Rembrandt’s colour palette was characterised by dark browns and black, earthy yellows, and deep reds– colours that give his paintings an instantly recognisable atmosphere of warm darkness. This article examines the pigments in Rembrandt’s colour palette and explores modern alternatives for some of the pigments that are no longer used by artists today.
Artist Colour Palettes in 17th Century Holland
Rembrandt Harmenzoon van Rijn (1606-1669) was one of the most influential artists of the Dutch Golden Age. Versatile and proficient in different media, he produced etchings, drawings, and paintings across multiple genres, including landscape, portraiture, and narrative subjects. During Rembrandt’s time, making paint was a laborious process. Artists bought dry pigments from an apothecary and made paints by hand using a muller and a slab, a process that required significant skill and patience. A successful artist would have employed assistants for this gruelling task. It was only at the end of the 17th century that artist paint specialists, known as ‘colourmen’, began making paint commercially and selling them to artists in pig’s bladders.
Today we have the luxury of readymade colour, formulated to industry standards and packaged in metal tubes, at our fingertips. Despite this, the raw materials that our paints contain haven’t changed as much as we might think– various pigments we use often would have been familiar to Rembrandt and his contemporaries. However, there are some pigment from Rembrandt’s colour palette that have fallen out of use for a variety of reasons, including toxicity, impermanence, or poor lightfastness.
Rembrandt’s Colour Palette
The following palette is made up of pigments that, as far we know, Rembrandt would have used. The pigments have been identified by technical examination of Rembrandt’s paintings undertaken at the National Gallery, London.
Some of these pigments are still in common use today:
- Ivory Black, a carbon-based pigment made from charred bone. Today it is given the pigment index number PBk9.
- Natural brown iron oxides. Today these paints include Raw Sienna, Burnt Sienna, Raw Umber and Burnt Umber. Brown iron oxide pigments of earth-origin are identified with the pigment index number PBr 7.
- Natural yellow iron oxides, usually referred to as Yellow Ochre. Paints containing the pigment PY 43 are made with natural earths that contain yellow iron oxides.
- Natural red iron oxides, commonly known as Red Ochre. This pigment has been used since prehistory and is classified under the pigment index number PR 102.
Other pigments are, for various reasons, no longer part of most modern artists’ palettes:
- Smalt. A rich blue pigment made of ground cobalt-containing glass.
- Stil de Grain. A yellow/green/brown lake pigment made using dye extracted from buckthorn berries.
- Vermillion. A synthetic version of Cinnabar, a mercuric-sulfide-based mineral.
- Red Lakes such as Carmine or Rose Madder. Transparent pink or red pigments of either plant or insect origin.
- Lead-Tin Yellow. A lead-based opaque yellow pigment.
If an artist wants to make a Rembrandt-inspired colour palette, which modern pigments make effective modern alternatives to these historical colours?
Rembrandt’s Use of Smalt Blue
Smalt was a much cheaper alternative to the expensive mineral pigment Lapis Lazuli. We don’t associate Rembrandt’s colour palette with the colour blue, and this is partly because Smalt becomes brown and translucent over time when mixed with an oil binder. As a result we have lost the nuances of some of Rembrandt’s Smalt-containing mixtures, which included mixes with yellows, earths, and black. During the 19th century artists stopped using it, preferring the modern, more permanent blue pigments like Ultramarine Blue and Cobalt Blue that were being developed at the time. The image below is a swatch of genuine Smalt that I ground into linseed oil to make oil paint.
Genuine Smalt is a semi-transparent, gritty, warm blue with a fast drying time. It is unlike any other single-pigment blue available today. Cobalt Blue (PB 28), a chemical descendent of Smalt, leans much more towards green (although it does share some of its granular properties). The deep-bellied blues like Phthalo Blue (PB 15), Indanthrene Blue (PB 60), and Prussian Blue (PB 27) are too high in tinting strength and too cool in temperature to be similar to Smalt. Smalt is even more violet than Ultramarine Blue (PB 29), which is one of the warmest blues used by artists today.
However, there are a few paints that aim to recreate the historical colour in oil, watercolour, and acrylic. Winsor & Newton’s Smalt (Dumont’s Blue) appears in their professional oil and professional watercolour ranges and uses the bluish-violet pigment PV 15. It is a soft, deep red-blue that I found very reminiscent of genuine Smalt. Golden Acrylics take a different approach in recreating the historical pigment– instead of a single pigment, they combine Ultramarine Blue, Carbon Black, and Dioxazine Violet for their Smalt Hue which is a transparent, muted shade. Another alternative I tried was Holbein’s Smalt Blue Gouache which, while a lovely colour in its own right, lacks the depth and warmth of the genuine pigment. It seems that they were evoking the idea of the colour, rather than attempting to match it.
