Sunday, June 24, 2012

Libertat Hundertpfund and the Origins of the Modern palette

Johann Wolfgang van Goethe's conception of the color wheel (1810)

Libertat Hundertpfund was an artist who never quite attained the status of being a 'household name.'  His moniker so awkwardly stumbles off the average tongue, that the question arises as to whether or not it was even a familiar name in his own home (as the name translates roughly to "liberty hundred-pound," one might even ask if it were real and not a pseudonym).  But, despite his relative anonymity, Herr Hundertpfund has influenced countless of artists over the past century and a half, for it is Hundertpfund who has been credited with establishing the modern color palette.

(photo courtesy of Oakland University)

Hundertpfund, a painter of history scenes, was searching for a way to better imitate the life and transparency of shadows in nature when he happened upon a glass prism, and became engrossed in the colors of the spectrum which it produced.  While contemplating these colors, and how they affected each other, he visualized the Primary colors (red, yellow, and blue) as spokes originating from the center of a circle;  where the primaries blended into each other, new colors, which Hundertpfund called secondary or derivative colors (orange, green, and violet), were formed.  Though Hundertpfund cannot be the first credited with envisioning this "circular arrangement of the colours of the prismatic spectrum"¹ – Moses Harris had put forth the idea in 1766, and in 1810 Johann Wolfgang van Goethe attempted to give a rational explanation of color as illustrated with a color wheel – he did become the first to try and offer a practical application of this theory of color specifically to painters.

In his book, The Art of Painting Restored to its Simplest and Surest Principles, 1849, Hundertpfund attempted to teach students a more general but accurate understanding of color based upon his personal observations of Nature, and upon his years of experience as a painter.  His descriptions of color were often more philosophical than utilitarian, speaking of color in terms of elevation, joy, and Life and Death, but perhaps this can be forgiven;  his explanation of colors, the color wheel, and how colors affect each other, though commonplace now, were novel then, and the vocabulary describing color interaction had not yet been established.

He believed that the colors of the Rainbow were "Ideal Colors," and he surmised that if paint manufacturers could produce material colors which matched the three Primary ideal colors (red, yellow, and blue), artists would never need another color on their palettes. "We ought, further, to endeavor to lesson the number of pigments, so that it may be clearly and easily understood, that, in fact, we paint with three colours only.  We must bring back the material colours to the ideal ones;  and observe that in the Rainbow, the whole law of colours, the whole secret of Tones, the whole science of colouring – in short, the key to Mixing, is to be found."² But since there were not yet pigments available which could match the ideal, a method of painting had to be established which would make the most of the colors to be had, and which could best approximate Nature.

The painting techniques he developed were based upon "the laws of the three Primary colours" and the idea of contrasted or opposite color (color complements).  Whether painting indirectly or painting Prima, Hundertpfund advocated first laying-in a color on the canvas which was opposite of the desired finished color.  So, for example, if a piece of cloth were to be a "warm" red color in the completed painting, it must be first under-painted with the color opposite it on the color wheel – in this case, a "warm" green† (for an indirect painting, the color would be laid-in thinly and allowed to dry before proceeding;  for direct painting, an indistinct scumble of more intense color would be laid down and then painted in-to).  By these methods, Hundertpfund felt that whole-tones, half-tones, and shadows could best be expressed without risking "lifelessness" of color.

Unlike the palettes of his predecessors, Hundertpfund's palette was not crowded with upwards of one hundred pre-mixed tints.  "Those painters who mix Tones beforehand know very well that they cannot make use of many among them.  To what purpose is it, then, that we give ourselves profitless labor?"³  Instead he employed around twenty simple pigments, mixing with his brush from the whole colors on his palette what he needed as he went along – at times, even on the painting itself.

Hundertpfund's Palette (Plate II)

Hundertpfund based his palette on the ideal Primaries, and laid his pigments out like a color wheel which had been cut and stretched into line.  Since there were not ideal colors to be found among the material pigments offered by the colormen, Hundertpfund had to use several pigments from each hue family to approximate the possibilities of that group's ideal color (The one exception to this was genuine ultramarine blue, which, when found, could stand for all of the blues on the palette.  It was the only pigment which Hundertpfund felt was "ideal," because it had the necessary depth, and would remain pure when mixed with white.)

