Sunday, June 8, 2014

Color Palettes within Famous Portraits from the History of Art

Girl with the Red Hat, Johannes Vermeer, Dutch
c. 1665-1666, Oil on panel, 9 1/8 x 7 1/8"
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
(Image courtesy of



Vermeer was a Dutch painter with only 34 works that survive and/or are attributed to him.  All of his paintings, no matter how large or small (this is one the smallest of his portraits), in addition to having a quality about them that is quite difficult to describe well, also have an attention to color that is quite extraordinary.

In this painting, red, white, and blue are the three main colors with gold and green providing the color for the background.  Obtaining paint in the 17th century wasn't as easy as it is today. There was a limited range of colors available and painters had to prepare the paint themselves after purchasing pigments - usually from an apothecary. Ultramarine was a rare color, made from crushed lapis lazuli, thus very expensive but Vermeer used this color often in his work. Vermeer was a skilled master at mixing colors to achieve a harmony of values and shades in each painting. We can assume he understood Leonardo da Vinci's ideas about color, the most notable being the idea that objects will take on color/values of adjacent objects. Just like painters from the 1300s (Trecento) in Italy, Vermeer used green to depict skin tones. In addition, he used transparent glazes to finish a painting.
The main colors he used were:

1) Ultramarine 
2) Green Earth
3) Vermillion
4) Red Lake
5) Yellow Earth
6) Charcoal Black
7) Lead White
For a wonderful and detailed disucssion of Vermeer's use of color click the link below to read more on the National Gallery of Art, London's site:

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