Encyclopedia of Color Science and Technology

2016 Edition
| Editors: Ming Ronnier Luo


Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-8071-7_244



  1. 1.

    Board on which paints are set in order to mix them before applying to a painting

  2. 2.

    The color range or selection used in a composition, art work, or design object



In its narrowest sense, a painter’s palette is a rigid board on which a set of paints is laid out and adjacent to which is an area where its ingredients can be mixed before application to a canvas, board, or other support. In its widest sense a palette represents any range of colors an artist or designer has chosen for use in any specific project. For some tasks this may simply mean black and white with various greys mixed from them; for others it can mean an array of dozens of colors, with others mixed from them. For centuries, the palette has been an essential item in every painter’s studio. Since the appearance of the Quantel Digital Paintbox (1981), many artists have replaced the paintbrush with the computer mouse, though the term “palette” is still retained to refer to the range of colors available for introduction into the visual image.

Palette, as a Board for Arranging and Mixing Paints

European palettes were traditionally made of hard wood (such as mahogany or walnut) and weighted or shaped in order to balance comfortably on the wrist or forearm of the painter while working. From about 1400, a number of portraits show small wooden palettes with handles either laying flat on a table or propped up beside a set of brushes, commonly one for each color. The latter has corners to stop them rolling over and also imply viscosity in the paint being used. For larger works, and less viscous paint, shallow bowls of single colors and large brushes were used. After about 1500, for easel paint in either tempera or oil, a palette large enough to accommodate about a dozen colors is pierced in one corner by a thumb hole. After about 1600, large curved palettes that rest on the forearm become general and define a design that remained standard into the twentieth century, though smaller, rectangular palettes that fitted into the lids of paintboxes also continued to be used. Throughout the ages, many other materials have been employed to hold and mix paints, including shells, porcelain, glass, metal, plastic, or bone, as in the case of the scapula palettes of prehistoric times. Metal trays or containers are best for wax or encaustic painting (requiring heat), and glass jars are useful for fresco painting. Shallow, cupped palettes are suited to dilute egg tempera and watercolor paint, whereas flat boards are ideal for holding small quantities of oil, alkyd, and polymer paints.

Palette as a Color Range or Selection

The common function of a palette (whatever its size and format) is to reveal the selection of chosen colors at a glance and assist the painter in working with a degree of speed and efficiency. According to Giorgio Vasari (1568), Lorenzo di Credi (a fellow-pupil of Leonardo in the studio of Andrea del Verrocchio) “made on his palettes a great number of colour mixtures, so that they went gradually from the lightest tint to the darkest, with exaggerated and truly excessive regularity, so that sometimes he had 25 or 30 on his palette, and for each of them he kept a separate brush.” More often, color mixing was kept to a minimum, and colors employed in the glorification of gods were kept as pure and unsullied as possible.

Historical Development of Palette

Of the many reference sources that document the historical variation and content of artists’ palettes, among the more informative are Letalle’s Les palettes d’artistes [1], Speed’s The Science and Practice of Oil Painting [2], Schmid’s The Practice of Painting [3], Bazzi’s Abecedario pittorico [4], and Birren’s History of Color in Painting [5].

Ancient Times

The limited range of the pigments used by the earliest painters can be ascertained from cave paintings from about 15,000 BC that have survived in northern Spain and western France. The palette employed is known to have included red ochre (hematite), yellow ochre (limonite), stibnite (grey antimony sulphide), and kaolin (white aluminium silicate). Remarkably, this four-pigment palette, known to the Greeks as the tetrachromatikón, not only survives in Europe but is found widely scattered throughout the globe, being a common feature in the traditional painting by the Polynesian artists of the Pacific and New Guinea, by many African tribes, and by the Australian Aborigines. Reds, greens, and yellows from vegetation may have been used but generally rapidly fade.

Ample evidence remains of the contents of the ancient Egyptian palette. In addition to fugitive dyestuffs, the Egyptians employed gypsum (calcium sulfate), white lead (lead carbonate), red lead (lead oxide), realgar (arsenic disulfide), orpiment (arsenic trisulfide), malachite green and azurite blue (two forms of copper carbonate), Egyptian blue (crystalline copper silicate), and various carbon blacks, including lamp black and bone black. Egyptian Blue has been identified in painted decorations from about 2500 BCE onward, and its manufacture combined chalk or limestone with sand and a copper mineral, such as azurite, fired in a kiln at precise temperatures. Lapis lazuli was used in jewellery but is unlikely to have been employed as a pigment at this time.

