Tales the palettes tell
Robert Genn

June 29, 2010

Dear Rodney,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. For your interest we've put up a selection--the palettes of Renoir, 
Seurat, Degas, Delacroix, Gauguin and van Gogh. They're included in the current 

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.

Best regards,


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.