Tales the palettes tell

Dear Artist, 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.

Eugene Delacroix: A large variety of carefully pre-mixed, sophisticated colours.

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.

Paul Gauguin: No evidence of palette cleaning here, and no particular order either.

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.

Vincent van Gogh: Three colours plus black and white. Swiping strokes for a hyper mind?

Best regards, Robert 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.   Tales the palettes tell

Auguste Renoir: Fastidiously cleaned off after using. He was economical and careful.


Georges Seurat: The primaries in order and their individual whites. Neat as a pin.


Edgar Degas: Early Degas palette with a few earth tones. He lightened up in later years.

            Variations of black by Roslyn Levin, Shelburne, ON, Canada  

“The Wild Way”
sumi-e painting
by Roslyn Levin

I guess I am more fortunate than most artists. I paint using the Japanese Brushstroke technique of sumi-e. This limits my palette to black and grays. Of course there are different blacks. One can have a very black black or a brown black or the most coveted, a blue black. Sometimes I use colour especially for flowers but mainly the colour is left to the imagination!       There are 2 comments for Variations of black by Roslyn Levin
From: Holly Quan, Turner Valley, AB, Canada — Jul 02, 2010

Roslyn this is gorgeous – delicate yet powerful, very evocative. This kind of painting technique is like listening to a radio play — you hear voices, music, sound effects and your imagination fills in the rest.

From: Paddy — Aug 25, 2010

I don’t have the words to express how I feel about this incredible painting.

  Thick and lumpy by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France  

Jeffrey’s painting and palette

Palettes are fascinating. When Whistler began to teach at the end of his life, he used to look at the students’ palettes rather than their paintings saying if you don’t have a good palette you can’t have a good painting. Then again it is said that Picasso never used a palette preferring old newspapers. There is much to be learned about a painter’s process and personality from their palette. I have seen some wonderful ones; carefully cleaned and smooth as glass in the middle with mountains of dried pigment from decades of work built up around the edges like stalagmites. Mine is something else. Not much for cleaning it they are thick and lumpy. I have been using the same five colors: 2 reds, 2 blues and a yellow plus black and white for the past thirty years. My palette tells a clear story about my process. Years ago an artist from Alabama took one of my old palettes to use as the support for a collage portrait of me. It makes sense.   Time bombs by Duncan Long, Manhattan, KS, USA  

“Futurescape #8”
original painting
by Duncan Long

It makes me wonder how far from the mark historians may be in their assumptions sometimes. Back in the Dark Ages when I was in college (ironically getting my Master’s in music composition) we had a guest composer who told us he dated his manuscripts incorrectly so as to confuse historians after his death. I’m not sure why he wanted to make historians work harder than it already is — but one has to wonder how many artists, writers, and musicians may leave behind such “time bombs,” perhaps with a chuckle at the confusion they’ll cause, or in the hope that rivals or copycats will be less likely to get insights into their techniques. There are 3 comments for Time bombs by Duncan Long
From: Jen M. — Jul 02, 2010

Thansk for the idea, Duncan! LOL!

From: Anonymous — Jul 03, 2010

I think it’s hilarious that someone would even concern themselves today with the idea of historians might be interested in their work tomorrow….wow

From: Anonymous — Jul 09, 2010

Funny! Or maybe it was his cunning plan to hide the fact he had copied elements of his work from another composer. Would be interesting to know if he was back dating or forward dating them :)

  The government pays for it by Janet Vanderhoof, Morgan Hill, CA, USA  

“Branding Time”
original painting
by Janet Vanderhoof

Years ago, my sister and I were taking painting lessons from George De Groat in Carmel, CA. George would go around the studio helping and at the artist’s request use their palette and paint on the artist’s canvas. As George went over to my sister’s palette, you could see immediate frustration, in fact a little anger. “Where is that color you were using?” he asked. “Right there, George,” my sister replied emphatically. “Where?” he asked again. “Right there,” she stated. Now my sister had a habit of putting little dots of paint out and anywhere she wanted on the pallet, resembling bird poop. Now what proceeded to come out of my teacher’s mouth, I will never forget. He said, “Next time lay out some paint as if the government was paying for it.” There are 6 comments for The government pays for it by Janet Vanderhoof
From: Georgia Mason — Jul 02, 2010

Very nice painting Janet. I am partial to cows!

