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Selected Palettes: A White-Washed Wall

Painting the Madonnafig. 1 Saint Luke Painting the Virgin and Child
Follower of Quinten Metsys
between 1518 and 1522
Oil on oak wood, 113.7 34.9 cm.
National Gallery, London

"Many depictions of painters at work have survived. Initially, St. Luke painting the Madonna was portrayed predominantly. These paintings must contain reliable information with regard to the studio practices of the period in which they were created, or otherwise the contemporary viewer would not have recognized the representation. The same applies to the palettes shown in these paintings. When analyzing a large random sample of palettes depicted in paintings, such consistency emerged in the shape and the arrangement of the paint that one may safely argue that no well-trained painter would think of painting a fake palette.

"Generally speaking and based on studio scenes, it can be stated that prior to 1400 painters worked with separate paint trays, each of which held prepared paint of one color or hue. The first depictions of palettes stem from about 1400. They most closely resemble bread boards with a handle, used by the painter to hold the palette. Someone must have come up with the idea of making a hole in the handle that would be big enough to put one's left thumb through.(fig. 1) The advantage of this innovation is obvious: it enabled the painter to support the palette easily in a horizontal position on the thumb; he could then hold other tools (including the maulstick while painting) with the remaining fingers of the same hand. Next, we see that the hole is no longer found in a handle-like protrusion from the palette, but that it is situated in the flat of the palette itself.

"The earliest palettes were small. Although they increased in size in the course of the sixteenth century, painters' palettes remained relatively small up to the early nineteenth century: 30 to 40 cm long. Only during the nineteenth century did they grow to the size of half a tabletop, sometimes made in such a way that they were adapted to the curve of the painter's body, in order to gain extra space for mixing paint."Van der Wetering, Ernst. Rembrandt: The Painter at Work (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 141-143.

Selective Palettes

Van der Wetering, Ernst. Rembrandt: The Painter at Work (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 136-141.

One of the most fascinating and complete documents concerning the history of oil painting is the well-known print (fig. 2) by Jan Baptist Collaert (1566-1627) after the Flemish artist, living in Italy, Johannes Stradanus (1523-1605). This engraving dates from about 1580 and is part of a series of prints devoted to inventions not known in classical antiquity, the so-called "Nova Reperta," published in Antwerp.

The print gives a highly detailed picture of an idealized painter's studio: the master is working on a history piece, while an assistant is occupied with painting a portrait. Two other assistants are grinding and preparing colors. The countless details in the print provide valuable information as to daily practice in the late sixteenth-century painter's studio. In the foreground, three boy apprentices can be seen: the youngest one is practicing the rudiments of drawing. The more advanced apprentice on the left is drawing from a plaster cast.

For our present purposes, the boy wearing the smock standing next to the master is of particular interest. He is setting a palette with paint taken from a shell, presumably containing colors prepared by the assistants at their grinding slabs, and holds a palette similar to that of the master. As will soon be made clear, the arrangement of the master's palette with only four colors is far from arbitrary. Like so many other details of the print, this should be regarded as a faithful representation of sixteenth-century practice. The palette the youth in the foreground holds contains a limited number of colors as well. As on his master's palette, they are spread out over the entire surface of the palette. The first thought that arises is that this youth is preparing his palette so that he can begin to paint, and therefore he is a more advanced student than the other two. However, the didactic completeness of the print does not make this assumption very convincing. There is no third easel with a painting to be seen on the print. So what is the boy doing?

On most routine activities of the painter's studio, there are generally no written sources to be found. Incidental evidence on certain aspects of painterly practice can be gleaned from documents, but we have to live with the fact that such sources are relatively scarce in both time and place. In the present case, a late-seventeenth-century Italian text may turn out to relate to the activities depicted on Collaert's Antwerp print of a hundred years earlier. Furthermore, I believe both sources to be of significance when answering questions about the studio practice of a seventeenth-century Dutch painter like Rembrandt.

Using available sources in this way is, of course, only justifiable when the phenomenon being investigated is widespread and displays a certain constancy. The considerable mobility of painters in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries provided many opportunities for the spreading of painting techniques and procedures. Many young painters traveled across Europe and worked in the studios of various masters for shorter or longer periods- a similar situation still exists in the international restoration world. This form of mobility guarantees a quick circulation of knowledge and experience, leading to a high level of international uniformity in knowledge and practices of the craft. Some aspects of studio practice, such as the shape of the palette, will, as we shall see later on, change all over Europe, owing to innovations in the studios. Other aspects, such as the phenomenon discussed here, will prove to show great constancy.

