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practice of oil painting, solomon jospeh solomon



To resume our painting. If now you feel that you can sit in your saddle and know how to hold your reins, you may begin to trot. Paint from the living model, at first in monochrome. It is wiser to attack your difficulties one by one, until you are accustomed to them.

There is always something disconcerting in painting from the living model, and since the sense of solidity, and subtle modelling, are due to the relation of tones, it is well to cultivate the habit of reducing every part and every colour to its equivalent tone value.

Induce a patient relation or friend to sit for you. A professional model will give you the least trouble, should no one be anxious to sacrifice himself for your welfare. The head of an old person will be less embarrassing than that of a young one.

Study the lighting of heads by Velazquez and Van Dyck. A reproduction of one of them pinned on your easel, above the canvas, might well serve you as a guide. Arrange your sitter in a similar [106] lighting and position, for you could have no better mentor than a good example of either master.

Do not hesitate to hold your brush against your model's face to ascertain its length, and make your study slightly smaller than life.

Draw and then shade in charcoal, and use a dry brush to model with. From time to time place your drawing alongside your sitter, on a level with, and as near as possible to, the face, and go back as far as you can to compare the drawing with nature, through the hand-glass.

My reason for advising you to keep your drawing in a line with the face is to obviate the doubt that often arises when the picture is nearer to one than the sitter, and, on examination in the glass, it appears to be on too large a scale, even though you know it to measure less than life.

Make all corrections while you can in the charcoal stage. Charcoal offers little resistance to a brush, and none whatever to bread. It is reckless in the extreme to put down paint with obvious errors in construction or drawing. Never fear ! there will be perplexities enough to contend with, in every case ; and much correcting in paint is fatal to lucidity.

Set the palette with raw umber, and the softer white, and use turpentine. One painting will not suffice to complete the study, so paint with the idea of going over it at least three or four times.

The instructions given for the painting from the cast will answer here, but the hair, eyes, and local colour [107] will require different treatment when you are working from life.

The flesh and skin are pulpy and transparent, not at all like the plaster of the cast. But at the outset, think only of the main planes, painting the hair and eyes in their middle tones.

The raw umber may not give you all the depth you see, but the pure colour will be deep enough for your present purpose. Additional colours would hamper you. And it is good practice to make the best of restricted materials. When you have laid in the shadows and half-tone, the lighter and darker passages in the hair and eyes, and have translated the local colour of the cheeks, ears, mouth, and so on, into their corresponding tone value, look to the edges, against the back-ground. Your half-closed eyes will discover for you the parts of the outline which tend to lose themselves in the background. Lose and find the outline to rid the edges of any sense of hardness, and so suggest the turning towards the planes beyond. Take care not to soften the outline away all through, or woolliness will result, and the light and solidity will suffer. While the paint of the setting as well as that of the flesh is wet, little softening of the lighter parts of the outline is necessary.

Let us take two extreme examples of the treatment [108] of outline in paint. The work of Carlo Dolci is an instance of over-modelling. It therefore lacks solidity, is fluffy, and has no light playing over the surface of the planes which are no less over-graduated.

With Velazquez, on the other hand, the edges are not so completely lost ; the planes are distinct ; and light plays over the surfaces.

In the treatment of the hair against the forehead, the same discrimination is necessary, or the hair may look like a wig.

Mark the quality of the skin that covers the bones of the forehead and the bridge of the nose, and the contrasted pulpiness of the more mobile flesh that is free of the bone.

Should the sitter be wearing any white material round the neck or shoulders, see that the value of your flesh colours contiguous to such white passages is by contrast right in general tone. The lower planes of the cheek, as well as of the chin, receding as they sometimes do from the light, are more often than not quite low in tone. The white material itself varies also according to its being parallel to or receding from the source of light.

Be careful in modelling round the eyes to preserve the globular feeling beneath the lids, and to realise something of the liquid quality of the eyes themselves.

If your study appears, on examination in the glass, to be fairly well constructed and painted [109] thinly enough to show the grain of the canvas, and you wish to take it up again, use your palette knife sparingly just to lighten the darks of the background, hair, and shadows. Should any objectionable hardness or thinness be apparent, soften with a large dry brush, and so prepare for the next sitting. Should this be the following day, place the canvas near the stove. Being thinly painted, it will, if kept warm, in all probability be sufficiently dry.

Before attempting to work again on the study, examine it carefully beside the model. Your fresh eye will detect any errors in the proportion or construction. Look to it that the map of light and shade be correct, and should you find it necessary to make alterations, such as increasing the width of the face, which should cut further into the background, or change any shadow passages into lighter ones, take your penknife and scrape away the dark paint before making corrections in colour. At this stage the penknife makes an excellent drawing instrument.

Some parts of the study may perhaps dry "dead." Before oiling them out, breathe on the canvas ; and afterwards wipe off the linseed or poppy oil with a rag. Poppy oil, by the way, dries more slowly than the other oils.

