The oldest palette, according to the story of the previous post here, has been in use for about a hundred thousand years or so. The palette consists of black, white, red ochre, and yellow ochre: these are the colors that have been used in cave paintings for all of our long prehistory, readily available and easily processed and used. Black, white, red and yellow are often the earliest colors to receive their own names in a culture, and I hypothesize that that’s precisely because those are the four colors that are universally in use. Pliny the Elder mentioned that the great Greek painters used the colors Attica earth (yellow ochre from Attica), Sinoper (red ochre from Sinope), black and white. And earth reds and yellows, plus black and white, have made up the greater part of easel painters’ palettes since the Renaissance (at least up until the Twentieth Century). This basic palette of earths and neutrals has been called the student palette, because the paints it uses are so inexpensive, and also because the restricted palette is an excellent learning tool.
Working with such a restricted palette has its own challenges and rewards. One challenge of using earth colors only is that they lose saturation quickly in either tints or shades. Another is that it’s difficult to avoid a monochrome look to the painting. But, with patience, it’s a palette that does work for portraits. The reason it works, aside from the fact that earth colors mixed with white naturally resemble skin tones, is something called simultaneous contrast. Simultaneous contrast means that colors have an effect on each other’s appearance when placed side by side; in particular, they tend to push away from each other, perceptually. What this means, practically, is that you can get a blue in your painting without actually using blue – a neutral gray will appear quite blue when placed among warmer colors (a mix of black and white actually is slightly blue, which heightens the effect). And a serviceable green can be had from a mixture of black and yellow ochre (in addition to the simultaneous contrast effect, dark yellow, or olive, actually looks quite green to the eye even by itself).
The benefits of working with a student palette: first of all, it teaches how to make effective use of this simultaneous contrast. (I think half or so of the so-called Old Master Techniques were developed simply to deal with the lack of inexpensive blue pigments, and this is one of them.) Also, one simply learns a lot about mixing with earth colors, which must be an integral part of any traditional palette – and about paying attention to values, since the student palette simply doesn’t work without good value contrast. Finally, crucially, one learns how to make a painting work without trying to match all the colors you see in front of you. Modern painting practice seems to be all about matching colors; but if you literally cannot match the colors in front of you with the paints you have available, what do you do then? Can you still make the painting work?
I wouldn’t necesssarily use this restricted of a palette in professional work – as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, you just can’t get all the colors you might need. But as a study it’s invaluable, and I definitely recommend it.
The four paintings on this page were done with variations of the student palette, and were painted alla prima (though the one at right took an extra few minutes in a second session to block in the background and the shirt). The painting at top was done using Blue Ridge Yellow Ocher, Ercolano Red (a light red) and bone black, all from Rublev, plus zinc white from Winsor & Newton. Notice the blue shirt, painted with black and white, and the green background, painted with black, white and yellow. The second painting on the page is a quick sketch from life of my wife singing and playing the piano (the other three are all painted from photo reference at the WetCanvas Reference Image Library), using the same palette as above. The painting just to the right of this paragraph was done with a slightly expanded student palette, using two red earths: the same yellow ochre and ercolano red from Rublev, plus Venetian Red (also from Rublev) and substituting Da Vinci Magnetite Genuine for the black, and Rublev lead white in place of the zinc. Other helpful earth colors can be added, of course, including raw umber, burnt sienna, terre verte, et cetera. Below is an experiment using a very limited palette indeed: Venetian red, burnt umber and zinc white only.
The temperature variation on all of these is very limited (though I managed a bit on the third painting), partly through my lack of experience with this palette, but mostly because they’re all painted opaquely. A good deal more variation can be achieved by taking advantage of transparent effects, and I’ll be exploring that direction in the future. Some additional reading: George O’Hanlon discusses painting with earth colors here, and here is a discussion of Marvin Mattelson’s use of earth colors for skin tones.