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Palettes of the Masters: Gauguin

A look at the colours the Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin used.

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If you’ve never been to a spot in the world where the colours around you change dramatically with the setting sun, as Gauguin experienced when he went from France to the Pacific Ocean Island of Tahiti, then you may well believe he simply made up the colours in his paintings. But, unrealistic and implausible as they may seem, he was simply painting the colours he saw, something that had long been his philosophy.

The Colours on Gauguin’s Palette
Colours Gauguin regularly used included Prussian blue, cobalt blue, emerald green, viridian, cadmium yellow, chrome yellow, red ochre, cobalt violet, and lead or zinc white. He believed in: “Pure colour! Everything must be sacrificed to it.” Yet, overall, his tones were muted, and quite close together.

From a portable palette found in his painting studio after he died, it would appear Gauguin didn’t put out his colours in any particular order. Nor does he seem to have ever cleaned his palette, instead mixing fresh colours on top of dried-up paint.

Gauguin himself had trouble believing the colours he saw, saying: “Everything in the landscape blinded me, dazzled me. Coming from Europe I was constantly uncertain of some colour [and kept] beating about the bush: and yet it was so simple to put naturally onto my canvas a red and a blue. In the brooks, forms of gold enchanted me. Why did I hesitate to pour that gold and all the rejoicing of the sunshine on to my canvas?”

In a famous lesson Gauguin gave to the young Paul Sérusier in 1888, now part of art history, he told him to forget the conventional use of colour he was being taught in art academy and to paint the colours he saw in front of him, using brilliant colours: “How do you see that tree? It’s green? Well then, make it green, the best green on your palette. How do you see those trees? They are yellow. Well then, put down yellow. And that shade is rather blue. So render it with pure ultramarine. Those red leaves? Use vermillion.” Sérusier called the final painting The Talisman and showed to all his fellow students at the Academie Julian, including Bonnard and Vuillard.

Gauguin’s Working Method
Typically Gauguin painted outlines of the subject directly onto the canvas in diluted Prussian blue. These were then filled in with opaque colours (rather than building colour up through glazes). The dark outline heightens the intensity of the other colours. “Since colour is itself enigmatic in the sensations which it gives us … we cannot logically employ it except enigmatically.”

Gauguin liked working on an absorbent ground as this created a dull, matt effect on the oil paint colours. Most of his paintings were created with a brush, but there is evidence that he occasionally used a palette knife. Gauguin applied paint in a flat, even way, rather than the textured brushwork associated with the Impressionists.

Many of Gauguin’s paintings are on rough, unprimed canvas, but how much this was a deliberate choice and how much was due to his strained finances we’ll never know. Similarly, his use of thin layers of paint which allow the weave of the canvas to show.

An Inspiring Fact from Gauguin’s Life
Gauguin, who was born in 1843, didn’t start out as a full-time artist. He initially went to work at the Paris Stock Exchange and it’s said he started painting only in 1873, when he would’ve been 30. He was exhibiting with the Impressionists by 1879, but it was only when he lost his job in 1883 in an economic slump that he started painting full time. In 1891 he abandoned Europe to go paint in Tahiti.

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