Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Palette Project

Jason Peck is a color detective. For the last few weeks he has been surveying famous oil painters and digging through dusty libraries trying to find out exactly which colors the leading artists squeeze out on their palettes. In case you have ever sat there with an art supply catalog wondering what in the heck to buy, you may be surprised to learn what the Group Mind prefers.

We’re lucky to have Jason as the guest author of today’s Color Sunday post. Before you read on, please take a few seconds to contribute to the related poll at left. Take it away, Jason!

The Palette Project/ Statistics Chart, by Jason Peck

“Many years ago, I decided to collect the palettes of various old masters as well as many great modern day artists and illustrators, some living and some recently deceased. I chose a mix of portrait artists, landscape artists, and plein air artists.

My initial goal was to compare these palettes to see which colors were most favored by artist then and now. I also hoped to explore the reasons why some of these artists used a limited palette as opposed to what I'm calling an expanded palette. I decided that a chart or graph would be the best way to explore this.

“To begin formulating my chart, I first picked 14 artists whose palettes I had collected, and then listed their names across the top of the chart. The artists of the past include Carolus-Duran, Monet, Alma-Tadema, Bouguereau, and Sargent, and the contemporary masters include people like Allan R. Banks, Marvin Mattelson, and Graydon Parrish,

Down the left hand side of the chart I listed the colors that I found on their palettes. Under each artist’s name I put a check next to the colors that they used. I then counted the checks for each color, and then wrote in the totals. The results told me a lot and were a bit unexpected. Besides black or white, burnt sienna totaled the highest of all colors. The results below only show the colors that scored the highest.

  1. White=14
  2. Black=12
  3. Burnt sienna=10
  4. Vermilion=9
  5. Venetian Red=8
  6. Cobalt Blue=8
  7. Yellow Ochre=8
  8. Raw Sienna=7
  9. Raw Umber=7
  10. Alizarin Crimson=7
  11. French Ultramarine Blue=6
  12. Naples Yellow=5
  13. Burnt Umber=5
  14. Viridian=5
  15. Rose Madder=4
  16. Manganese Blue=4

“Of the 82 colors on my chart, all the rest totaled 3 and below. It was most surprising to see that the cadmium colors scored so low.

“I also mentioned above that I wish to explore why some of these artist used a Limited Palette as opposed to a Expanded Palette.

“After researching and diligently studying the palettes of old masters and great artists and illustrators of today, I have reached some conclusions and a few self truths.

“Conclusions and Self Truths about palettes: I have concluded that there are two types of palettes, the Limited Palette of 6 colors or less, and the Expanded Palette of 7 colors or more.

“Limited Palette and the artists who use them
I believe that the artist who chooses to use a Limited Palette does so for many reasons:

  1. They are familiar with the colors they choose and can mix nearly every color they encounter with ease.
  2. They enjoy the activity of mixing the colors they may encounter, as opposed to buying the color already mixed, such as orange.
  3. They prefer the lesser cost of using a limited palette, as well as less baggage when traveling.
  4. They like harmony that one can achieve from using a limited palette, and still there are many more reasons.

“Expanded Palettes and the Artist who use them
I believe that the artist who chooses to use the Expanded Palette, does so for many reasons:

  1. They probably have a working knowledge of the Limited Palette, but prefer having certain colors already mixed, such as black.
  2. They prefer to buy tube colors rather than continually mixing a quantity of a particular color, such as orange.
  3. They may be under time constraints, and simply find premixed tube colors help to speed up the working time, and still there are many more reasons.
“Some Self Truths
Lets face it: It’s the earth colors, yellowish colors, and bluish colors that can greatly increase the number of colors on one’s palette. The Limited Palette user will probably only use one red, one yellow and one blue, whereas the Expanded Palette user will probably use two reds, a yellowish red, and a bluish red, and so on. Although the earth colors aren't necessarily needed, and can be mixed easily with the Limited Palette, it is, in the mind of the Expanded palette user, much easier to just buy the tube color they know they want or need rather than having to mix them continually. I don't believe that the Expanded Palette user is necessarily lazy; quite the contrary, I think it’s simply a matter of choice and experience.

“In conclusion: I now believe that there is not one universally accepted palette as the primary palette to use. One should choose and use whatever colors he or she is most comfortable working with, after all, art is about one’s self-expression.

“However, after all my research and study, I know strongly believe that all students should have a good understanding and working knowledge of a Limited Palette before using an Expanded palette. I also believe that when considering an Expanded Palette, one should consider which yellowish colors, and bluish colors are going to be of the greatest benefit to the palette. For instance, it would be senseless to purchase two yellowish reds, and no bluish red. So one yellowish red and one bluish red would be most favorable.

“And as Forest Gump once said, ‘Well, that’s all I have to say about that.’”

Thanks for contributing, Jason. Here's the link to his blog and to his Art-By-Committee sketch. I'll tabulate the voting in the blogreaders' color poll next Sunday. Oh, and sorry I left off cadmium orange, naples yellow, permanent green, Winsor red and many others. Once I launched the poll, I couldn't change it.


