The colour palette of LS Lowry

“If you go out on the edge of Tianjin or São Paulo, you’ll see industrialisation is still taking place in this kind of raw and immediate and often brutal and appalling way. So Lowry is often an artist of the present and alas of the future, as well as of the past.”

This is how TJ Clark, the co-curator of Tate Britain’s 2013 LS Lowry retrospective, answered questions on how the artist’s work could now be regarded.

It is quite a claim for someone who was modest about both himself and his methods. “I am a simple man,” he once said. “I use simple materials: ivory black, vermilion, Prussian blue, yellow ochre, flake white and no medium.” It meant Lowry was in absolute control of all the colours and tones he could achieve and allowed him to concentrate on composition, perspective and subject matter – namely the landscapes and people of northern England.

Impressionist inspirations

Born in 1887, Laurence Stephen Lowry lived and worked in Manchester all his life. In 1905 he secured a place at the Manchester School of Art and was inspired and influenced by the work of his teacher, the French Impressionist artist Pierre Adolphe Valette. He said of his mentor: “I cannot overestimate [his] effect on me.” Later, Lowry’s job as a rent collector brought him into contact with hundreds of people living and working in the shadows of Manchester’s factories, giving him endless subjects on which to draw.

Winsor & Newton: a life long partnership

Lowry used Winsor & Newton Winton Oil Colour all his life. A highly pigmented oil range, often with greater pigment strength than many competitors’ artists’ ranges, Lowry liked its relatively stiff consistency, as he used it straight from the tube.

Lowry’s five colour palette

Ivory black
A relatively low tinting strength black with a warm brown undertone, this is not too overpowering on the canvas and can be used for mixing tones and shades.

Vermilion
A bright, opaque, primary red with a blue undertone, its opaqueness gives an earthy nature in mixtures – nothing too bright.

Prussian blue
An important historical pigment, it was the first modern colour to be artificially produced in 1704. It is an incredibly strong colour, almost black from the tube and its transparency makes it a good, clean mixing colour.

Yellow ochre
One of the oldest pigments on earth, yellow ochre was used by cavemen more than 15,000 years ago. It is natural earth which has been coloured by its contact with iron, and remains one of the most important colours in an artists’ palette: a tone of yellow which does not contain black, allowing all colour mixtures in this area to be relatively clean.

Flake white
White is obligatory in order to achieve most spectrums in oil painting and without it, impasto tints would not be possible. It is popular because it is fast drying, helping to speed the whole painting process. Flake white is of medium tinting strength which avoids producing overly “chalky” mixtures.

Advances in colour technology

In the latter part of the 20th century, after Lowry’s death in 1976, many new pigments became available and there were great improvements in the permanence of colours too. Winsor & Newton’s Vermilion Hue is now more permanent and no longer risks fading on mixing with Flake White. Flake White has been replaced by Flake White Hue, which is no longer lead based and so avoids toxicity issues. Winton Oil Colour is found in many artists’ studios alongside Winsor & Newton Artists’ Oil Colour, which offers a wider choice of colours and even greater colour strength. There are two choices if you want to use Lowry’s palette:

Winton Oil Colour
Winton Oil Colour:
Vermilion Hue, Yellow Ochre, Prussian Blue,
Ivory Black, Flake White Hue

 

Winton Oil Colour
Flake White Hue, Yellow Ochre, Ivory Black, Vermilion Hue and Prussian Blue. Despite the two pigment changes made, this is arguably the nearest to Lowry’s palette because the pigment strength and consistency will be Winton quality.

Winton Oil Colour
Artists’ Oil Colour:
Cadmium Red, Yellow Ochre, Prussian Blue,
Ivory Black, Flake White Hue

 

Artists’ Oil Colour

Flake White Hue, Yellow Ochre, Ivory Black, Cadmium Red and Prussian Blue. Yellow Ochre, Ivory Black and Prussian Blue will all be stronger than the Winton equivalents. Cadmium Red is the nearest Artists’ Oil Colour to Vermilion, which has not been available since the 1980s, when the quality had become so poor that Winsor & Newton decided it could no longer use it. Winton Vermilion was in fact not genuine, so it would seem more sensible to use Winton Vermilion Hue than Artists’ Cadmium Red. Prussian Blue still has some permanence issues because it fades in daylight and recovers in darkness. Indanthrene Blue overcomes this.

Experiment and learn

Learning from Lowry by limiting your palette forces you to look harder, experiment and discover things you didn’t know were possible. It can divert you from working habits which in the end will limit your work. Choose five colours – it doesn’t matter which ones – and use this palette for a series of paintings before returning to a wider selection. Next time choose a different selection. There will always be something to learn.