From: Mary Bullock — Jul 02, 2010

I laughed when I read your teacher’s comment – I’ll have to remember that one!

From: Anonymous — Jul 03, 2010


From: Anon. — Jul 05, 2010

Most of us can relate to that, I’m sure. One of my earliest lessons was not to be niggardly with paint when squeezing out my palette, and if you’re naturally frugal, it can be a hard thing to overcome.

From: The Professor — Aug 26, 2010

Most of us can relate to that, I’m sure. One of my earliest lessons was not to be niggardly with paint when squeezing out my palette, and if you’re naturally frugal, it can be a hard thing to overcome. This is a racist remark and I strongly object to the the “N” word here.

From: John D — May 10, 2014

In the United States, there have been several controversies concerning the word “niggardly”, an adjective meaning “stingy” or “miserly”, because of its phonetic similarity to the racial slur “nigger”. Etymologically the two words are unrelated.

  The whimsical focal point by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada  

“I believe”
acrylic painting 48 x 24 inches
by John Ferrie

I have always used these little clear plastic cups to mix the paint in. I must have two dozen of these cups across my work table. They have been used, abused, tossed and smeared with paint. I mix batch after batch of colour, grinding the pigment with everything from the end of a paint brush to my coffee spoon and even my finger. They are just a vessel and I have never given them a second thought; although I have never been able to throw any of them away. Tonight I had a dinner party and my friend Tom came over. He is one of my oldest friends and a lovely architect. He went over to my desk and was giddy with my multi layered colour filled cups. He brought several of them to the dinner table and made a colourful centre piece for our guests. He put tea lights in several of them and it was quite an arrangement. Everyone commented on the whimsical focal point. There are 3 comments for The whimsical focal point by John Ferrie
From: Concerned — Jul 02, 2010

Burning candles in containers filled with old paint?? May have been cute but was that safe??

From: Jen M. — Jul 02, 2010

Now, THAT is a cool idea! …And what a nice way for a friend to compliment you. :)

From: susan burns — Jul 03, 2010

It is the collective wisdom that sees us all through this life, weather we are painters or dishwashers… If there is a thing of beauty to behold, it will be the other that points it out. Thanks for that beautiful reminder!

  Internal palette by Dorenda Watson, Columbus, OH, USA  

“Black and White in Color”
original painting
by Dorenda Watson

I believe that the palette grows as the artist grows, in stages and with time. I also believe that everyone has an “internal palette.” The internal palette is one that appeals to you and not necessarily to anyone else. It has the colors that you are most comfortable with, regardless of trend or formula. Your internal palette will (and should) change in accordance to what is happening in your life and in your mind. Painting with your present, internal palette is incredibly freeing and authentic. I think this is most evident in Picasso’s Blue Period pieces and with the work of Van Gogh, who specifically used color to present mood and emotion rather than actual realistic color. An individual’s palette is their unwritten diary of a journey through a period of time via paint. There are 3 comments for Internal palette by Dorenda Watson
From: Rose — Jul 02, 2010

Your painting is delicious….

From: Chris Everest — Jul 02, 2010

“An individual’s palette is their unwritten diary of a journey through a period of time via paint.” Perfect. Transitory. Beautiful. Seeing in the displaced colours the ghost of the painting. Both the real painting and the one you imagined when you began. Dorenda : you expressed it exactly right.

From: David Lussier — Jul 05, 2010

Nicely said!

