COLOURS IN FINE
Renaissance Colour Palette
Artistic Developments Since Classical Antiquity (400-1200 CE)
The flowering of European painting and sculpture, known to us as the Renaissance, emerged somewhat improbably from artistic traditions which had survived over the preceding centuries. After the Fall of Rome (c.450 CE) the continent of Europe had witnessed four centuries of cultural and artistic stagnation, known as the Dark Ages, during which most of the Classical painting and colour techniques had lapsed into disuse if not obscurity. Only in Ireland, Iona and Northern England - where early Christian monasteries produced a series of magnificent illuminated manuscripts (550-800 CE) - and in Asia Minor - where the decorative painting skills of Byzantine art flourished - were the Greek and Roman methods of colour production maintained, and sometimes enhanced. As European fine art slowly began to recover from 800 CE onwards, in the paintings, illuminations and architecture of the Carolingian and Ottonian courts, the Roman Church instigated - through its own network of abbeys in France and Germany - a program of building works which culminated in the glorious series of (first) Romanesque and (then) Gothic cathedrals. The following International Gothic style of art was in fact the milieu in which Giotto launched the proto-Renaissance with his naturalistic Scrovegni Chapel frescoes at Padua.
OF COLOUR PIGMENTS
For details of pigments, dyes and
colours associated with different
eras in the history of art, see:
Prehistoric Colour Palette
Hues used by Stone Age painters.
Egyptian Colour Palette
Hues used in Ancient Egypt.
Classical Colour Palette
Pigments used by painters in
Ancient Greece and Rome.
Eighteenth Century Colour Palette
Hues used by Rococo and other
Nineteenth Century Colour Palette
Pigments used by Romantics,
Impressionist painters and
other 19th century artists.
For advice about combining
Developments in Medieval Colour Painting: Pigments and Hues
The Medieval period witnessed two significant developments in colour technology, in the form of two new pigments - both from Asia. During the late-8th century or early 9th-century, traders brought a new and improved version of red Vermilion (the Roman Minium), known as Chinese Red. Obtained from the ore Cinnabar and highly toxic, it was the first of the modern bright, yet permanent hues. It was used extensively in gospel illuminations although it remained prohibitively expensive until the 1300s when a synthetic version was eventually produced. Later, in the 12th-century, another beautiful colour - also bright and powerful - arrived in Venice. This fabulous pigment, called Ultramarine ("from overseas"), was - like the known Lazuline Blue - obtained from the precious stone Lapis Lazuli although it was immensely richer, deeper and more powerful. A painter's dream, this hugely expensive pigment had been developed by Persians in Afghanistan, and would play a huge role in the Renaissance colour palette.
Colours Used by Renaissance Painters
Broadly speaking, the Renaissance unfolded during the 15th century (quattrocento) and 16th century (cinquecento). The Early Renaissance (c.1400-1490) was followed by the High Renaissance (c.1490-1530), which in turn was succeeded by Mannerism (c.1530-1600). During this period, although painting techniques - which encompassed everything from linear perspective, foreshortening, and sfumato to Tenebrism and chiaroscuro - improved immeasurably, as did the theory and practice of colourism, only two new pigments emerged. A synthetic version of Naples Yellow was produced, and a number of Red Lakes were developed.
However, the main innovation which coincided with and totally transformed Renaissance fine art painting, was the development of oil painting. The earliest example of this new medium was recorded in the 11th century, but it wasn't until the 15th-century, thanks to Northern Renaissance painters like Jan van Eyck, that it became established as an alternative to tempera. The arrival of oil paint changed everything. Previously, painters had focused on murals, or religious diptychs and triptychs of hinged wooden panels. Painting was water-based, although the Ancient Greeks had developed encaustic wax-based paints for easel pictures. The use of oils (followed by canvas supports) permitted paintings to be used for a wider variety of situations and subject matter broadened accordingly. Also, a greater understanding of perspective and depth in the picture-plane stimulated a need for greater realism. As it was, the natural luminosity and plasticity of oil colours enabled Renaissance artists to achieve wholly new effects of colour and realism, and significantly enhanced the power of their colour palettes. Partly due to its damp climate, which was less suited to fresco and tempera paints, and its position as a major trading centre and importer of (eg) colourants, Renaissance Venice became the leading Italian centre for oil painting during the 16th century, as exemplified by colourist artists like Titian, Tintoretto and Paolo Veronese.
