Old Masters Palette: Peter Paul Rubens

Jacques Maroger claims that Rubens limited his colors to little more than brown, black, white, and red. He states, “But from a distance, one has the illusion of perceiving blues, greens, violets... The greatest colorists have always obtained the maximum brilliance and vibration with a minimum of colors.”

Hippopotamus Hunt (1615-1616) Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens, Hippopotamus Hunt (1615–1616), oil on linen, 248 × 321 cm, Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Accurate as the latter part of his statement may be, it is doubtful that Rubens’ palette consisted only of these colors. According to Hilaire Hiler, a study of the pigments found in a trunk from Rubens’ studio, now preserved in the Antwerp Museum (presumably this is now the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen or Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp), reveals the following:

Lead white

Yellow ochre
Yellow lake

Red ochre

Genuine ultramarine [lapis lazuli]
Azur d'Allemagne (cobalt)*

Vert azur (oxide of cobalt)*
Terre verte [green earth]
Malachite green

Burnt sienna

Ivory black**

It is most probable that Rubens did not use all of these colors at any time.

The technical ability of such artists as Rubens and Rembrandt to obtain a broad spectrum of colors from a limited palette through mixtures of pigments is nothing short of amazing. For example, Rubens used a technique to obtain a violet or purple color, a pigment that did not exist in his time, making a bluish tone by mixing wood charcoal with lead white and with madder lake or cochineal lake, creating the desired violet or purple color.

In his book, Hiler further repeats the text from Vibert: “There is a trunk in the Museum, at Antwerp, which contains the powdered colours used by Rubens. The lead white, the ultramarine, the madders, and the earth colours are in a good state of preservation, but the yellow lake, the vermilion, and the vegetable greens have faded almost entirely faded away.”

Interestingly, Vibert’s account differs in the present state of these pigments: “White lead, cinnabar (native vermilion), lapis, charcoals, madder lakes, earths and ochres have resisted very well; but buckthorns, like all yellows, reds and vegetable greens, has more or less disappeared.”

Peter Paul Rubens The Eudcation of Marie Medici

Peter Paul Rubens, The Education of Marie de Medicis (circa 1623–1625), oil on canvas, 394 cm × 295 cm (12.9 ft × 116.1 in), Louvre Museum, INV 1771 and MR 962

Rubens Color Palette

The color palette of Peter Paul Rubens in detail of The Education of Marie de Medicis

Recent Analysis of Pigments Used by Rubens

A more recent analysis of Rubens's paintings has found other pigments not known until the middle of the 20th century. In the following, we discuss these pigments, now well established. 

In the early 17th century, particularly in Antwerp, dry pigments were sold by apothecaries who provided these materials under the regulatory oversight of the Mercers Guild. The mixing of pigments with binders was a task typically delegated to studio assistants, highlighting the collaborative nature of art production during this period.

The palette available to artists like Rubens was diverse, spanning both natural minerals and synthetic pigments. Their choice of pigments, known for their high purity, not only ensured vibrant and saturated colors but also contributed to the opacity and coverage of the paint film. Such meticulous selection underscored the importance of pigment quality in achieving the desired visual effects in painting.

Among the pigments, earth tones such as umbers, ochers, and siennas were prevalent and economically accessible. These pigments provided a wide spectrum of yellows, reds, and browns. Rubens, in particular, favored rich brown pigments like Cassel or Cologne earth and hematite for their depth-enhancing qualities in shadows and outlines, which played a crucial role in the dynamism of his figural compositions.

The advent of synthetic pigments broadened the artists' palette, introducing pigments like lead white and lead-tin yellow, celebrated for their textural qualities when mixed with oil, thus facilitating the creation of impasto effects. Conversely, the more costly pigments such as vermilion, natural ultramarine, and azurite were often reserved for specific compositional elements or applied as fine layers atop less expensive materials, demonstrating a strategic approach to material use that balanced cost with visual impact.