  Staining sculptures by Ginny Glover, Tripoli, Libya  

by Ginny Glover

I am a sculptor and am currently living in Tripoli, Libya. I recently had a show and sale here and sold all eight sculptures that I have done here. The expat community here are desperate for art relating to Libya so I am in a good position and have requests for more sculptures than I think I will be able to finish… although needless to say I will try my best. I wanted to let you know that your twice weekly letters have been such an inspiration to me over here… I always look forward to reading them and with so much coming at us via email I think that says a lot about your many words of wisdom. I use Golden liquid acrylics to stain my work and often struggle with colour. Thanks again for all the moral support and keep going… we need you out here in cyberspace. There is 1 comment for Staining sculptures by Ginny Glover
From: Judy Gosz — Jul 02, 2010

Your sculpture is wonderfully unique! I love the soft color you’ve added and the fabric pattern and texture. One of the wonders of receiving Robert’s letters is finding insight and input from around the world.

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070210_robert-genn Painting workshop in Luxembourg Gardens, Paris, sponsored by Phil Levine Workshops Inc.   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order. 

oil on canvas by Wayne Haag, Australia

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Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Tales the palettes tell

From: JoRene Newton — Jun 29, 2010

Robert, I loved your piece on artists palettes. I have been working with acrylics and often save them from day to day but I hate to discard the beautiful pigments at the end of session. Recently I have been working in collage and I use those beautiful bright swatches of dried pigments to highlight a particular passage. Since I am a collage artist I hate throwing away anything that might be used in a collage!

From: Tom Semmes — Jun 29, 2010

One of my art teachers said that the palette was your best teacher. If you are feeling stuck with a painting, look at your palette, he said, and ask yourself what color are you not using. That is the color that the painting needs. I still think about this and do find that when my palette is full of chalky lights or muddy darks there is usually some part of the painting that has been ignored and needs to be addressed. Cleaning the palette and squeezing out some fresh paint usually gets me back on track. However looking at some of the palettes of historical painters shown here, most of which are full of chalky lights and muddy darks, at some point in your painting career, your palette may cease to have much to say.

From: Dwight Williams — Jun 29, 2010

Ahh! I love all this recent talk of color. But I must say, as I have earlier and in spite of what other teachers and “greats” have said, before color comes the composition. The play of shapes is the bones, the foundation. Decide on the lights and darks and medium values. Then comes the color.

From: Jackie Knott — Jun 30, 2010

At a weekend seminar, Daniel Greene used to annoy me with his insistent recommendation one needed to squeeze out a full palette of color in every range of value for each pigment. It took thirty minutes. I felt if I needed a color I could mix it quickly in the value I needed. I found out I was often in error. Even though many times some of the paint was never touched, by seeing the value range on the palette I was better equipped to choose one or the other. Those middle values are subtle and tricky. I think color and value are the most important things an artist can master … and I’m still working on it.

From: Richard Rabkin — Jun 30, 2010

Another thing about palettes is that in the days when artists mixed their own paints, they only put out what they were using that day. If you look at some of the really old self-portraits with palette, you see mostly flesh color paints. I’m not sure why.

From: Anonymous — Jun 30, 2010

Yes… palettes do tell… the science part of painting…very interesting. There sure is something in the air with ? workshops springing up…??? I had a random week last year…did a plien aire in the mountains…not at all impressed the instructor did it to be in the place with company of other artists…it was a last minute thing I had an open week….not a good move…anyways…it was said that an Artist in the States paid for a second house just by teaching workshops… I sure hope students pick their instructors very carefully.

From: Sandra Essex — Jun 30, 2010

I had a wonderful watercolorist as an instructor years and years ago. He looked like a little Santa Clause, minus the red suit, hat and boots, of course. And he could bring forth the most brilliant, pure, unadulterated colors out of the rattiest-, moldiest-, muddiest-looking palette I have ever seen. How he did it, we (the class) could never figure out!

From: Edna V. Hildebrandt — Jun 30, 2010

I am for cleaning palettes because I have one wooden palette for my oils. For acrylics I recycle them from food packages e.g. frozen meat and other food items. I throw them after wards. But I am curious what tales do the palettes of the great masters tell and how they can help me in my paintings.

