modernized paul signac
Source: Paul Signac: A Collection of Watercolors and Drawings ed. Marina Bocquillon & Charles Cachin. Harry Abrams. © 2000 Arkansas Art Center.

13: cadmium yellow (PY35), naples yellow, cadmium orange (PO20), burnt sienna (PBr7), vandyke brown (NBr8), vermilion (? PR106), cadmium red (PR108), rose madder genuine (? NR9), french ultramarine blue (PB29), iron [prussian] blue (PB27), cobalt green (PG19+PW4), sap green [hue], payne's gray [hue], chinese white (PW4) • This is Paul Signac's (1863-1935) traveling palette, used in most of his reproduced watercolors. I conclude the palette section by showing how to translate a historical palette into modern paints.

To analyze the palette of another artist, past or present, you must answer four questions:

1. What were the pigments or paints available to the artist, given his historical period and personal resources? Early in his career J.M.W. Turner could not use ultramarine blue because it was not available until 1830, and he could not afford lapis lazuli. Omission of these pigments from his youthful paintings does not represent an artistic choice.

2. How did the artist address fundamental palette limitations within the choice of pigments available to him? Painters must address the four palette limitations — limited value range, limited chroma, pigment monotony, and poor mixing convenience — that constrain the performance of all painting palettes. For example, Signac used the color purple extensively, which means he must have considered how to get the value range, chromatic intensity, pigment qualities and mixing convenience he desired with the paints in his palette. He did not solve these problems by choosing from among available purple paints (including "purple" alizarin lakes, ultramarine violet, cobalt violet and manganese violet). Instead, despite the mixing chore this imposed, he chose his red and blue paints in part to get attractive purple mixtures.

3. Where do paint choices suggest a preference for specific pigment attributes? If two paints are available to the artist for the same price, color and mixing behavior, how did he choose between them? If the paints differ on key attributes, does the choice reveal anything in common to all the paints on his palette? For example, if Signac used impermanently bright paints instead of dull but permanent paints, we'd conclude that color brilliance was more important to him than lightfastness.

4. What were the demands created by the painter's style, technique or imagery? This casts all the paint choices as a single, dynamic solution to painting problems and the realization of visual opportunities. Paints are seen in a design or representational context that highlights what is most important about paint color and physical attributes. You must look at several paintings made with the palette (above) to find the answer.

Of course, if you want to understand a palette then you should actually make a painting with it, as I recommend at the end of this page.

First, to style: Signac's paintings are informal, fluent and sketchy. He typically paints over charcoal outline drawings, and keeps separate brushstrokes visible, to create surface activity and interest. Paints are used decoratively in an almost childlike simplicity of coloring. They are typically applied at the extremes: either at maximum chroma (slightly diluted), or as a pale tint. They are sometimes blended prior to application (especially with the frequent mixed violets and occasional mixed greens) but otherwise are not visibly mixed or overlapped in the painting. Each brushtroke is a flat color area; there is little color shaping or paint diffusion. Color does not vary across the painting to describe shadow or surface: instead, shadows lighten from violet to green or red, then yellow — the color of light reflecting leaves. Violets and rose tints are used often to describe shadows and atmosphere. The overall effect is vigorous, lyrical and exuberant.

If we consider how to achieve this style, given the limitations of a watercolor palette (limted value range, limited chroma, pigment monotony and mixing inconvenience) and the pigments available in Signac's time, then his palette choices suggest these design preferences:

• "pure paint" harmonies – Signac often painted in a tesselated or mosaic style of pure paint daubs, which put the pure paint color on display. This necessitates a broad, widely spaced distribution of paint colors around the palette.

• dislike of green colors – Signac apparently disliked green passages and often painted hillsides, trees or foliage in blues or blue greens, or used green as an accent color within dominant passages of blue, yellow or red.

• intense warm pigments – Cadmiums were (and still are) among the most intense warm pigments available, and Signac used them despite their historically high cost.

• dull cool pigments – Signac avoided intense cool pigments, such as cobalt blue or emerald green (PG21), in preference to dull prussian blue and the pastel cobalt green. He typically used diluted payne's gray, rather than diluted ultramarine, to describe skies or clouds.