The category of colorants, derived from natural dyes and requiring a solid substrate to become usable in painting, introduced vibrant lakes into the artist's palette. These lakes, ranging from deep purples to brilliant reds, were pivotal in achieving translucent glazing effects, exemplified by the use of cochineal (carmine lake) and madder (madder lake) by Rubens.

Peter Pual Rubens, Samson and Delilah

Peter Paul Rubens, Samson and Delilah (c. 1609–10), oil on wood, 185 cm × 205 cm (73 in × 81 in), National Gallery (London)The Binding Media of Rubens Paintings

The Binding Medium of Rubens

The transition to drying oils like linseed and walnut as binders marked a significant evolution in paint media, attributing a rich, luminous quality to the paintings. The choice of oil, often influenced by concerns over discoloration, reveals a nuanced understanding of material properties and their long-term effects on artwork appearance. Rubens's preference for walnut oil, especially in light flesh tones, reflects a deliberate strategy to mitigate yellowing, underscoring the artist's foresight and meticulousness in material selection.

Scientific analyses have further revealed the complexities of Rubens's media, revealing combinations of linseed and walnut oils with resinous materials, such as Venice turpentine. This blend not only enhanced the workability of the paint but also served as a precaution against the yellowing of oil paints, showcasing the interplay between artistic practice and material science in the quest for enduring beauty in art.

An examination of Samson and Delilah, found the use of heat-bodied linseed oil mixed with pine resin within the paint layers, thus signifying a deliberate and sophisticated approach to material composition in the crafting of these artworks. The incorporation of oil and resin not only influenced the texture and luminosity of the paint but also played a crucial role in the durability and visual depth of the paintings.

Peter Paul Rubens provided further insights into the practices of the time through his dialogue with Theodore de Mayerne. Rubens advocated for the rapid grinding of pigments with turpentine, positing it as a superior method compared to the use of oil of spike lavender. This preliminary grinding phase, essential for dispersing pigments before grinding with the oil medium, underscores the nuanced understanding of material properties and their impact on the paint's behavior and longevity.

Moreover, Rubens's technique of dipping the brush with turpentine to blend colors on the palette reveals a sophisticated manipulation of mediums to achieve desired effects in paint application. This practice not only facilitated a smoother blending of hues but also prevented the undesirable 'dying' or 'sinking' of colors, a phenomenon where the vibrancy of the paint diminishes upon drying. Such insights into Rubens's methodology not only shed light on his technical prowess but also on the broader practices of the period, where artists continuously innovated within the constraints of available materials to enhance the expressiveness and resilience of their work.

These historical practices highlight a period of rich experimentation and understanding, where artists like Rubens navigated the complexities of material science to achieve works of enduring beauty and significance. The strategic use of mixtures like heat-bodied linseed oil and pine resin, along with the nuanced application of solvents like turpentine, exemplifies the confluence of artistry and chemistry that defines the legacy of 17th-century Flemish painting.

Peter Paul Rubens Color Palette

The table provides the actual colors used by Peter Paul Rubens throughout his artistic career, and that were commonly used by European artists of the 17th century. Where the genuine pigments in oil color are not available a modern substitute is provided for reference.

Peter Paul Rubens Palette Oil Color or Pigment Modern Substitute
Synthetic Inorganic Pigments
Lead white Lead White #1 Oil Paint  
Lead-tin yellow Lead-Tin Yellow Oil Paint  
Vermilion Vermilion Oil Paint Cadmium Red Light Oil Paint
Smalt Smalt Pigment  
Azur d'Allemagne [blue verditer]    
Natural Inorganic (Mineral) Pigments
Natural ultramarine [lapis lazuli] Lazurite (Lapis Lazuli) Oil Paint  
Azur d'Allemagne [azurite] Azurite Azurite Pigment
Vert azur [malachite]  
Terre verte [green earth] Nicosia Green Earth Oil Paint  
Natural Earth Pigments
Yellow ochre Blue Ridge Yellow Ocher Oil Paint  
Red ochre Venetian Red Oil Paint  
Burnt Sienna French Burnt Sienna Oil Paint  
Raw umber Cyprus Raw Umber Dark Oil Paint  
Burnt umber French Burnt Umber Oil Paint  
Cassel earth Cassel Earth Oil Paint  
Natural Organic Pigments
Yellow lake [stil de grain or buckthorn berry lake]    
Madder lake Madder Lake Oil Paint Alizarin Crimson Oil Paint
Ivory black [bone black] Bone Black Oil Paint  

Frequently Asked Questions

What technique did Rubens use?

