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Chapter XXII. Selected And Restricted Palettes

It is by no means easy to construct a palette which shall be at once artistically and scientifically perfect. For it is impossible to exclude every pigment which is susceptible of change, and it is unwise to include every pigment for which the fancies and partialities of particular painters desire to find a place. An artist discovers how to obtain a required hue by means of a special pigment, and is naturally reluctant to learn by tedious experimenting whether it cannot be secured by means of a more complex commingling of the ordinary paints. And although some great masters have done marvellous things with five, four, or even three pigments only, there is no sound argument which can be urged in favour of so severe a restriction. If much mixing of paints be bad, then a reasonable enlargement of the palette will render such mixing unnecessary. And the artist wants something more than a mere match in hue: he knows that there is a peculiar quality of colour to be sought as well. He can make a transparent pigment opaque, but the reverse operation is impracticable. Scumbling of one opaque colour thinly over another which is also opaque very imperfectly attains the effect of translucency.

So the artist demands, in addition to a chromatic series of opaque pigments, a second series possessed of transparency, or, at least, of translucency. Thus he adds to his cadmium yellow, aureolin; to his vermilion, madder carmine; to his emerald green, virid-ian; to his coeruleum or cobalt, ultramarine. And, moreover, he has to take account of the peculiar and often unexpected effects produced by the lightening of the tone of a pigment by commixture with white, and by the darkening due to the addition of black. Two nearly identical translucent reds may yield with white two different hues, one verging on salmon, the other on rose. Charcoal-black yields with aureolin or Indian yellow a series of greens quite distinct from those obtained by mixing these yellow pigments with ivory-black. So the artist in making his first choice from the whole number of trustworthy pigments at his command, will proceed towards his final selection by two stages. He first retains those pigments which commend themselves to his judgment for their own chromatic qualities when unmixed; he then proceeds to test the characteristics of the remainder by trying the tints which they severally produce with white, the shades they yield with black, and the mixed hues to which they give rise by commixture with one another in twos and threes.

To this set of experiments he adds another, in which these pigments are mixed, after the same manner, with those belonging to the first series. As the result of these trials the artist will be enabled to exclude several paints which would merely serve to encumber his palette.

Before deciding finally as to the elements which shall be retained for our fundamental palette, it will be instructive to study the selections of pigments which from time to time have been employed by artists of recent times and of the present day. The obvious weakness of many of such palettes lies in their inclusion of a few treacherous pigments, such as asphaltum, and of a few evanescent pigments, such as carmine, crimson lake, and the bituminous variety of Vandyke brown. Nevertheless, in making our selection of pigments from the classified list previously given, we may obtain many useful hints from the palettes employed by artists with whose works we are familiar. It is particularly interesting to observe how extremely restricted were the sets of pigments used by several painters who are distinguished for the refinement and for the rich variety of hues shown in their works. In the following paragraphs the names of all decidedly fugitive and alterable pigments are printed in italics.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, although too fond of varying his practice by the introduction of many dangerous compounds, and by the use, in the same picture, of incompatible media and methods, executed many works between the years 1770 and 1775 with one or other of these five restricted palettes, containing from four to eight pigments:


Flake white.

Yellow ochre.





Flake white.

Yellow ochre. Orpiment.

Lake. Carmine.


Black. Blue black


Flake white.

Yellow ochre. Naples yellow.

Carmine. Vermilion.




Flake white.





Flake white.

Naples yellow.

Lake. Minium.


Paul Delaroche and H. Vernet employed these eleven pigments:

Flake white.

Yellow ochre. Naples yellow. Raw sienna.

Vermilion. Lake.

Brun rouge. Burnt sienna.

Artificial ultramarine.

Blue black. Ivory black.

W, Etty, R.A., used twelve pigments:

Flake white.

Naples yellow. Yellow ochre.

Vermilion. Light red. Indian red. Lake.

Terre verte. Blue verditer.

Raw umber. Burnt umber. Black.

Samuel Palmer employed in oil painting the following pigments, twenty-eight in all:

Flake white.

Naples yellow. Yellow ochre. Raw sienna. Cadmium 1, 2, 3. Aureolin.

Field's vermilion. Vermilion. Light red. Venetian red. Indian red. Madder carmine. Pink madder. Rose madder.

Ultramarine. Ultramarine ash. Cobalt. Antwerp blue. Terre verte. Green oxide chromium. Emerald green.

Vine black. Ivory black. Brown madder. Raw umber. Burnt sienna.

Thomas Wright, of Derby, employed fourteen pigments, and, it is to be presumed, flake-white also:

Naples yellow. Brown pink.

Vermilion. Burnt ochre. Indian red. Light red.

Carmine. Lake. Burnt lake.

Terraceum blue. Ultramarine. Prussian blue. Lake azure (?).

Ivory black.

From the Portfolio of 1875-6 we obtain the particulars given below concerning the pigments used by several well-known artists: the palettes quoted have been chosen as representative of different types.

P. H. Calderon, R.A., employed fifteen pigments:

Flake white.

Naples yellow. Yellow ochre. Cadmium yellow. Raw sienna. Mars yellow.

Vermilion. Venetian red. Pink madder.

Cobalt blue. Antwerp blue.

Burnt sienna. Raw umber. Vandyke brown. Ivory black.

W. C. T. Dobson, R.A., ten pigments:

Flake white.

Last Update: 2011-01-23