Now repeat the process of the first day, covering the whole with wet paint afresh, using the first painting merely as a guide, as so many points of departure. Do not be tempted to leave any [110] of the underlying tones uncovered. The whole of the surface is to be a new one, otherwise there will be no scope for freedom of brushwork, and the general result will be thin, dry, and poor.

Endeavour to intensify the character, strengthen the drawing, and approach still more closely the tone values of the parts, while keeping the lights clear and the whole bathed in light.

When M. Léon Bonnat was asked by a pupil who thought he had completed his study what he was to do next, his reply was : " Make it more like." "And then?" asked the pupil. "Then make it still more like ! " was the retort.

It is given to few men, even accomplished masters, to be able to realise the character of their sitters in one, two, or even three attempts. And the student must be more exacting than the master, or he will never be a master.

Above all things, value your work in the making but lightly. Be bold to efface and renew, and take encouragement from the thought that you may learn more from honest failure than from mild success.



To avoid reiteration, I may as well go on to describe the method of preparing a monochrome for subsequent colouring. The preceding exercise represents the first stage. Briefly, then, the study or picture should, as far as it goes, be completed in raw umber and white, with turpentine as a vehicle-with this difference, that the whole is to be painted several tones lighter than nature, as a fully toned study such as you will have just done would appear if a semi-transparent paper were laid over it.

When that stage pf the work is completed satisfactorily and is dry, the next will be to paint, with as much freedom as you can command, the highest lights with stiff white; the shadows with a mixture of Indian red and ivory black; the greys and half-tones with a combination of these colours and white, modified, as nature suggests, with cobalt or a very little emerald oxide of chromium, covering the whole of the first thin raw umber painting with a new skin of paint. Begin with a fluid mixture of the middle tone, always higher in tone than nature, yet relatively just; for you [112] must bear in mind that in completing this preparation you are mentally extracting the red and yellow colours, and translating what would be left in nature, if these two colours were not present.

When this grisaille is quite dry, then glaze and scumble, with oil at first, and, when you have gained sufficient mastery, with varnish and oil mixed, the yellow and red tones as they occur, much as you would tint an engraving with water-colours. " Glazing " is a term which is applied in oil-painting to a transparent coat of colour. "Scumbling" is a semi-opaque painting through which the underlying painting makes itself felt. When employed over a darker ground it tends to coldness. Thus often a grey bloom is obtainable. Examples of its use are indicated later on in remarks on the work of Rubens and others.

There is much prejudice against this method of glazing and scumbling among modern painters ; and yet some such process was, with but few exceptions, practised by the old masters far more generally than those who have not studied this matter imagine. But of this later ; let it suffice for the moment that I quote the words written by Sir Joshua Reynolds when he was forty-seven. He says : " I am established in my method of painting. The first and second paintings are with oil of copavia (for a medium), the colours being black, ultramarine, and white. The second painting [113] the same. The last with yellow ochre, lake, black, and ultramarine, without white, retouching with a little white and other colours."

We have here on his authority the materials and general principles of their use, which in his hands produced such fine results. He obviously used his final colours with reference to the effect that was beneath them ; and in the same way the monochrome ground, the underlying greys, with the idea before him of a subsequent fuller colouring to be superimposed, and on this account high enough in key to allow for the warmer tints, reducing the whole to the approximate tone of nature.

You might well ask why I have suggested a modification of Sir Joshua's recipe. If my readers were Sir Joshuas, I would not dare; but I have repeatedly insisted on the extreme difficulty one has to overcome the moral influence of what is already under one's eye. In most hands, the black and blue underground would lead to a cold blackness throughout. This is the main objection to "grisaille" ; but it is to be overcome by approaching fuller colour by degrees. And when this trouble is mastered, the result is preferable to most direct colour paintings. Besides, the grisaille preparation varies with the temperament of the painter.

Pure glazing, when the lights are high in nature, may lower them overmuch. The addition of a little white with the warm colours, rendering [114] them slightly opaque, obviates the loss of brilliancy, as well as the appearance of staininess sometimes left by a glaze.

Experience with this, as with all things, is a necessity.



IT will be as well now to proceed to indicate to you the painting of flesh in direct colour (à prima); and that done I shall endeavour to compare the two systems. A better lesson may be learnt from a comparative criticism than from a separate elaboration of either.

There is indeed little to add to the instructions given in the chapter on painting from the life in monochrome. You have but to substitute toned colour for uncoloured tone.

Set your palette with two whites, yellow ochre, light red, vermilion, rose madder, cobalt, emerald, oxide of chromium, raw and burnt umber, and ivory black, with spirits of turpentine and linseed oil. For the first painting turpentine alone is perhaps preferable. I will explain why. Much oil darkens the colour and renders the surface after a few paintings somewhat soapy; turpentine dries "dead," and leaves the paint slightly absorbent, so that subsequent paintings with oil or varnish are less apt to shine unduly.