Permanent Alternatives to Genuine Smalt Blue:
- Winsor & Newton Professional Oil Colour: Smalt (PV 15)
- Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolour: Smalt (PV 15)
- Golden Acrylic: Smalt Hue
- A roughly 50:50 mixture of Cobalt Blue (PB 28) and Ultramarine Violet (PV 15) also makes a good approximation of the colour.
No modern blue pigments have the same ‘gritty’ quality as genuine smalt. Rembrandt used this characteristic to add body and texture to his paint. Oil and acrylic painters could add fine marble dust to their paint to emulate this effect:
Stil de Grain – A Fugitive Glazing Colour
Stil de Grain varied from yellow, brown, and green depending on the ripeness of the buckthorn berries from which it was made. The soluble dye extracted from the berries was ‘laked’ (precipitated with an inert metallic salt) to make an insoluble pigment suitable for grinding into an artist paint. Like other lake pigments it has a transparency that made it ideal for glazing, but it is no longer used in artist paints due to its poor lightfastness. This fact was well known by artists in 17th century Holland. Nevertheless, European oil painters continued to use it until the 19th century when much more reliable pigments became available. The following genuine Stil de Grain swatch is made from unripe buckthorn berries, so it is brown in masstone but becomes brighter and more yellow in dilution.
Williamsburg, Maimeri, and Lefranc & Bourgeois include a Stil de Grain hue in their oil paint ranges. These vary in shade between brown, yellow, and green, reflecting the variations found in the genuine pigment. One of the most popular alternatives is Williamsburg’s Stil de Grain, made using synthetic yellow earth pigment PY 42. It is a very good alternative for the yellow-shade of Stil de Grain– yellow oxide pigments, whether synthetic or natural in origin, often have a brown hue in masstone and and are brighter yellow when diluted. Additionally, synthetic iron oxide pigments like PY 42 can be formulated to be transparent, matching the transparency of Stil de Grain.
Of the three alternatives above, it is the Stil de Grain Green oil paint from Lefranc & Bourgeois that is, to my eye, a particularly Rembrandt-esque colour. Made from pigment PY 129, it is meant to replicate the greenish variety of Stil de Grain. It is a deep earthy green in masstone and bright yellow-olive in dilution. When combined in mixtures with colours that Rembrandt used it lends an earthy warmth that is very evocative of his colour palette:
Lightfast Stil de Grain Alternatives:
- Williamsburg Stil de Grain oil
- Lefranc & Bourgeois Stil de Grain Green oil
- Maimeri Stil de Grain Brown oil
- Maimeri Blu Stil de Grain Brown watercolour
Many ranges offer pigment PY 129 under the name ‘Green Gold’, and these can also stand in for the greener varieties of Stil de Grain:
Vermillion – Rembrandt’s Deepest Red
Genuine Vermilion is a toxic, deep orangey-red pigment used by Rembrandt and other Old Masters. It is a synthetic version of Cinnabar– a mercuric sulfide-containing mineral that was ground into pigment. Genuine Vermillion contains mercury and is potentially harmful to health if ingested or inhaled. It was also prone to blackening when exposed to air. As a result, when Cadmium Red was introduced in the 19th Century, Vermillion lost popularity among artists.
Paints named ‘Vermillion’ are common in artist paint ranges, but these versions use modern orange-red pigments which tend to lack the dull earthiness of the genuine historical colour. While not perfect colour matches, Cadmium pigments share the heavy covering power of genuine Vermillion. Cadmium Red Light is a beautifully clear and strong colour that dances on the edge between orange and red. It is much brighter than genuine Vermillion but this could easily be tempered by mixing it with an earth pigment. Cadmium Red Deep (PR 108) shares the dullness of the genuine pigment, but is more of a bluish-red rather than the orange-red that is characteristic of Vermillion.
- Williamsburg Cadmium Red Light Oil
- Jackson’s Cadmium Red Deep professional oil
- M. Graham Cadmium Red Light watercolour – a beautiful orange-red similar to the middle swatch above.
- Jackson’s French Vermillion Watercolour – too bright to behave like genuine Vermillion, but not as vibrant as some Vermillion hues. It makes a good cadmium-free alternative for watercolour.