Erik Bongers said...

I think comparing palettes over the ages is difficult as in the old days much more toxic colors where available like lead white and the original emerald green both of which have been suspected of causing illness for painters (Van Gogh's madness, Monet's blindness, Cezanne's diabetes,...).
Also, complex chemical colors have been added to the contemporary palette like the phtalo family.
A third difficulty is all the variety of synomyms that have been used to name the same color. This being both over time as well as across manufacturers.

It would be nice to map the results on a scientific color wheel. Would the average palette come close to the CMYK of the printing industry?
Would we see color shifts over the ages, due to different taste?

JP said...

This post is so timely for me. I was just re-assessing my palettes the other day. I completely agree with the comment artists should have training with the limited palette before venturing into the expanded palette. In school, once we began more serious painting I was taught to use only these colors: cad red, cad yellow, french ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson, yellow ochre, and burt sienna. We were not allowed to use blacks, but we used white. I soon discovered that while this was an amazing way to unify my colors, I was missing some hues that I desparately wanted to have. I found that the introduction of cerulean to my gouache set and cobalt to my oils along with black to speed things up a bit really expanded my violets and greens. I talked to my teachers about it, and they said they use modified palettes as well. The palette they gave us was merely thier best attempt at a catch-all that tended to limit confusion on the part of the students.

I am still tweaking my palette all the time with new colors that come and go, but those core colors are always there as a foundation.

Thanks again for an informative and interesting post!

Nathalie said...

Hi there, your palette project seems wonderful, could you scan it and show us? I'd love to see who used what!

jeff said...

First thanks to Jason and James for this post. It is interesting to see what colors people use the most, Burnt Sienna is a great color, a very versatile earth red so it's no surprise to me that it's one of top colors used.

You could have a limited palette of Burnt Sienna, Ultramarine Blue and White and paint pretty good painting with these three colors.

Van Gogh's madness, Monet's blindness, Cezanne's diabetes,...

Were did this information come from?

Paint to my knowledge does not cause diabetes, bad diet and becoming overweight, lack of sleep, drinking to much, these all cause type 2 diabetes which is what your describing.

Monet had a cataracts.
Van Gogh most likely had epilepsy and also suffered from what we now call manic depression or Bipolar disorder that was heightened by his severe alcohol abuse.

However you did say suspected but it is highly unlikely that Monet's use of Chrome yellow or Vermilion caused his cataracts.

For centuries artist have used pigments that were made from toxic substances such as lead, mercury, and so on. Titian lived to 90, Rembrandt died at 63 which was way above the average of his day which was forty something.

A lot artist lived long lives considering that ones you mention lived before penicillin and open heart surgery.

I read this post and it is interesting that two of the modern painters mentioned Graydon Parish and Marvin Mattelson both studied with people who where students of Frank Reilly.

Reilly studied with Frank DuMond and he(Reilly) was also into the Munsell color theories and he developed the controlled palette.

I personally think that color is a relative thing and instead of limiting students to a limited palette it's better for them to study hue, value, and chroma.

I do agree with using limited palettes in the beginning.
I would include black so students can mix gray values which is the only way to learn how to control chroma. If you add white to any color the chroma will shift it will get lighter, if you add the right gray value to the color (hue) with practice you can desaturated the hue without to much sifting.

I was taught by a student of DuMond and we used 12 colors to 15 colors.
So we were thrown into the deep end right away, we had to mix gray scales to the values of the hues on the palette which helped us to learn how to control the hues.
We based our palette on the idea of triads which has been discussed here. We used all the Cads, which I found difficult to control myself.

I think for flesh you can leave these intense high chroma pigments off the palette.

I use Cad Yellows and Orange I think these are great colors for still life and landscape painting, I can't think of any yellow that comes close to the chroma of Cad Yellow Lemon.

Great post!

Richard said...

Farber Birren in his book History of Color in Painting (available at Amazon for about $40) has a chapter on palettes of David, Ingres, Gericault, Delacroix, a guy called Libertat Hundertpfund, Corot, Whistler, and Pissarro. You might find it interesting.


Richard said...

genuine vermillion, naples yellow, and manganese blue are hard to come by because they are rather toxic to make, not especially to use assuming you don't lick your brushes even if your painting has the "licked" look.

Most stores don't carry the above pigments. The exception is some of the boutique paint makers like Robert Doak ( in Brooklyn who "makes" real naples yellow, for example. In fact, he has it made for him since the antimony fumes while making it are extremely toxic. I think it's made in Asia somewhere. It's not so toxic after its made incidentally. He also has real vermillion and flake white. That is where John Currin gets his paints for flesh (flake (lead) white, and naples yellow, vermillion for a glaze over it.

Richard, again

jeff said...

I think for good Caucasian flesh tones, you can use Flake or Titanium White, Yellow Ocher, Burnt Siena, and Burnt Umbra.

If you want to fake the
Naples Yellow just mix Cad Yellow Light or Lemon with White until it comes up to the value.