I will now describe those pigments which are generally acknowledged to be primary colours;  and also show how a palette should be prepared, as it is not so unimportant as some might suppose. 
Our material colours (pigments) exhibit themselves in two different kinds of Tones, as do the ideal;  they have a positive and a negative life.  The life of the Blue is negative, that of the Yellow positive.  For this reason we consider Blue as a cold, and Yellow as a warm colour;  and between these stands Red, which is neither negative nor positive, neither warm nor cold.  In preparing the palette, then, Red should stand between these two, and in the centre of all the other pigments;  on the right all the warm pigments;  on the left all the cold.  By this means two different sorts of Tones will appear on the palette. (See Plate II.) 
Since we have no good medium Red among our pigments, then Madder Lake must be used in its place.  If any one prefers painting with Carmine, let him use it, but the former is preferable on account of its depth and durability.  Next, on the right, stands Vermillion; then well burnt light Terra di Sienna (whoever has not got this can use Light Red instead);  then comes slightly burnt dark Terra di Sienna, then Roman Ochre, Gold and Yellow Ochres, then Naples Yellow, and lastly, Crems White. 
To the left of the Madder Lake, the light Oxide of Iron (Venetian Red), then Violet Oxide of Iron (Violet de Mars), then Ultramarine, Cobalt, and Prussian Blue.  Green Cinnabar (Cobalt Green, or Rinmann's Green), being the connecting colour between Blue and Yellow, forms the conclusion of the series, if we consider them as arranged in a circle.  After these follow Veronese Green, Ultramarine Ashes, and burnt Tyrolese Earth;  then Mummy and Asphaltum as half-tones:  but as these are composed of all three primary colours, they do not belong to the circle, which consists only of primary and secondary colours, and of whole-tones.  These five pigments are only to be regarded as softening connecting Tones for the whole palette.  Veronese Green and Ultramarine Ashes are negative, Mummy and burnt Tyrolese Earth, positive, and Asphaltum, neutral, softening Tones.  Then follow Black, and even Graphite (Black Lead), Blue Black, and Ivory Black. 
White and Black have nothing in them of primary colour, and therefore do not belong to the Colours. 
This arrangement of the palette is founded on the prismatic order.⁴

Hundertpfund's palette, limited as it was to base colors, was one of the first to omit pigment mixtures, and served as a precursor to the common color palette employed by the majority of artists today.  Why it is that his name and contributions are little known today is a mystery.  F.Schmid, in his book, The Practice of Painting (1948), seems to have been the first to resurrect Hundertpfund's palette, but devotes only a short caption to the artist's ideas ("Hundertpfund declared himself against any mixtures prepared beforehand on the palette.  With him an age-long tradition found its end."⁵), and Faber Birren in History of Color in Painting mentions Hundertpfund only in connection with Schmid's book.  Perhaps now, with Hundertpfund's The Art of Painting Restored to its Simplest and Surest Principles being readily available to read through GoogleBooks, some credit will be returned to this forgotten color theorist and how he changed the future of artists' methods.

"If I only succeed in teaching young artists how to obtain the right view of the actual nature and operation of colours, I think my essay will not be useless, nor entirely without effect.  But I am far from wishing to put a restraint upon any one by these general rules;  but hope that every one will of his own accord be convinced by continual practice, that this method of painting offers the greatest freedom."⁶

† If a warm red were under-painted with a cool green, the nature of their exact oppositeness would result in the colors "killing" each other, an undesirable outcome.

¹ Hundertpfund, Libertat, The Art of Painting Restored to its Simplest and Surest Principles, (David Bogue, London, 1849), p. vii (preface).
² ibid., p. 3.
³ ibid., p. 40.
⁴ ibid., pp. 24-26.
⁵ Schmid, F., The Practice of Painting, (Faber and Faber Limited, London, 1948), p. 98.
⁶ Hundertpfund, pp. 85-86.


Astroluc said...

wow, that was fascinating. Thanks for posting!

ghpacific said...

I was confused with the prism and rainbow references as those colors come from energy or light.

I hope that today's painters are not continuing the classic mistake of assuming additive colors in nature sourced from sunlight can be recreated by the subtractive colors sourced from pigments and binders.

They are 2 entirely different color phenomena and need to be separated in the artist's mind.

innisart said...

@ghpacific At the time, Goethe, Hundertpfund, and many others did not know that. Their ideas were interesting and new, but not scientifically sustainable. Historical writings have to be read in the context of when they were written. Sadly, there are many ideas from the past - often incomplete or just wrong - which persist today.

Jeb Hagan said...

There are two color wheels with two sets of primary colors. Both are valid and useful.

When coloring with opaque pigments, Hundertpfund's ideas about the primary colors are correct. If you mix yellow and blue paint, you get green paint, etc.. The paint mixing machine at your hardware store works on this principal and it is absolutely true for opaque pigments.

For colors of light, and transparent materials, the primary colors that make up all other are cyan, yellow, and magenta. These colors are used when light shines through a surface. In printed materials, the inks are laid down in successive layers by color, and reflected light shines through all of them, combining in various ways to make colors, just like the transparent plastic gels used in stage lighting combine to form different colors of light.

innisart said...


Blue, red, and yellow are typically the colors we are taught as being the Primaries when we are in "primary" school. Cyan, magenta, and yellow (cadmium) are more accurate descriptions of the colors from which "we might mix every other known color" (as our pigments are not ideal, mixing every known color exactly is not possible).

In printing, cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK) are used over a white ground to create various colors. This is still a subtractive process, even if the colors are laid transparently. All of the colors mixed together make black.

In screening, our perception of the colors is a matter of visual mixing, seeing dots of various colors next to each other as their average (tiny cyan and yellow dots printed over and over again next to each other on a page would give the impression of green).

In light, the primary colors are Red, Green, and Blue (RGB). Those colors when mixed result in white (light contains all the colors).

When light is passed through a gel, a subtractive process occurs, as some of the wavelengths are absorbed by the color filter.

I think that it was this understanding of the differences in pigment and light (subtractive and additive color) that caused ghpacific to be confused by Hundertpfund's comparison of the rainbow with paint mixing.