John Constable’s palette

I’m going to take the opportunity to get at the Constable palette I’d mentioned. This is taken from Tate Publishing’s John Constable: The Great Landscapes–a really wonderful and highly recommended book. There’s also a John Gage essay in it. Gage wrote the masterful Color in Turner, which I also want to get into, particularly where he covers Turner’s influences, including notes Turner made on specific Old Master paintings he was studying.

One of Constable’s surviving palettes is covered with original impasted blobs of smeared paint [pictured in the book itself] and a darkened brown substance that is probably a spilled medium or varnish. Analysis of the materials was first carried out at the Tate for the Paint and Painting exhibition; the catalogue lists vermilion, Emerald green, chrome yellow, and madder as having been identified. Further pigment analysis by Sarah Cove and Rachel Grout has also identified Patent yellow (lead oxychloride), cobalt blue, lead white, a bright scarlet (possibly a commercially prepared mixture of vermilion and the organic red lake pigment madder), Mars yellow (synthetic iron oxide), black (possibly bone black) and various red, brown and orange earths. These were found in a variety of mediums, including linseed oil mixed with pine resin, and either walnut oil or a mixture of poppy and linseed oils with a lot of pine resin mixed in. The spilled medium is a resin varnish, probably damar or mastic, with a small addition of a ‘drying’ oil. Sarah Cove has identified these pigments and mediums in the ‘finishing’ layers of Constable’s late works, c. 1828-37. and they closely correspond to those identified in the metal paint box. The pigments include both translucent colors that were used for final glazing in a lush, glossy, slow-drying linseed oil/pine resin medium, and opaque yellows and whites, bound in poppy oil, probably with the addition of egg, to create the crisp highlights used to add the distinctive ‘sparkle’ to Constable’s exhibited paintings. Cobalt blue is particularly significant as it is rarely found in Constable’s oils, though it has been identified in some works of the 1820s….

There is also a list of contents of the a paint box:

The glass phial with cork stopper contains the powdered blue-glass pigment smalt, some of which has spilled out. Smalt was routinely used by Constable in conjunction with the expensive blue pigment natural ultramarine, probably as an ‘extender’ to make the color go further. Similar phials containing two shades of ultramarine are in Constable’s other surviving paint box. The white stone is a piece of gypsum (mainly calcium sulphate, containing a small proportion of natural chalk), which may be a lump of wall plaster that served a variety of purposes: roughening the surface of paper or canvas or rubbing down grounds; drawing, like ‘chalk’; or powdered up and used as an extender to make colors more translucent whilst thickening the paint. There are eleven bladders of paint in the box, some with illegible paper labels… The bladders contain the following: verdigris; a mixed yellow-brown glaze containing a yellow lake with small additions of black, vermillion, patent yellow and orange earths; chrome yellow (lead chromate); a blue-green containing verdigris and Prussian blue; a transparent orange iron oxide (Mars orange); an orangey-brown mixture of earths and black; umber; a dark red-brown mixture of umber and vermilion; Emerald green (copper aceto-arsinate). These are both pure pigments and mixtures that have been purchased under proprietary names describing the color rather than the constituent pigments. The paint in the bladders is primarily bound with slow-drying poppy oil… sometimes with additions of thickened linseed and possibly pine resin.,…The bladders are covered in bright specks of dried paint that were also analyzed to discover Constable’s working mixtures. These include the pigments listed above, together with lead white, bone brown/black, synthetic red and yellow iron oxides (Mars colors) and two different red ‘lakes’. The pigment splashes contained a mixture of the mediums found in the bladders together with the additives: zinc sulphate driers in poppy oil, lead-based driers in linseed oil, mastic varnish, egg yolk, beeswax and pine resin.

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13 Responses to John Constable’s palette

  1. johnk823 says:

    I have read these findings in my books as well and agree with them and feel that most of these paints, pigments and mediums would have been used by Turner as well, being in the same time era, and their availabillity. I’m also certain that as new pigments, paints and mediums became available they would have had to venture through their usage in their work.

  2. edward says:

    thankyou for the Constable, Im trying to write a book on this greatest of artists… it was very helpful given that I have found it impossible to access information on the materials Constable used, none of it is online, including Sarah Cove’s 17 page article in 1992? if you have a copy, could you please post it.
    Thankyou, I have a Constable painting myself, and will post it on your blog when I have finished the book. It is undiscovered, so that I am discovering it without the help of the corrupt establishment:)

    • Patrick Palmer says:

      Edward, could you please write me at pvpalmer123 (at)

      I think I have some Constable information of interest.

      Thank you,

      Patrick Palmer

  3. trueoutsider says:

    Edward, I’ll be extremely interested to hear of your research. I’ve always found Constable completely mesmerizing, particularly the paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC which I grew up with since I lived nearby. Unfortunately, not only don’t I have a copy of Sarah Cove-s article in 1992 but I wasn’t even aware of it. I’ll see if I can check around with a few used booksellers I know who are good at tracking this kind of thing and see what I can find out after the Holidays. If I can find anything I’ll post it here.

    Best of luck. Very exciting about the Constable. Thanks for letting me know this. It makes my Christmas! And have Happy Holidays yourself!


