When I first began painting, I asked everyone I could harass what was their "secret formula" for painting flesh. (A college professor had told me I had horrible color sense because I used brown in the painting of a costume, and my fragile ego had me very uncertain about color for years). One artist told me he used nothing but cadmium scarlet, cadmium green, and white. Another, mars orange, Winsor orange, sap green, dioxazine purple, and titanium white (I used this for a while, over a burnt sienna underpainting- I sometimes got good results, and other times it looked like "TheLand of the Sherbert People"). A different artist recommended cadmium orange, titanium white, cadmium yellow, cadmium red, and ultramarine blue. I never liked any of the results I achieved, so I stuck to the basic yellow, blue, red recipe, and fiddled with the hues now and then.
In the studio of Marvin Mattelson, however, I learned a flesh palette that really clicked for me. He based the system he taught on the lessons of Frank Reilly, but instead of using Reilly's color palette, he substituted for it the palette of William McGregor Paxton. I was very happy with the results, and for the first time, I felt I was achieving colors closer to what I was seeing, including all of the subtle grays (I finally had permission to use black in flesh!).
Marvin had already been a successful illustrator and teacher for nearly thirty years when he began his study of the Reilly method. His work up until then had mostly been executed in acrylic, and he had avoided oil paint because he was concerned that the drying time of the oils would adversely affect his illustration output. The first time he used oils, he realized the benefits oil paint held for blending, and how this offset the time he spent blending colors in acrylic.
If you've ever seen Marvin's acrylic illustrations, then you know how amazing they are. I've never seen any one else's work in acrylic that had such smooth transitions. Part of the technique he developed was based on pre-mixing his paints according to Munsell color charts, enabling him to cross-hatch his color according to value strings, and creating acrylic work that looked like oil. When it came time to study oil painting, it was natural that
he gravitated to the Reilly method, considering that technique, too, took advantage of Munsell's color classification system.
Marvin's instructor in the Reilly Method was John Murray, a direct former student of Frank Reilly. In his instruction, Murray used the same Frank J. Reilly Palette Reilly had himself taught his students. This palette consisted of cadmium yellow light, cadmium yellow orange, cadmium red light, burnt umber, raw umber, cadmium green, cadmium violet, viridian, ultramarine, alizarin crimson, titanium white and ivory black, laid out according to Munsell's 9 value scale (this will be explained better later- I hope). When John Murray retired, Marvin volunteered to take over teaching his classes, and to pass on the Reilly tradition.
Although Marvin was happy with the progress his students were making under the Reilly system, he felt they were being hampered by their inability to control the highly chromatic and staining cadmium colors instituted by Reilly. At the same time that Marvin was teaching the Reilly palette to his students, he was researching the flesh palette of one of his favorite artists, William MacGregor Paxton, a former student of Jean-Léon Gérôme. Using what he knew of Paxton's palette, Marvin decided to combine the two systems to see if this would help his students, and the change was immediate. No longer burdened by the cadmiums, his students were able to increase their skill at rendering flesh using the earth tones favored by Paxton. This effective combination was the system I learned in Mattelson's class.
Marvin's flesh palette, as I learned it, consisted of the following colors: yellow ochre, yellow ochre pale, Indian red, terra rosa, raw umber, ivory black, and flake white. He rounded out his figure palette with burnt sienna, ultramarine blue, viridian, cadmium yellow light, cadmium scarlet, and alizarin crimson. He later dropped the yellow ochre pale, as he didn't like the way it looked in flesh as much as he liked the yellow ochre lightened in value with just the flake white. I suspect that this was because the yellow ochre pale is synthetic and more chromatic (as opposed to yellow ochre light). When mixed with the higher values of the reds, I think it over-powered the subtlety of those colors.
One class, after Marvin had done a demo, I offered to clean his palette. I scraped off his paints, and carried them home. I then made piles of paint, matching them to Marvin's palette by hue, value, and chroma, and tubed them for future use. The color chart below is from my first batch of tubed colors, not from Marvin's scrapings. I later modified this, to make it more accurate (ie. I made the neutrals in the top row less blue, and I decreased the value jumps to make them more even, I eliminated yellow ochre pale, etc.). This will still serve to illustrate the example of the Mattelson palette, however.