Bearing this in mind, one might venture a cautious guess as to what the youth with the smock is doing in the studio on Collaert's print, by referring to a passage from the Volpato manuscript, a text by Giovanni Battista Volpato (born in 1633), dating from somewhere around 1680, and written in the form of a series of dialogues. It contains the following exchange between F., an older painter's apprentice, and Silvio, a younger apprentice.

Silvio: 'Tell me, if you will, whether you set your master's palette?' F: 'Surely... It suffices for him to tell me what he intends to paint, for then I know which colors I must place on the palette.'

Color-olivi fig. 2 New Inventions of Modern Times [Nova Reperta], The Invention of Oil Painting (plate 14)
artist: Jan Collaert I
artist: After Jan van der Straet, called Stradanus
publisher: Philips Galle (Netherlandish, Haarlem 1537–1612 Antwerp)
c. 1600
Engraving, 27 x 20 cm.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The print, together with this text, provides clues which as yet have not been given consideration in the literature on historical painting techniques. They suggest that painters formerly used a palette which was set with a group of colors specifically for 'what he (the master) intends to paint', in other words, for a certain part of his painting. This implies that such a palette did not include all the available pigments, but only those necessary to paint that specific part of the painting.

This understanding of the situation has a far-reaching consequence: one must see the seventeenth-century (but also earlier or later) painting as a composite image made up of interlocking passages, comparable to the giornate, the successively executed 'daily portions' in fresco painting, although in the case of oil painting, a number of passages would generally have been completed on a given day; on the table next to the youth with the smock, a clean palette is depicted, which is apparently ready to be set with colors. In using such a method,, the seventeenth-century way of painting differed fundamentally from paintings developed as a tonal entity such as those by Josef Israels, who used a palette with a full range of colors and with a mixing area covered with patches of mixed paint, of which the tone and color could be further modified. At first, the idea of earlier artists working in giornate as described above, may seem highly exaggerated. After all, we know that the great majority of seventeenth-century painters, and certainly Rembrandt, did in fact set up their painting as a tonal unity by means of a predominantly monochrome underpainting. The issue here, though, is that in developing the painting on the basis of the 'dead color,' islands of modulated local color are joined together on the underpainted design of the work. Such a method of working is determined by the material, technical, and economic limitations inherent in oil painting, limitations that only vanished (and were subsequently forgotten) with the introduction of ready-to-use, mutually compatible, industrially manufactured paint that comes out of a tube.

The great part of Renaissance and Baroque representations of artists' palettes show very small palettes set out with a surprisingly few pigments in a very orderly fashion. Painting procedures, in effect, had become so highly organized by the seventeenth century that there existed a number of fixed recipes for almost every element that might be represented and for a variety of flesh tones. Most of the recipes were passed from one artist's studio to another and every innovation rapidly became common knowledge throughout Europe. Vermeer, no doubt, followed the same proceedures of his colleagues and set out each morning a selected palette according to the passage that he would work on during the day. Selected palettes were the norm in seventeenth-century painting when complicated compositions were worked up in a piecemeal fashion, area by area. Painters laid on their palettes only those pigments which were strictly necessary for the day's work in order to avoid waste of grinding time and raw materials. One of these selected palettes is described below.

Looking Over Vermeer's Shoulder

Enhanced by the author's dual expertise as both a seasoned painter and a renowned authority on Vermeer, Looking Over Vermeer's Shoulder offers an in-depth exploration of the artistic techniques and practices that elevated Vermeer to legendary status in the art world. The book meticulously delves into every aspect of 17th-century painting, from the initial canvas preparation to the details of underdrawing, underpainting, finishing touches, and glazing, as well as nuances in palette, brushwork, pigments, and compositional strategy. All of these facets are articulated in an accessible and lucid manner.

Furthermore, the book examines Vermeer's unique approach to various artistic elements and studio practices. These include his innovative use of the camera obscura, the intricacies of his studio setup, and his representation of his favorite motifs subjects, such as wall maps, floor tiles, and "pictures within pictures."

By observing closely the studio practices of Vermeer and his preeminent contemporaries, the reader will acquire a concrete understanding of 17th-century painting methods and materials and gain a fresh view of Vermeer's 35 masterworks, which reveal a seamless unity of craft and poetry.

