Saturday, March 27, 2010

In search of an Ideal palette

In my last blog entry I explored a closed controlled oil  painting palette in a linear method. That is to say that colors were mixed horizontally across the palette from left to right or right to left on four rows. I have limited my palette on purpose from four to seven colors and there is a reason for this.  According to Euphrosyne Doxiadis on her book "The Mysterious Fayum Portraits the great painters from antiquity such as Apelles, Aetion, Melanthius and Nicomachus used only four colors for their paintings. White, Yellow ochre, Red Earth and black seem to be the preferred color palette not only for these great masters of antiquity but also for the lesser known authors of the surviving Fayum portraits found in Hellenic Egypt. It is amazing to see how well executed these portrait are and with so little. These have never ceased to capture my imagination. Below an example of one of the portraits I am referring to.

Fayum Portrait of a woman Louvre Museum , Paris
Our modern color theory teaches us that we need only the three primary colors (red, blue and yellow) to make any other color. Even though many of these portraits have traces of other exotic pigments, most of them are painted with a four-color palette.  One might think this palette will limit the range of possible mixtures creating a monotonous painting but to the contrary, the range of colors is maximized and at the same time color harmonies are even richer. The color black obtained from soot or carbon is a much cooler black than other blacks. Also known as Vine black, when white is added it becomes a cool bluish black.   

Classical Tetracomy

 Other paintings and mosaics found in Pompey  follow this principle which is also a reflection of the fourfold world view shared by Greek and Roman cultures. The world was divided in four cardinal directions, as well as four seasons. In the diagram below we find an interesting study of the four bodily fluids or humours according to the classical tradition. Ancient medicine was based on this system. What I find particularly interesting about this as a painter is how colors were believed to correspond to these four seasons, cardinal points or humours. The colors are always the same: white, black, yellow and red. Even though Phlegm is represented here with a light blue triangle, it was usually associated with white.

The Greeks were not the only ones to believe in the sacred tetrachromy composed of red, yellow, black and white. On the other side of the Atlantic the Mayan and Aztec civilizations held the same four colors to be the most basic colors of the Universe. It is truly amazing how much one can stretch the color spectrum with Lead White, Vine Black, Red Ocher and Yellow Ocher. It is said that Rembrandt Van Rijn used to work on such a limited palette. Specially if the painter is specializing in the painting the human figure, you probably will not need much more than this. Im aware this makes no sense to most contemporary painters who have access to such an infinite variety of synthetic vivid pigments available in the market. But following the same modern premise of "less is more" one can find  beauty and truth in limiting size, amount and variety. This may well apply to food in many cases.

Mayan Calendar

Kala Chakra Mandala

Astrological calendar

One may find truth in many shapes and colors. Ive seen perfection embodied in a circle. From the Tibetan Mandala to the Zodiac wheel, from the planets to the atoms, nature has a favored the globe and the circle over and over and this is also reflected in the sacred symbols of many ancient cultures. Going from the four-fold world to the circle has taken me to the next experiment in studio practice. Why not create a four-fold color circular palette? Would this be the ideal palette? The linear closed and controlled palette has its cons. One cannot be as flexible with mixtures and make new ones up along the way as with the  traditional oval shaped open palette. As I mentioned on my previous blog entry, the latter also has its cons as in many occasions it becomes chaos with unstructured muddy colors running wild around the surface. So why not have both palettes come together in one?  Here's what I found out from my little experiment.

Four-fold cross like  color palette

The human eye has an organic tendency to look at everything in a circular motion. This might be the reason why we feel more attracted to rounded shapes like oval shaped palettes which are favorites among art students and professional painters alike. Square or rectangular linear row like palettes can become constraining patterns too boring for the mind so I decided to make a variation on it using the same seven colors I always use. I could have done the experiment with four colors but I believe seven will give up more color variation and richness to this equation. A few days ago a kept thinking about the Sun and our solar system and an idea hit me. Why not have Titanium white at the center of my system. It is pure light and the most important color of all because it is the sum of all colors. This served as an inspiration for my new palette. Light after all is the center and main protagonist of painting.

Our Solar System

First of all I establish the center of my Plexiglas palette and have plenty of Titanium Oil color placed there.

I place the color Raw Umber on my extreme left side of my palette. Raw Umber is one of the best colors to start with in an oil painting because it dries very fast and serves perfectly well as an underpainting with a neutral greenish brown that becomes grayish when mixed with white and that is not distracting to the eye.

I add a few drops of Clove Oil to my Raw Umber color and then proceed to create a  short value scale mixing it with white. I have four middle values between pure white and pure raw umber.
 Vertically above my white color I have Blue black or Indigo color place and mixed together in four middle tone values with white. This color can be very blue or very gray depending on your principal mixture and departing point. Ultramarine blue with Ivory black or Indigo blue seems to be a good choices but make sure to add some clove oil drops to make sure it dries slowly on your palette. Ive noticed dryness in the environment have a serious effect on your palette. That is why I sometimes add more than one drop of Clove Oil. When humidity is high in the environment one drop would suffice.

I then Add Yellow Ocher on the middle part of my next horizontal left to right row. Ivory black will be placed at the extreme right side and mixed with yellow ocher to create a darker version of this color. Yellow ocher can be mixed with white to have some lighter versions of the Yellow Ocher. I have noticed that Yellow Ocher chromatic qualities are enhanced by adding a little of Indian Yellow to the mixture. This is one of my favorite colors specially when glazing.

Vertically below the white center I added Cadmium Red Light and Alizarin Crimson with enough space between them and white. The red don't require much clove oil to retard the drying time. They are slow drying pigments already, specially Alizarin Crimson. Still I add a drop to each so I can work with these colors for an extended period of time (about a week).

 Once this is done I have  each scale of the yellow row mixed with each scale of the red row. creating a fifth leg to the cross shaped color palette. This leg has now created a nice flesh color in different values. I do the same with each leg or row of my palette creating a beautiful color asterisk  shape (*)

The spaces between become open spaces where one can mix glazes and additional colors. In the end of the painting session my closed controlled palette looked more like a psychedelic color wheel than a relatively clean linear closed palette. It is like having the best of both palette systems and working circularly around the white. The results in my paintings were quite impressive as well. I shall soon document these once they are completed. For now I want to conclude that no matter how many colors you use, how is the shape of your palette or in what order you work, make it meaningful. Have your palette be a part of your philosophy. Make the process relevant to your way of thinking. I find myself thinking in crosses, septenary, four-fold systems and circles. These numbers and forms seem to re-connect me with the origins of the Universe. Buddhist monks meditate on sacred Mandalas. As a painter I find myself in a trance like state when mixing colors in my palette. These are the mysteries that make art so interesting and imbue it with deep mysticism.


  1. Me impresiona todo la investigacion de haces para tus pinturas :) Interesante tema. Mucho exito Patricio!

  2. Hi Patrick, this is Ramsés. Your comments and exploration are quite intriging. In themselves, the experiments with the palette may wind in a more comfortable space for you to work on, which we will evidence in the end result. I'm intrigued on the Fayum color scheme and how may have time changed altogether what we target as their technique. There should be some gaps that the passage of time in addition to environmental conditions will blind us to grasp their full experience. Back to the pallette experiment, the final palette becomes Escher like. Thanks for sharing the process.

  3. Hi Patrick,
    I love your blog! I wish I could still take your class! I learned so much from you. Can you tell me again what colors you use for flesh tones?