Rubens is renowned for his dynamic, expressive style, characterized by vigorous brushwork and a masterful handling of light and shadow. He employed techniques like chiaroscuro to enhance the dramatic effect of his compositions, often using a wet-on-wet technique to blend colors directly on the canvas, creating a sense of immediacy and fluidity.

What is the painting style of Rubens?

Rubens' painting style is quintessentially Baroque, characterized by emotional intensity, rich, vibrant color, and dramatic contrast. His work exhibits dynamic composition, with figures often in motion, embodying the Baroque ideals of movement, sensuality, and theatricality. Rubens' style also showcases his expertise in depicting textures and details, making his paintings highly immersive and visually captivating.

What is the main thematic feature of the painting by Rubens?

Rubens' paintings are renowned for their complex, often religious or mythological themes, imbued with emotional depth and moral complexity. A significant thematic feature of his work is the celebration of the human form, depicted with a sense of vitality and exuberance. His art frequently explores themes of power, transformation, and redemption, reflecting the turbulent socio-political context of his time.

How did Rubens use color?

Rubens used color with extraordinary skill to enhance the emotional impact and visual richness of his work. He strategically employed a vibrant palette to create a sense of depth and volume, making his figures seem to emerge from the canvas. Rubens' use of color not only emphasized the dramatic intensity of his scenes but also highlighted the textures and details of garments, flesh, and landscapes, contributing to the overall vitality characteristic of his work.


* Faber Birren repeats the list in Hilaire Hiler: They both list “Azur d” Allemagne’ as cobalt and “vert azur” as cobalt oxide in Rubens’ palette. We are not sure why Hiler associates these names with cobalt pigments. Azur d’Allemagne (literally, blue from Germany) is a name usually applied to the mineral azurite. However, one Internet reference identifies it as a synthetic pigment from Saxony cobalt ore, usually associated with smalt. Vert azur (literally, green blue) may refer to malachite or verdigris. Azurite, malachite, and verdigris are copper pigments that do not contain cobalt and were commonly used in Rubens’ time.

** Although genuine ivory black was available in Rubens’ time, wood and bone charcoal were more common. Recent papers on the subject of black pigments show that artists of this period made extensive use of many different black pigments, such as coal, black iron oxide (magnetite), etc.


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Birren, Faber (1965). History of Color in Painting. New York: Reinhold Publishing, p. 44.

Brown, Christopher (1998). Rubens's Landscapes: Making and Meaning, London: National Gallery London.

Bruce-Gardiner, Robert and Helen Braham (1988). “Rubens's Landscape by Moonlight”, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 130, no. 1025, pp. 579–596.

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Longnon, Jean; Raymond Cazelles. Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry: The Book of Hours. http://www.christusrex.org/www2/berry/hours.html

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Plesters, Joyce (1983). "Samson and Delilah’: Rubens and the Art and Craft of Painting on Panel." National Gallery Technical Bulletin (London) 7, pp. 30–50.

Roy, Ashok (1999). “Rubens’s Peace and War”, National Gallery Technical Bulletin (London) 20, pp. 89–95.

Saunders, Linnaea (2005). “A Rubens Portrait Re-examined”, AIC Paintings Specialty Group Postprints 18 (Minneapolis: June 8-13, 2005), pp. 76–83.

Stols-Witlox, Maartje, Tiarna Doherty and Barbara Schoonhoven (2008) "Reconstructing seventeenth-century streaky imprimatura layers used on panel painting" in Preparation for Painting, the Artist's Choice and its Consequences. (London: Archetype Publications), pp. 79–89.

Vibert, J. G. (1892). The Science of Painting. 8th Ed. London: Percy Young. p. 58.