Le Blon's Coloritto: Harmony of Colouring in Painting

Jacob Christopher Le Blon (1667–1741) was an engraver who developed what is perhaps the first system of color printing using three primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. In his treatise, Coloritto, Or the Harmony of Colouring in Painting, he propounds a painting theory that interests students and professionals alike.

Le Blon describes white as a compound of primitive impalpable colors and black as a like compound of the palpable. True painting, he says, represents light by white, shade by black, reflections by yellow, and turnings-off or roundings of objects by blue. Such is the outline of the brief and perspicuous theory of Le Blon, which, however deficient or defective, verges upon the truth and simplicity of nature.

Jacob Christoph Le Blon's Coloritto

Of Preliminaries.

Coloritto—or the Harmony of Colouring, is the Art of Mixing COLOURS, in order to represent naturally, in all Degrees of painted Light and Shade, the same FLESH, or the Colours of any other Object, that is represented in the true or pure Light.

Painting can represent all visible Objects, with three Colours, Yellow, Red, and Blue; sort all other Colours can be compos’d of these Three, which I call Primitive; for Example.

Yellow and Red make an Orange Colour.

Red and Blue make a Purple and Violet Colour.

Blue and Yellow make a Green Colour.

And a Mixture of these Three Original Colours makes a Black, and all other Colours whatsover; as I have demonstrated by my Invention of Printing Pictures and Figures with their natural Colours.

I am only speaking of Material Colours, or those used by Painters; for a Mixture of all the primitive impalpable Colours, that cannot be felt, will not produce Black, but the very Contrary, White; as the Great Sir Isaac NEWTON has demonstrated in his Opticks.

White, is a Concentrating, or an Excess of Lights.

Black, is a deep Hiding, or Privation of Lights.

But both are the Produce of all the Primitive Colours compounded or mixed together; the one by Impalpable Colours and the other by Material Colours.

True PAINTING represents
1. Light by White.
2. Shades by Black.
3. Reflexions by Yellow
4. Turnings by Blue.

N.B. [notabene; observe carefully or take special notice, Ed.] In Nature, the general Reflex Colour is Yellow; but all the accidental Reflexions, caused by an opposite Body or Object, partake of the Colour of the opposite Body that caused them.

When a Painter says, that such Artists make a good Coloritto, he means, that they represent truly and naturally the Nude or the naked human Flesh; supposing they can paint all other visible Objects well, and without Difficulty.

In order to learn to paint a good Nude, or any other color’d Object, we must first learn to represent a white Object. For Example, To paint or represent a Head of Plaster, &c.

In which the White will serve to represent the Lights; and the Black the Shades; But White and Black are not alone sufficient like Nature is self, a white Object, which indeed represents a Print or a Design, but not a white Object.

To represent such a white Object, we must add to the Shades, or join with them the Reflex, or the Colour of the Reflex, viz. the Yellow; and with the Turnings off, or Roundings, we must join the Colour of the Turnings, viz. the Blue.

Remember that in natural Objects, the Turnings off, or Roundings, are almost imperceptible.

To represent a colour’d Object, we may take an Head of Plaster stain’d with the Colour of Flesh, and set it in a good Light; and then we shall see that the same Colour of Flesh discovers it self throughout, or over all the Head, and distinctly enough, even in the Shades, in the Demishades or Mezzotints, in the Reflexions, in the Turnings off or Roundings, &c.

Figure V. Coloritto

Figure V. Color Palette

So begins Le Blon’s theoretical discussion of color mixing in painting. In subsequent pages, he outlines a practical scheme of setting up the palette and individual color mixes for painting the various flesh tones in its shades and tints.

The basic palette of Le Blon consists of these pigments: 1. lead white, 2. vermilion, 3. red ocher, 4. brown ocher burnt, 5. lack (Indian or lac lake from lac dye), 6. umber, 7. burnt umber, and 8. black. Additional colors may be used are: Brown pink (or stil de grain), asphaltum, yellow ocher, massicot (lead-tin yellow), and “blew” (azurite, lazurite or indigo). This palette is almost identical to that prescribed by Roger de Piles some 40 years earlier.

Figure VI. Coloritto

Figure VI. Portrait of a young woman

Le Blon presents nine figures, two reproduced above in Coloritto, consisting of about forty pages in all. These figures, numbered I to VIIII, show, first of all, the three intermediate color plates that show the progress to obtaining the final print in the color of the portrait of a young woman (unidentified). The five subsequent figures (V to VIIII) show the reproduction of the palette in apposition to two engraved portraits comprising, according to Le Blon, on the one hand, “vermilion for the main dye” and on the other hand, “red earth for the General dyeing.” Le Blon thus enumerates the degrees of light and shadow: “Mezzotints,” “Demishades,” “Reflexions,” “The Three Different Degrees of the Great Shadow,” “The key,” “The Shining,” “The two different shining,” “Turning off,” and “Roundings.”

Gautier's Palette

Gautier’s Palette

Jacques Fabien Gautier, a pupil of Le Blon, used his color printing system to further his theories about color and bolster his invention claims. Le Blon had included a palette in Coloritto. Gautier argued that Le Blon’s three primitives produced an insufficient number to replicate all the colors found in paintings. He used the same palette form to advance his system in Mercure de France. His colors are:

A. Vine, ivory, or smoke black
B. Ultramarine or Prussian blue
C. Light ochre
D. Vermilion (or Cinnabar)
E. Lead white

Together, they will make another seven of the most important painters’ colors.

EC. Naples yellow
AC. Roman or dark ochre
BD. Venetian red or carmine
AD. Red-brown
ABC. Verona (green) earth
BCD. Cologne earth
ACD. Burnt ochre or English ochre
ABCD. Raw umber

Where to Buy

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Le Blon, J.C. 1725. Coloritto, Or, The Harmony of Colouring in Painting: Reduced to Mechanical Practice, Under Easy Precepts and Infallible Rules, Together with Some Colour’d Figures, in Order to Render the Said Precepts and Rules Intelligible Not Only to Painters, But Even to All Lovers of Painting, Publisher not identified, Digital facsimile of the book from the Linda Hall Library: http://lhldigital.lindahall.org/cdm/ref/collection/color/id/23168

Jacob Christoph Le Blon, or Jakob Christoffel Le Blon, (2 May 1667–16 May 1741) was a painter and engraver from Frankfurt who invented the system of three- and four-color printing, using an RYBK color model similar to the modern CMYK system. He used the mezzotint method to engrave three or four metal plates (one each per printing ink) to make prints with a wide range of colors. His methods helped form the foundation for modern color printing.

“Systeme Practique des Couleurs du Sr. Gautier,” Mercure de France, no. 1008 (July 1749), after page 168.

Jacques Fabien Gautier d’Agoty (1716–1785) was a French anatomist, painter, and printmaker. D’Agoty was born in Marseille and became a pupil of the painter and engraver Jacob Christoph Le Blon, with whom he became a rival for the title of the invention of a method of a color-printing method based on etching and mezzotint engraving. He later exploited this process with his four sons: significantly, he published a journal that included color-printed images.