While the book is not structured as a step-by-step instructional guide, it serves as an invaluable resource for realist painters seeking to enhance their own craft. The technical insights offered are highly adaptable, offering a wealth of knowledge that can be applied to a broad range of figurative painting styles.


author: Jonathan Janson
date: 2020 (second edition)
pages: 294
illustrations: 200-plus illustrations and diagrams
formats: PDF


  1. Vermeer's Training, Technical Background & Ambitions
  2. An Overview of Vermeer’s Technical & Stylistic Evolution
  3. Fame, Originality & Subject Matte
  4. Reality or Illusion: Did Vermeer’s Interiors ever Exist?
  5. Color
  6. Composition
  7. Mimesi & Illusionism
  8. Perspective
  9. Camera Obscura Vision
  10. Light & Modeling
  11. Studio
  12. Four Essential Motifs in Vermeer’s Oeuvre
  1. Drapery
  2. Painting Flesh
  3. Canvas
  4. Grounding
  5. “Inventing,” or Underdrawing
  6. “Dead-Coloring,” or Underpainting
  7. “Working-up,” or Finishing
  8. Glazing
  9. Mediums, Binders & Varnishes
  10. Paint Application & Consistency
  11. Pigments, Paints & Palettes
  12. Brushes & Brushwork

Allegory of Painting, Gerrit van Honthorstfig. 3 Allegory of Painting,
Gerrit van Honthorst
Oil on canvas, 138 x 113 cm.
Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, CA
Detail of the palette of Gerrit Honthorstfig. 4 Detail of the palette in Gerrit Honthorst's
Allegory of Paintingv

Although Gerrit van Honthorst's Allegory of Painting (fig. 3) may not be particularly inspiring, it is nonetheless a solid piece of seventeenth-century painterly skill, and it clearly illustrates how painters managed their palette.

This work shows a "selected" palette on which are disposed two rows of perfectly ordered paints blobs (fig. 4). The top row is composed of all the pigments conventionally used for mixing flesh tones. The bottom row presents the ready-to-use basic mixtures: the lights, darks and a vareity of the all-importnat half tones. More sepcifically, top row of pigments probably are (left to right): lead white, yellow ochre, vermilion, red ochre, red madder, raw umber, black and a last unidentified pigment.

The habit of representing the flesh paeltte in paintings of artists at work was dictated by the fact that from beginning of European tradition of easel painting, the depiction of human flesh was given great importance and it still constitutes one of the most telling technical challenges until this day. Willem Beur, artist and art writer of Vermeer's time, wrote:

Just as we humans consider ourselves the foremost amongst animals; so too, are we the foremost subject of the art of paintings, and it is in painting human flesh that its highest achievements are to be seen, whenever a painter succeeds in rendering the diversity of colors and strong hues found in human flesh and particularly in the faces, adequately depicting the intricacy of the diversity of people or their different emotions.

Gerrit van Honthorst, like a number of seventeenth-century Dutch painters, knew his trade and worked well in different genres. He was equally comfortable in history painting, raucous bordello scenes and refined portraiture alike. Although sought-after in his own age, few average museum-goers are familiar with his work even though he was far more influential in his age than Vermeer. He was also far richer. In 1654, he sold his house in The Hague for the astronomical sum of 14,000 guilders (an average Dutch house might have gone for 1,000 or less) and lent Elizebeth, Princess of Hohenzollern no less than 35,000.

A White-Washed Wall

To achieve the extraordinary luminosity of Girl with a Pearl Earring, Vermeer used a handful of different paints, including two reds (vermilion and red madder), earth pigments (e.g. yellow ochre and raw umber), two yellows (lead-tin yellow and a yellow lake), natural ultramarine, indigo, two blacks (charcoal black and bone black), and lead white. Though he might have employed an additional two colors in his Milkmaid, the painting's exceptional depiction of light is less a result of more or brighter paints, but rather how he masterfully manipulated them.

Perhaps of all the various motifs the repeatedly recurr in Vermeer's interiors, the simple white-washed wall is that which is most taken for granted. Instead, these humble walls present one of the most challenging pictorial problems in artist's oeuvre. In fact, when similar representations of walls painted by his contemporaries are compared to those of Vermeer, one cannot help but perceive they are composed with various tones of gray paint. Instead, in Vermeer's renderings, the variety of tones and color, and even the texture of the paint itself, appear inseparable from the wall. Even experienced painters find it difficult to distinguish paint from the illusion of substance, texture and the play of light as it rakes across their uneven surfaces.

