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  • Writer's pictureHolly Scoggins

Classical vs Impressionist color palette

Updated: Nov 12, 2021

Choosing a color palette as an oil painter in the 21st century can be tough. There are infinite options which can lead to infinite distractions and a lot of confusion. If you do not control your color palette, it will control you.

  1. Luncheon of the Boating Party Pierre-Auguste Renoir 1880-1881

  2. Judgement of Paris Peter Paul Rubens probably 1632-5

One of the earliest artist studios ( or chemists lab.. same thing right?) was the Blombos cave in South Africa. In this cave researchers found abalone shells which stored various ground pigments to make paint. This is proof that our early ancestors were passionate about color and the science it took to make the paints. Want to know more about ancient pigments? Check out Pigments through the ages Prehistoric painting techniques article here .

Two major types of color palettes taught to painters in todays college classroom are traditional color palette and Impressionist. . Want the quick classic vs impressionist pigment list? scroll to the bottom of this blog.

After expanding my studies into Old Master artworks during graduate school, I learned that yes, the use of earth pigments and black can make a painting dark, but it is ultimately up to the artist to control the placement, mixture, and quantities of these "dead" colors. Classical and simple color palettes can benefit any painter. Restricting yourself to historical pigments can vastly improve your color mixing skills because you are forced to work with limited resources. This is why the majority of beginner painting assignments use only 1-2 colors when learning to paint.

What I learned from primarily using an Impressionist palette in my early painting years is that the absence of black ( paired with a lack of educated color mixing knowledge) produced garishly colored paintings. Too many bright colors and my work became reminiscent of a fluffy Renoir painting ( and I am not a huge fan of Renoir.) Turns out, those Impressionist painters often had a method to their colorful madness... and guess what? occasionally they used ( gasp!) black.

Severely dividing these palettes into Impressionist vs traditional ( classical) over simplifies the movements and artists associated with them, but it is a good place to start. One of the most important criteria for understanding these palettes is the time period and location in which they were used, and the availability of the pigments. The farther back in time we go, the earthier and simpler the color palette. The farther forward in time we have more chromatic variety available to us . The Classical palette includes natural pigments whereas the Impressionist palette begins using more vibrant man-made colors. One very simple comparison can be shown with 2 green pigments. Terre Verte ( earth green) was historically used as an underpainting for flesh as well as any foliage or nature scenes. Terre Verte has a very short value range and loses chroma very quickly when you use it. Terre Verte ( earth green pigment) cannot compare to the range of possibilities you get when using Viridian Green . Viridian Green has has a wider value range, and a blue undertone provides a lot of mixing options. It tints very subtly, but not as subtle as Terre Verte.

Terre Verte (used since antiquity..(more info) and Viridian ( 1836) ( more info) in comparison

Classical Palette Colors:

Pigment origins from cave painting and antiquity. These pigments were central to the oil painting palette from the Renaissance through the Classical Era of oil painting.The muted earth colors stand close to the neutral core of Color Space. This limited range creates contrasts between the darkest darks and the lightest lights, creating the chiaroscuro (literally, “light/dark”) effect so characteristic of classical art.

• Naples Yellow (Hue)

• Yellow Ochre

• Raw Umber

• Vermillion (Napthol Scarlet shown here)

• Venetian Red

• Burnt Sienna

• Indian Red

• Ultramarine Blue (lapis)

• Terre Verte ( earth green)

Impressionist Palette Colors: The mid-nineteenth century widened the spectrum of both color and possibilities for artists.From nineteenth century onward these were the primary colors used by " Impressionist" painters:

· Yellow Light

· Cadmium Yellow Deep

· Cadmium Orange

· Cadmium Red Light

· Alizarin Crimson

· Cobalt Violet

· Ultramarine Blue

· Cerulean Blue

· Viridian green

As you can see above the Classical palette leans warm and dark n color space whereas the Impressionist palette provides a more balanced range of colors. What is color space? See Gamblin's Navigating Color space webpage.

The Impressionist Palette:

The advancements of the Industrial Revolution of the mid-nineteenth expanded the spectrum of color options for artists. From nineteenth century onward, pigments were no longer made specifically for artists’ use. Colors were now made for printing papers and packaging as well as industrial coatings. Scientists fused inorganic materials together in a really high heat to create a large range of new colors. Not only did science and technology for creating colors improve, but many artists were just tired of the traditional way or working and began to challenge the academies and their traditions. The impressionist painters protested tradition through vibrancy. This protest is what we call the beginning of Modern art.

Want more information on color palette history, check out Gamblin's site Exploring Color Palettes

More about that 100,000 year old painting studio here.


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