Knowing how much I enjoy historic color palettes, Underpaintings reader Helen O'Connor contacted me and recommended the 1936 book, Colour-Control: The Organization and Control of the Artist's Palette by Frank Morley Fletcher. When O'Connor studied at the Barnestone Studios in Copley, Pennsylvania, this book formed the backbone of the school's teaching on color, and O'Connor thought I might find it interesting. I am only a few pages into the book, but the Introduction alone was so insightful, that I am very tempted to record it here in its entirety, but I will do my best to limit myself to the most salient of Flethcer's observations.
Looking back on the pilgrimage which every art student must make, one imagines that the journey might have been shortened, if, at certain points, a sign-post had been placed by some former traveller in order to save long, wasteful and useless detours.
... there is one special obstacle which stands to-day in the way of all students who have a love of colour and the desire to use and control it.
The difficulty is in the great increase of the range and power of the pigments which modern chemistry has provided for the artists, while the tradition which might guide a student in their use is obscure or entirely lost. No adequate technology has yet taken its place, nor has any clear indication been given that might serve in organizing and directing the new powers. At no time in the history of painting has the way of the art student been so uncertain.
Compared with the technology of other arts, with music for example, the science which should control the artist's palette of to-day is fragmentary and incoherent...
There are those who believe that the modern confusion in the use of paint, and the lack of consistent teaching as to the organization and control of the palette, the lack also of agreement among individual artists, are advantages; that each artist should make his own experiments, should find his own style. (Employing an orderly approach to colour) does not restrain, but gives an increase of freedom and a certainty of workmanship in place of the present wasteful and anarchical disorder of the palette.
(The modern palette) has become greatly enriched in its range, (and) to place this instrument with its intricate resources in the hands of an uninstructed student, however talented, is unreasonable. (It) condemn(s) him to years of wasteful experiment in order to discover initial facts and principles which should be preliminary to any profitable study. Such a course would be absurd as to tell a student of music to make his own experiments without help or any instruction in the practical tradition of his instrument, or in musical harmony.¹
¹ Frank Morley Fletcher, Colour-Control: The Organization and Control of the Artist's Palette, (Faber & Faber, Ltd., London, 1936), pp. 9-10.