Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Palette: Part 3 - Old Masters

Today's palette post will deal with two artists from the past who, more than any other artists, influenced me in my art. First off I'll talk about a French bourgeois gentleman by the name of William-Adolphe Bouguereau. He was born November 30, 1825 and died on August 19, 1905. In his day, he was much sought after by wealthy patrons for his idealized depictions of mythological and biblical imagery as well as peasant children and portraiture. In a time when Impressionism was becoming the popular form of art and gaining speed in its own right, Bouguereau stood out like a sore thumb with his highly refined, traditionally executed paintings. They negatively portrayed him as antiquated, describing his work as plastic and too slick. Despite this, however, his fame never slowed down and his paintings demanded high prices throughout his life. Just a note: I have nothing against Impressionism. On the contrary, artists like Monet and Degas are among my favorites.

The 20th century art world did everything in it's power to bring his good name down. Bouguereau was relegated to the lowest form of art and disappeared into obscurity until recent decades. Good art was created by the likes of Pollock and Rothko. Master technicians of the traditional craft of oil painting were simply footnotes in the long history of art leading up to the 20th century art explosion of breaking from tradition. I appreciate the break from the old, but aesthetically it isn't my cup of tea. That art doesn't move my soul, doesn't stimulate me to think, nor does it give me goosebumps when seen in person. It simply is what it is. It would be in bad taste for me to belittle the accomplishments of those same artists who spoke negatively about Bouguereau and brought realism down to "low art."

Fast forward to the present day and you will find that realism is alive and thriving. I know a lot of young, avant-garde contemporary artists who have told me realism is dead. It never died. There was a closed-off intersection on the highway of art history to allow the parade of modern art to cross. That is all. Interest in the French Academics has boomed and artists like Bouguereau and many others (Gerome, Waterhouse, Tadema, just to name a few) are rising to their deserved status. In his day, Bouguereau was considered one of, if not the greatest painter of all time. That's a hefty title for someone whose art is considered low.

Bouguereau Palette (courtesy of, “Bouguereau at Work” by Mark Walker¬

According to Moreau-Vauthier, a student of Bouguereau, his preferred working palette consisted of the following:
Naples Yellow
Yellow Ochre
Chrome Yellow
Cobalt Blue
White Lead
Light Vermillion
Chinese Vermillion
Mars Brown
Van Dyck Brown
Burnt Sienna
Ivory Black
Genuine Rose Madder

He also had a large collection of other colors that he would use sparingly if a passage of a piece required it:
Minium, Vermillion, Brown Madder, Cassius Red, Iodine Scarlet, Purple Red, Madder Lake, Mineral Yellow, Charred Massicot, Orange Minium, Chrome, Orpiment, Indian Yellow, Prussian Blue, Mineral Blue, Ultramarine Blue, Smalt, Ash Blue, Indigo, Violet, Verdigris, Scheele Green, Mountain Green, Chrome Blue, Terre Verte, Sap Green, Cassel Earth, Cologne Earth, Prussian Brown, Asphaltum, Mummy, Yellow Lake, Cadmiums
Azure, or smalt

Needless to say, he was not at a loss of colors at any given moment. Bouguereau, more than any other of the classical painters, influenced my work in art school. It resonated with me profoundly and I will defend his work till the day I drop. His mastery of the human form, single and multi-figure compositions, narrative, and emotion are unparalleled in his time. It was his flesh tones, however, that really drew me in. I dabbled with a lot of his colors and for a long time my palette was very similar to his own. But as with all artistic endeavors, I changed gears and began looking towards other 19th century painters in the vein of Sargent and Fechin.

From them I didn't really care about their palettes but took more from their stylistic handling of paint. I went further back, to a 17th century Dutch man named Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. What a guy! My fascination with Rembrandt started in high school. Inexplicably I was drawn to his work, even though it wasn't realistic in the sense that I liked it. It wasn't till I began developing my style that his work began infiltrating my conscience again.

Rembrandt is considered by most, regardless of tastes, to be one of the greats. Not just a master, but an innovator, a genius if you will. Some even call him THE greatest artist of all time. His life is heavily romanticized to the point of being mythical. In another post I'll discuss him a bit more in depth but for now I'll just go into his palette.

As mentioned in the first post, the idea of artists using a minimal number of colors to paint really changed my perspective on things. Ironic because there are 29 colors on my palette, hehe. But using less colors produces cleaner paintings. Rembrandt was the master of that concept. His palette is as follows (it varies from source to source):
Lead White
Yellow Ochre
Red Ochre
Bone Black
Red Lake
Terre Verte
Lead-tin yellow

A very simple palette. But given that in that time period artist's (or their apprentices) would grind their own pigments, all of those colors were never on the palette at the same time. We take for granted the modern tube of paint, allowing us to quickly squeeze out fresh paint and have a full palette of colors at our disposal to play with. Rembrandt, like many artists of his day, would grind just the colors he needed for that day's work. It saved money and paint, since a full palette of colors would have to be discarded at the end of the day. And there were formulas to paint specific things like gold, horses, and flesh. If he were going to spend the day painting a horse, he would only grind the necessary pigments (lead white, black, and yellow ochre to be exact). He kept his mixtures to a minimum, usually using only 3 or 4 colors tops in any given mixture. Only in the flesh do we see (in cross section x-rays at least)that there are up to six pigments mixed.

Now, what does this all mean? My palette is not dominated by earth tones at all, so color-wise Rembrandt's palette didn't really influence me. But ever since I started griding my own binding medium (sun-thickened linseed oil + calcium carbonate) I have been conscious of not laying out my full palette if I don't need it. Since I use way more colors than Rembrandt did, even in my smaller palette, money vanishes quickly when I have to buy new tubes of paint. And while it isn't unique to Rembrandt to mix only what he needed, it was in studying Rembrandt that I really appreciated the practice of pigment frugality. It also lessens the amount of muddiness of colors. Too many colors all over a painting actually makes it less appealing.

So now I mix only the colors I need for the task that needs to be accomplished. It was a difficult habit to break since for years I was taught to have the full color range on my palette, but it has saved me a lot of money and has made my color mixing that much better. When I paint alla prima I lay out a full palette since the nature of alla prima allows for wonderful happy accidents with color, which I then store in my technical memory bank to use in my studio work.

Tomorrow I'll talk about Richard Schmid and Donato Giancola, two contemporary artists whose palettes have influenced me greatly.

All images were taken from, an amazing website dedicated to raising awareness of classical art and putting it in it's rightful place.

Ernst Va De Wetering's amazing book Rembrandt: The Painter at Work has provided me with a wealth of knowledge into the world of not only Rembrandt himself, but Dutch painting in the 1600s.