• mixed purples – Several purple pigments were available in Signac's time but he did not use them, either because they were weakly tinting, too slow to dissolve in dry pan form, or too expensive. Instead, he premixed his purples — on the palette rather than on the paper, to produce a "pure paint" effect.

• minimal pigment texture – It's possible that Signac did not use available purple pigments because they produced coarse granulation. He also did not use similarly granulating or slow dissolving paints, such as cobalt blue, cerulean blue, viridian, or burnt umber.

• opaque paints – Signac explicitly chose opaque pigments (naples yellow, three cadmiums, vermilion) where less opaque yellow earths and synthetic inorganics were available; and he preferred opaque cobalt green to transparent viridian (PG18).

• good lightfastness – Signac shunned the commonly used but impermanent chrome pigments in favor of the completely permanent cadmium yellow, orange and red; in his time, high quality vermilion was considered acceptably lightfast, and he used it to get the brightest possible red orange. For a bluish red he avoided the darker, more intense lakes of carmine or alizarin and selected rose madder instead, both for its relatively better lightfastness and for the delicate tints and bright purple mixtures it makes with ultramarine blue. Finally, he avoided the impermanent emerald green in favor of a reliable cobalt green convenience mixture.

The final step is to consider Signac's palette in relation to modern pigments, finding replacements for fugitive or obsolete pigments or, judiciously, to change or add paints that would be consistent with his preferences. The following replacements seem necessary:

• Naples yellow is a toxic lead pigment that is no longer available in art materials. Many modern "naples yellow hue" watercolors are impermanent due to the effect of added chinese white. I've chosen a lightfast replacement that provides a similar whitish deep yellow.

• Vandyke brown is a transparent, dark brown peat pigment (NBr8) available today from Holbein but not used because it is impermanent; the replacement should provide both transparency and dark, warm color. Most modern "vandyke browns" are somewhat opaque due to the inclusion of carbon black. Burnt umber was available in Signac's time and he avoided it, perhaps because in dry pan form it is slow to dissolve in the field. Probably the best single pigment color match is disazo condensation brown (PBr41), which is also semitransparent.

• Vermilion is an opaque, impermanent and very toxic mercury pigment that was commonly used in the 19th century and cheaper in Signac's time than cadmium scarlet; it is readily replaced today by a cadmium pigment.

• Rose madder is an impermanent, weakly tinting natural organic pigment that can be replaced today by a brighter and more durable quinacridone pigment.

• Sap green was already a hue or convenience mixture in Signac's time; his paint was probably manufactured from iron blue and a yellow iron oxide. Modern equivalents are more lightfast and, for opacity, can be mixed from a phthalo blue (or green) and yellow ochre.

• Cobalt green, no longer marketed, was a bluish green convenience mixture of cobalt zinc oxide (PG19) and zinc white (PW4), considered opaque and very permanent. A very similar shade of cobalt green, naturally whitened by titanium (PG50), is available from some paint companies.

• Payne's gray is a dark shade with a definite bias toward middle blue. Paired with van dyke brown, it provided Signac's palette with a warm/cool contrast in his dark shades.

This creates a palette that can mimic Signac's effects very closely yet takes advantage of the improved paint formulations available today.

signac's palette modernized
equivalent modern pigmentsobsolete pigments
cadmium yellow medium (PY35).
chrome titanate yellow (PBr24)naples yellow
cadmium orange (PO20).
burnt sienna (PBr7).
disazo condensation brown (PBr41)vandyke brown
cadmium scarlet (PR108)vermilion
cadmium red (PR108).
quinacridone rose (PV19)
use diluted
rose madder genuine
french ultramarine blue (PB29).
iron [prussian] blue (PB27).
cobalt green (PG50)cobalt green
sap green [hue]sap green [hue]
payne's gray [hue] (PBk6)payne's gray
chinese white (PW4).

I mention in my painting gallery the benefits of copying paintings that intrigue or impress you, and this practice is enormously more productive if you attempt the copy using the same palette. This brings to your attention all the color mixing problems faced by your ancestor artist, and provides insight into his painting practice.