The top row of the color chart represents the neutral string. It is laid out according to Munsell's 9 value scale, where 10 is White, and 0 is black, and there are 9 even gradations between the two ends. [Why Munsell assigned white as 10 and black 0, I do not know. It is often confusing when most artists, like Andrew Loomis, use the reverse, basing their classification on the printing process, in which the numbers represent the percentage of black ink in a color layer (1=10% black, 2=20% black, and so on up to 10=100% black.). Munsell's values are based on the percentage of white in the mixture.] These neutrals are made from a mixture of raw umber and ivory black (approximately in a ratio of 1:2), and flake white, and are used to control the chroma of the other colors on the palette.
The following row is the yellow string. Depending on the brand of yellow ochre oil paint you begin with, the color out of the tube may fall somewhere around a value 6 (it may need to be tweaked to match the value scale established with the neutral string). From the initial yellow ochre, flake white is added as you move towards value 10, and raw umber (a dark earth yellow) is added to progress towards value 0. Value 1 is likely to be pure raw umber from the tube, but may need ivory black to bring it to the correct value, depending on manufacturer.
The next row is the warm red string, which is based around terra rosa. From it's basic value as squeezed from the tube, progress up the value scale by adding flake white, and down by adding ivory black.
The last row, the cool red string, is based upon Indian red. Again, from it's basic value from the tube, progress up the value scale by adding flake white, and down by adding ivory black.
When you are finished, each column, 10-0, should be organized by values. All mixing should be done in the same column, this way the hue is affected without a value shift (ie. to reduce the chroma of a warm red shadow of value 4, add the value 4 neutral).
This system speeds up many decisions while painting. When you notice a value change in your model, and the color you just laid in was of value 6, it is very easy to just jump to the next column and keep going, without having to mix up a completely new batch of paint. Value choices are what this system is all about, and the earthen colors make for nice flesh tones.
There is no blue or green used in the flesh. When you perceive these colors in the model, the neutral string is used, and it's the juxtaposition with the other colors that gives it the appearance of a blue or green. This is useful when painting veins, or a man's beard area.
All of these colors are painted on top of an underpainting executed in raw umber.
Using the same method he teaches his students, Marvin gets great results. He uses Michael Harding paints from Great Britain almost exclusively, which were only available in the USA from the Italian Art Store until recently, but now Dick Blick has started carrying them. During workshops, he sometimes uses Old Holland Flake White #1, because of its faster drying rate. The image at right of Marvin's portrait of Cardinal Egan does not do justice to the flesh tones you witness in person.
In my personal use of Marvin's palette, I have, on occasion supplemented the colors with others of my choosing. I've added Old Holland's jaune brillant and brilliant rose at times to keep the chroma in high key portraits, as I sometimes find the higher values of the palette lack the right amount of saturation for my tastes. Old Holland's rose Dore madder lake antique extra can be useful, depending on the model's complexion, as are Gamblin's transparent earth series. Madder crimson lake deep extra, also from Old Holland is great for deep flesh creases. Another Old Holland color, cobalt blue turquoise, also creeps onto my palette, but not because I feel it is needed to fill a void, but just because I love the color so much, and try to justify the use of it.
Many people seem to balk at this system, but I don't understand why. I consider it almost as rules of grammar that help structure my artistic communication. In class, the students, because of the design of this system, make incredible progress quickly, and yet, despite the framework many find rigid, no two paintings look alike; there is room for everyone's individual style and paint application.
It may not be the method and palette I always use, but I will always refer back to this system I learned from Marvin whenever I encounter problems in my paintings. Already, I have found it has aided me in my color mixing when using an open palette, and the colors on the palette will probably always influence my personal palette. It is no surprise to me that this well-thought-out method has produced so many talented artists.