From: Mary Galloway — Jun 30, 2010

Just received my first “letter” and must send a note to convey my pleasant surprise. Not knowing what to expect, I was indeed impressed with the depth of information. My day at work is spent analyzing color amongst other things, and todays’ information will undoubtedly creep into future conversations.

From: Smiley Belkin — Jul 01, 2010

I think the idea of not having to look too closely at your palette to know where things are is a good one. It’s too late for me to learn. Yes, or like the keys of a computer — writing goes faster when you don’t have to look.

From: Evelyn Wray — Jul 01, 2010

I enjoyed your recent report on marketing a body of work. My comment ( discovered during painting this week ) is in alignment with your comment that a legend in art is a quirk of nature. I like that. Expanding the ‘ cause’ deeper, I hunch that the marketability of art is in the DNA, just like the color of my eyes.

From: Mei-Heng Chen — Jul 01, 2010

Throw away paper palette are abomination because cause you to lose good habit of regular placing that an artist with old fashioned wooden can count on. (Chinese artist me).

From: razif — Jul 02, 2010

I’m kinda a bit confused about this. Maybe it’s something new to me.Will look through it. Anyway. thanks.

From: Louise — Jul 02, 2010

Took a wonderful color workshop (watercolor) from a dynamic local instructor. This was the first time he’d taught this workshop, and he was working through the content, using us as guinea pigs. I loved the technical stuff…for me the more scientific the better. Anyway, one fond memory was the HUGE case of boxes of kleenex he had brought, and he strode around the room yelling “CLEAN YOUR PALETTE!” All the better to see the true colors shining through.

From: Dave C. — Jul 02, 2010

This is why I like my glass palette. It can never become so messy that I can’t clean it off with a razor scraper, thus destroying all evidence of just how unorganized I can be sometimes. Of course, I also like the method of one of my painting teachers, where she will just roll out some freezer paper, glossy side up and use that as a palette. When finished, just roll it up and toss it out.

From: Wendy J. — Jul 04, 2010

The nice thing about freezer (wax) paper used as a palette is you can also just let it dry and then re-use it. Once the wax paper has several layers it can be used in mixed-media pieces and collage.

From: Allan Newman — Jul 04, 2010

I hate cleaning palettes. My old palettes are so built up and heavy that they are museum pieces. But does any museum want to collect them? No inquiries just yet.

From: David Lussier — Jul 05, 2010

What really tells the story for me is looking at a students pallete while they are working on a painting. I look at what they’ve been mixing on the palette from their piles of colors. A palette is a palette by individual choice and that’s fine but I want to see if they know how to work with their palette. You can even tell if they’ve got something good going or not just looking at their palette before looking at their painting. For more than twenty years I’ve been working with the same six colors plus white. From that I mix six other colors into piles around the palette. I feel that I can do anything with this palette but I’m always looking at my paint mixtures with the same critical eye I do with my students to see if I am on the right track.

From: tatjana — Jul 07, 2010

I don’t like people looking at my palette. I feel that as an intrusion into my personal space. It’s good to share practical ideas, but I don’t invite comments on my painting “underwear”. The painting is what I want to be seen, and what matters. I have the same uncomfortable feeling when I see palettes of the masters in museums – I am not sure that they were meant to be seen or used for our learning.

From: Anonymous — Jul 08, 2010

tatjana…a palette… like underwear…gives shape…or not.

From: tatjana — Jul 09, 2010

…didn’t say I wouldn’t wear it…just don’t like showing it…LOL!

From: Anonymous — Jul 10, 2010

yes… : ) the secret of the …. : )

From: Harley Colt — Jul 12, 2010

My underwear are much cleaner than my pallet but never the less I applaud that comment. I live in Taos New Mexico and have a non painter friend that collects her painter friends pallets. She sees all kinds of shapes and figures in them and is more fascinated by them than the paintings. Her obsession and this thread gave me new eyes for my pallet.