Most commonly, we learn about an artist through the paintings they have created and the journals they leave behind for us. Rarely do we get a look at the palette of an artist. The palette seems to be a very private and intimate thing that artist’s typically do not share with us!
I suppose one reason could be because by looking at the palette of an artist, we get to see many things that are real about the painter. The palette tells things about an aritst that are emensly personal.
It offers a rare and honest look at the person behind the illusions they create. The artist’s palette functions as a secondary heart of the creator, and is often just as important to telling the world who they are as their journals and works.
In my home I have two Academy palettes. One was my mother’s and one is mine.
I received my palette because I won a vote. My mother had a wonderful group of artist friends who she would paint with on a weekly basis. Their little group had a member who fell ill and eventually passed away called Spot. The ladies in my mother’s painting circle were given the task of determining what to do with his supplies. I was chosen!
The palette instantly became the most important item that I had ever owned and it still is one of them today. I think there was a part of me that realized the validity of the gift that I was being given. It was not just a hand-me-down palette, it was a legacy. There was a weight to it.
I had no idea that in another seven or eight years, I would be gathering up my mother’s art supplies, cleaning out her studio and making some of these very same decisions for her belongings. Isn’t it amazing how the world moves in ripples and circles?
The palette on the left belonged to my mother, who was a naturalist, landscape painter who favored oil paints and had a traditional flair. She was a brilliantly creative soul who passed away at age 47. The palette on the right was mine. I say “was” because it has not been in use for the better part of the last 15 years now. So, as this blog continues, the palette on the left is that of a 47 year old woman and the one on the right is that of me, a 25 year old at the time.
The artist’s palette reveals truths about the artist’s inner nature:
So with this filter you will see that the palette on the left appears to belong to someone who appears to be controlled and who could be considered mature. You might imagine this painter to paint very seriously and deliberately. Each color rests in it’s own place. The same amount of space for each color. The tidy nature of this palette could indicate someone who was focused and purposeful.
I know this all to be true because I did know this artist, she was my mother. Her palette is very representative of who she was. She was a recorder of nature. That was her purpose. My paintings are emotion based. They were then, and they still are today.
My palette, the palette on the right, appears chaotic, rushed and perhaps even a bit impatient (as youth typically is!). I was a little rambunctious with my paint. The colors are strung across the the whole surface of the palette. Colors are everywhere! There is very little rhyme or reason to their placement. There are even colors on top of colors!
Yes, that is duct tape there on the edge. My palette has been through hell and high water with me (more on that someday). For now we will just say David had his rock….I had my palette.
I feel my palette shows a need to be heard. It shows my inner chaos and struggle, my obsessive nature, my tenacity, my aggressive commitment to sharing who I was with the world….or learning who I was. I did not see it then, but as my inner storms begin to calm, I can see it. At the time I thought that I really didn’t have any methodology for what I was doing other than trying to mimic what I thought my mother was doing. (Not unlike a small girl trying to walk in her mothers high heals.)
Expressing my inner being is still most important to me. When I paint it is like an explosion! Though, with maturity and years of study, this complete palette mayhem has moved from being stuck to the palette to dominating the paper!
The Palette Reveals Technique:
As a new artist, I studied a lot. I sketched every person I could find in a magazine or in a book because that’s what I heard my mother’s teacher did when she started, so I figured that must be the way. I read as many stories about the Old Masters as many as I can find, and I painted. There were days that I would paint obsessively for as many as 10 or 14 hours straight.
My work area is very light in color. This is because I used far too much white in my work at the time. Like most beginners, I was utterly dependent on white for my highlights and for tonal adjustments.
Look at my mother’s palette on the left and notice how she did not use white often by the small amount of space she gave it on her palette. This is obvious when you see her paintings as they were very rich and lush which is a prime indicator of the quality and quantity of oils she used. This is very desirable in the traditional painting world, very little is white.
(Art Tip! “White is to be used sparingly because white is reflective of all color around it….nothing is ever really white.”)
We can also tell from the rich tone of the work area on the surface of her palette that she used a good amount of oil with her paint. It still is rich and glossy in appearance, even under all of that dust! My palette rests chalky in appearance due to the over use of white and under use of oils.
Look at how her paints rest in a perfect line, her palette shows us a lot about her methods. She was so very meticulous. The paints were always placed out in the same size bead. She always placed the colors in their designated places on the palette. The white is resting where the white always went. The Thalo where it always went…predictably each color is still resting in its place, where it always was. She could have went blind and still have been able to find her cadmium yellow and red!
So this is the surface understanding of things, but there is so much more…
An artist’s palette is like a time capsule.
On the palettes you can still see the residue from the last painting that we worked on.
I remember one of the last times, if not the last time, that mom was able to make it up to her studio. She climbed the stairs and out of breath we got to her studio and she pointed out a painting of camellia blossoms that she had dashed off the spring before. She pointed at them and said, “Look! I think this is the way.” This painting looked very different from what she normally painted. The canvas was simply filled with blossoms, greenery and light. She was so impressed that she was able to, if only that once, break out of her measured draughtsman type nature. The painting was almost an abstract she then gave me a book on the artist Kandinsky. As she explained how she finally was “getting there” and loosening up her work, my mind
As she was talking I recall glancing to the left and noticing a half completed painting of a quarter horse she took on commission. Her palette was balanced on her chair with the paint dried on it (exactly as it is in these photos) and I knew by seeing her palette messy (for her) that there was something alarming to note. I was shocked that she did not clean it off. I wondered if she would ever get to finish that painting.
If you look closely at my mothers palette, you will see streaks of dark blues, beautiful greens and purples that I was noticing that day.
She never became well enough to finish that portrait. I will never forget that painting. Not because it was so visually stunning (it was alright) but because it is still here on her palette, waiting.
Today I wonder if she left it unclean deliberately…
I imagine most artists do pass away with a painting on their palettes. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know what they were?
Artist palettes hold memories, they hold our essence.
I feel my palette still vibes with the energy and passion of my youth and it can return me there in the blink of an eye. With a single beat of my heart I am standing in comfort and saftey of my old studio.
Thinking of as an adult, my studio was a hot mess. But as a young person, filled with passion and fight, it was a cacoon, it was the space that would birth me into becoming a strong, healthy and powerful woman.
At anytime you would find glasses of things left behind. Jars gunked up with turpentine and oil, brushes and gobs of paint. There would be old coffee cups with mold growing in them. Books and paints were everywhere. I even had an old oriental rug! (of course I did right?!) Every wall was covered with a canvas tacked up on it.
When I look at my painting, I remember sweat rolling down my back and paint brushes holding up my hair. I recall standing in the same 3 foot square working on a canvas for endless hours. I remember how sticky and thick the hundred degree air would become in the summer and how textured the fields beyond my windows looked in the winter. I remember lovers and lilacs, sunflowers and cigarettes, wine and coffee…..
Though I am not the girl I was when I held this palette, I am sure that I could not have become the woman I am today without her.