Choosing pigments: Old Masters and contemporary painters

Today pigments and colours are generally widely available, whether in an art store or online. While some artists might choose a limited palette, the number of colours on offer is not restricted. Contemporary painters make decisions about colours based on style and subject more than availability.

But until the 18th century artists made their own paint from raw pigments ground into a binder. The colours they could use would be dependent on their contacts in major trading areas or the latest developments in chemistry. We take a look at how access to pigments influenced the work of Old Masters Titian and Rembrandt, and the palettes of modern artists Michael Hussar and Alzbeta Jaresova.

Titian’s pigments

Titian was active from around 1500, when Venice was the supreme European trading area, importing goods, including pigments, from around the world. Its location allowed trade north into Europe, south into the Italian peninsula, and by sea, connecting to the silk routes into the Far East.

As a local artist, Titian had first pick of the pigments that came into Venice, including that created by the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli. Imported by caravan along the silk routes, then by sea from a region that is now part of Afghanistan, the highly prized pigment extracted from lapis became known as “blue from over the sea” or “ultramarine”. Titian’s wide range of pigments also included the highly toxic arsenic sulphide realgar, known as the only Renaissance orange, and orpiment, a bright yellow that was also toxic.

Titian’s masterpiece Bacchus and Ariadne (1520-3), now in London’s National Gallery, is “a chart of nearly every pigment known at the time”.*  As well as lavish use of ultramarine, the greens include malachite, verdigris and copper resinate. Ariadne’s scarf is painted with vermilion and the robe of the cymbal player is realgar.

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne
Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520 – 23, oil on canvas, 176.5×191cm image source wikipedia

Titian’s technique

Brother-in-law to the great Italian painter Andrea Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini introduced oil painting to Venice in the 1470s. Giorgione, Del Piombo and Titian all trained in Bellini’s studio, learning his technique of developing rich grades of colour through layers of glazing.

As a major maritime centre, Venice had a large ship-building industry. Sails were made from canvas and Venetian painters were the first to use this material as a support for painting. Working on the rough weft of canvas encouraged looser mark making, which is especially evident in later Titians. Less inclined to make initial drawings and often working compositions out directly in paint, Venetian artists emphasised colour and its judicious application. Known as colorito, this style was at odds with the Florentine disegno, or drawing, championed by Michelangelo and described by the Florentine artist and writer Giorgio Vasari as “the animating principle of all creative processes”. Part of the Florentines’ emphasis on drawing and dismissal of colorito may have been that they did not have the Venetians’ access to colour.

Rembrandt Van Rijn

Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-1669) was born into what became known as the Dutch Golden Age, a period of exceptional wealth based on overseas trade and also high artistic achievement, mainly in painting. The Netherlands was a major manufacturer of pigments and Rembrandt had easy access to lead white, smalt, lead tin yellow and vermilion.

Rembrandt Van Rijn, Self-Portrait with Two Circles
Rembrandt Van Rijn, Self-Portrait with Two Circles, 1665 – 69, oil on canvas, 114.3x94cm image source wikipedia

Using a limited palette of mostly earth colours, Rembrandt created dramatic paintings in a chiaroscuro (extreme light and dark) style. His colours included ochres from the Italian city of Siena, yellowish when raw and warm brown when burnt, and umbers, very dark when raw, turning red-brown when burnt. Rembrandt’s reds were lakes of cochineal and madder and his blues smalt and azurite. Rembrandt mixed his colours so extensively, however, that individual colours in these mixes are often hard to identify.

An advantage of using a palette based on earth colours is that the pigments are stable, so Rembrandt’s paintings have aged well.

Michael Hussar (contemporary artist)

Los Angeles based and painting in the tradition of the Old Masters, Michael Hussar achieves the difficult task of marrying the chiaroscuro of Rembrandt with the strong colours of the Venetians to produce his sometimes controversial images.

As a 21st century painter Hussar has easy access to materials. His paint of choice is Winsor & Newton Artists’ Oil Colour, for its “creamy texture and consistency of colours”. In addition, it is conveniently available to him in Los Angeles – including, as he puts it, “in any mom and pop store”.

Starting his career as an illustrator – unusually working in oil paint – Hussar needed his work to dry quickly, so turned to Liquin as a medium. He now uses it for glazing, extended with linseed or safflower oil, giving his paint surfaces their highly finished look. For his intense blacks, Hussar has his own recipe combining Olive Green, Indigo Blue and Alizarin Crimson.

Alzbeta Jaresova (contemporary artist)

Having a practise based firmly in drawing has influenced Alzbeta Jaresova’s selection of a limited palette in Winsor & Newton Artists’ Oil Colour. Jaresova uses mostly earth colours, emphasising line over colour in her work. This muted palette suits her subject of individuals constricted by architecture and their environment. The siennas and umbers she uses are now mostly made from synthesised iron oxides, making colours consistent from batch to batch and protecting dwindling supplies of natural deposits.

Part of the Old Masters’ success was their ability to acquire the best materials available at the time. Modern painters have materials that are generally widely available and, in the case of Winsor & Newton, are of excellent quality and reliability. They can select their colours to suit their subject or concept. The exotic and sometimes toxic pigments of the 18th century, the time of the Old Masters, have been either satisfactorily synthesised, as with ultramarine, or replaced, as realgar and orpiment have been with cadmium orange and yellow.

*plate 5.7. Philip Ball


Bright Earth: Art and the invention of color, Phillip Ball, University of Chicago press, 2003.

*Lead image: Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520 – 23, oil on canvas, 176.5 191 cm, image source wikipedia