Frans Hals and a Simple Palette

When I was a student at the Lyme Academy, I began painting with a set of 8- 10 colors on my palette. This is how I began because it was the selected palette of my instructor. I came about the proper relationships of color by sheer repetition. Repeating the same combinations over and over again. Only through trial and error and a memory for the right combinations did I achieve a painting similar to my subject. There was no basis or underlying structure to the palette. I find this is still the case with students who enter my classes. They have taken many courses with many excellent instructors and have adopted this color from one instructor and this combination of colors from another. I look at the palette that they are working with and  it is chaotic. There are too many colors for one thing and there is a repetition of colors- 2 blues or three reds etc.

“Simplicity is the hallmark of genius”. This should be written on every artist’s paint box. My own search for a palette that was simple and relied on some basic system lead me to one of my favorite artists, Frans Hals. In the 19th century he was hailed by such artist as Courbet, Sargent, Henri and Delacroix. He was admired greatly for his brevity of brush stroke and his ability to produce what appears directly on the retina of the eye. But I began to look at his color. The utter simplicity of his palette was striking. He achieved a full range of values as well as a variety of color temperature  all with a wonderful sense of harmony.

Hals’ palette was based on the three primaries. One of which had a greater intensity than the others. For this palette I used: Cad. red medium; raw sienna deep (Old Holland produces the only raw sienna that is adequate); and ivory black. Although, when researching the chemical extractions from some of Hals’ paintings, academics say there possibly was a green in his palette, I never found it necessary to add one ( I copied “Madam Bodolphe” at Yale university Art Museum and my palette came pretty close to what Hals used- give or take the heavy varnish applied to it and its age. And in regard to the stability of the pigments, it was quite amazing to see very little discoloration or damage to his work).

I took these three primaries and I expanded them to 12 colors, mixing first the secondaries and then expanding my range by  mixing these with their neighbor. This is what it looked like:

R (cad. red med.)              Y (raw sienna deep)              B ( ivory black)

O ( R+ Y)                                     G (Y+B)                            P (B+R)

PR – R -RO – O – OY- Y – YG- G – GB – B -BP –P               [ This is the set palette]

What I found in this simple palette was that it expressed all the inherent potential of each of the colors. And I found that its potential was far more vast than I could have imagined. Part of its expressiveness is based on intensity. Two colors are grave and one color, that being the red ,was intense. This variety of intensity added to its success.

I used this palette exclusively for two to three years. It was some of the most constructive and rigorous work I have done as an artist. It allowed me to see the complex in the simple and simplicity in what at first appears complex. I found it much easier to achieve harmony; greater control of temperature and value; and to use intensity as a key to color composition. There was something solemn and simple yet beautiful about the limitedness of this palette. It expressed many of the attributes I see in Hals work.

Love of Hals led me to the work of Robert Henri (although as a footnote, nothing is always clear cut- I was reading Henri and delving into his archive during these experiments and much of his influence can be felt also in this work- i.e.- the spectrum palette). Henri, who himself was attracted to Hals, had a developed sense of color and based the underlying sense of his palette on Hals and the work of H.G. Marratta (color theorist and paint manufacturer). With this basis, I allowed myself to seek color for its emotional impact beyond these initial explorations. Henri became my primary tutor from this point on. His use of color appealed to my modern sensibilities. I wished to transform my work from its academic beginnings to work that tapped into our modern sensitivity to color, allowing the image to speak in those terms.

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