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.
Tales the palettes tell
Variations of black
by Roslyn Levin, Shelburne, ON, Canada
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!
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Thick and lumpy
by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France
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.
by Duncan Long, Manhattan, KS, USA
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.
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The government pays for it
by Janet Vanderhoof, Morgan Hill, CA, USA
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.”
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The whimsical focal point
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
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.
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by Dorenda Watson, Columbus, OH, USA
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.
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by Ginny Glover, Tripoli, Libya
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.
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Featured Workshop: Phil Levine Workshops Inc. in Paris
oil on canvas
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