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The Solar Palette (An Impressionists Palette of Light)

Updated: May 21, 2022

The emergence of Impressionism in the 19th Century was as radical a departure from conventional art as could possibly be imagined. Literally it was as shocking to the art world as punk rock was to the formulaic, magnolia blandness of pop music in the late 1970’s.

Initially, it was merely an informal collection of disillusioned painters who simply shared an energy, frustration and creative vision. There was no "impressionist art" movement per se, and ironically it was the very rejection and derision of their breakthrough approach to painting that lead to their eventual cohesion and collaboration as a group.

This group of inspired artists set out to capture nature and the effects of atmosphere, colour and light with an immediacy that was previously inconceivable and for reasons that I will mention later, virtually unachievable.

The fact that impressionism emerged during a time of significant industrial and technological advancement, including something called ‘photography’, together with the introduction of new synthesised modern pigments and the invention by Windsor & Newton of paint in a resealable ‘tube’ is no mere coincidence. These innovations were of a convergent nature, and coupled with the freedom that mechanised rail travel suddenly brought to the masses, the creative soil was perfect for the blossoming of artistic evolution. So it was during these rapid times of societal and technological change that the world’s favourite art movement was born.

With the introduction of new light fast pigments and an innovative method for transporting them in re-sealable tubes, artists were no longer confined to the walls of their studio spaces. Modernity and the industrial revolution were in full swing, and to these remarkable painters, nature itself became the studio space.

These were exciting times of discover, and several prominent scientists on both sides of the Atlantic worked disparately yet convergently, ultimately contributing to the collective understanding of the physics and psychology of colour and light.

The most prominent of these were the French Chemist, Michel Eugène Chevreul (1786 - 1889), the American Physicist, Nicholas Ogden Rood (1831 - 1902) and German physicist Hermann Von Helmholtz (1821 - 1894)

Chevreul investigated and discovered that the ‘apparent’ visual appearance of colour was not the colour itself, but the perception of it when seen alongside other colours. He said "in order to change a colour, it is enough to change the colour of its background".

Michel Eugène Chevreul (1786 - 1889)

He called it the theory of simultaneous contrast. Chevreul’s theories of colour perception provided the scientific understanding for the development of Impressionism. Perhaps we can begin to appreciate why the impressionists employed ‘heightened colour effects' when considering Chevreul’s statement that It is almost always so, that accurate, yet exaggerated colouring is found more pleasing than absolute fidelity to the scene.”

Chevreul's colour wheel employed by the Impressionists

American Ogden Rood was equally influential on the development of impressionism when in 1879 his book on colour theory ‘Modern Chromatics, with Applications to Art and Industry’ was published. It was translated into French in 1881 which again adds to the sense of dynamic convergence of multiple scientific threads that wove together to create the rich tapestry known as impressionist art.

Rood divided colour sensation into three observable constants. These being purity, luminosity, and hue (now referred to as tint, shade, and hue). Rood said Colour is but a sensation and has no existence outside the nervous system of living beings.”

That last statement reminds me of that old philosophical question If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" Surely if there are no eyes to perceive it, ‘colour’ doesn’t exist either? It is after all merely the thinnest slice of a narrow band of wavelengths located along a vast spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. Food for thought. Anyway, I digress...

Back to the 'Solar Palette'. In his publication, ‘Treatise on Physiological Optics’, German physicist Hermann Von Helmholtz, associated the measured wavelengths of pigmented colours with the measureable wavelengths observable along the prism spectrum of sunlight. Essentially he sliced the visible spectrum of sunlight into specific colours associated with those of specific pigments (in paint).

As a brief example, Ultramarine Blue has a wavelength of 473nm and the spectral colour of ‘blue’ is also 473nm. Vermillion has a wavelength of 629nm whereas the spectral colour of Orange-Red is 620nm which is pretty damned close. How ingenious and innovative was that!

So from this new understanding of colour theory the ‘Solar Palette’ was born. Whilst each impressionist painter employed slight variations in their choices of paint and colour, most of which are readily observable in their signature works today, each employed an analogous version of a ‘Solar Palette’ based upon the known prismatic spectrum of sunlight.

The result of this approach was the creation of a limited palette of approximately (but not exclusively) 8 to 12 colours. This is the palette from 1870:


Chrome Yellow

Alizirin Red Lake


Red Earth

Cobalt Green

Chrome Orange


Yellow Ochre

Cobalt Blue

Emerald Green

Ultramarine Blue

Acute observational awareness, painterly technique and skilful mixing were all that these exceptional artists needed in order to capture the evanescent effects of light, atmosphere and shadow. Today we artists are genuinely overwhelmed with choice. Paint manufacturer Old Holland for example, produce 168 different colours in their artists range of oils. 168! The truth is that only around eight are actually needed in order to mix them all. Like much of contemporary life however, there is a hunger for short cuts, convenience and immediate gratification. I can be guilty of it myself although I try to resist.

Show me the entrance to an art shop and I'm like a child in a toy shop. The manicured displays of row upon row of colourful tubes is seductive and irresistible. Its allure is almost like feeding an addiction!

Mind you, I can take some comfort recognising that I am not alone. It seems that even Monet was tormented by the seduction of colour. He said "Colour's pursue me like a constant worry, they even worry me in my sleep!" and that "colour is my day long obsession, joy and torment" - I know exactly what he means.

I absolutely adore love that last line of Monet's.

You can see the effects of the Solar Palette in virtually all of the 19th Century impressionists works. Mix Cobalt Blue and Vermillion together and tint with a touch of white, and you’ll instantly recognise the colour of bare leafless trees in many of Monet’s winter landscapes. Monet said The point is to know how to use the colours, the choice of which is, when all's said and done, a matter of habit".

For an artist, any artist, learning how to skilfully mix hue, tint, tone and shade is initially a process of study and discovery followed by repetition until it becomes part of the artist’s visual vocabulary.

As an artist I am acutely aware that my paintings tend to ‘lean’ towards certain colour combinations and biases on the spectrum (if the soul exists, mine is evidently blue). I think our aesthetic sensibilities (or is it a muse?) can tend to override or corrupt our best artistic intentions. What I mean is that whenever I feel compelled to explore a new colour combination or harmony in a painting, especially if I aspire to break out of my conventional biases, like a magnet I am invariably drawn back to the familiar. But I guess that's what makes our art instantly recognisable to the art viewer and perhaps that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Once my brush leaves the surface of a canvas for the last time, my creative relationship with that particular piece ends, and a new relationship is established between it and someone else, i.e. the viewer (hopefully a buyer who has falls in love with the painting). The point is, we don't get to decide whether our latest piece is 'great' or not, we simply paint our best work and send it out into the world for others to enjoy (or not)! Fear not the critic for art is always subjective in nature. That's why there are 57 flavours of ice cream... something for everyone! Now, back to my easel.

Until next time, thanks for dropping by! Best wishes, Lee

PS; The palette heavily encrusted with paint in the header photograph is Monet's original large palette.

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