- Atelier Interactive Vermillion Hue Acrylic – a cadmium-free vermillion alternative in acrylic
Genuine Chinese Vermillion oil paint is still produced by Michael Harding.
Red Lakes – an Essential Part of Rembrandt’s Colour Palette
Red Lake pigments were the only transparent red or pink pigments available during the Dutch Golden Age and were, like Stil de Grain, derived from dyestuffs. Carmine was extracted from the cochineal beetle, while Madder was made using the root of the madder plant– Rembrandt used both in his colour palette. However, Red Lake pigments are notoriously fugitive, so aren’t widely used today.
Red Lake pigments varied widely in their colour depending on how and where they were made (for example, the more calcium-rich the soil, the redder the pigment produced from the madder plant). Their transparency is what made them so useful– they were often glazed over opaque orange-reds to make deep crimson.
Quinacridone pigments seem like the most natural modern successors. Introduced to artists in 1955, Quinacridones are very lightfast, highly saturated, transparent, and well-suited to the glazing techniques used by oil painters. We tend to associate historical pigments with muted colours, but certain lake pigments are so vibrant they match up to the intensity of Quinacridones.
Other Red Lake pigments are deeper and more brown in hue:
Similar to this shade is Alizarin Crimson, a chemical cousin of Red Lakes. It is a synthetic lake pigment developed in the 19th century and, while it is more lightfast than the older lake pigments, it is not as permanent as modern pigments (particularly when used in glazes). You can read more about Alizarin Crimson here. More lightfast alternatives are Quinacridone pigment PR 206 or Perylene pigment PR179.
Lightfast Red Lake Alternatives:
Most paints containing single pigment PV 19 should make good lightfast alternatives to the brighter, pinker Red Lake varieties:
For the browner varieties, I recommend paints containing either PR 206 or PR 179 (bear in mind, however, that PR 179 is generally less transparent than Quinacridone pigments, so PR 206 is a better choice for glazing techniques):
- Daniel Smith Quinacridone Burnt Scarletwatercolour (PR 206)
- Schmincke Horadam Madder Brown watercolour (PR 206)
- Winsor & Newton Quinacridone Burnt Orange acrylic (PR206)
- Langridge Perylene Crimson oil (PR 179)
- Winsor & Newton Perylene Maroon acrylic (PR179)
A couple of paint ranges still offer the genuine, non-lightfast pigment. Michael Harding’s Rose Madder is a muted, bloody red, while Winsor & Newton’s Rose Madder Genuine is an extremely bright, cheerful pink.
Lead-tin Yellow – a Toxic Yellow Loved by the Old Masters
Opaque and cool, Lead-tin Yellow played an important role in many of Rembrandt’s paintings, including the one at the top of this article. Its lemony shade cut through the general warmth of Rembrandt’s colour palette, creating glowing highlights. As the name suggests, it is a lead-based pigment that is potentially harmful to health if inhaled or ingested, but it is unlikely that this is why it disappeared from artists’ palettes in the 19th century. The exact reason isn’t known, but it appears that it was gradually replaced by Naples Yellow during the 18th century, and the discovery of Chrome Yellow at the turn of the 19th century significantly reduced demand for the historical pigment. The ‘recipe’ for Lead-tin Yellow was rediscovered in the 20th century, but its expense and toxicity means that it never recovered the popularity it enjoyed among the Old Masters. However, it is still available as part of Michael Harding’s oil paint range.
Perhaps the only modern pigment that shares Lead-Tin Yellow’s coolness and opacity is Nickel Titanate Yellow (PY 53), a pigment developed in the 1960s. This pigment is found across many oil, acrylic, and watercolour ranges. Here it is standing in for Lead-tin Yellow in some mixtures inspired by those identified in Rembrandt’s paintings.
Recommended paints containing Nickel Titanate Yellow:
- Jackson’s Primrose Yellow oil
- Jackson’s Primrose Yellow acrylic
- Schmincke Horadam Titanium Yellow watercolour
The pigments that painters used reflect the world they lived in and Rembrandt’s colour palette was subject to the availability of the time. Modern artists, by comparison, have access to a far greater number of colours. Nevertheless we can learn a lot from the works of the Old Masters, and by examining the colours they used we can gain a greater understanding of how they constructed their paintings. If any readers have any suggestions for modern alternatives for obsolete pigments please leave a comment below!