The Renaissance Palette

The renaissance palette
I would love to get ahold of the renaissance palette, just to work with the colours and see how much they contributed to the look of the work and dictated the painting process.
The blue from smalt and the salmon pinks Michelangelo achieved for his frescos, mixing carmine red with lime white, I’m guessing.
Today all our paints are uniformly smooth and doctored up with just the right amount of additives to make each colour behave uniformly. Similar “feel” (that is particulate uniformity), similar rates of drying, predictable transparency or coverage and so on. But back in the day, such was not the case.
Oil painting began in Europe and artists made their own paints. Several generations later, well, a couple of hundred years later there were enough people painting in oils that there was business selling supplies, specifically the profession of color tradesman, the “Colormen”, who had perfected the processes and supplied reliable, consistent paints. With the invention and mass production of tubes came larger scale commercial paint making in the 1800’s.
But when artists make their own paints colours behave differently, do different things. Like other guilds and trades, painting had its secrets, and artists had their own preferences and tricks. There were definitely secrets. Helpers often ground the colours, definitely refined their own oils and mulled paints from dry pigments. There were few chemical additives or complex processes available to make the paints behave uniformly. Thus the artist really had to learn how to use each colour.
Let’s lift the lid on their colour box:
Naples Yellow – (still here!) a lead antimonite … OK, not here.
Lead tin yellow – an oxide of lead. Dense and light.
Orpament / Arsenikon – natural arsenic sulfide
Smalt – ground blue glass containing large amounts of cobalt
Azurite – a naturally blue carbonate of copper – a mineral
Ultramarine blue – true UB was ground lapis lazuli, the rare gemstone
Indigo – from boiled plants. Fugitive. Best in underpainting
Carmine Lake – made from processing the cochineal beetle
Kermes Lake – made from processing the kermes beetle
Cinnabar / Vermilion – almost orange, a mercury sulfide of cinnabar. Really toxic!
Realgar – sulfide of arsenic . Also super toxic.
Verdigris – Copper acetate. Also quite toxic.
Green earth – hydrosilicate of several minerals, so came in different shades
Malachite – a light green, natural copper carbonate. The oldest green.
Variations on Umber, a natural mineral
Lead White – cerusite, a mineral, a carbonate of lead , very fast drying. Toxic.
Lime White – pure chalk plus calcium hydroxide plus calcium carbonate. Weird.
I’m not getting into the chemistry, but chalk binds perfectly with polymerized oil but alone is almost transparent. Oil and calcium hydroxide is more opaque but very acidic, would rot the canvas, so calcium carbonate, which is whiter and more dense, is added for PH. So with all three carefully mixed the paint is super stable. Used in underpainting for stability and quick drying. These days, I wouldn’t bother.
Bone Black – a very blue black. Burnt bones and sometimes ivory. Ugh.
Carbon Black – basically charcoal
And there is it. Very toxic, but also intense and for the most part, stable. Blows my mind that as early as the late 1500’s the chemistry was sufficient to create and refine all these colours.
Today artists are fortunately to be in a golden age of paint making. We have more choices than ever to purchase extremely high quality paint and simultaneously very good quality inexpensive paint.
Over the last generation a world wide consolidation happened and several very long established paint makers were bought and folded into very large paint makers, creating gigantic paint makers. At the same time, a few smaller independents continue and in the void created by this consolidation, smaller but extremely high quality operations have successfully started. I’ll get into this in another post.
There has never been so much choice in ‘high end’ quality artist’s paints. Meaning, if you shop carefully you can pretty much duplicate the Renaissance palette. Sort of.
What is missing is the control over the texture and opaqueness of each paint that the artists of (very) old enjoyed. Not to mention the unique properties those lead and arsenic derived paints possessed (not to mention the bugs and gem stones).
We can make oil paint more transparent easily enough, we add oil. But we aren’t mulling our own colours, let alone grind them, so we can’t control the “graininess” , stiffness and density (or opaqueness), and thus make a batch of colour that performs just how we like it or how we want it to behave.
This leads to such practices as refining your own linseed oil, adding oil of cloves, mulling your own colours, adding French chalk, and ‘de-oiling’ tube paint all in order to control the texture, coverage and transparency of a colour.
All is not lost. We can still make most of our own paint. Dry pigments are widely available on the Internet (but honestly ridiculously expensive to the end user (the artist). Pigments that you can purchase in 150 liter drums commercially in Italy are repackaged into tiny tins and marked up a thousand percent. It’s business. Economies of scale. But having a 20 gallon (about 150 lt) drum of any red pigment might last you the rest of your life, and having a huge drum of white powdered lead pigment likely requires special licenses.
Then the ‘lake’ colours, as I understand, aren’t powders but precipitates, liquids, generally suspended in alcohol. A neutral filler plus linseed oil is added to the liquid colour to make paint. One chemical reaction creates a yellow or a green colour change in another substance, for example. Then alcohol or other solvent separates the colour. (Virtually all of the less expensive colours available are derived purely from easily repeaded chemical interactions.) So would be rather more difficult to use.
However, more artists are creating their own paints for quality control purposes, although I don’t think anyone in a long time has tried to duplicate the renaissance palette.
Still, would be interesting to get ahold of the Renaissance paint box and see how these lead and copper based, arsenic and sulfide derived paints behaved.
Honey, where’s my Smalt!
Sean aug 2020