Palette of a Master: Explore Turner's Sublime Colour Choices


Turner, Norham Castle, Winsor & Newton

Interest in landscape painter JMW Turner has soared in recent months with the release of Mike Leigh’s acclaimed, Oscar-nominated biopic Mr Turner. Winsor & Newton played an integral role in the film’s production, consulting on paint-making and Turner’s well-known working relationship with William Winsor and Henry Newton – chemist and painter, respectively. It was a close collaboration with Winsor & Newton which granted Turner access to several colours used to create his masterworks.

‘The man who invented modern painting’ used the new synthetic pigments as a means of embarrassing his competitors at the Royal Academy, often waiting until varnishing day before adding vivid new colours to his work that would make neighbouring paintings look drab in comparisonThese palettes continue to stand out not only based on their striking colour combinations, but their forward-thinking applications.

Read on to learn more about five of Turner’s most original works, and the defining colours which make them so striking.

1. Llandaff Cathedral: The West Front, Exhibited 1796



Turner-Inspired Palette:

Professional Water Colour - Turner's Yellow || Professional Water Colour - New Gamboge || Professional Water Colour - Raw Sienna

Aged 18, Turner worked for the architectural draughtsman Thomas Malton, drawing buildings in landscape settings that would then be tinted with watercolour. Turner quickly advanced to mastery of water colour, and the first paintings he showed at the Royal Academy were in this difficult medium. He used Gamboge in block form for the purpose, with evidence he made them himself.

2. Fishermen at Sea, 1775-1851, Exhibited 1796



Turner-Inspired Palette:

 Artists' Oil Colour Flake White Hue || Artists' Oil Colour Winsor Lemon || 
Artists' Oil Colour French Ultramarine

The first oil painting Turner exhibited at the Royal Academy depicts a small boat being tossed on moonlit waves. Demonstrating the power of nature, a key and recurring theme for Turner, this piece saw the use of Genuine Ultramarine (Lapis Lazuli), White Lead and a very toxic yellow called Orpiment, also known as King's Yellow.

3. Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps, 1812



Turner-Inspired Palette:

Artists' Oil Colour Naples Yellow || Artists' Oil Colour Winsor Green (Yellow Shade)  || 
Artists' Oil Colour Mars Black

Man's insignificance in the face of nature is made manifest in this piece, which was produced during the Napoleonic wars and was a riposte to David’s heroic portrait of Napoleon crossing the Alps. Snowstorm is a characteristic swirl of colour and form for which Turner would have had a true bright green available to him for the first time, a highly toxic copper arsenite called Scheele’s Green.

4. Bridge of Signs, Ducal Palace and Custom-House, Venice: CanalettiExhibited 1833



Turner-Inspired Palette:

Artists' Oil Colour Cerulean Blue || Artists' Oil Colour Cobalt Blue Deep || Artists' Oil Colour Scarlet Lake

The light and landscape of Italy made a profound impression on Turner. This painting is in part homage to another artist, Canaletto, who can be seen at his easel in the corner. By the time Bridge of Sighs was painted, Ultramarine had been synthesised and Cobalt Blue could be added to his palette.

5. Norham Castle, Sunrise, 1845



Turner-Inspired Palette:

Artists' Oil Colour Transparent Yellow || Artists' Oil Colour Indian Yellow || 
Artists' Oil Colour Yellow Ochre

The ethereal patches of pure colour in this unfinished painting from the end of Turner’s life seem less valedictory of a long career than a signpost to the future. Amongst other new colours, a whole range of yellows were now available through the isolation of the metal chromium.


Interested in learning about Mr Turner, the film? Read our exclusive interview with director Mike Leigh online.

All images via Tate