[116] After drawing and so on, and then outlining with a thin pencilling of raw umber, lay in the background thinly, but of the colour and tone of the existing setting in nature. This first layer you will scrape off with your palette knife, with perhaps all the rest, should the pores of the canvas be filled up and the study not to your satisfaction. You need not be disheartened if you are told that it is hardly likely to be completed, if a serious study, at a first attempt; knowledge of your sitter will have been gained, and the tone and colour approached more nearly with each succeeding day's work. Now mix up on your palette the middle flesh colour. If slightly toned with grey-that is to say, something less pure than the clear carnation, as is so often the case- be careful not to overdo the greyness at the outset, or the purity of the colour will suffer. You will probably not "hit" this middle colour closely enough on the white canvas ; it may be either too pink or too yellow. Persevere with it, and then leave it for a few minutes and come back to it with a fresh eye, the better to judge and correct any false note in it. It is the key to the whole colour scheme, and therefore of the utmost importance.

Next, or better still, about the same time, paint the mass in its general colour of the hair, and any white note that occurs about the neck, and very thinly over the rest of the canvas. Then take up the darkest shadows, thus securing the [117] salient passages of the drawing and the higher lights. In doing this, think less of the fact that you are indicating features than that you are modelling the head as a whole in its protruding and receding planes. These three tone colours should roughly suggest the main modelling of the face. In taking the hair further do not attempt to separate hairs ; treat the whole simply as you would silk or satin, just shapes of shadows, middle colour and lights, matching them in their absolute relation to the flesh. Then the lower flesh tones, preserving the shape of masses, and model the features, keeping all wet together.

Having thus covered the whole face, before elaborating, look to the colour-quality of each part. You may find some difficulty in deciding the colour tendency of the flesh shadows. Compare them with the shadows of the hair. The quality and tendency of colour, whether determined or undetermined, is but the outcome of proximity to others ; or, to put it more simply, every colour mass is the complement of its neighbour.

Soften the hair into the forehead, the outline into the background, and so on, but very sparingly, or freshness and the character of the brush-work may go. The frank touches are of great value ; they give vitality, and like ruts in a road are evidence of moving life.

The main thing to remember in painting is [118] never to put down two touches where one would suffice. The student invariably loses valuable time and wastes his energy in looking for little nothings and subtleties that will not repay him, and which make for "smallness" and an overlaboured result. Use brushes that are awkwardly large ; practice will enable you to manipulate them. They will sweep up the unnecessary detail and influence your selection of really telling touches. Above all, assure a homogeneous effect-the appearance of one skin.

In between the sittings, go and look at heads by Velazquez and Van Dyck; and from Frans Hals learn the force of shorthand strokes and vivacity of handling.


In comparing the two methods of which I have just written, we must remember that the "grisaille " method has endured throughout the ages ; that painting à prima is comparatively modern, and was rarely resorted to by painters of old for elaborate work.

A rich impasto, variety of texture, the beauty of underlying grey tones, a lasting luminosity, a sense of oneness, are the distinguishing characteristics of the "monochrome." Vitality and spontaneity are perhaps more closely associated with direct painting.

Titian, in his portraiture, makes his appeal to [119] the lovers of the reposeful and the dignified; Frans Hals's portraits teem with vitality.

The qualities of each master, like their methods and their temperaments, are diametrically opposed.

Let us analyse the technical difficulties of the two manners.

The tendency in colouring the white and grey preparation is to under, rather than fully, colour the carnations.

Owing to this tendency, we see in many of Gainsborough's finest portraits a certain lack of colour fulness. To avoid this effect, many masters in some way gilded their pictures finally with a glaze of rich yellow or coloured varnish. Titian is said to have warmed his flesh with asphaltum, which is of a golden hue when applied thinly.

The main difficulty in painting direct is just to "hit" the general colour which may tend to yellow or pink, or look chalky where the lights are not sufficiently warmed. Then, too, the greys, except in the ablest hands, cannot equal the transparent quality of prepared work. They are frequently either too violet or too green; and, when much insisted on, too leaden. The grey tones are by far the severest test of a colourist's capacity. The one great advantage of monochrome is, that one may play with the warm glazes over the dry preparation until the desired general hue is obtained; and in case of failure the glazes can be removed, whilst the preparation is left intact for a more favourable opportunity. [120] Moreover, should it be found necessary to paint solidly over it, the drawing and tone values are already found, and the body of white and light greys will help to keep the overpainting fresh and luminous. In such a case, varnish slightly diluted with linseed oil is effective as a medium.

Beautiful qualities are, of course, obtained by the direct method in capable hands. But these hands must be very capable, for any retouching will mar the essential characteristics of this method ; and it is given to few to achieve a result which implies swiftness, dexterity, sureness, and just observation of colour, tone, and character in every touch. For this reason, among others, the student will be well advised to prepare for his final effort by stages, and to overcome by degrees the intricacies of his art.


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