In ancient Greece, the practice of intermixing the four earth colors was credited to the painters Polygnotus and Anaglaophon. The reliance on a palette of red ochre, yellow ochre, chalk white, and black (commonly from burnt wine lees) caused Pliny to remark, in his Natural History (37.12): Quattuor coloribus solis immortalia illa opera fecere (“Four colours alone to make their work immortal”). Apelles was acknowledged as the principal advocate of the tetrachromatikón, from which all human complexion colors could be obtained, plus the browns of hides and fur, and even the dull greens of foliage, when yellow ochre was mixed with bluish black. Additionally, Pliny writes of Apelles applying varnish to his paintings that “caused radiance in the brightness of all the colours and protected the painting from dust and dirt.” Pliny also makes a distinction between the “austere” colors (austeri) of the “four-earth” palette and vivid or “flowery” colors (floridi). Among the latter are red lead (minium), purpura lake (purpurissum), dragonsblood (cinnabaris), Armenian blue (azurite), chrysocolla, and Indigo.

Greeks and Romans used much the same palette, adapted from the Egyptians, and the only significant pigment introduced by the Romans was cinnabar (natural mercuric sulfide).

Medieval Age

After the fall of the Roman empire (about 400 CE), few surviving records refer to the constitution of artists’ palettes, owing perhaps to illiteracy or a desire to keep certain practices secret, or simply because processes were so well known that no one felt the need to write them down. Commissions and contracts might specify which pigments were to be used for particular artworks, usually with the aim of preventing the substitution of inferior colorants for precious ones similar in color, such as red lead for vermilion, or azurite for lapis lazuli, which at its finest was worth its weight in gold. The English word “guarantee” comes from the Italian term garanza, referring to genuine madder dyestuff. Where instructions for selecting raw materials, preparing paints, and the correct methods of using them were recorded, it was usually in the form of secret recipe books known as formularies. One of the most informative of these is De diversis artibus (“On diverse arts”) by the monk Theophilus (Roger of Helmarshausen), who also describes a formula for preparing artificial vermilion and whose Schedula diversarum artium also describes procedures for illuminating manuscripts.

An unusually complete formulary that has survived from the early Renaissance was compiled about 1400 by the Tuscan artist Cennini Cennini. Whereas Leon Battista Alberti’s treatise on painting (1435) is largely theoretical, and refers only briefly to color mixing, Cennini’s contains over 150 short chapters covering numerous aspects of workshop practice. It describes, for example, a relatively new yellow made from lead and tin oxides heated to 800°. Cennini calls it giallorino and describes it as heavy and permanent and useful for painting foliage and grass. In English, it became known as massicot (and subsequently lead-tin yellow) and was sometimes glazed with Indigo for depicting foliage.

Medieval artists also learnt that palettes could be extended when raw earths were roasted or calcined. Hence, yellow ochre was transformed into a reddish pigment variously called burnt ochre, light red, or English red; raw sienna and raw umber became burnt sienna and burnt umber, the latter useful for flesh tints. During the Middle Ages, a typical workshop palette might therefore include white lead, kaolin, gypsum, massicot, orpiment, yellow ochre, burnt ochre, red lead, raw sienna, burnt sienna, raw umber, burnt umber, red ochre and red bole, cinnabar or vermilion, madder lake, brazilwood lake, green earth, sap green, verdigris, malachite green, azurite blue, flower of woad, genuine ultramarine, lamp black, bone black, and vine black.

Renaissance and Beyond

Though Hubert and Jan van Eyck were not the inventors of oil painting, they are acknowledged (e.g., by Filarete) as perfecting its use in pictorial painting, together with Rogier van der Weyden. Antonello da Messina is often credited with introducing the medium into Italy, and by the end of the 1400s, oil painting was commonplace throughout Europe. Magnificent frescoes continued to be painted throughout the 1500s, notably by Raphael, Michaelangelo, and Annibale Carracci, but working from a handheld palette distributed with oil colors became almost universal practice from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-twentieth century, when North American abstract artists in particular began making large-scale abstract works. At the same time, commercial paints, alkyds, and acrylic paints stimulated new and bolder methods of working. Notable exceptions were the various schools of watercolor painters, who devised small, portable, and often ingenious palettes for outdoor sketching and made of either or wood or lightweight metal.

