Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Palette for the First Painting (1851)

A copy of the 1913 edition of  The Art of Portrait Painting in Oil Colours.

In 1851, Henry Murray, F.S.A. released the booklet, The Art of Portrait Painting in Oil Colours.  It was  published by Winsor & Newton, Limited, as part of a series of instructional books which came to be known as the "One Shilling Handbooks on Art."  For eighty years, the book remained in print, until a diminished interest in representational art made the information contained in the book no longer relevant to the public's interests.

As a business idea, the Shilling Books were a smart device used by Winsor & Newton.  The company must have realized that to increase their profit they needed either existing artists to buy much more of their product, or they needed many more artists who were in want of art supplies.  But there was a problem with each of these proposals – with the former idea, there were certain limitations on how quickly artists exhausted their supplies, so even loyal customers would not likely be forced into replenishing their materials frequently (with, perhaps, the exceptions of white paint and canvas) ;  and the  issue with the latter idea was that art training was expensive and lengthy, so the number of artists in need of supplies was not rapidly growing.   Sacrificing the quality of their goods to cut cost would have just pushed customers of Winsor & Newton toward their competitors, or would have encouraged painters to continue with earlier practices, like grinding their own paint, instead of buying items pre-made from the colourman.   But someone must have realized that there was a large market to be had if there were only more hobbyists taking up painting, and this is where the Shilling Books came in :  for a relatively modest amount of money (around $6.25 in today's currency), a fledgling artist could pick up a small book of practical art instruction derived from the then current practices, and after a short read, be ready to put their new-found confidence and knowledge into practice.  And, should the new artist happen to need supplies, there was, conveniently located in the back of the booklet, a full catalog of Winsor & Newton's wares.  (of the 136 pages in The Art of Painting in Oil Colours booklet, 64 pages are devoted to the W&N catalog, and this is also the only section of the book with illustrations).

A page from the October 1912 Winsor & Newton catalog as included in a Shilling Handbook.

The One Shilling Handbooks were in print for many years, and covered many areas of art.  By 1913, there were at least 47 books in the series, covering topics such as marine painting in watercolors, landscape painting in oil, etching on copper, pen and ink drawing, and book illumination.  Periodic updates were made to the books over the years, but these changes were, at least in specific regard to The Art of Portrait Painting in Oil Colours, mostly concerned with modernizing the language.¹  

The information in the booklet is good, if a bit brief and generic.  It remained in publication at least through 1933², but it is not likely that it lasted long after that – the instruction was a bit outdated by then, and in the face of Modern Art, there would have seemed little need for a technical manual focussed on representationalism.  Oddly, there is little known about the booklet's author, Henry Murray, F.S.A. ;  not only were there multiple artist/authors by that name in England, there were also multiple meanings for the initials F.S.A., including Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and Fellow of the Society of Artists.³

Several of The One Shilling Handbooks can be found digitized online at Google Books, or at the Internet Archive.  An excerpt from The Art of Portrait Painting in Oil Colours is included below.


The economy of the palette, and the composition of tints, have always been difficulties in the early practice of the student.  It is hoped that the arrangement and the tints which we are about to propose will save such time in doubtful experiment, and guard against mortifying failures.  It is a common plan to mix but a few tints, and to strengthen or reduce them by adding colour with the point of the brush at the moment when they may be wanted.

The series of tints presented in the following tables are, for the chief part, employed by the most eminent men in the profession.  They are the results of the practice and experience of entire lives devoted to painting ;  their adoption by the beginner will save him much anxious thought and experiment, and secure a result which he could never hope to attain by his own unaided efforts.

It is very rare to find two painters working with precisely the same colours and tints, preference and feeling having much to do with the selection.  If an artist be asked if he employs some certain colours which may be commonly used in flesh tints, he will perhaps answer that he does not, or cannot, use them.

The arrangement and the composition of the following colours and tints upon the palette, with the assurance that they will produce delicacy of the carnation hues, is a great step towards a successful imitation of life-like colour ;  but it must not be supposed that it only remains to apply them to the canvas.  It will be found that there is yet much to be learnt which no rules can supply, and that nothing but application can teach.

It is also necessary to learn how far these colours and tints are available in imitating the life and warmth of the human complexion, and the various surfaces and textures which occur in nature.  With a few colours, a masterly hand will produce the most charming examples of art ;  but in order to qualify the hand and eye with co-operative powers equal to the production of such results, a course of assiduous practice is indispensable.  The degrees of the tints, their relations with each other, and their adaptability to the imitation of transparent shapes and delicate hues, must be closely studied.

If the complexion about to be painted is that of a lady or a child, preference will be given to the most tender tints, broken with pearly greys, softened into shades laid as a ground for a transparent glaze.

If the complexion of the sitter be of stronger character, tints of a more decided tone – such as will approach the life – may be employed.


It will be understood that the variety of compounds in the following arrangements is given with the object of meeting every possible diversity of shade and hue.  It will therefore not be necessary to place upon the palette, at one time, more than a selection of colours and tints, according to the complexion.

These tints may be mixed upon a glass or marble slab, and placed upon the palette with the palette-knife, in such order as may bring the brightest to the extreme right, graduating them round to the left until the shade tints are placed, and to these may succeed pure colours.


Colours :

White.                             Naples Yellow.
Yellow Ochre.                Raw Sienna.
Light Red.                      Vermilion.
Venetian Red.                 Rose Madder.
Raw Umber.                   Ivory Black.
Terre Verte.                    Vandyke Brown.

Tints :

White and Naples Yellow.
White, Naples Yellow, and Vermilion.
White and Light Red.
White, Vermilion, and Light Red.

For Grey, Green, and Half Tints to Meet and Break the Carnation.

White, Black, and Vermilion, mixed to Reddish or Violet Greys.
White, Black, Indian Red, and Raw Umber.
White and Terre Verte.
White, Terre Verte, Black and Indian Red.

For Carnations :

White and Rose Madder.
White and Indian Red.

Shade Tints :

Raw Umber and Light Red.
Indian Red, Raw Umber, and Black.

The hair, if light, can be freely painted in with White, Yellow Ochre, and Vandyke Brown ;  and the same colours, with the addition of Raw Umber, will serve to sketch in dark hair, the darker colours, of course, prevailing.⁴

¹ Carlyle, Leslie, The Artist's Assistant, (Archetype Publications, London, 2001), p. 316.
² idem.
³ idem.
⁴ Murray, Henry, The Art of Portrait Painting in Oil Colours, (Winsor & Newton, Ltd., London, 1913), pp. 13-16.

1 comment:

vickiandrandyrossart said...

Hmmmm. Mortifying failures? Me thinks I've created a few of these :)