palette (n.) 1620s, “flat thin tablet used by an artist to lay and mix colors,” from French palette, from Old French palete “small shovel, blade” (13c.) diminutive of pale “shovel, blade,” from Latin pala “spade, shoulder blade,” probably from PIE *pak-slo-, from root *pag- (see pact). Transferred sense of “colors used by a particular artist” is from 1882.
My art history students quite regularly confuse this with both ‘palate’ and ‘pallet’ – the notion of homonyms is lost on them – perhaps the Twitterverse mitigates against distinctions in spelling? It’s all a confusion of sounds and painful abbreviations. The word itself derives from the French word for ‘blade’, alluding to the thin, flat, portable mixing surface employed by artists – and only in the nineteenth century (as one sees above) did it become synonymous (all these lovely ‘y’ words) with the range of colours used by a particular artist – as in ‘Titian’s palette’ which evokes that clear, crystalline cerulean blue, a sky against which myths unfurl and gods quietly fall in love.
I took a snap of this wheel of raw colours set out at the new AGO exhibition ‘Revealing the Renaissance’, a show of startlingly beautiful Trecento Italian paintings.