As artists, we are always working within the confines of our materials.
For 600 years, oil colors have been the preeminent medium of visual expression. And within this time, the world has become increasingly more colorful. We see this, not only in painting, but in the cars we drive and the clothes we wear. As painters living and working today, we have more color choices to us now compared to painters who came before us – a fact that is equally intimidating as it is inspiring. How can we express a unique color voice to make color our own?
This blog explores the evolution of painters’ most important tool: COLOR. What aspects of colors do painters consider when selecting a palette to express their artistic vision?
My own intentions as a landscape painter working in the Pacific Northwest revolves around creating paintings which are informed by the area's terrain, vegetation, water and sky. However, what I've always been drawn to, visually, is to capture sensations of light and atmosphere - those fleeting conditions in between downpours and sun, evening and twilight. In more recent work, my characteristic softness of edge and ethereal transitions have given way to a greater bravado of brushwork and more visible "hand" in the mark-making.
One of the fascinating perspectives of looking at the history and development of oil painting over the centuries, is to look at it through the lens of how pigment technology evolved from classical era, through the Industrial Revolution and through the 20th century. As artists, we are always working within the confines of our materials.
As artists have incorporated new pigments into their work, their access to color-mixing within Color Space has increased as well. This has drastically expanded color possibilities in painting. Both in pigment chemistry and in our use of color, we are no longer limited to the colorants and effects from nature – we can push beyond this to explore color mixtures of higher chroma for more expressive possibilities.
Earth colors make up the heart of painters’ palettes during the Classical Era of pigment history. This group of pigments, which has its origins in cave painting and antiquity, was central to the oil painter’s palette from the Renaissance through the Classical Era of oil painting. This limited range of muted earth colors exists close to the “neutral core” of Color Space. Limited to this range of the color spectrum, painters depicted form by drawing large contrasts between the darkest darks and the lightest lights, creating the chiaroscuro (literally, “light/dark”) effect so characteristic of classical paintings.
The advancements of the Industrial Revolution of the mid-nineteenth century widened the spectrum of both color and possibilities for artists. A new range of pigments were made by fusing inorganic materials, such as cadmium, cobalt, and chromium, together at very high heat. Not only did these colors brighten the urban centers of the Iron Age, but they widened painters’ access to color compared to the palettes of the Classical Era. For the first time in history, painters of this period had the pigments available to capture all of the colors of the natural world, expressed in the Impressionists’ interest in pure color. The denser, tubed oil colors made from brighter and opaque pigments lent themselves to the direct painting techniques so characteristic of the Impressionists.
20th Century Palette
The end of the 1800’s gave birth to the field of organic chemistry with applications in the pharmaceutical, dye, and printing industries. Modern organic pigments are characterized by their greater transparency and their capacity to produce intense tints and mixtures.
The biggest difference in the characteristics between mineral inorganic and modern organic colors–and arguably of most interest to painters–is how these two groups of pigments behave differently in color mixing. Below are two different reds, the mineral Cadmium Red Medium and modern Napthol Red, each mixed with Titanium Zinc White.
As shown above, the mineral Cadmium Red Medium “greys down” and loses its intensity as it is mixed with white, compared to the modern Napthol Red, which retains its intensity in its tint. Once again, pigment technology expanded painters’ access to Color Space and made it possible for artists of the 20th Century to create paintings of high chroma.
Personalized Color Palette
Through my work at Gamblin I’ve gotten to know the unique characteristics of artists’ pigments. Over the years, I’ve used this insight to build a color palette that perfectly supports my color-mixing intentions – to create paintings with a naturalistic color scheme, but to have the capacity for bursts of more intense color. My personalized color palette (shown here) is built off the concept of a split primary palette (warm and cool for each primary color). Instead of including a warm red, however, I use Cadmium Orange. This palette not only balances warm and cool pigments, but mineral and modern, opaque and transparent characteristics as well.
There a number of ways that we develop a personal, unique voice and painters – technique, chosen subject matter, and mark-making to name a few. Developing our own unique color voice with a palette that balances theory and our own aesthetics is a valuable way to make painting our own.