Real Manganese blue is still made by Old Holland as well I just bought few tubes.

By the way Jason those charts are great from what I can see.
Could you post them so they are bigger on your blog?

For what it's worth here is Marvin Mattelson Palette:

Flesh Painting Colors:
W&N Terra Rosa
OH Yellow Ochre Light
W&N Indian Red
W&N Ivory Black
W&N Raw Umber
Flake White

Colors to round out the palette:
OH Vermillion Extra or MH Vermillion
W&N Burnt Sienna
W&N Perm. Alizarin Crimson
W&N Viridian
W&N French Ultramarine Blue
MH Genuine Naples Yellow Light

For flesh mix strings:
Grey string
Yellow String
Warm Red String
Cool Red String

Anonymous said...

Hey Guys,

Thanks for all the great feedback.

Richard, thanks for the tip about Farber Birren's book, Ill definitely pick that up.

Nathalie, Jeff, Im trying to figure out how to make a printable version of my chart, and as soon as I get one together Ill put it up on my blog. Ill make one that leaves the artist names blank, but Ill leave all of the colors listed down the left hand side. This will allow everyone to have a full size version. That way you can fill in your favorite artist palettes.

My original is rather large, in fact, it made up of 24 8X10 sheets taped together. I'm also still awaiting approval to list the palettes of some of the other artist listed on my chart. As soon as I get the rest of the approvals Ill post a full list of all the artist I polled as well as their palettes on my blog.

Hey Jeff, Give this a try for Caucasian flesh tones. Mix 2 parts Raw Sienna + 1 part Cadmium Red Light, and then make a string of 6 values adding Flake White. I also use the burnt sienna and yellow ochre string. Works wonders.

Thanks again everyone,

If you have any questions for me ask away.

Anonymous said...

In my painting class, my teacher taught us to mix our own black from either a red and a green or cobalt blue and burnt umber. I know how to pull a chocolate brown out of my black without using white and mix all sorts of colors together to get the right shades. The best part was the fact that my painting kit did not label what colors were which and I had to guess wildly when searching for replacement tubes.


Erik Bongers said...

Jeff, the info on the painters' ilnesses came from this wikipedia topic. I took it over without questioning as I'm not a chemist nor a doctor.

Richard said...

My dog, when he was a puppy, ate a whole tube of cadmium orange! Animal poison control said they had four such cases and there was no danger (although elemental cadmium is very toxic.) What was dangerous, my artists friends said, when they saw that his poop for several days was bright orange -- made more intense by the dull colors in the gutter, was that performance artists might discover it and make it into a happening in Chelsea!

Nathalie said...

Thank you so much Jason and everybody, this is a great blog! Now about my palette, I am using transparent colors in the first coats, as much as I can, with the flake white.

jeff said...

Erik I think we all do this, get information from Wikipedia that we think is 100% true. Wikipedia while it is a great resource is wrong sometimes and it contradicts itself as well.

This is because anybody can add information to the site. It's open source. If you searched for diabetes you would have found that paint does not cause it.

I think when we deal with issue such as health and the products we use in making paintings it is good to use common sense. There are people who go balistic at the mere mention of turpentine. Some people are allergic to this or have developed a sensitivity, however it does not mean that whole studio buildings should ban it. Which I have heard happen and have been on the receiving end of a complaint because someone saw that I had a can in my studio. I am a very clean painter, I don't leave turp cans open. I also think that paint is expensive and should be put on the canvas ant on my clothes and skin.

I just wanted to point out that there are a lot myths out there, Van Gogh has books full of them.

Having said that the vet was kind of wrong. Cadmiums are not good for you and they don't leave the body very fast. Dogs don't live long enough for this to build up to make it sick, but if your are messy with this pigment I think it will build up in your fat cells. It does have a accumulative affect.

In California it is classified as a possible carcinogenic.

I forgot to add that most things in life are low chroma.

Enzie Shahmiri said...

I studied exclusively with Marvin and one of the reasons he leaves Cadmiums off his palette is that they are too hard to control, especially for students or portraiture.

After having researched William McGregor Paxton's palette,
he decided to follow Paxton's theory of "If we come from dust and return to dust we should use dust (earth colors) when painting flesh." (quote by Marvin)

I am sure that Cads can come in very handy in still life, landscape and illustration work in general, but for a portrait painter dealing with flesh tones, these colors only spell trouble.

There was a huge improvement over my skin tones after my 1st workshop with Marvin and I only use Cads if they are called for in garments or objects or the occasional landscape backdrop.

Nathalie said...

Hi jason! really like te palette project, as you asked me, here are my colors:
permanent violet blueish--ultramarine violet--old holland violet gris--cobalt violet light--alizarin crimson--flesh ochre--transparent oxide red--cadmium red medium--yellow ochre--cadmium orange--naples yellow hue--chrome yellow hue--lemon yellow--permanent green light--phthalo green--hooker's green lake--primary blue cyan--prussian blue--king's blue--ultramarine deep--flake white--titanium white--ivory black--blue black