Skip to content


The classical palette

Before the 19th cen­tury, painters didn’t have to worry about select­ing a palette of paints from a huge array of those avail­able. There were only a few pig­ments avail­able, so painters had to make do with what they could get. If you wanted an opaque red, you had ver­mil­ion and, well, ver­mil­ion. So you learned how to get every­thing you could out of that pig­ment. You didn’t com­plain that it was a bit too orange for your taste, because your choices were ver­mil­ion and noth­ing. In addi­tion, you had a cou­ple of bright blues (both of which were incred­i­bly expen­sive), a cou­ple dull blues, a trans­par­ent violet-red, a green that had to be used care­fully or it would turn black, an orange, a dull-ish yel­low, one white, some vari­a­tions on car­bon black, and some earth col­ors. That’s mostly it, and you only had that many col­ors if you could afford them and lived some­place where there was enough trade to obtain them.

Go to a museum some time and look at some paint­ings from the Renais­sance. Notice any absence of color? Dull­ness? Inabil­ity to obtain mix­tures that con­vey a sense of real­ity? Mud­di­ness? Poor color har­mony? Unre­al­is­tic flesh tones? No? Many of those paint­ings were done with six or seven total pig­ments. Not pig­ments care­fully selected to cre­ate an opti­mal palette from among hun­dreds of col­ors avail­able in in an art store, but six or seven pig­ments selected from maybe ten or twelve that the artist could get. And yet they made some of the most gor­geous paint­ings ever created.

If you like the way paint­ings from before 1800 look, one option is to select a palette of col­ors that repli­cates those avail­able then. So here is a sim­ple palette that is sim­i­lar to what was avail­able in West­ern Europe before the new syn­thetic pig­ments began to be dis­cov­ered in the late 1700’s.

White: lead white was about it. If you want to sim­u­late the color and opac­ity (not the han­dling prop­er­ties) of lead white, mix tita­nium white and zinc white at about 50/50, then add a tiny touch of yel­low ochre.

Black: usu­ally bone black (now called “ivory” black), lamp black, or vine black.

Red: gen­uine ver­mil­ion, which you can sim­u­late with cad­mium red light. Red lake, which you can sim­u­late with rose mad­der or alizarin crim­son. Minium (red lead) which you can sim­u­late with cad­mium orange mixed with cad­mium red light.

Blue: min­eral ultra­ma­rine, which you can sim­u­late with mod­ern syn­thetic ultra­ma­rine (if you want to sim­u­late cheaper grades of this incred­i­bly expen­sive pig­ment, add some white and black). Azu­rite, which you can sim­u­late with cobalt blue. Indigo, which you can sim­u­late with Pruss­ian blue mixed 50/50 with black.

Yel­low: lead tin yel­low, which you can sim­u­late with a 50/50 mix of cad­mium yel­low light and yel­low ochre. Later on, Naples yel­low grad­u­ally replaced lead tin yel­low. It is sim­i­lar, but more like 2 parts cad­mium yel­low light to 3 parts yel­low ochre.

Green: greens were usu­ally mixed from ultra­ma­rine or azu­rite and lead tin yel­low or Naples yel­low. They also had cop­per green (used only some­times, since it was known to turn brown unless iso­lated between lay­ers of var­nish), which can be sim­u­lated with viridian.

Vio­let: was usu­ally mixed with red lake and a blue.

Orange: was usu­ally mixed with ver­mil­ion and lead tin yel­low or Naples yellow.

Earths: a wide range of earths were avail­able, depend­ing on where the artist lived. These included equiv­a­lents to mod­ern raw sienna, burnt sienna, raw umber, burnt umber, yel­low ochre, red ochre, green earth, black earth, brown earth. They also some­times used mala­chite, which you can sim­u­late with 1 part virid­ian to 5 parts white.

There were a few oth­ers used from time to time, but these were the com­mon ones. Most artists didn’t use all of these.

Try using this palette for a few paint­ings. You’ll get a much bet­ter sense of how “Old Mas­ters” did their color mixing.

Posted in art history, art materials, color, oil painting, painting, tempera.

Tagged with , , , , , .


2 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. jason novak says

    Palette of an Artist Its a topic
    its the sub­ject
    in its own
    as it comes before
    the work
    paint­ing
    either con­structed
    or yet still in the mak­ing
    pre­fer­rence of artist
    signed jason novak
    p.s
    Flickr inigo enico
    Pleae any one
    Please view
    Hope you find
    it of value

Continuing the Discussion

  1. My palette « FATIMA RONQUILLO linked to this post on 24 May 2009

    […] fati­maron­quillo I pre­fer a clas­si­cal palette com­posed of earth col­ors. David Rourke in his weblog All The Strange Hours wrote an infor­ma­tive post on the clas­si­cal palette, if you’re a lit­tle more curi­ous. My wood […]



Some HTML is OK

or, reply to this post via trackback.