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Is Raw Sienna a "Shortcut"?

The list of artists' pigments, evolving over centuries, includes 530 entries, with some 44 achieving the status of "standard" pigments. By what criteria are colors added to the list?

(The second of three articles on this subject.)

By John Howard Sanden

arlier this year, I was present at an artists' gathering at which a speaker condemned the use of certain pigment combinations in portrait painting as "crutches" and "shortcuts." Before a large audience of portrait artists which included me (I had addressed the group the day before), the speaker opened his two-hour presentation by specifically condemning—by name—the use of my Pro Mix Color System. What follows here are a few observations in response.

Each color beyond the three pri-

maries found its place in the list-

ing (of 530 artists’ pigments) as

a direct response to a perceived

need. That perceived need,

more often than not, was for a

starting point closer to a desired

destination than that afforded

by any existing pigment.

The famous Ralph Mayer treatise entitled The Artist's Handbook of Materials and Techniques, in its Revised Edition (The Viking Press, New York, 1985) includes a definitive listing (beginning on page 36) of 530 pigments that, over the years, have been used by artists. Of these 530, approximately 44 pigments have earned, by consensus agreement, a permanent place on the palette. Most artists settle on a list of twelve or fifteen. But the allure of new pigments has persisted, as painters have sought to achieve specialized effects, or to achieve desired results with less mixing time.

Mayer notes that, over the centuries, pigments have entered the listing bearing the name of its formulator (Van Dyck Brown, Casali's Green, etc.), the national group from which a color concept emerged (English Vermilion, French Blue, Venetian Red, etc.), or the name of the manufacturer who introduced a particular pigment, such as cerulean blue, first marketed as Rowney's Cerulean by the English manufacturer G. Rowney in 1870.

Artists enjoy claiming that, given the three primary colors in a "pure" form (red, yellow and blue), every visible shade can be mixed. Why, then, do we find 530 colors on the complete list? The answer is, of course, that each color beyond the three primaries found its own place in the listing as a direct response to a perceived need. That perceived need, more often than not, was for a starting point closer to a desired destination than that afforded by any existing pigment.

Is It, Then, a "Shortcut" to Use Any of These 530 "Unnecessary" Colors?

A painter, setting out to mix the color observed on the forehead of a sitting model, begins the mix using, say, raw sienna as the point of departure, rather than pure cadmium yellow. The artist selects raw sienna as his starting point for the simple reason that this color is closer to the observed flesh color than would be the brilliant cadmium yellow. To select raw sienna as a starting point, rather than cadmium yellow, is a "shortcut" in the sense that the starting point is thus closer to the destination. But using such a shortcut is only common sense, not a sign of some weakness of character on the part of the artist, as the speaker at the conference seemed to suggest.

To imply that to use raw sienna to begin the mix for a flesh tone is to use a "formula shortcut," or worse, a "crutch," is simply nonsense.

To postulate another example: if a painter, at work on a landscape, were to begin the mix for a particular sky color by dipping into cerulean blue rather than the more 'basic" ultramarine, and if the reason for selecting cerulean over ultramarine was simply that the artist thus began his journey to the desired shade closer to his destination than ultramarine would place him—to condemn this painter for a weakness in favoring "shortcuts" is absurd.

In the previous article of this three-part series, I described how my mentor at the Art Students League, Samuel Edmund Oppenheim, originally formulated the seven pigment combinations which form the basis for the Pro Mix system, basing his formulations on a life-long study of Velázquez work. I described how the system works:

Putting the Oppenheim/Velázquez Pigment Combinations Into Practice.

The Pro Mix Color System palette consists of two rows of colors. The top row consists of twelve standard colors (from left): Ultramarine Blue, Cerulean Blue, Viridian, Chromium Oxide Green, Alizarin Crimson, Burnt Umber, Burnt Sienna, Cadmium Orange, Venetian Red, Cadmium Red Light, Yellow Ochre and Cadmium Yellow Light.

The lower row consists of (from left): Ivory Black, Pro Mix Neutral 7, Neutral 5, Neutral 3, Dark 2, Dark I, Halftone 2, Halftone 1, Light 3, Light 2, Light 1 and White. The Pro Mix colors are adjusted for hue, value and intensity by mixing with other Pro Mix colors, or with colors from the upper row of standard colors.

The ten Pro Mix colors are thus not "crutches" or a "paint-by-number" shortcut. The ten Pro Mix colors are, in fact, simple traditional flesh color combinations used by all portrait artists since the introduction of oil painting. The artist modifies and adjusts each of the Pro Mix colors—based on observation of the subject—in exactly the same way he would a color from the standard palette. 78 such modifications are demonstrated in the Pro Mix mixing chart, included with each boxed set of the colors.
I would like to summarize my case in this way:

Over the six centuries that oil painting has been practiced, 530 colors have been considered by artists for inclusion on their palettes. In each case, someone perceived that the color's addition to the palette would solve some particular need or problem. Most often the purpose was to make color-mixing quicker and simpler.

From this vast array of hues, consensus has been found for the inclusion of some forty to fifty pigments that comprise the list from most manufacturers. The newest entry in this field are the very excellent Daniel E. Greene Oil Colors, manufacturered by Jack Richeson and Company, with a list of 46 pigments.

My Pro Mix colors, comprised of only seven shades, began manufacture in 1974. In the 32 years since, 50,000 artists around the world have experimented with their inclusion on their palettes. In many cases the Pro Mix colors have found a permanent place on the artists' palettes.

Let us remember that only three colors - the "primaries" are actually essential. Is it, therefore fair to charge that the use of any of these other pigments (other than the three primaries) constitutes using "shortcuts" and "formulas"? Why is it unethical to use Pro Mix Light 1, and proper to use raw sienna?

In the case of the speaker at the artists' gathering in Florida—after knocking the Pro Mix colors—he proceeded to demonstrate for the group using raw sienna, yellow ochre and other standard "convenient" colors. Why not just the three primaries?

John Howard Sanden

Next time, I'll go further into color-mixing procedure, describing how the Pro Mix colors work in actual painting practice.



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