Colour Pigments Used by Renaissance Painters
The colourants and dyestuffs commonly in use during the two centuries of Renaissance art included the following:
In addition to making full use of the orange-red pigment Vermilion in its new version of China Red, which Titian used to create the reds in his great fresco of the Assumption of the Virgin - see also Titian and Venetian Colour Painting - Renaissance colour-makers greatly extended the available reds, thanks largely to new finds of insect-pigment in the Americas and India. From the Americas came Carmine, derived from the dried bodies of the insect Coccus cacti (Cochineal) - a lesser variant came from a wingless insect living on certain species of European live oaks (Kermes). From India came "Lac", also obtained from insects. It was this pigment (incidentally, the third most expensive pigment of the Renaissance after gold and Ultramarine) which gave its name to the term "lake", which refers to any organic dye converted into a pigment by combining it with an inert base. In the Miracle of the Slave (1548), the Venetian painter Tintoretto (the son of a master-dyer) used Carmine pigment for to achieve dramatic colour effects.
As in Classical Antiquity, the Renaissance colour palette also featured the yellow-red Realgar, obtained from the natural arsenic compound Realgar. For bright red, they employed "Dragons Blood", a colourant made from an Asian gum resin. A range of earthy reds were also employed, such as Venetian Red, a specific bluish tone of Red Oxide, although it also came in differing tones that were orange or violet in hue.
As noted above, the big development in this colour area was the availability of the hugely expensive but dazzling pigment Ultramarine. Widely used by Renaissance oil painters, it was only employed in "secco" fresco painting - that is, when the pigment was mixed with a binding medium and applied over dry plaster. The leftovers remaining after the best quality Ultramarine Blue were removed from the Lapis Lazuli stone were also used. This lesser pigment, known as Ultramarine Ashes, was a permanent but weak grey-blue colour.
For the remainder of their blue palette, Renaissance artists relied on the same pigments as the Ancient Greeks and Romans, namely Azurite and Egyptian Blue (Frit). Azurite was a green-blue colour, chemically close to the green pigment malachite, while Egyptian Blue - which was still used for artworks unable to command the more expensive Ultramarine - was a dark blue pigment suitable for use on a wide range of supports such as stone, wood, plaster and canvas.
For purples and similar hues, Florentine, Venetian and Northern Renaissance artists used traditional pigments like Indigo, processed from the Indigofera plant, and Madder - a plant pigment made from Madder plants. The latter colourant had been brought back to Europe by returning Crusaders during the late 12th century.
There were three main green pigments on the Renaissance colour palette. The first was Verdigris, a synthetic blue-green, (the name derives from the Old French "verte de gris" meaning "green of Greece"), which was the most vibrant green available during the Italian Renaissance and Baroque eras. Its transparency led to it being frequently mixed with lead white or lead-tin yellow, or used as a glaze. Another was Green Earth, a natural pigment of varying tones also known as Terre Verte, Verona Green or Celadonite. This was popular with early Renaissance painters in Italy who used it as an under-paint for middle and shadow flesh tones. Its alternative name, Verona Green, comes from Green Earth's prevalence in the area around Verona, Italy. The third green colourant was Malachite, a bright green mineral pigment known also as Verdeazzuro.
A new yellow pigment, known as Gamboge, appeared during the late Renaissance era. This was a bright and transparent yellow which was to remain popular common until the 20th century. Derived from the word "Cambodia", Gamboge was a resin obtained from a South East Asian tree, not unlike the process involving the red colourant "Dragon's Blood". Other yellow pigments on the Renaissance colour palette were Massicot (a lead oxide), Naples Yellow (a lead antimoniate known also as Giallorino), the traditional rich lemon hue Orpiment, and Lead-Tin Yellow. The latter was extremely popular with Renaissance painters, who employed it along with earth pigments when painting foliage.
As a rule, Renaissance brown hues were obtained from clay pigments like Sienna and Umber. In its raw state, Sienna resembles a yellowish-brown ochre, while burnt Sienna is a reddish brown. Similarly, Umber, a clay earth used since Paleolithic times, is naturally a dark yellowish brown, while burnt umber is dark brown.
There were no new whites on the Renaissance colour palette. Artists used Lead White, which boasted a heavy consistency and the warmest masstone of all the white pigments. Other white colourants included Gypsum, and Chalk.
For their blacks, Renaissance painters relied mostly on Carbon Black, available in three main forms: Ivory Black, produced by burning bones or ivory; Lamp Black, made from soot collected from oil lamps; and Vine Black made from charred grape vines.
Following a tradition begun in Stone Age cave painting, Italian Renaissance artists employed natural chalks made from mineral pigments, for drawing. Excavated from the earth, then shaped into sticks with knives, these chalks were instantly ready for use. Red chalks, with their rich, warm hue, were very popular from about 1500 to 1900, as exemplified in works by famous Old Masters like Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael.
For information about colour pigments and painting, see: Art Encyclopedia.