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Paint Colors: A Historical Perspective

Utrecht

In painting, different palettes yield different results. The two basic types of palette are either one composed mostly of earth colors acting as counterpoints to a few bright, chromatic colors, or one made up almost entirely of chromatics, with all neutrals mixed from complementary colors.

For artists wanting to emulate the Old Masters, the more appropriate choice is an assortment of earth colors, with select chromatics added where needed. Until the late 19th century, the selection of permanent colors of paint was relatively slim. Some colorful hues did exist, but they were often difficult or expensive to obtain. The oldest pigments available were earth colors, naturally occurring oxides, clays and minerals with half-chromatic hues. Against a field of earth colors, a brilliant but costly ultramarine derived from crushed lapis lazuli, or a vermillion from a natural mercury deposit seemed unbelievably brilliant. For working in the style of Renaissance or Baroque painters, the palette should consist mainly of ochres and umbers, supplemented with a few, sparing bright colors.

By the late 19th century, more exotic colors were available after several centuries of trade routes and European colonization. Yet, an explosion of new colors would happen in Europe itself, beginning with the British invention of the first man-made dye, Mauve, and then hundreds of others developed in Germany from the same innovative use of coal tar. Aniline dyes and similar chemicals could be fixed to a chalk to create a pigment, then ground with a vehicle to create colors of paint never before seen in the natural world. Some man-made colors are among the very most lightfast available. Innovations in color manufacture coincided with new optical theories about how we perceive colors of light, to inform and inspire the Impressionists and Post-impressionists, at a time when more colors were available to the painter than in the history of the world.

The Impressionist and Post-impressionist palette are based on the idea that, rather than creating a neutral field peppered with color like raisins in a rice pudding, the paint should be used at its full chromatic potential, in distinct spots, with the viewer’s eye mixing the spots into optical color. This is not to say that the Impressionist palette contained no neutrals; it would be more correct to say that colors were contrasted against one another at their greatest chromatic potential, rather than being conservatively restrained to set the stage for a few powerful chromatic spots as in older painting.

Contemporary painters use all imaginable reasons for choosing a particular set of colors- emotional, theoretical, historical, and many more. Regardless of the individual’s pictorial objectives, having a rational reason at the core of the palette helps give a starting point for all other decisions.

Here are a few suggested palettes for different artistic styles. Note that the colors are chosen not for specific historical accuracy, but for their consistency with pictorial and coloristic objectives at several historical periods, while making good use of more permanent, economical and safe modern materials.

Old Master (Italian)

• Raw Umber

• Burnt Umber

• Raw Sienna

• Burnt Sienna

• Yellow Ochre

• Terre Verte

• Sap Green

• Venetian Red

• Brownish Madder

• Naples Yellow Hue

• Ultramarine Blue

• Cobalt Blue

• Ivory Black

• Titanium White

• Zinc White

Old Master (Dutch):

• Raw Umber

• Burnt Umber

• Raw Sienna

• Burnt Sienna

• Yellow Ochre

• Cobalt Blue

• Ultramarine Blue

• Hansa Yellow Light

• Alizarin Crimson

• Terre Verte

• Sap Green

• Ivory Black

• Van Dyck Brown

• Vermillion Hue

• TitaniumWhite

• Zinc White

Impressionist:

• Cadmium Red Light

• Cadmium Red Medium

• Cadmium Yellow Light

• Cadmium Yellow Deep

• Ultramarine Blue

• Cerulean Blue

• Prussian Blue

• Viridian

• Chromium Oxide Green

• Alizarin Crimson

• Yellow Ochre

• Burnt Sienna

• Ivory Black

• Titanium White

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