During the Renaissance, numerous paintings were composed in few colors. Arthur Pope wrote of “a brown pigment, like burnt sienna, a yellow ocher and a blue. ...A Venetian red, instead of burnt sienna, might be used to extend the palette down to red-orange; Indian red, or even vermilion, might be used for occasional small accents, such as in the figures, without altering the general scheme.” (Pope, 1929) In many cases, no blue was used, and even green might be omitted.
The golden tonality of the Venetian school and a few of Rembrandt’s paintings display a limited palette consisting of little, if anything, more than black, white, red, orange, yellow, and brown. Yet illusion did wonders in the total effect. Pope writes, “it is common in such painting to make a neutral, obtained by a mixture of white and black pigments, tell as relatively blue. In this case, a mixture of red and neutral will tell as violet. Although expressing relatively warm and cool colors, many paintings of the Renaissance contain no positively cool tones at all. No green or blue pigment are employed in producing them.”
Venus of Urbino, Titian, 1538, oil on canvas, 119 x 165 cm, Uffizi, Florence
It is most unlikely that the Venetians did not have blue or green pigments. Perhaps the golden tones of their works were so highly valued that these pigments were not often used. Whatever the case, the palette of Tiziano Vecellio (better known as Titian), as recorded by his pupil, Giacomo Palma, had nine pigments (Birren, 1965):
Lazurite (lapis lazuli)
Red madder lake
Birren, Faber. 1965. History of Color in Painting. New York: Reinhold Publishing Corp.
Pope, Arthur. 1929. An Introduction to the Language of Drawing and Painting. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.