Thursday, December 20, 2007

Color--A Natural History of the Palette

"Canyon View (Study)" 8x8 inches, Oil on Panel
Jerry Lebo, 2007


Greetings. I hope everyone is having happy Holiday season. I am looking forward to getting some extra studio time, as I have started to work on a series of landscapes that I have been thinking about for at least three months. It has taken me that long to get the concept together in my mind. The above study is the first of the series, which I am hoping over the next few months will come together as a cohesive statement on Southwestern landscapes. I will be doing some larger paintings over the period, as well as many of these smaller studies, and will post them as they come off the easel. Stay tuned.

Anyway, I am reading a book that I wanted to make recommendation about--in case you are looking for a last minute present for the artist in your life or looking for something to read over the Holidays. The book is called "Color: A natural history of the palette" , by Victoria Findlay. In a roundabout way, this book speaks to one of the issues I have been mentioning in my blog--the (over) abundant availability of pigments for artists. The book does a good job of putting this modern phenomenon in context--and clearly makes the point that for most of modern history, access to color and pigments has been a struggle for artists--including rug makers, textile makers, and painters. Today, however, the problem of access to color is largely solved by the invention of chemical and man-made substitutes for previously natural sources. For example, I was just in the art store and noticed that Winsor & Newton sells 12 different yellows alone. I can imagine JMW Turner falling to his knees at the sheer sight of the W&N rack!

As I have said in past posts, it is my experience that the wide availability of artist paints is in fact a detriment to the beginning artist. The natural inclination is to buy a wide range of these colors and to start painting with them right out of the tube--putting in some white or black to adjust the value. The results will not be pleasing. Most of the modern paints you buy at the art store are so overloaded with pigments--that it is a wonder that anyone can get them to work in a painting. Personally, I find that I spend most of the time mixing a paint not to get it the color "up" (in chroma)--but to get it "down" so that it doesn't jump off the canvas or ruin the whole harmony of the painting.

To me there is a question if we need all these modern colors. My normal palette for almost all paintings, including the one above--is simple: cadmium yellow, cadmium red, sap green, ultramarine blue, and titanium white. Sorry, but the lack of "Bismuth Yellow" has never stopped me from making a decent painting. On the other hand, it would be very easy to ruin one if I had a tube of it sitting around or a bit squeezed out on the palette. You have to have a really good reason to squeeze Prussian Blue out on your palette--it is like setting off a hydrogen bomb.

So, back to the book. What I like about this book is that it reads as both a travel journal and history lesson on the sources and use of various artist's pigments. Each of the chapters focuses on a particular color--such as red, white, yellow. etc. , and examines the history and cultural context of its production, sale, and use by various artists. Some of what is in the book I had learned from various other sources, such as the source for ochre paints. Or the reason, sienna and burnt sienna got their names. However, there is so much more that I didn't know, I have enjoyed reading each and every page.

Here are some tidbits to tempt you:
  • Michelangelo’s unfinished painting "Entombment (1501)" was probably left that way as he was waiting for his valuable shipment of ultramarine blue paint to arrive from Afghanistan--where it is still made today;
  • Turner was a big fan of the paint "carmine", a red which is considered "fugitive" and thus would have faded in color quickly. As a result, many of his paintings do not look anything like they would have when he painted them. Turner used some pigments that faded very quickly, even during the period of his own lifetime, but he refused requests from his patrons to "fix them" even though he knew that his choice of pigments was the cause. In later years, he used "iodine scarlet" which was known to fade very quickly--even within 6 months from first painting.
  • For most of the last two centuries, the main source of red pigment has been an insect. Even today, some of the products you consume use an acid produced by this insect as a natural food coloring--including Cherry Coke. It is also commonly still used in makeup, so you may be rubbing it on your face.
Anyway, I hope that is enough to consider getting a copy of the book. I think you will enjoy it. And, since you can't paint 24 hours a day--it will give you something to do during breaks from the easel.


All the best, sixtyminuteartist.

22 comments:

Marsha Stopa said...

Jerry,
I'm looking forward to seeing the landscapes as they come off the easel. I like.

Sounds like a good book. You might also like: "Colors, The Story of Dyes and Pigments' by Francois Delamare and Bernard Guineau. It shows how the development of pigments and dyes created commerce around the world from Egyptian times.

Question re the sap green you use: What brand? What pigments are in it? I used a Utrecht Sap Green this summer, then switched to a W&N Sap Green -- which is transparent and totally different pigments! And, any thoughts on Green Earth Hue (Utrecht) as a substitute, only because I have a large tube...

Thanks for these continuing discussions. I so look forward to your posts.

Happy Holidays,
Marsha

Anonymous said...

Hi Jerry,

I love your paintings - I think you have a fantastic style. Keep on keepin' on.

Re: the subject of too many available colors, I couldn't agree more. There is a brilliant book called, "Blue and Yellow Don't Make Green", that does an excellent job of explaining color mixing, and explains why artists often can't mix the colors they're trying to obtain.

The author makes the point that all you really need on your palette, is a blue-violet, blue-green, red-violet, red-orange, and yellow-green, yellow-orange and white to mix almost any color. The primary color system that we're taught as youngsters has some serious flaws.

Thanks for the recommendation - sounds like an interesting read.


Garrin

Gary said...

Love the blog !

I wouldn't be without my Ultramarine watercolour nor the dark umber if only for the "texture" effect they can give when dropped wet-on-wet onto a resitant watercolour paper, its one of the reasons that I find the medium so beautifully unpredictable and so head-banging-off-wall annoying - I just wish that someone would invent a watercolour that would dry the same tone as it is wet.

You are correct with your opinion on too-many paint colours of course but there is the medium of pastels (which I also love) where you simply cannot have too many different shades :)

Cindy Revell said...

Hi Jerry,

Excellent book suggestion, it's going to be next on the studio book shelf.

For another look at paint you can get a good read at Marget Short's blog where she discusses her explorations of the the same pigments that were used by the Dutch masters in the 17th century. Her experiments, discoveries and resulting paintings are fascinating.
http://margretshort.typepad.com/an_artist_and_her_work_ma/2006/11/index.html

Great work Jerry,

Cindy

Nancy Bea said...

Nice painting! Three months concept time? You really are a speed freak! Sometimes it takes me YEARS to get to a particular concept, simmering away on a very back burner. Keep up the good work!

indiaartist said...

It is intersting to know some of these facts I had not known before. Like your blog. It has a lot of information and also like the concept of giving 60 mins to painting each day. Seems like attainable target. Keep it up. Thanks.

mongoose1 said...

Hi Jerry,
Canyon viwe is a beautiful painting!

Did you hit the Turner show at the National Gallery? I enjoyed it but wasn't as 'wow'-ed as I expected I would be. Same thing for the Hopper Show and I am not really sure why.

One of my instructors loves the WN yellows and reds, so it's great that they have such a broad variety to chose from.

I will look for Victoria Findlay's Color: A natural history of the palette."

Hope you have a fantastic New Years!
Cindy

CocoaCrafts said...

I found your blog through Etsy - glad I did! Your paintings are beautiful.

-Bonnie from CocoaCrafts

hfm said...

Come across to your blog by Ronel and you are on my favourites.

Nancy Van Blaricom said...

Thank you for sharing all the information that you blog about. I'm new to oils and really appreciate reading it all. I will return often.

A Reason to Paint said...

I really enjoyed this post and the tidbits; the book is now on my wish list. Thank you for sharing, great info as usual.

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