All posts by Judith Reeve

Delacroix’s Palette for the “Nymph”

Copy of Delacroix's "Nymph" from the Apollo Ceiling
Copy of Delacroix’s “Nymph” from the Apollo Ceiling

I have re-immersed myself in the Journal of  Eugene Delacroix.  This work has always been a part of my aesthetic inquiry since I first delved into it as a student. Unfortunately, many of his color notes on his paintings are missing from the English translation of the Journal and the complete Journal is in French only after all this time. But there are stil some color notes in the Phaidon edition that are worth exploring.

This past week, I have been experimenting with the palette that Delacroix used on the Apollo Ceiling in the Louvre. This is really a masterpiece and exhibits all of those qualities that Delacroix pushed himself to achieve- mastery of color; the suppression of details; and a largeness of effect. In the journal he lays out his process of laying in the color on the Venus, the children and the Nymph. All of the colors of the palette are inter-related between the various figures. It is not a simple palette by far yet it is one where Delacroix expends his energy achieving form through the use of a wide range of color temperature. Color temperature more than a change in value allows the forms to be felt. Therefore he expresses this color temperature change in very subtle ways. One way that he acheives this is by mixing a  key color, such as violet, and creating that mixture in three different intensities with three different blues but using the same red-orange. So the red-orange ties the three different blues together. Here is an example of the violet with three different hues, in three intensities moving toward a near neutral:

Prussian Blue + Vermilion = violet (this carries the highest intensity)

Cobalt Blue + Vermilion= violet ( slightly less intense and more towards a deep violet brown)

Cassel Earth + Vermilion=  violet (least intense- nuetral)

Delacroix often spoke to the colorist, Michel-Eugene Chevreul and through these conversations about color, Delacroix came to understand the idea of  “simultaneous contrast of colors“. He notes in his journal how he observed this phenomena in nature and how he began to apply it in his painting. In the figure of the “Nymph”, Delacroix applies this idea of contrast in a very subtle and modern way.

Delacroix develops a palette that is much like Robert Henri’s. Both developed the subtle contrast between tertiaries such as OY to BV or a contrast of near complements such as OY to V. But what is different about the two artist is that Henri strove for an underlying unity and simplicity of color through a palette based on sets of triads whereas, Delacroix strove for diversity of hue held in balance by complements or near complements. So this combined with a hierarchy of intensity allows Delacroix a full range of color temperature on which to model the figure. As Delacroix paints more and more murals, which require a composition to have less contrast and lighter values but a more compelling sense of color, this becomes his primary mode of working.

Here is Delacroix’s Palette:

Vermillion    Cadmuim Yellow (or Antimony)    Naples Yellow(this was only used with a viridian mix)    Viridian       Prussian Blue    Cobalt Blue      Cassel Earth    White

"Nymph" first lay-in
“Nymph” first lay-in

These are the mixes he describes:

Lay-in of the Flesh:

Vermilion + White; Cadmuim Yellow + white; to these mixes is added Viridian+ Naples yellow +white; so one achieves an orange flesh color that is slightly neutralized by a yellow green.

He then creates a series of violets in several states of neutralization:

Prussian blue + vermilion: This is the primary violet he uses and it is mixed into the shadow area to cool it off

Cobalt+ vermilion: This is used for cast shadows and to render the drawing at the end

Cassel earth + vermilion (this is the most nuetralized): This is used along the dark shadow edge

Vermilion + white: This is thickly applied to the brightest lights

Cadmium yellow + white: Highlight

Viridian + naples + white: green half-tones

Prussian blue + vermilion +white: cool blue half-tones; This combination is also used as a glaze over the shadow side to unify it and also before applying the reflected lights

Vermilion + Cadmium yellow + white: a darker value used for the reflected light. The viridian + naples can also be added here

I found these combinations produced very surprising results that were colorful yet unified. I also found that the violets did not compete against one another and that the subtle variations between the blues added variety within the shadow area that might have otherwise appeared to unified. I also found that the constant juxtaposition of the warms and cools added a sinctillating effect. I also found that the yellow highlight worked exceptionally well in areas where the violet predominated. Delacroix took this technique from Rubens who used it constantly, although he could not identify why since one is apt to make the highlight violet.

Experimenting with color combinations is a practice that I use to enhance my feeling for color as well as my sense of color memory. With such a practice, whether it has a practical side or not, allows one to develop a heightened sensitivity to color increasing one’s awareness to color in the natural world. But more importantly, I am drawn to color and am fascinated by the effects of juxtaposed combinations. Delacroix states that color is the most important factor in painting because it affects the viewer immediately and unconsciously before the subject itself is understood. It is the musical quality of paint.

