Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Color Palettes: James Abbott McNeil Whistler (1834-1903)

American expatriate, James Abbott McNeil Whistler, painted at a time of great excitement and change within the art world. While a student in Paris at the Academy of Charles Gleyre, he was friend and classmate to the artists who would alter the face of art, those painters who would become known as The Impressionists, but Whistler, always the eccentric and outsider, pursued his own course toward fame. His works, inspired by the realism of Courbet, the spontaneous brushwork of Velázquez, and the harmonious arrangements of great music, were studies in tone, meticulously planned, yet painted with freshness and verve.

(His) technique was a quirky mixture of methods of painting learnt at Gleyre's academy in the 1850s together with a series of improvisations directly onto the canvas. When working on large paintings, he used a three-foot long mahogany table as his "palette," arranging an array of mixed colours and tones on it with meticulous care, saying on one occasion, "If you cannot manage your palette how are you going to manage your canvas?" He worked with a fully loaded brush, holding it firmly and applying paint to canvas in a single confident sweep, standing at a distance from his canvas in order to balance the emerging forms with his subject. His long-handled brushes were specially made for him, and he also had a particular liking for large house-painter's brushes, his favourite being one to which he gave the name of Matthew. In place of the traditional mahlstick he preferred to use a walking cane.¹

Whistler always strove for a restrained and harmonious effect, avoiding excessive colour and strong tonal contrasts, and unlike the Impressionists he never worked on a white canvas, always pre-tinting his ground a mid-grey, warm brown, red or sometimes even black. He would not begin a painting until he had prepared it, tone for tone, on his table-top "palette." In his portraits, the accents of tone would become sharper and sharper as the session progressed, and at the end of it the painting was either declared finished, or it was washed down with spirits in preparation for a fresh start the following session. His perfectionism was such that his unfortunate subjects often had to endure endless sittings.²

For his Portrait of Miss Cicely Alexander (Harmony in Grey and Green, above), Whistler organized his table-top palette in the following way. In the centre he placed a large mass of flake white. To the left of this were ranged light yellow to browns, and to the right were the reds, gradating to blues at the cool end of the colour-temperature scale. Below the central white was a band of black, the extremities of which were used for mixing flesh and background hues.³

Whistler's colors were as follows:

  • Lemon Yellow
  • Cadmium Yellow
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Raw Sienna
  • Raw Umber
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Vermilion
  • Venetian Red or Indian Red
  • Rose Madder
  • Cobalt Blue
  • Antwerp Blue (a weak pigment inferior to Prussian Blue)
  • Flake White
  • Ivory Black

From Gleyre, Whistler learned the axiom that "Black is 'la reine des couleurs!',"⁴ and it appears from the tonality of his work, that he followed that early lesson and began each of his color mixtures with black.

¹ Michael Howard, Whistler (History & Techniques of the Great Masters), (Eagle Editions, London, 1989), p. 13.
² Ibid.
³ Ibid.
⁴ Albert Boime, The Academy and French Painting in the Nineteenth Century, (Phaidon Publishers, New York, 1971), p. 63.


Belinda Del Pesco said...

Wonderful post, as always. And great choices to use as examples of his work. Stunning and inspirational.

Raphael said...

Its somehow stragen that he began every color mixing with black. Do you think he even started the white dress with a black? Hard to believe, would be a waste of paint.

innisart said...

Just because someone always starts with black to make a color mixture, doesn't mean the same amount of black is present in each mixture. There is a big size difference between a pea and a golf ball sized dollop of paint! ;)

In the picture of Cicely Alexander, Whistler painted the white dress over a dark background. It was his goal to paint the picture in a single sitting, and if he were unable to attain that goal he would wipe down the painting and start again the next session. Poor Miss Alexander had to endure 70 sittings! The transparency of the dress was attained through the build-up of all of those wiped-off layers. Whether or not he started that white dress with ivory black, or relied on the dark background coming through the white, I don't know. The opaque areas of the dress don't appear to be overly intense, and given Whistler's predilection for a compressed value range, it is doubtful he used any pure white in that particular painting.

I doubt he started each mixture for every painting with black, however. Symphony in White No. 2 (the top-most painting in the post), for example does not exhibit the same tonality of many of his works (inspired by Albert Moore). Of course, Symphony in White No. 2 was a conscious break from Courbet, and he may have purposefully eschewed the the heavy use of black for a time.

Raphael said...

When it comes to the colorrange, indeed everything looks like it was cooled (blacked) down.

Even a dot of black can change your color drastically, at least thats what i experienced. for cooling therefore i mostly use ultramarine blue. But thats more a style and likeness question.

His paintings have their own style whats definitly good. I also like the roses at the first picture, they are very refreshing to the relativly cooled color of the other pictures.

Raphael said...

What am i telling, i dont mean roses, i dont know the english word for those :).


kevin mcevoy said...

Brilliant post, I'm a huge fan of your blog Matthew! I'm waiting for your book...

I never knew these details about Whistler- the enormous palette, the addition of black. I was taught, likewise, to mix the smallest amount of black into flesh tones. Until I added black, though, my paintings of people looked a bit like wax figures.

Great selection of Whistler pieces, they illustrate your point very well.


innisart said...

These are probably my favorite paintings by Whistler, with the exception of Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 2, which would have made a better example of his use of black than his studies in white.

I think there is confusion in how color is taught to young students. If you want to be a realist, but are only taught the predominant color theories and axioms of the Impressionists, you will find yourself far from your goal. (eg. violet and yellow may be color complements, but when a random two are mixed, you are more likely to wind up with a chromatic warm brown- not a very neutralized color).

Gray is everywhere in nature, and making use of a black in your palette goes a long way toward reducing chroma in a pigment. I always saw the gray, but it was many years into painting before a teacher actually gave me permission to use black in flesh, and I thought it made a huge difference.

Great work at the Salmagundi Junior Member Show, Kevin! I wanted to do a post about it, but my flash drive was corrupted, and I lost all of my images.

Mark vanderVinne said...

I've always liked Whistler, but never quite understood why so many people went crazy over his work. Last week I was able to go to the National Gallery in DC and see The White Girl (Symphony in White, No.1). I now understand why Whistler is considered a great painter. The painting is huge (think Sargent-size) and displayed prominantly and elegantly through a long arched doorway. It simply took my breath away.

A thing I noticed about the image of the painting shown here is how warm it is in color. The photo I took, and from what I remember, it was cooler in color overall, and the dark pattern on the rug beneath the wolfskin was a strong ultramarine blue. Maybe my camera is off. Maybe my memory is off. But being cooler in color, it's easier to understand just how he used his black. I do know my camera is off slightly because you can see how the color changes from cooler on the top to warmer near the bottom, and Whistler did not paint it with such blue at the top. The middle section of the painting and the lower area are fairly accurate, I believe. Not to toot my own horn, but simply for comparison, you can see the photo I took on my blogsite http://vandervinneart.blogspot.com.

innisart said...

It's always difficult to find good images on the internet. Even in Michael Howard's book, Symphony in White No. 1 is very warm. However, I bet your image, Mark, is closer to the truth, so I made some quick color adjustments to the picture in my post to attempt to make it closer to the original. Thanks for the link to your photos!

Joan Breckwoldt said...

Ohhh, just found your wonderful blog and now it's kept me up way past my bedtime! What a treasure you have here, thank you so much for taking the time to post all this info and all the beautiful images. Be back in the morning . . . .