Baroque and Classicism

With the decline in large commissions from the church, courts, or guilds, and the rise of the merchant class, it became more difficult for aspiring artists to become pupils and apprentices in large-scale workshops. To compensate for this, from the late 1600s onward, a series of books began to appear that offered tuition in the basic skills of assembling and applying practical palettes. Among the first was William Salmon’s Polygraphice (1672), followed by Claude Boutet’s Traité de la mignature (1673), modified through dozens of editions. Alternatively, a student might learn from a single master but had better chance of a more rounded education if he could enroll at one of the many new academies, though even in the 1700s, these were few and far between. Italian painting continued to be much admired, and writers often bemoaned the fact that artists like Titian had not passed their “secrets” of color-mixing down to later generations, though Lomazzo’s Trattato dell’arte de la pittura (1584) had preserved some of the late-Renaissance practices.

The glazing of three primary colors, demonstrated in color circles, was included in Moses Harris’ Natural System of Colours (1766), offering a new concept of tricolor mixing, and extended in Johann Lambert’s Farbenpyramide (1772) and James Sowerby’s New Elucidation of Colours (1809) and culminating in Philipp Otto Runge’s three-dimensional Farben-Kugel (1810). As the science of chemistry accelerated throughout the early nineteenth century, many new artificial pigments were added to the artists’ palette, notably cobalt blue (1804), chrome yellow (1818), cadmium red and yellow (1817), Guimet’s artificial ultramarine (1826), and chromium oxide green (1838).

Nineteenth Century

In excess of 50 instructional books on how to use color palettes were published during the 1800s, though few influenced the development of fine art painting as such. One exception is Ogden Rood’s Modern Chromatics (1879), responsible (in its French edition of 1881) for clarifying Chevreul’s earlier explanations of optical color mixing. By the mid-1880s, numerous artists (including Georges Seurat, Vincent van Gogh, and Camille Pissarro) were laying out their colors in spectral sequence, with white available for tinting.

Twentieth Century

Over the next 30 years, almost every progressive painter experimented with some form of pointillism, and its novel way of applying unmixed color directly from the palette to the canvas (notably in early twentieth-century French and German expressionism) led to the liberation of color as a pictorial element in its own right, and one no longer restricted to the traditional task of describing forms in the natural or built environment.

During the early years of the twentieth century, avant-garde artists became less concerned with the subtleties of matching their colors to external objects as with the relationships between the colors arrayed on the palette. Such a preoccupation was reinforced first by the publication of Albert Munsell’s A Color Notation (1905) and then of Wilhelm Ostwald’s Die Farbenfibel (1916), which was highly publicized throughout European schools of art and design. One limitation of such systems, and others like them, was their emphasis on opaque colors, whereas many artists (including Paul Klee) typically experimented with translucent oil or watercolor glazes. Additionally, as if in reaction to the color explosion of the Impressionist generation, the Cubists reverted to the ancient tetrachrome palette, with Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, and even Marcel Duchamp, restricting their palettes to white, black, red and yellow ochre, and subdued green earth. No theorists or writers of art manuals influenced their decision, yet a general reversion to classicism held sway until the mid-1950s, through various realist revivals, until vivid palettes came to the fore again in the 1960s, with the extravert and confident art movements variously labeled Pop Art, Op Art, and  Color Field Painting.



  1. 1.
    Letalle, A.: Les palettes d’artistes. E. Sansot, Paris (1912)Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Speed, H.: The Science and Practice of Oil Painting. Chapman and Hall, London (1924)Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Schmid, F.: The Practice of Painting. Faber & Faber, London (1948)Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Bazzi, M.: Abecedario pittorico. Longanesi, Milan (1956). Translated as The Artists’ Methods and Materials. John Murray, London (1960)Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Birren, F.: History of Color in Painting. Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York (1965)Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Color Research and ApplicationThe Colour Group of Great BritainLondonUK