For 2000 years Apelles of Cos (c.370-c. 320 BCE) was known as the greatest of painters. Praised for his grace and sensuality – he was not only Alexander the Great’s exclusive portrait painter, but was the single greatest influence on what we know as the Renaissance and Baroque.
Apelles was acknowledged as the principal advocate of the ancient tetrachrome palette, from which a wide range of colours, including all flesh-tints (pale to swarthy), could be mixed. Pliny writes of Apelles applying varnish to his paintings that ‘caused a radiance in the brightness of all the colours and protected the painting from dust and dirt’. The Alexander Mosaic at Pompeii is thought to have been copied from a painting by Apelles. Other notable artists of this time were Aëtion, Melanthius and Nikomachus. Of such artists as these, Pliny remarked, in Book 37.12 of his Natural History: Quattuor coloribus solis immortalia illa opera fecere (‘Four colours alone make their work immortal’).
Albrecht Durer was known as the “German Apelles”. Botticelli bragged he was Apelles reincarnated and repeated his compositions. Rembrandt, late in life, adopted the four color “Apelles palette” striving for his graceful harmony. And Titian unabashedly recreated Apelles’ “Armor-bearer” which now hangs at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The Old Masters were proud to be “behind the times”, unoriginal, and earnest pupils of Apelles.
Today modern painters such as Norwegian painter, Odd Nerdrum, also work with this classical technique.
The basic constituents of the ancient four-colour palette were therefore Red Ochre, Yellow Ochre, Chalk White (Gypsum White) and Vine Black (Blue Black). A notable feature of the palette was the absence not only of blue but also of green and purple, and all the brighter pigments. As a classical root of Western painting, this four-colour selection has been much more enduring than has generally been acknowledged.