around and none are typical, nor are they dated. They were put aside because they were an irredeemable mess. Further, it would be difficult to link any of them with the particular colours I was using at the time. When researchers determine the pigments Manet was using in 1873, he may indeed have been having a bad day and just discarded the offending thing. Further, palettes purported to be in use the day an artist died are not reliable either. If I thought I might croak on Thursday, I might just squeeze out the damnedest things. Truth is, creative folks are often trying something new, even on their last day.
Nevertheless, we love to analyze old palettes. There’s even a healthy market for the things. One thing for sure, there’s a wide range of ways to set up and use a palette. Whistler believed proper palette organization was the key to all the good stuff. Seurat, as we might imagine, kept his mainly primary pigments in a pretty rigid and unwavering order. For him, Mr. Black was not allowed on the job. Gauguin, for all his verbal enthusiasm for pure colour, made an unsightly pileup of sullied pigment.
Delacroix used his laboriously-prepared palette to fire his painterly enthusiasm. Rumour has it that he took his palette to bed for quiet periods of pre-mixing. Most, but not all, painters line up their colours at the top and mix below. Some squeeze out differently every time. Vincent van Gogh defined a painter as “Someone who knows how to find the greys of nature on the palette.” Monet maintained that a painter needs to be as familiar with his palette as a pianist is to the keys on her piano. He recommended not having to take one’s eyes from the painting. Rembrandt worked with a small palette of mostly earth colours. Painters of the 17th Century had considerably fewer pigments to put on their boards. Next time you’re looking at a Rembrandt, you may see a message in that.
PS: “If the colour is wrong, everything is wrong: just as, if you are singing, and sing false notes, it does not matter how true your words are.” (John Ruskin)
Esoterica: Daubs on palettes are an artist’s unwitting footprints. Lucy Davies in a Sunday Telegraph Seven Magazine quotes from Vincent’s 1882 letter to his brother Theo: “There are but three fundamental colours — red, yellow, and blue; ‘composites’ are orange, green, and purple. By adding black and some white one gets the endless varieties of greys — red grey, yellow-grey, blue-grey, green-grey, orange-grey, violet-grey. It is impossible to say, for instance, how many green-greys there are; there is an endless variety. But the whole chemistry of colours is not more complicated than those few simple rules.” How well stated, and yet how difficult it is to extract beauty from the little daubs on those mahogany boards.
This letter was originally published as “Tales the palettes tell” on June 29, 2010.
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“The first virtue of a painting is that it be a feast for the eyes.” (Eugene Delacroix)
A 3 day Non-Objective Painting Workshop with Cat Tesla and Julie Schumer
in Santa Fe, New Mexico
Explore and develop your personal voice in the inspirational environment of Santa Fe. We will explore composition, color, value and how to work on multiples at the same time. Find your own signature with different mark making tools and learn how your marks enliven your paintings. Learn how to harmonize any palette, move from analysis paralysis to painting success and to trust your artistic choices. This intensive 3 day workshop is perfect for the beginning artist who has some experience using acrylic paint.
August 14, 15, and 16
9 am to 4:30 pm
$950 Bring a friend and save $50 each
Sometimes we see what no one looks for–images that have waited for us to find them. If we are lucky, these images will wait while we try to capture them with paint on canvas. They will probably change as we reach for them. I believe that if we clearly and honestly record what we see, we will be surprised, enriched, and sometimes stunned by what we’ve found.
There is almost always a narrative in my paintings as I believe that a story may be introduced in a scene. The viewer must fill in the before and after with unique eyes and experience, but enough can be presented to set a challenging stage if the work is successful.
Along with being a visual story teller, I’ve been called a colorist, surrealist, patternist, and sometimes a texturist. I’m an Atlanta artist–an oil painter for over twenty-five years–with a studio in Brookhaven. I love working with oils because each painting session results in a new revelation of what they might do. There is a mystical quality to each painting and each day for me.