COLOR MIXING Artists magazine, Color mixing 3 min read

Modernist and Impressionist Painting Palettes

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Palettes Throughout History: Trace the evolution of color through the palettes of artists over time.

Which colors to put on your palette is a choice—and a very important one. Today’s artist has access to more colors of paint than ever before, but having access doesn’t necessarily mean that an artist should use all of the available options.

It’s important to understand how intertwined pigments are with art history. The accessibility of pigments, for example, has been a significant factor in determining which colors appear on a particular painter’s palette. While most artists would have had access to pigments attainable in their own town, city or region, many pigments come from Italian or French sources, as is often indicated by their names—Venetian red, for example, or Naples yellow.

This article first appeared in Artists Magazine, May/June 2023

We know what paints were used by some artists of the past from the portraits and self-portraits that show them holding a palette—and, in some cases, from notes they left behind. Researchers have also been able to use X-ray technology to determine the colors used in specific paintings.

In this overview, you’ll learn which paints made up a typical palette for artists at various time periods. If you want to tackle the time-honored tradition of copying a masterwork, it’s a good idea to emulate the master’s palette as much as possible, which can help you understand how the master artist solved various problems.

The Impressionist palette guided painters toward a new way of thinking about picture-making—that they should paint the light.

The Impressionist Palette

The manufacturing processes developed during the Industrial Revolution (approximately 1750 to 1840) brought mineral pigments to European painters’ palettes. Mineral pigments based on compounds of antimony, boron, cadmium, cobalt, copper, lead, manganese, mercury and nickel became readily available. The cadmium colors—cooked in a furnace at roughly 2,000 degrees and bonded to other metals such as selenium, aluminum and tin—were especially important. When these colors arrived in Paris around 1860, they fostered the birth of Impressionism.

In 1991, David Bomford, director of the National Gallery, in London, published a book, Art in the Making: The Impressionists (Yale University Press), which shared the findings of his team’s pigment analysis of Impressionist works in the museum’s collection. Their studies found that the Impressionist painters used a lot of new, high-chroma colors but also relied on a number of carryover colors that had been used for centuries, such as vermilion, lead white and Naples yellow.

The mineral pigments used by French Impressionist painters allowed them to paint in a high-color key—that is, to use mostly light values, as seen above (left) in The Bridge at Argenteuil (1874; oil on canvas, 235/8x313/8) by Claude Monet (1840–1926) and (right) in The Pink Dress (Albertie-Marguerite Carré, later Madame Ferdinand-Henri Himmes) (ca 1870; oil on canvas, 211/2x261/2) by Berthe Morisot (1841–95).

The American Impressionist Palette

In the mid- to late 19th century, many American artists were studying art in Europe—especially Paris. Inspired by the Impressionists’ bold use of color, these artists returned home and formed a group of American Impressionists called the Ten American Painters, or simply The Ten. The group, centered in New England, included Frank Weston Benson (1862–1951), Edmund C. Tarbell (1862–1938), Joseph DeCamp (1858–1923), Willard Leroy Metcalf (1858–1925), Julian Alden Weir (1852–1919), Childe Hassam (1859–1935), Robert Reid (1862–1929), Edward Simmons (1852–1931), Thomas Wilmer Dewing (1851–1938) and John Henry Twachtman (1853–1902). William Merritt Chase (1849–1916) was added to the group years later, and Emil Carlsen (1848–1932) is also linked to the group.

Bright with high-chroma colors, the American Impressionists’ palette was very similar to that of their French counterparts’. The American Impressionists began teaching at schools in Boston, Philadelphia, New York and elsewhere. Through schools, such as the Art Students League of New York, they influenced generations of painters that followed.

A North East Headland (1901; oil on canvas, 251/8x301/16) by Childe Hassam NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, WASHINGTON, D.C. CORCORAN COLLECTION (MUSEUM PURCHASE, GALLERY FUND)
In Summer, 1909 (1909; oil on canvas, 361/8x441/2), you can see the influence of Monet in the palette used by American Impressionist Frank Weston Benson. RHODE ISLAND SCHOOL OF DESIGN MUSEUM, PROVIDENCE, R.I. BEQUEST OF ISAAC C. BATES

The Modern Palette

Today’s palettes are full of high-chroma colors; we have access to so many more pigments than ever before. Artists tend to use both inorganic and organic colors, taking their cues from contemporary teachers as well as Old Masters, while also experimenting themselves.

It’s a good idea to try new colors to see what you like. Take note of a color’s behavior and characteristics, and develop a palette that works for you. 

Kevin Wueste’s painting, Academy of Art Sofa with Joanne (2012; oil on canvas, 24×18) shows how a wide range of colors can be achieved by using a palette of just six primaries (three RGB and three CMY), plus white.
My own palette, used to paint the still life, Yellow Rose (2020; oil on linen on panel, 12×8), consists of mostly mineral pigments with a few modern pigments (organic and inorganic).

Meet The Artist

Todd M. Casey is the author of The Art of the Still Life (2020) and the new release, The Oil Painter’s Color Handbook: A Contemporary Guide to Color Mixing, Pigments, Palettes and Harmony (Monacelli Press, 2022), from which this article was excerpted.

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