The Milkmaid, Johannes Vermeerfig. 5 The Milkmaid (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1658–1661
Oil on canvas, 45.5 x 41 cm.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

One of the most successful examples of the white-washed wall motif (fig. 5) is to be found in the artist's early Milkmaid. Surprisingly, the palette Vermeer employed for this wall is simple as it is effective: white lead, umber and charcoal black. Although the same pigments for painting white objects i were widely employed by Dutch painters none but Vermeer was able to use it so effectively.

Although it is very difficult to understand the sequence in which the various areas of a this picture was be executed, it seems likely that Vermeer depicted the background wall at the very early stages of the work process. For more than that of any other compositional element, it is the character of the wall which determines the amount, direction and quality of light which will be represented. Once the depiction of the wall met the artist's expectations, the color and lighting of each object could subsequently be accurately gauged against its hues and tones. In an analogous manner, landscape painters often depict the sky first since it is obvious that the sky influences the chiaroscural values, color and the pervading atmosphere of the landscape rather than vice versa.

A Day's Work

It is very likely that Vermeer began this painting session by placing on his palette a rather large quantity of lead white and two smaller lumps of raw umber, a dull but enormously useful brown earth, and charcoal black. The most strongly illuminated area of the wall to the right of the figure was laid in carefully with a thick layer, called impasto, of pure or nearly pure white lead. This layer covered the light gray ground of the underpainting. A more or less uniform mixture of umber and black lightened with white lead was then laid in the area to the left of the standing milkmaid. In the deeper shadows, umber prevails over black since too much black tends to produce a sullen gray without depth and creates the unnatural effect akin to a black and white photograph. Umber lends the shadow mixture a delicate olive green tone which would later vibrate against the warm tones of the red earthenware and the yellow bodice worn by the maid.

During a working day, the paints which Vermeer used remained wet allowing him to model form by blending adjacent tones of paint (wet-in-wet technique) with relative ease. After having laid in the two principal tones, the darker paint was carefully worked into the lighter one. Vermeer most likely used a medium-sized bristle brush for this purpose. The hard bristles leave evident trace of their movement and lend an air of vibrancy to the painter surface which parallels the effect of raking light on an uneven wall. If the result was not entirely satisfying, Vermeer probably cleaned the brush and carefully worked in the lighter paint into the darker paint until the chiaroscural transition between the two masses of light and dark was gradual enough. Although it may not seem logical, the working of dark paint into the light paint does not create the same effect as working the light paint into the dark paint. A subtly different optical effect is achieved by each procedure. When the lighter area is worked into the darker area, a cool gray tints is produced.

Care was taken not to overwork the paint since excessive blending produces a mechanical smoothness inconsonant with the vibrancy and sparkle of the uneven wall. Once the fundamental masses of light were established and the transition of dark to light was achieved to the artist's satisfaction, the darker passages of the shadow cast by the metal container and the slightly lighter left hand wall below the window were elaborated while the paint was still wet or slightly tacky. Vermeer took care to bring up the wet paint gently near the contours of the still life and the figure as to avoid overlapping the underpainting. In these reserves, one can observe the ground which shows through along the contour of parts of the still life. This lighter area of paint suggest a sort of halo of light reflected from the objects it encounters.

Once the initial layer of paint was completely dry (in a later painting session), Vermeer most likely accentuated the dark vertical sliver of shadow to the immediate left of the hanging whicker basket, the stains and cracks of the wall under the window and the nail and nail holes on the right-hand illuminated passage with a mixture of black and a little umber.

The shadowed passages seemed to have been painted less densely that the lighter parts to the right of the picture. Painters understood that shadows were more effective when they were painted with thin transparent layers of paint.

Researching into the seemingly humble palette helps illuminate our understanding of what we traditionally refer to as "style." Vermeer, like his contemporaries, grappled with many technical constraints. Yet, the manner in which he navigated these challenges suggests that style was not solely dictated by technique. When one acknowledges these inherent limitations of the painter's crude materials and tools, it becomes evident how they influenced the style, and hence, the expressive content of Vermeer's oeuvre.


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