Monday, January 31, 2011

Mastery of the Palette

Cecilia Beaux' Palette
from the Smithsonian Archives of American Artists

I'm not the only one having a hard time mixing the right color and value to use on a painting. Here is an interesting account of how Cecilia Beaux' successfully overcame this problem:

"Some way must be found to make the obstinate mess on the palette something which, when lifted by the brush, might prove to be right when placed where it belonged on the canvas. The relation between the palette and the canvas cannot be absolute, because the mind is the amalgam that comes operating between.

The story is too old to be repeated, but too apt here to be omitted. When some one asked Sir Joshua with what he mixed his colors, he answered, "With brains, sir." But without restricting the elans of inspiration, one must recognize, on the differing angle, lighting, and circumstances of the palette, what is going to serve, and as swiftly as the bird selects the nourishment, invisible to the rest of us. In the classroom, I have always found that a glance at the palette accounted for much of the failure of the study.

Chance seemed to offer a sort of approach to a simple solution. This was in trying pastel again as means to an end, differing from its use merely as a change in medium. I greatly enlarged my pastel collection, spending much time, and something else, in choosing shades which were not primary colors, which of course I already had. I found a kind which were rather large in form, like chalk, and very sympathetic in substance. To work with them, I used a light tray, covering it with a piece of white cloth, to show the tone of the pastels, and also to prevent them from mixing. The secret of the procedure lay in the fact that I must know the tone I desired, and then strive to find it. The value of this lay in the fact, also, that the color tried and proved to be right was generally strangely unlike what it appeared to be in my hand.

This, as teaching, and for developing a faculty, was far more valuable than its use as permanent means of expression. Fortunately, I knew better than to abuse it. Also, I remembered a small circumstance during my first days under the criticism of William Sartain. One day, he took my dirty little palette, and, without the slightest hesitation, picked up, on a brush, what I would have seen as a bit of mud. Laid upon the half tone, generally one of the most resistant of passages, it proved to be pure, sustaining, and perfect in sequence. Recognition of tone on the palette - this, the fragile medium pastel by the separateness and individuality of its already existent tones (which positively were or were not right), taught me; also choice, and strict rejection.

Pastel was never a rival of oil color. It taught me only a bit of useful strategy that was an aid toward meeting the obstinate armaments of so-called oils. Another virtue of pastel was that one might push a morceau and leave it half conquered, to be taken up any time later and found in absolute status quo, a liberty never permitted by oil color, without heavy, often ruinous, taxation. This enables one to pursue continuously, and possibly conquer, a difficulty (and there is no teacher like this) in separate winds, giving it several fresh breathings, and so multiplying vigor on a single point of attack. (In oil painting, stopping, except at wisely arranged boundaries, will be taken advantage of by the enemy and defeat is nearly certain.)

Painting is much like war or hunting, adding the primitive zest of the chase to quite an opposite set of emotions. I had substantial proof that my dealings with the operations of pastel put me considerably forward in painting; hence this tribute to the medium I incontinently threw aside when I had extracted from it what it could do for me, which was to be my Aladdin's lamp at a critical moment when the treasure seemed to be undiscoverable."

from Background with Figures by Cecilia Beaux

I am so excited...My new palette turns out to be an exact replica of Cecilia Beaux'! And where did I get it? I had been looking at my photo album on Facebook, Artists of the Past, and started noticing how the artists were holding their palettes. When I tried it with my palette, it really hurt my thumb...for more than a day. When I mentioned it to a most excellent artist friend, he showed me one that he had with the thumb hole in a place that helped to balance it better. It also was light, wrapped around my upper arm and snugged up to my body. I loved it...and offered him a deal, "Website work for a copy of that palette!" He looked interested, and before I knew it had one made for me (he is a cabinetmaker and phlebotomist as well - but I was not interested having my blood drawn).


  1. Linda, great post. We'll have to talk palettes together sometime, I have the same interest in them as you do. I look forward to reading more posts from you.


  2. I had never really thought about palettes before - the actual piece of wood itself that is. But it does make a difference in the painting process. My new palette is birch and is quite light in weight. My friend sanded the edges and beveled the thumbhole and larger hole for comfort. I'm trying to get as much weight as possible off my thumb and am currently positioning a paper towel between my thumb and the palette - used for wiping off excess paint and providing even more comfort.