Artist Palette Profiles: JMW Turner

So far, I have mostly profiled contemporary artists in the Artist Profile series, except for my first entry of Monet; but I’m on an art history kick after reading Watercolor: A History by Marie Salé. One of my favorite painters profiled in that book is the English painter JMW Turner (1775-1851), who is perhaps better known for oils but whose watercolors are fresh and lively.

Turner was well-known for his use of yellow-orange to paint the many changing shades of sunlight; the modern color Turner’s Yellow (PR216) evokes his love of yellow, though it’s actually named for its inventor.

‘Turner’s Yellow’ is made with pigments to closely resemble the Gamboge and King’s Yellow frequently used by [JMW] Turner to capture the sun’s light, although the name actually comes from James Turner, the chemist who patented Lead Chloride Oxide in 1781. 

Colour Story: Turner’s Yellow [Winsor & Newton]

King’s Yellow initially meant Orpiment (PY39), a highly toxic bold yellow made from arsenic, or later Chrome Yellow (PY34), a less-toxic-but-still-toxic bright/light yellow made from lead. Turner used both, replacing Orpiment with the Chrome Yellow when it became widely available in the early 19th century.

Turner was an enthusiastic adopter of new colors. “Always on the lookout for innovations, Turner developed pigments developed during his era into his palette,” writes Marie Salé in Watercolor: A History. For example, cobalt blue was invented in 1777 and available commercially starting in 1804; Turner adopted it into his palette by 1807. 

For this reason, it’s difficult to narrow down exactly what his “canonical” palette was, but for the purposes of coming up with my own version, I’ll use the list provided by W&N.

Pigments found within Turner’s watercolours include gamboge, quercitron yellow, vermilion, various iron oxides including ochres, umbers and siennas, Indian yellow, green lake, Prussian blue, indigo, cobalt blue, blue verditer and rose madder. He used watercolours in a block form and there is evidence he made some, if not all of them, himself.

Palettes of the Masters: JMW Turner [Winsor & Newton]

Here’s my attempt to put together a modern palette along similar lines.

SlotJMWT HasModern Alternatives
Light/Primary YellowChrome Yellow (PY34)Nickel Azo Yellow (PY150), Hansa Yellow Light (PY3), Lemon Yellow (PY175), Yellow Sophie (PY93), Cadmium Yellow Light/Lemon (PY35), Hansa Yellow Medium (PY97), Imidazolone Yellow (PY154)
Bold/Deep YellowQuercitron Yellow (NY10)Brilliant Hansa Yellow (PY74), Cadmium Yellow Medium (PY35)
Slightly Orangey YellowIndian Yellow (NY20)Indian Yellow hue (PY153), Indian Yellow hue (PY83), Isoindoline Yellow (PY139), Cadmium Yellow Deep (PY35)
Very Orangey YellowGamboge (NY24)Turner’s Yellow (PY216), New Gamboge (PY110/PY97), Isoindolinone Yellow Deep (PY110), Hansa Yellow Deep (PY65)
ScarletVermilion (Cinnabar)Scarlet Lake (PR188), Pyrrol Scarlet (PR255), Cadmium Red Scarlet (PR108)
RoseRose Madder (NR8)Quin Rose (PV19), Quin Magenta (PR122), Alizarin Crimson hue (PV19 or PR179), Carmine (PR176)
Middle BlueCobalt Blue (PB28)Cobalt Blue (PB28) is still around! Also Ultramarine Blue (PB29) or Phthalo Blue RS (PB15).
Granulating BlueBlue Verditer (PB30)Still possible to get this from small makers. Highly granulating middle blue, similar to Cobalt Blue (PB28); also reminds me a bit of Cerulean Blue (PB35). Ultramarine Blue (PB29) is also a solid option for granulation.
Dark BlueIndigo (NB1)Indigo (PB15/PV19/PBk6), Indanthrone Blue (PB60)
Dark Green-BluePrussian Blue (PB27)Prussian Blue (PB27) is still around! Also consider Phthalo Turquoise or Phthalo Blue (either GS or RS).
GreenGreen Lake (not sure what this means)Can’t go wrong with Phthalo Blue GS or YS (PG7 or PG36), or a mixed Sap Green or Hooker’s Green.
OchreYellow Iron Oxide (PY42?)Yellow Ochre (PY42 or PY43), Raw Sienna (PBr7), Naples Yellow Deep (PBr25)
SiennaRed Iron Oxide (PR101?)Transparent Red Oxide (PR101), Indian Red (PR101), Burnt Sienna (PBr7), Light Red (PR102)
UmberBrown Iron Oxide (PBr6?)Mars Brown (PBr6), Transparent Brown Oxide (PR101), Burnt Umber (PBr7), Raw Umber (PBr7)
Turner inspired palette

I’m not sure I was able to do the various yellows justice, since they’re the most crucial, and the pigments are pretty different nowadays. I chose a spread of different types of yellow. Nickel Azo Yellow would also probably have been good, giving more variation in transparency and dispersiveness. 

I considered including Ultramarine in the blues, but I didn’t have any evidence that Turner used it, and Cerulean struck me as being more similar to his Verditer Blue. That said, it should be noted that Ultramarine was extremely expensive in the early 20th century. It was made of genuine Lapis Lazuli, which continues to be a hugely expensive paint (as well as being rather weak). Synthetic ultramarine was invented by Jean-Baptiste Guimet in 1826. Although this was in Turner’s lifespan, evidently French ultramarine, being invented by a Frenchman, was resisted in England initially. 


Coincidentally I found 14 Turner colors, the exact right number for an Art Toolkit palette, and I think it’s very usable. It has all the greatest hits that I love – various primaries, a trio of earth tones, plus dark blue and green. There are more yellows than I’d probably choose on my own, and fewer reds/pinks. Yellow is a very important color for light, and this palette is a good reminder that it’s a color worth paying careful attention to!