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Tales the Palettes Tell – by Robert Genn

Tales the Palettes Tell
by Robert Genn
I've always been suspect of historical painter's palettes. One reason is that a lot of my old ones are around and none are typical, nor are they dated. They were put aside because they were an irredeemable mess. Further, it would be difficult to link any of them with the particular colours I was using at the time. When researchers determine the pigments Manet was using in 1873, he may indeed have been having a bad day and just discarded the offending thing. Further, palettes purported to be in use the day an artist died are not reliable either. If I thought I might croak on Thursday, I might just squeeze out the damnedest things. Truth is, creative folks are often trying something new, even on their last day.

Nevertheless, we love to analyze old palettes. There's even a healthy market for the things. For your interest we've put up a selection--the palettes of Renoir, Seurat, Degas, Delacroix, Gauguin and van Gogh. They're included in the current clickback.

One thing for sure, there's a wide range of ways to set up and use a palette. Whistler believed proper palette organization was the key to all the good stuff. Seurat, as we might imagine, kept his mainly primary pigments in a pretty rigid and unwavering order. For him, Mr. Black was not allowed on the job. Gauguin, for all his verbal enthusiasm for pure colour, made an unsightly pileup of sullied pigment.

Delacroix used his laboriously-prepared palette to fire his painterly enthusiasm. Rumour has it that he took his palette to bed for quiet periods of pre-mixing. Most, but not all, painters line up their colours at the top and mix below. Some squeeze out differently every time. Vincent van Gogh defined a painter as "Someone who knows how to find the greys of nature on the palette." Monet maintained that a painter needs to be as familiar with his palette as a pianist is to the keys on her piano. He recommended not having to take one's eyes from the painting. Rembrandt worked with a small palette of mostly earth colours. Painters of the 17th Century had considerably fewer pigments to put on their boards. Next time you're looking at a Rembrandt, you may see a message in that.

Best regards,


PS: "If the colour is wrong, everything is wrong: just as, if you are singing, and sing false notes, it does not matter how true your words are." (John Ruskin)

Esoterica: Daubs on palettes are an artist's unwitting footprints. Lucy Davies in a Sunday Telegraph Seven Magazine quotes from Vincent's 1882 letter to his brother Theo: "There are but three fundamental colours - red, yellow, and blue; 'composites' are orange, green, and purple. By adding black and some white one gets the endless varieties of greys--red grey, yellow-grey, blue-grey, green-grey, orange-grey, violet-grey. It is impossible to say, for instance, how many green-greys there are; there is an endless variety. But the whole chemistry of colours is not more complicated than those few simple rules." How well stated, and yet how difficult it is to extract beauty from the little daubs on those mahogany boards.

Robert Genn has given ARTAZINE permission to add posts from his twice weekly newsletter. To see more insightful thoughts from Robert, visit his website at www.painterspost.com

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