Experience and Validation

Often times artists search deeply within themselves to find the very reason why they create what they create. We seem to yearn for some kind of validation that what one creates is of significance. This idea of significance is central to the artist because the artist does not just create for oneself but acts as a vehicle for the manifestation of images that are independent, to a certain extent, of the artist. Images certainly are part of the personal nature of the artist and spring from the well of his imagination, and they also speak of his time and culture. But an image also must express deeply the human condition and simultaneously tap into what is presently needed by modern man to effectively awaken him to his spiritual needs. William Blake states, “The artist is engaged in a spiritual activity whose essence consists in the precise delineation of reality, which is revealed to the visionary imagination.”

This struggle with validation is the artist’s struggle with himself as well. It is tied to self-confidence. When it is validated, the artist feels compelled to expend the necessary energy and internal forces of the imagination on the manifestation of the image. Without this there is no possibility of being able to complete anything. There is no built up force that will allow it to gush forth.

Delacroix constantly struggled with his own personal choices. He states that as an individual, his experience is a unique experience so therefore, it is singular and new in itself, and therefore should be made manifest. “You can add one more to the number of those who have seen nature in their own way. What they portrayed was made new through their vision and you will renew these things once more…Newness is in the mind of the artist who creates, and not in the object he portrays…You who know that there is always something new, show it to others in the things that they have hitherto failed to appreciate…If you cultivate your soul it will find the means to express itself.” (Journal of Eugene Delacroix, May 14, 1824)

If you cultivate your soul it will find the means to express itself. The following video that I found on the web deeply expresses this idea. I felt this artist’s experience was so powerful that I wanted to share it with you.

Re-evaluating an Image


Over that past six weeks, I have been pulling older work out of the racks. These images I have never shown because they were somehow not the fullest expression of my work. In many ways, they felt incomplete. There are several reasons for this: the image remains unformed because of a technical flaw in the color or drawing. Or the image moved away from its initial inspiration- its root- and diverged. Or sometimes one becomes plagued by the specificity of the model thereby weakening the larger, more important reasons for forming the image. Or one looses the thread, the deep emotional connection to that initial inspiration that compelled you to grappel with this specific image. Or one found that the difficulty of creating the image went beyond the technical ability one had at that moment. All of these reasons were present to some degree in the images that I drew out from the past.

Some images, I found, I had entirely moved beyond, mentally and emotionally and chose to leave these images incomplete. But there were others that I felt still contained a powerful germ that just needed to be released. They were calling to be fulfilled and completed. When one lets an image go, abandoning it for awhile, and then re-approaches it with new eyes, the solution that seemed so elusive is now laid before ones feet. And this is an exciting moment. One becomes entirely free from all the past frustrations. Those visual battles between what one desired and what was unfolding in the moment. Many of these images failed to idealize the model enough, carrying her to an archetypal level that was evocative. Now free from the model, and the specificity of the situation, I could see where I had failed to grasp the essentials. The emotion was still present and activated but it yearned for a dynamic unity that I could not give it at that time. Now I could see the flaws and the path to finish the image.

Luckily, I have kept excellent records of my process. Each painting is coded with a number that contains the date I last worked on it. These codes are recorded sequentially in my color/chord notebooks. So I am able, quite easily, to go through my record books and find all the information on how I developed the image, the specific palette I used, color combinations, mediums, whether it had been varnished and whether there was a color study and a initial drawing and whether I scaled the drawing up or not. The hardest part was finding the drawing in my flat files because I have about 300 drawings that I have saved.

Pulling out the drawing and comparing it to the painting helped re-evoke the memory of that image. Mixing the palette I had used, which sometimes contained colors I had moved away from, was challenging and at the same time reassuring. It is amazing to see where I have come from and many times, what I have forgotten. But all of the work somehow still resides in me- it is me. And it is enlightening to look at oneself in the past as if it was a mirror- seeing oneself as the younger, inexperienced artist and simultaneously, the present more experienced and mature artist. Memory is a powerful messenger, revealing more about who we are detached from past circumstance but yet emotionally potent still.

Images are independent entities that take on a life of their own beyond the confines of the artist. These images, in my rack, waited patiently for fulfilment, to be set free and released into the world. It has been a turning point in my artistic career. I finally have the freedom and the ability to accept that I cannot control the image and that I am just a midwife standing by to bring them to birth. Their life and vitality is not my own doing but comes from someplace beyond my understanding. I am here to set them on their way as they find their place in the world.

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