Friday, March 25, 2011

Portrait Artists and the Limited Palette

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Self-Portrait
Vladimir Egorovich Makovsky (Russian, 1846-1920)


"It is evident from the study of the work of the early and mediavel masters of painting that some of the greatest achievements have been attained by very simple means and by a palette far more limited in range than our own.

Many painters of to-day and of recent times, to whom the whole modern range has been available, have deliberately limited their palette to a small group of pigments which they have habitually used, finding more freedom in that limitation than in the use of a fuller range.  Portrait painters have especially practised this limiting of the colour range.  The necessities of their work, in which character and form are more essential than elaboration of colour, have conduced to simplification of the colour problem.  The fact that the portrait painters' work is done mostly indoors under a North light also tends to limit the range both of colour and tone.

If one examines critically the recorded methods of any of the masters of painting one finds, both in craft-methods and in the selection of the pigments used, a continuous tradition of simplification and economy.

The methods of the masters of portraiture have perhaps tended to simplification and directness more than other kinds of painting, owing to the necessities of the work, which must be done with speed.

In earlier days, when the available range of colour in pigments was far smaller than that provided by modern chemistry, the limitation of the palette was determined by the smallness of the available supply.  What was then a necessity is not so now.

Velasquez and Rembrandt had six or seven available colours where we have a bewildering list of dozens offered by the colour makers.

It is obvious that in the art of portrait-painting, where the range of colour is limited and the work comparatively simple in design, many of the new powers of colour could be ignored or rejected without much loss."¹


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¹ Frank Morley Fletcher, Colour-Control:  The Organization and Control of the Artist's Palette, (Faber & Faber, Ltd., London, 1936), pp. 16-18.

8 comments:

Enzie Shahmiri * Portrait Artist said...

I agree with the limited palette for portrait work, but also wanted to say that I absolutely love the picture you chose for this post.The colors closest to the viewer just jump out. Very cleverly done.

Bernie's Art said...

When I first started painting, my friend the Royal College of Art professor, Bernard Myers, told me that you only need three colours to paint successfully, a red , a yellow and a blue plus white, which is all he used.

jeff said...

I have to politely disagree about the statement that Rembrandt and Velasquez only had 6 colors. There were at least 6 types of yellows alone. Lead Tin Yellow, Naples Yellow, all sorts of Yellow Ochers, Kings Yellow, Yellow Lakes to name a few.

Flesh is pretty low in chroma so using a low chroma palette makes sense.

Kristin Forbes-Mullane said...

great post!

Laurel Alanna McBrine said...

What fun to see the palette in this painting - thanks! Dawn Whitelaw uses just one yellow, one blue and one red, two of which are Winton brand.

Richard J. Luschek II said...

It is amazing to see the variety in palette set ups. I suppose the big thing here is that the end justifies the means. I like these posts in that you just offer the info up for study. In the end it doesn't matter whether 3 or 30 pigments were used if the painting is beautiful. Everyone has to find their way. Thanks for helping with that journey.
One a side note, I recently had a college student come to my studio to watch me paint and was amazed that black was on my palette. She said that the instructor told her to never use black. She acted like I had broken some terrible rule. Silly really.

innisart said...

@Richard- That rule about black is one of those odd principles which, because of the break with formal training in the 20th century, has been passed down since Impressionism, but devoid of the reasoning behind it. The way I saw color as a student, I wanted to use black, but my instructors forbade it. It was years before I was finally given permission to use black, and I've been the happier for it.

Andre Lucero said...

Technique, Scmechnique.

Good post.

Information on technique, pigments , colors, surfaces, brushes, etc. are all very useful. Have you ever heard a musician who has great technique, can play a million notes but lacks the sensitivity to play a simple melody that touches the heart? The same applies to painting. Technique is useful in combination with a heart that feels deeply.