  4. edward says:

    I would like to refer to an example of ‘the establishment’, Sothebys lot 50, 6 July 2011, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, sold for 657,250 GBP … who could fathom that this is a real Constable, nothing like it! But our gods in the heavens decry that it is… I would be interested to know whether anyone agrees with their verdict…

    • edward says:

      Hey Bart, amazing to hear from you, it makes my Christmas that there are good people in the world… how kind of you to reply…I just posted a comment about Sothebys, not seeing your reply. In fact I am writing an article, already 30,000 words trying to support my proposition that The Leaping Horse is indeed the greatest painting ever painted. I believe I can defend my proposition. Constable is yet to be understood … you should read Dr Lambert’s book, John Constable and the Theory of Lanscape painting.(CUP).. it is almost a first in the history of art – profound analysis, through which one should view art… his is the first real analysis of Constable…. I have seen the entire book online somewhere…. please spend the time to read it. I spend 15 hours a day with our friend Constable… I am interested in any of Constable’s paintings ‘The Leaping Horse” … many consider it is finest, I have shown why it is… I found another version of it, that has never been mentioned in literature in Leslie’s Memoirs…. 1845, plate 38 … such a drab painting compared to his final one that remains to be ‘discovered’. Wishing you a great Christmas from Vilnius….

      • trueoutsider says:

        Edward, the honor is mine. You’ll no doubt have more to offer me about Constable than I can offer you because you’re doing deep research on him. And so I appreciate your posting the information here for others to read. If you don’t mind I might set up a post where I can transfer your information for others to read. I’ll make comments to the extent I think they’re helpful.

        I have Leslie’s Memoirs and the Bailey bio and a few other books on him. But I’m missing Lambert and the big money that one needs to get that book. Maybe in future because I’d love to have it.

        Do you have a link to the Sotheby’s painting? Or to the Lambert online? I’ll see if I can search them. But it would be good to have a link for other readers here to click. I can’t tell anything concrete from a digital image for the obvious reasons: the image is flattened and approximated by flattening. I find with reproduction, as a general rule, that the better the painting is the worse it looks in reproduction.. and the worse the painting is the better it looks in reproduction. By which I mean the more complex the painting the more it suffers. The more simplistic, the more it’s enhanced by being shrunk down to a computer screen or book/magazine repro.

        Also if you have a link to what you consider the best reproduction of The Leaping Horse online I’ll post it. But first have a merry Xmas!


  5. lynda minter says:

    Great to come across your website. I have spent lots to time researching Constable’s palette and have made notes.

  6. trueoutsider says:

    Thanks, Lynda. If there’s anything you’d like to share regarding your research feel free to post it here or to provide a link so that those reading can access it.

  7. Ted Toms says:

    Does anyone know if there is a complete list of the drawings and oil sketches that Constable made? (Preferably online). I am particularly interested in one’s that relate to Brantham, Cattawade, Lawford, Manningtree and Mistley.

    I am aware of the V&A drawings of Mistley Quay and The fisherman’s cottage at Brantham, showing Mistley Hall in the background, but I would particularly like to find out more details about the painting of Dedham Vale on this website (take care opening it as it appears to offer a lot of links to ‘buy this print sites!:—1.html

    It clearly isn’t Dedham Vale (unless it was flooded) and the topography looks like a view of Mistley and Manningtree from Brantham – does anyone know more about it?

    If it is Brantham, the local council are planning to build on the site and the local residents are trying to preserve it – but time is of the essence as I need to write an objection by tomorrow!

    Many thanks.

  8. trueoutsider says:

    Sorry, Tom. The only thing I can think of is trying to get your hands on one of the catalogue raisonnes. But that’s not going to solve your deadline problem. Maybe someone reading will have information. Best of luck.….0…1c.1.19.psy-ab._WjEIaea0kA&pbx=1&bav=on.2,or.r_qf.&bvm=bv.48705608,d.cGE&fp=209d7ea90c5d5b63&biw=1077&bih=827

  9. James Armstrong says:

    July 7th,’14
    Dear Trueoutsider,
    I came across your site while trying to find out WHERE Constable’s palette and other artifacts are. Can you help please? The Royal Academy perhaps?
    The above correspondence is very interesting. I assume Sothebys have the correct information of the previous owners (just forgotten the correct word for it) of the ‘Salisbury From the Meadows’. It has the same title as the one that was rejected by Academicians in Constable’s presence, which resembles a Wilson in style. Very beautiful.
    I am at present writing an extended poem of sorts about J.C.
    There is/are more than one ‘Leaping Horse’ paintings/versions I believe, as with quite a few others.
    I look forward to hearing from you.

  10. trueoutsider says:

    hi james,
    thanks for writing and please excuse the delay in getting back to you. i’ve been off the blog.

    here’s a link from the Tate indicating that one of the 4 surviving palettes is located there, and also the sad information that most of his studio materials were stolen by Sinn Fein in 1921, after which most of it has disappeared.

    The correct word for previous owners you’re probably searching for is “provenance”. And, yes, I imagine Sotheby’s has it.

    The Leaping Horse had a couple studies and full-scale sketch.listed here by the Tate:

    Good luck with the poem!


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