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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Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

4 thoughts on “Frans Hals and a Simple Palette”

  1. Hi Judith,
    Thanks so much, your writing is very helpful. I have a couple of questions regarding the spectrum palette and the one you were talking about in the Frans Hals article.
    Firstly, as regards to finding a blue, blue purple, green blue… I would consider ultramarine as a blue-purple… but in one of your posts I noticed that the blue purple was purpler. The same for the blue-green… would this be a pthalo/cerulean leaning towards green? As for what is termed B (blue) it seems that choice of blue would be quite important(e.g creating purples from a phtalo vs. purples from an ultramarine)… I can only think of using cobalt or mixing a pthalo and an ultramarine to achieve a mid blue. similiarly.. yellow( cad yellow or lemon yellow) or red (cad red or rose/quinacrodine).
    I started studying colours after reading “Blue and yellow don’t make green- by Michael Wilcox”. His system of using primaries, makes some sense to me. I noticed in the writing of John Sloan this same spectrum palette that you mention and also something about triads and chords. I haven’t sat down and read his book yet, but immediately I was struck by the relation to colours and musical intervals (both have 12). I definitely saw some possibility of major/minor chords in colour. I set up a simple still life with certain colours and by dropping one colour an interval… the feeling was exactly like strumming a major chord and then dropping it into a minor on the guitar.
    I’m probably jumping the gun as I’ve only really started to paint and probably getting way to theoretical, but as I’m stranded out in China without a teacher I feel I at least need a system to simplify and organize a pallete. I have been looking at three ideas… the Michael Wilcox split primary system, the spectrum pallete you have mentioned and also some ideas from Frank Faragasso via Frank Reilly, which use Munsell neutral greys to bring colours down in tone(I must say that I’m slightly adversed to using black/umber greys to neutralize colours… It feels a little muddy and looses the richness and possibilities of using complimentaries.)
    The split primary system seems full of possibilities, but although he does advocate the use of yellow ochre, raw sienna and burnt sienna… I feel that there must be more to be got out of some of the more traditional colours used in the past like earth colours and colours like ivory black. What’s more… using these modern bright colours is very expensive… they can fade and sometimes look a bit acidic. The actual earth pigments have a different feel.
    I’m interested about what you wrote in this article about using cadmium red medium, Raw sienna deep and ivory black… is it really possible just by using these three colours to produce a lot of the lighter skin tones I see in Franz Hals paintings? Somehow I have had a fear of using black built into me.. that it kills colours. I get that it is on the blue side, but mixed with cad red medium and a deep raw sienna can you really achieve enough purity of colour in the lights? Especially the skin tones? When you say that you used the secondaries O-G-P… did you just mix the forementioned paints? If this is all true, then how important is paint quality when using these particular colours?
    I’m sorry to babble and throw so many questions at you… please feel free to ignore anything or everything. I’ve been trying to express a lot of what I have written to fellow Chinese painting students in broken Chinese for the past couple of months, and because your writing is so relevant…it’s all come out in a torrent!

    1. rDear James,
      All of your questions are really relevant. When I first immersed myself in Henri’s color theory it took a lot of time and patience to unravel its mysteries. The one thing that was most significant about it was that you, your self create the palette from your chosen colors. It is not about using this color or that color, but creating an inherent harmony with one’s chosen palette ( I am always wary of a painter who says you need to use such and such a palette or colour). You cannot purchase this.There is no commercial paints that fulfill this type of harmony. You yourself must create the harmony by the inter-mixtures of your chosen colors.And Henri can take you down that road.
      First begin with three primaries. At first, I would recommend choosing a balanced set of primaries that have a shared intensity (the Frans Hals palette manipulates this relationship by using one intense color-red- and two subdued colors- raw sienna and ivory black and we can talk about this at anothe time).To create a spectrum palette, you need to mix these primaries out to 12 colors that are inter-elated as such:


      Place your primaries on your palette leaving plenty of space between them. Next mix your secondaries such as G with Y+B (placing this in the middle between your Y and B. Next mix the tertiaries such as YG with Y+GB(placing this between the Y and GB). One should have a visual flow from one colour to the next across the palette. It should feel spectral and unified. If it does not than mix the intervening colours again until it does. This is the simplest way to come to an understanding of the spectrum palette.One can choose primaries that are akin to your work. Lately, because I paint the human figure, I use R- Chinese vermillion (Sennilier); Y- Cobalt Yellow Aurelion;B- French Ultramarine Blue.I have also used other colours depending on my chosen subject.I have used R- Cadmium red medium; Y- yellow ochre+ cadmium lemon yellow; B- cobalt blue. I have also used R- cadmium red medium; Y- raw sienna; B- Ultramarine blue+ ivory black. Any of these combinations will do, it all depends on the effect you wish to get and your subject matter. But choose colours that relate to your own tendencies not mine.
      Once you mix out the spectrum palette, you will be utterly amazed how much colour is at your disposal and in fact too much colour for any one subject. Henri found this to be the case also. So he desired to limit the palette even further. Here he found that the chords related to him by H.G.Marratta (a colour theorist and paint maker), were more useful. Because they created an even closer relationship within the paint, they were more harmonious. So if you know music you can use a minor or major chord as your primaries keeping the intervals at the proper relationship.So if I use an A major: R-OY-B, I take these as my new primaries and mix them the same way as I did the initial spectrum palette. And what you will notice is that the palette becomes more limited but also has a beautiful intensity that is harmonious and more closely aligns with your subject matter.

      I wouldlike to continue this conversation through a new blog entry, if you don’t mind, because your questions are really relavant and I feel provide an excellent teaching opportunity.

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