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Palette as a painter's portrait: German artist collected photography series of painters' tools

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The photographer Matthias Schaller made the shots of artists’s palettes, as if opening for everyone a window onto their creative genius. Every palette is a primer on the painter’s use of color, brush stroke and space. It seems like an abstract portrait of each artist.
The documented palettes belong to the greatest masters in the art history — Vincent van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, Twombly and others. All of them are out in the open. Might be worth a look!


The German artist began to photograph the painters’s palettes since 2007. Once, after a visit to Cy Twombly's late studio, he was inspired to collect photographic series of palettes. He spent eight years, gathering palettes from all across Europe and the United States, finding the objects in major museums and private foundations and in the custody of artists' relatives and collectors.

Schaller cataloged over 200 palettes from more than 70 artists, who have shaped the last hundred years of the history of European painting. His works seemed to provide an unprecedented historical key to the use of colour, organisation of space and brushwork of the "portrayed" artists.
Thanks to Schaller the images are presented in large format, each work existing at approximately 190×150 cm, so that we could accurately analyze the details, from paint hue to brushstroke. Every artist has his own unique style ranging from the broad pastoral brush strokes of Van Gogh to the smooth and almost monochromic surface of Piet Mondrian.
Vincent van Gogh’s Palette.
"One begins by plaguing oneself to no purpose in order to be true to nature, and one concludes by working quietly from one’s own palette alone, and then nature is the result."

Vincent van Gogh
Piet Mondrian’s Palette. Artwork "The Tree A", 1913
Das Meisterstück (The Masterpiece) is the title of the series of these behind-the-scene objects, and in 2015 the exhibition was held in the Palladian Refectory on the Island of San Giorgio.

Matthias Schaller selected twenty palettes for it to highlight the evolution of the major artistic movement, from Impressionism to Abstract Art, including such artist as Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne, Marc Chagall, Francis Bacon, Pablo Picasso and others.
  • Claude Monet's Palette.
  • Claude Monet. Impression. Sun
Impressionists aimed to capture the momentary, fleeting effect of a scene on the eye, especially the effects of light. This moment of light now, as compared to the moment of light in an hour from now. They used short, thick strokes of paint to capture the essence of the object rather than the subject’s details. Quickly applied brush strokes give the painterly illusion of movement and spontaneity.

The Impressionists lightened their palettes to include pure, intense colours. They used optical mixing rather than mixing on the palette.
Artists used layers of colours, leaving gaps in the top layers to reveal the colours underneath. The technique is achieved through hatching, cross-hatching, stippling, drybrushing, and sgraffito (scratching into the paint). Mixing of brighter colours is done directly on the canvas to aid in creating the broken colour effect and only darker colours are mixed on the palette.
  • Edgar Degas' Palette
  • Edgar Degas. The pink dancers before the ballet, 1884
"With a limited palette, the older painters could do just
as well as today what they did was sounder."

Pierre-Auguste Renoir
  • Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Palette.
  • Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Jeune fille se peignant (La Toilette), 1894
  • Camille Pissarro's Palette
  • Camille Pissarro. Kew Gardens Crossroads near the Pond, 1892.
Unlike the Impressionists who strived to capture natural light’s affect on tonality, Post-Impressionists purposely employed an artificial color palette as a way to portray their emotion-drive perceptions of the world around them. They used symbolic motifs, unnatural color, and painterly brushstrokes.
  • Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec 's Palette.
  • Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Woman before a mirror, 1897
  • Paul Cezanne's Palette.
  • Paul Cezanne. The Card Players, 1894–1895. Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Henri Matisse’s use of color is one of his most extraordinary talents, and his discussion of the evolution of his palette and theory of color is a highlight of all his interviews. In the lost 1941 interview he reveals his approach to color: "I began working with a palette especially composed for each painting while I was working on it, which meant I could eliminate one of the primordial colors, like a red or a yellow or a blue, from my painting. And it goes right against neoimpressionist theory, which is based on optical mixing and color constraints, each color having its reaction. For example: if there is red, there has to be a green…"
  • Henri Matisse's Palette.
  • Henri Matisse. Le chat aux poissons rouges, 1914
Matisse is commonly regarded, along with Pablo Picasso, as one of the artists who best helped to define and influence radical contemporary art in the 20th century.
  • Pablo Picasso's Palette
  • Pablo Picasso. Woman with Yellow Hat (Jacqueline), 1961.
"In our life there is a single color, as on an artist’s palette,
which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the color of love."

Marc Chagall

  • Marc Chagall's Palette.
  • Marc Chagall. La joie familaile, 1976
"The sensations of colors on the palette can be spiritual experiences."

Wassily Kandinsky
  • Wassily Kandinsky's Palette.
  • Wassily Kandinsky. Yellow, Red, Blue. 1925
Sometimes it may seem that the gamma of the artist is too simple, but for all its seeming simplicity, it is built on the subtlest nuances. Look at the palette of Giorgio Morandi and Francis Bacon.


  • Giorgio Morandi's Palette.
  • Francis Bacon's Palette.

The Metaphysical painting (Pittura Metafisica) phase in Morandi’s work lasted from 1918 to 1922. This was to be his last major stylistic shift; thereafter, he focused increasingly on subtle gradations of hue, tone, and objects arranged in a unifying atmospheric haze, establishing the direction his art was to take for the rest of his life.

Left: Giorgio Morandi. Still Life, 1946

Yves Klein’s (1928 — 1962) Palette. He used naked women as 'human paintbrushes' to make his Anthropometry paintings, which were produced as elaborate performances in front of an audience
It’s amazing how much it can be learned from one artist’s tool — the palette can tell everything: which colors artist preferred, how he mixed them, what technique he used, and even what style of painting we could relate his artworks to. All palettes of the artists are from the Matthias Schaller official website.
Title illustration: Van Gogh’s pallette


Based on materials from matthiasschaller.com
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