A long quotation about the colours in a painters palette from a book I read some time ago. Book details below …
Ultramarine Blue, the queen and courtesan of the blues, the most noble and most flexible of hues, both common and royal. Buy it by the ounce according to its goodness, or by the grain, if exquisite. The most precious blues are ground from lapis lazuli, brought from Phoenicia in tall ships. The most sought-after demi-mondaines have eyes of this colour.
Cobalt Blue, a very bourgeois lady, cool and efficient, sometimes wanting to be greener. But she can be contained, with skill. You can add a little Lead White to maintain her blue intensity.
Cerulean Blue, charming the birds out of the trees with its transparency and luminosity. Good for the background skies of happy people.
Prussian Blue, of fighting strength, though, surprisingly, it can be softened to baby-slipper colours, when mixed with white. Middle-aged men and small boys should be painted wearing this colour.
Indigo, a spicy pod, staining to dark blue-black. Think of the sky in the dead of a summer night. That’s Indigo. Use it for backgrounds to suggest a mysterious past.
Cochineal Red, pressed from the carapaces of Mexican insects. From the corner of your eye, you sometimes see their ghosts writhing in the gallipot. Lips!
The genial family of Cadmium Reds, with tints leaning from yellow to blue. Not to be used for outdoor work as they fade in the light. But inside the studio, they glow. We have a whole dialect of reds upon our palates in Venice — cremisino (crimson), scarlatto (scarlet) and sanguineo (blood) for wool, silk and cotton. In other words, senators and cardinals and harlots.
Vermilion, oh so expensive, and how fickle in performance! It will turn black if not shielded from cruel light. Save it for the noblewomen in their dark cool parlours.
Rose Madder, or Alizarin Madder, like Merlot, red bleeding to purple-brown. The rubia tinctorum is extracted from the madder. Lovely on the shadowed crook of an elbow.
Carmine, a crimson as translucent as a licked lip. Venetian Red, or Red Ochre, which lasts forever, and glows like lava.
Indian Red, or Terra Rosa, not unlike our Venetian Red Ochre, but blushing blue at the edges. For those too timid to wear Venetian Red.
Cassel Earth, brown juice of the ancient rottings of animals and plants. Unlike the Tuscans, we Venetians esteem the hues of brown. We prefer them for the shadows on our flesh to their greens.
Mummy Browns, from the crushings of Egyptian corpses, for the mortally ill and melancholy.
Burnt Terra di Sienna, a deceptively tame-looking brown that catches fire when mixed with oil so that flowing golds and ambers are born on pale sheets of background colour. Good for the hair of young men.
Terra Verte, blue-grey with longings only towards green, and of the earth. It can cling to Viridian, to remind it of the earth, and casts a brown undertone on all the colours it touches.
Lead White, or Flake White, like albino Parmesan cheese shaved by our cook. Outside Cremona, they sometimes call it Cremona White. I call it ‘virgin skin’.
Titanium White, like the scum of cream on the pail of milk in the dairy. (By the way, will someone explain why lilies symbolise purity when the yellow stamens enfolded in the petals can stain you indelibly with their soft dust?)
Zinc White, pale and stark, like the cold blue on the lips of the dead. Like death, it slows the artist, for it drags out the time of drying.
Lamp Black, almost pure carbon. Perfect for visionless windows in the background and the eye-hollows of skulls placed on the table to show the futility and brevity of life. I do not like this kind of portrait. But this colour also works well on the dark ridges of velvet to throw into relief the lights on the edges of the folds.
Charcoal Black, impurity incarnate, vegetable and mineral. Mixed in with white and other colours it makes the grey shadow we call berettino. Lurking in the shadows of white fabrics, strangely it makes for warmth.
Cadmium Yellow, ranging spicily from orange to lemon. A young woman’s colour, a sherbet of a colour, shows excitement.
Naples Yellow, extracted from lead, and liking to be brackish amongst friendly browns and greens. Its use is now lapsing except among the glass-blowers. But good for a playful older woman’s costume.
Yellow Ochre, from the earth, pure and good. Use it to make white satin happy.
Raw Sienna, the swarthier cousin of the Yellow Ochre. Uniquely transparent, and able to spread brown warmth, like goodness, over everything it touches. Adding it to yellow, you can make the wonderful fawn lionato, the colour of lions and angels’ hair!
Viridian Green, like melted emeralds, and greedy for oil. It sucks up more than any other colour. You can marry it to one of the blacks to make your shadows verdant.
Violet and Red Lake, which make a tender mauve when mixed with Ultramarine, the way Bellini did it. Shadows under downcast eyelids. But be careful, for the Violet and Red Lakes drain away in the light, leaving only sighs of themselves.
And you want your portrait to last forever.
(From ‘Carnevale’ – M R Lovric – Pub: Virago 2001 The story of a female painter set in 18th Century Venice and her encounters with Casanova and later Lord Byron)
Reading Matters gives a good review of the book. I remember enjoying Carnevale but agreed that it was rather too lengthy.