Thursday, December 3

Painting Like the "Old Masters"

Today’s Image
The Mona Lisa, of course

If you are a regular reader of the OrbisPlanis, then you know I’m painting primarily with watercolor these days. I’ve been studying and practicing and painting with watercolor for about nine months now, so I’m an expert, right?

Well, of course not. I’m not even close, and will probably never reach that level of expertise. But, I do have fun trying, and I would like to think I’m nearing the point where, maybe sometime next year, I can say I’m no longer a beginner. Hope springs eternal.

The point is, as you’ve heard me say before, there is always something new to learn in art.

The tangent I’m currently on is my latest watercolor. I’ve just started on it, and I’m using as a reference photo, a shot of Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C., taken on recent trip there. It’s a rainy, misty, cool, damp day, and I want the painting to reflect that mood. As I was planning the process of painting this picture, I was advised that the best palette would be the Old Masters.

The what? Up to now, we’ve almost always used primarily the Standard palette of New Gamboge Yellow, Ultramarine Blue Light, and Cadmium Red Medium with a few ancillary colors, such as Hooker’s Green, thrown in for good measure.

Just when I was getting comfortable painting with the Standard palette and its light washes, now I would have to research this. I had heard talk of other palettes, such as Old Masters, along with the Delicate, Intense, and a few others. But now I was going to have to learn something new—again.

Several months ago a fellow watercolor painter let me borrow a book , Exploring Color, by Nita Leland. I remembered the author had called out several color palettes, one being the Old Masters with Burnt Sienna, Raw Sienna, Ivory Black, Payne’s Gray, Olive Green, and something called Neutral Tint (I think these referred to oil paints).

So, I thought I’d also do a little online research to see if I could find out more about the Old Masters palette. The first hit I Googled was from It talked about Leonardo Da Vinci and his palette and techniques. I would certainly consider Leo to be an Old Master, or old anyway. It said he used “muted, earthy browns, greens, and blues within a narrow tonal range” with no intense colors, such as “bright red lips on Mona Lisa”--that, what a joker.

I looked at a few other sites that weren’t very specific, and then I found, whose tagline is color + design community for creative inspiration (how inspirational). I can’t exactly figure out the site because it looks like someone called ‘lostit’ selected this palette, and you’re supposed to vote on the colors or palettes or something and leave a comment. It may be these are colors for online viewing as the hex code numbers are also provided. Whatever. It did provide a palette chart showing the actual colors in a palette it called Old Masters 01. The colors are Burnt Sienna, Int (international?) Red-Yellow, Int Yellow-Blue, and Payne’s Gray.

Another site I receive email updates from had an article that said the painter used terra verde as an underpainting just like the Old Masters did in the Renaissance. That was the only place I saw the Old Masters palette, or any other palette, tied to a specific historical time.

I think I get it--the main attribute of the Old Masters palette is the use of low-intensity, muted colors that were used by many of the great, and not-so-great, painters a long time ago when painting as we know it was beginning to be developed. I speculate that the colors were muted not only because the culture was just emerging from the Dark Ages, but also because the availability of bright colors and tones was very limited.

Moving along, on my watercolor I’m using a similar palette of: Raw Sienna, Brown Madder, Green Gold, and Indigo that was suggested to me by an expert. I intend for my painting to be muted with low-intensity colors just like an Old Master, so everything should be just fine. I hope so. We’ll see, won’t we?



  1. It's exciting to see you exploring the Old Master's Palette described in my book. The name of the palette isn't specific to one artist, but as you discovered, refers to the tonal, or low intensity palette. One reason artists of the time didn't use the bright colors was that these were often made from precious stones or metals and used only by the wealthy in their Books of Hours or for illuminated books, in very small amounts and not mixed with other colors. Since you enjoyed Exploring Color, you might also check out Confident Color, which has even more ideas about how to use limited palettes in your watercolors (or any other medium). BTW, Neutral Tint is a watercolor available in several brands.

  2. Thank You for your comments, Nita Leland! Since you're a well-known expert on the subject, I really appreciate your taking the time to help us all learn more about using color in our paintings. Your book, Exploring Color, should be read by every artist.

  3. This is such a wonderfully relevant post for artists. I really like your point regarding boredom (...there is always something new to learn in art...). It inspired me to blog on this point alone because you are correct - if we challenge ourselves creatively, there really is something new to learn just by expanding our horizons. All the best - Todd,