This blog post is based on the pigments mentioned in the exchange of letters between Thomas Cole and Asher Brown Durand. Thomas Cole is one of the major 19th-century American painters and he is considered the founder of the Hudson River School, inspiring many talented artists Such as Durand.
Thomas Cole spent a significant amount of time drawing and creating plein air color studies along the Hudson River in New York state. He would often take a steamboat up the Hudson, hike the Catskills and the resulting studio paintings are the first landscapes of the area.
Portrait of Asher Brown Durand with color palette, Daniel Huntington, 1857
Around 1837, Thomas Cole invited his friend Asher Brown Durand on a sketching trip. Cole sent a Letter to Durand with a list of 14 colors for him to bring a long the excursion. The list of colors in Cole’s letter included: White, Roman Ochre, Raw and Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber, Chrome Yellow, Naples Yellow, Antwerp Blue, Madder Lake, Vandyke Brown, Light Red, Vermilion, Indian Red and Ultramarine.
Durand wrote back asking Cole whether he should also include yellow ochre and one of either mummy, bone brown or Asphaltum. You can find the full excerpt from the Cole Durand letter in the book “The Painted Sketch: American Impressions From Nature, 1830-1880” by Eleanor Jones Harvey
Below I provide more information on Cole’s list of 14 colors including Yellow Ochre and Bone Black suggested by Durand:
Lead white; Lead white is the most important white pigment used in painting throughout history and the only white used in oil painting in 1837. Zinc white was not available for oil painting until around 1850 and titanium white in 1921.
Roman Ochre; A variant of Ochre with a deep orange brownish tint. Thomas Cole probably used this pigment together with “Chrome Green” to mix natural looking greens for foreground leaves and foliage.
Raw and Burnt Sienna; Earth pigment containing iron and manganese oxide. Raw Sienna tends to be darker and more transparent than yellow Ochre.
Burnt sienna is prepared by calcining Raw Sienna, which dehydrates the iron oxide, changing it moderately to hematite and giving it rich brownish-red color.
Burnt Umber; Burnt Umber is a natural reddish-brown earth pigment that contains iron oxide and manganese oxide. It is made by heating natural Umber.
Chrome Yellow; Discovered in 1797 and generally available by 1815, it provided a bright and opaque yellow on artists’ palettes. Thomas Cole used Chrome Yellow and Prussian Blue to create a green mixture known as “Chrome Green”.
Naples Yellow; Naples Yellow is a pale but warm yellow pigment derived from Lead Antimoniate. It was used in paintings during the 18th and 19th century.
Antwerp Blue; A variant of Prussian Blue, containing about 75 percent of Barium Sulphate, making it a softer and less intense version of pure Prussian blue.
Madder Lake; One of the most stable “natural” pigments. It is a dye extracted from Madder plants dating back to the ancient Egyptians.
Madder Lake was used extensively in the 18th and 19th century.
Vandyke Brown; Known also as Cassel Earth and Cologne Earth, is a transparent brown earth pigment dating from the 17th century and is a mixture of clay, iron oxide, humus and bitumen. Its transparency made it superior to umbers and ochres for glazing, although it was prone to fading and, because of its bitumen (Asphaltum) component, to cracking.
Light Red; The term “light red” describes various kinds of iron oxide earth pigments such as Venetian red or English red.
Vermilion; Vermilion was the primary red pigment in artist palettes, from the Renaissance until the 20th century. It is a Natural mineral pigment made from the powdered mineral cinnabar, a red mercury sulfide. Thomas Cole used Vermilion together with Chrome yellow and Lead white to prime his canvases producing a light warm pinkish ground color. For more information you can check out the book “Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings”
Indian Red; Indian red is a variety of red ochre, or red hematite, containing about 95 percent of ferric oxide. Indian red is very opaque with a slightly purplish hue and has high tinting strength.
Ultramarine; Synthetic Ultramarine was developed in 1826 by French chemist Jean-Baptiste Guimet. Thomas Cole was already using the synthetic version of Ultramarine by the time he wrote this letter to Durand in 1837.
Yellow Ochre; This modest, yet valuable earth color has been on painters’ palettes since painting began. Although Cole did not originally include this pigment in his list of colors, Durand probably took it along anyway.
Bone Brown/Black; Bone black is blue-black in color and fairly smooth in texture, produced by charring animal bones. This is another pigment not listed in Cole’s letter but suggested by Durand.
Check out the video below in which I recreate the same color palette Thomas Cole and Aher B. Durand would have used on their painting trip.
I hope this article about Thomas Cole’s color palette was helpful. Please comment below!