Palettes and Techniques of the Pre-Raphaelite Painters

An Iraqi painter dabs his brush on a palette
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In the middle of the 19th century, the Royal Academy of Arts in London was regarded as the place to study. But its view of 'acceptable' art was very proscriptive, idealizing nature and beauty. In 1848 a group of disillusioned students banded together, forming the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, with the grand aim of revitalizing painting in Britain. Only three would go down in art history: William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82), and John Everett Millais (1829-96).

Their guiding principles were the depiction of simple rather than grand subjects, with a serious and moralistic theme, an honest rendition of nature based on direct observation outdoors, and an adherence to Christian spirituality. Symbolism was also important.

Colors of Paint and Composition

Bright transparent colors (at the time regarded as garish) were applied in thin glazes onto a smooth, white ground, most often canvas. Using a white ground, rather than a colored one, gives luminosity to a painting. Building up color through glazes, imitates the effect of light falling on a subject and gives a depth that cannot be obtained by using colors mixed on a palette.

Hunt wrote: "For the sake of avoiding the contamination of hue resulting from the use of palettes only partially cleaned from earlier work, we used white porcelain tablets which would betray any remains of dried paint that would otherwise infallibly work up into tints that would need to be of pristine purity. We knew how impossible it was to give the purity and variety of nature's hues if we allowed our pigments to get sullied."1

Millais and Hunt reversed the establishment's order of painting, creating backgrounds first, plein air, then putting in the figures in their studios. Compositions were generally worked out directly on the canvas, drawn with graphite pencil. Form was built up meticulously using small brushes. Hunt said: "I tried to put aside the loose irresponsible handling to which I had been trained."2

The final touch was a high-gloss varnish, which emphasized the fact that the painting was done in oils, the most valued of mediums, and helped protect the surface.

Creating a Pre-Raphaelite Palette

To recreate a typical Pre-Raphaelite palette, use the following colors: cobalt blue, ultramarine (substitute French ultramarine for natural ultramarine), emerald green, madder (natural madder fades in sunlight; substitute a modern alternative such as alizarin crimson), earth colors (ochres, siennas, umbers), plus the characteristic Pre-Raphaelite purple made from mixing cobalt blue with madder.

1. WH Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Vol 1 page 264, London, 1905; quoted in Pre-Raphaelite Painting Techniques by JH Townsend, J Ridge and S Hackney, Tate 2004, page 39.
2. WH Hunt, 'The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: A Fight for Art', Contemporary Review, vol 49, April-June 1886; quoted in Pre-Raphaelite Painting Techniques by JH Townsend, J Ridge and S Hackney, Tate 2004, page 10.