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traditional figure painting colors palette historical flesh colors joseph besch

Mostly what I'm interested in painting is flesh.

I want the paint to look alive, like blood id pumping through it. This is not a new idea.

My approach has been to seek out a traditional palette.

Most of these colors have been in use for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

I find that modern colors, while beautiful, are too intense to describe the natural world.

I use a limited palette of six or seven colors usualy. I like to work with traditional methods also, so I grind most of these colors in a linseed oil that I also make. Where I can, I also experiment with making pigments as well

Although I paint mostly in a direct painting or alla prima style, when I'm not glazing, I do like to start with an underpainting; a layer in greys to design the composition. Small adjustments can be made, but mostly it lets me focus on color after the first layer.

Flake white. Made from lead,

this color gets it's name from how it flakes apart during the production process. Regulations have made this a somewhat difficult and expensive color to get. It is by far the preferable choice of white, particularly for figurative work. It's vibrant, not flat or chalky like titanium. When produced in the traditional 'stack process' method, I find it also has better working properties, and great brush handling.

stack process flake white pigment oil painting historical

Raw & burnt sienna. I especially love these for underpaintings. So warm and vibrandt. Almost don't need reds and yellows on top of it. And a good range of mid to fairly dark tones without going too dark. Also, some of the most satisfying colors to grind, very easy to get a smooth buttery texture. Can't imagine my palette without these.

cinnabar pigment vermillion historical pigment

Vermilion. This beautiful mid red has mostly been replaced by cadmium red these days, but 150 years ago it was a staple of a figure or portrait palette.

A few suppliers still make it, but it does come with a heavy price tag.

It was first produced in the 4th century BC in China. It is a synthetic version of the natural occuring mineral Cinnabar, the natural source of mercury.

I first tried vermillion instead of cad about ten years ago and was hooked right away. It has so much more life than a cad in my experience. I could almost make a flesh tone tone with this and white only. Does not drift into pinks, but can easily drift orange depending on what you're mixing with it.

I have also begun experimenting with the mineral cinnabar. Sometimes it can be found as a pure red crystal, but what I have is a stone with reds and greys mixed throughout. I am working on a video of my experiments with it. It'll see the light of day if they work out.

Blues. I have a hard time finding a blue I'm happy with. I love how subtle and rich lapis lazuli is, but obviously, it's too rare to use consistantly. I've been making due with cobalt, although it's chroma is so high, little dabs is all I need. Grinding cobalt, like with most blues, is tricky not to make it too goopy. What I've figured is after initial grinding, add a few drops of heavy oil with a few drops of mineral spirits. Lapis lazuli; historical ultramarine. Another color I've played with the natural mineral to produce the color. A dense stone, it takes a ton of work & some magic to make it into a usable paint. I save this one for special occasions.

Naples yellow. Another color thats mostly been replaced by cadmiums. I prefer the dark version, almost looks like an earth tone, but still can produce a vibrant yellow on it's own. True naples is made from lead and antimony. I don't make this at home. Tough to find this pigment, but a few still carry it. Difficult to grind, very stiff. The oil then seperates after it's been tubed. This is one I'll probably buy the premade ones.

Burnt Umber. I have a love/ hate relationship with this color. I mostly avoid using true black, so this fills in as the basis for the basis for most of the darks. Burnt umber is dark and rich with and almost gold undertone. The problem is how notorious it is at sinking in as it dries. Creating pale flat tones. A combination of light and heavy linseed oils seems to be the key to solve this issue. Still working through the particulars.
Always more to learn, I guess.

Joseph Besch

Febuary 2020

figure painting joseph besch