The Traditional Wooden Palette

Vermeer used a wood palette like every painter of his time. In the 1676 death inventory of the artist's house in the front room of the first floor of the Oude Langendijk, there were listed "twee schilders eesels, drye paletten," two painters easels, three palettes." In Vermeer's time the familiar painter's palette with a hole for the thumb had replaced the older, rectangular kind with a handle. The artist held the palette with his thumb inserted into the hole leaving the rest of his fingers free to hold brushes and the mahlstick on which he steadied his hand over the canvas with wet paint.

Pictura, Frans van Mieris
Pictura (An Allegory of Painting)
Frans van Mieris
Oil on copper, 5 x 3 1/2 in.
Getty Museum of Art, Los Angeles

Pictura (detail), Fans van Mieris
Detail of Pictura

Palettes that appear in contemporary painting are surprisingly small in dimension and the relatively few pigments placed on them in an orderly fashion indicate that artists generally worked on one restricted area of a painting each day. There are various reasons for this procedure. Pigments available to the artist were not so mutually compatible as they are today. Also, they did not have tubes which preserve paints from dry out quickly. Since it was a relatively long and laborious task to produce the necessary quantity of paint each day, large amounts of costly unused material would have to be thrown away if the complete range of pigments were to be available.

Wood was the preferred material for artist's palettes because it was lightweight, rigid but could be shaped easily. Another advantage of wood was its natural warm brown tone. Many painters initiated their work on a canvas primed with a brownish tone that was not dissimilar to the color of the palette. Since the perception colors are strongly influenced by the dominating tone that surrounds them, the paint that was mixed on a wooden palette did not change perceptibly when applied to the canvas.

In a painting (see images left) by Vermeer's contemporary Frans van Mieris, the allegorical figure representing Pictura can be seen holding a typical wooden palette. Van Mieris represented the palette necessary for painting flesh tones. The layout of the pigments, from light to dark, was common.

Roger de Piles, an influential French art critic, theorist and collector who made important contributions to aesthetic theory recommended painters (Les Elémens de Peinture Pratique, 1766) to set out not only the base pigments that would be necessary to paint flesh, but the various shades necessary to model and give the flesh its proper color.

"Before beginning to paint, all the major shades that are needed to imitate what you want to copy should be placed on the palette with the tip of the knife. The shades are made by taking a little of the principal colors that are at the top of the range with the tip of the knife and mix them together until we have found the shades that we seek. The natural flesh tones have their light, their shadows and their reflections or halftones, but to imitate these three degrees the painter mixes the colors, making different shades on the palette. They arrange them in order to each other, below the eight principal colors, always putting the brightest nearest the thumb holding the palette: as we have already said, these shades should be mixed with the knife, which would be the wrong way to do with a brush.

"Returning to the proposed head: it has its light, its shadows and halftones. To imitate the light, there are usually four light shades. The first is composed of white and a little yellow; the second, white, vermilion and lake, the latter two being added in very small quantities. The third is like the second, by putting a little more lake and vermilion; the fourth, like the third, by mixing a little more of the last two colors. It may be here that we want to make a fifth shade darker than the latter. These shades are set forth in a single row; the halftones and shadows placed underneath."

A typical twentieth-century oversized palette with great quantities of paint

In any case, while there existed a plethora of recipes for painters for rendering specific objects and lighting conditions that might be found in nature, these were not fruit of any overall theory of color or optics but were determined empirically and gradually refined over centuries. The relationship between the coloring of nature and the actual practice of painting is touched upon by De Piles when he wrote: "It is not possible to give rules on the mixture of colors, but with use and a little practice you can learn more than from long speeches, but in order to provide those who are starting to paint all the facilities that depend on us, we recommend to copy their first head from one that is beautiful, fresh and well-colored; this is the best advice we can give them, because good beginnings leave long time impressions in the mind of the things copied. There are painters who, having started to copy in gray tones, do so for their remaining lives. Suppose that it is a question of copying a head of fresh and live flesh tones."

Perhaps, more than any other Baroque painter, Rembrandt was able to capitalize on the few pigments available to artists of the time. "Yet, despite a palette that was limited even by seventeenth-century standards, he was renowned as a colorist for he managed to maintain a precarious balance between painting tonally, with light and shade, and painting in color. Just as form was suggested rather than delineated, so the impression of rich color was deceptive. Never before had a painter taken such a purely sensuous interest and delight in the physical qualities of his medium, nor granted it a greater measure of independence from the image."1

Obviously, the palette used by Van Mieris was very different from the large, paint-encrusted palettes which are typical of twentieth-century artists (see image above).

  1. Waldemar Januszczak, Techniques of the Great Masters of Art, Chartwell Books, 2001.