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Portrait of the Young Pietro Bembo, Raphael (1506)

Work / Art

“Painterly Pantones”: Photographer Edith Young on her art history-inspired series of colour palettes

“All my life I’ve pursued the perfect red”, sighed Diane Vreeland, once editor-in-chief of Vogue, in the 2011 documentary, The Eye Has To Travel. “I can never get painters to mix it for me. It’s exactly as if I’d said, ‘I want Rococo with a spot of Gothic in it and a bit of Buddhist temple’ – they have no idea what I’m talking about. About the best red is to copy the colour of a child’s cap in any Renaissance portrait.” Hearing these words, in an indie cinema in Providence, Rhode Island, photographer Edith Young – “struck by this inexact and somewhat ludicrous idea of perfection in colour” – had a lightbulb moment.

At the time, she was studying photography at the Rhode Island School of Design, with a minor in History of Art and Visual Culture. And whilst it’s the former she focuses on now, she’s an art history buff at heart, having taken additional courses in the subject at Brown University, as well as internships at various museums, before settling into fashion photography.

The resulting project is a series of “painterly pantones”, a selection of art history-inspired colour palettes, released as prints (which, if you think about it, champions other artists’ creativity through… yet more creativity – right up our street), all as brilliantly specific as the quote that inspired them. By creating typologies of colour and text, Edith identifies humorous and illuminating themes throughout artists’ careers or specific periods of time. The end result? Edition prints, which are both intensely pleasurable on the eye and educational, for you to frame and hang on your wall.

The first was released while she was still at RISD and, as you might have guessed, was a selection of reds in homage to Vreeland, titled The Reds of the Red Caps in Renaissance Portraits. Since then, she’s released 8 more, all with the admirable aim “to make ideas about art history accessible and compelling to a viewer who might not know about the subject otherwise.” They include all the colours of the fruits in Caravaggio’s Boy with a Basket of Fruit, as well as The Blues of David Hockney’s Pools, Lucian Freud’s Ex-Wives, The Blush of Madame de Pompadour’s Cheeks and John Currin’s Blondes.

Talking It’s Nice That through her creative process, Edith says it’s the research stage that takes the most of her time, especially when it comes to picking the initial subject matter – as it’s crucial they embody the same tongue-in-cheek approach. “An element of irreverence or humour in art history is a guiding principle, something I’m always looking for, and I look for a subject or a title that may teach someone something new about art history or pique their curiosity to look into it further. I am pretty rigorous about the ideas that I eventually make into a palette — it needs to be a zinger.”

From there, she turns her focus to finding the paintings she wants to include, pulling the exact colour from a museum-quality reproduction of the work, and putting together the typology that will comprise the final palette.

The project – and, by extension, Edith herself – is “committed to showing viewers new ways of thinking about artists’ oeuvres and larger arcs in art history”, all with a sense of humour. Essentially, it’s an artistic side-hustle slash art history dissertation – and we love it.

Not content with that already hefty undertaking, the first release was managed entirely independently. Edith fulfilled over 200 print orders from her bedroom, particularly impressive given that she’s full time photographer and photography editor at the New York-based, internationally-loved, editorial platform Man Repeller. A pantone-perfect fit, given how in tune the site is with Edith’s own quirky, irreverent approach. Led by the wonderfully absurd, wry, self-mocking editor-in-chief, Leandra Medine Cohen, the team is a reliable fount of “weird, new ideas”.

Edith, you’ll be pleased to hear, is no longer bedroom-bound, chained to her inkjet printer; demand became too high (hoorah!) and she now has a fulfilment centre involved with the logistics. Just in time for today’s launch of three new palettes – Tonya Harding’s Figure Skating Costumes, and two inspired by the artist and ornithologist John James Audubon. Get ‘em while they’re hot – the last batch sold out as quickly as you can say The roseate bills in John James Audubon’s The Birds of America: 1827-1838.

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The Reds of the Red Caps in Renaissance Portraits, Edith Young

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The yellows of the bills in John James Audubon’s The Birds of America: 1827-1838, Edith Young

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The Blues of David Hockney’s Pools, Edith Young

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Lucian Freud’s Ex-Wives, Edith Young

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The Blush of Madame de Pompadour’s Cheeks, Edith Young