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(From 'Notes On The Science Of Picture Making'; by Sir C.J. Holmes, Director of the National Gallery, London, Sometime Slade Professor of Fine Art, Oxford University; Chatto & Windus, London, 1927)
OIL PAINTING: THE MIXED METHOD
WHAT I have termed the mixed method of oil painting, depending in part upon the effect of transparent or translucent pigment upon a light ground, and in part upon the use of opaque pigment, is the process of oil painting most commonly employed by the old masters. The proportions of transparent and opaque elements may vary very considerably. Sometimes the transparent element preponderates so much as to approach the Flemish method closely. At others the pigment may be of such thickness and substance as to approach the border line of universal opacity.
Between these extremes we shall find the mature work of Titian, Tintoret, and Veronese; of Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Hals, and most of the Dutch masters of genre; of Velasquez and Goya, and Whistler; of Reynolds, Hogarth, Wilson, Crome, Constable and the youthful Turner; of Daumier and Delacroix; of Millet, and the painters of Barbizon, in fact of almost every painter from the latter part of the sixteenth century to the latter half of the nineteenth. Historically the process is an extension of transparent oil painting, and our study of it must begin with Titian, upon whose practice the style, not only of his Italian successors, but also that of the chief painters of Spain, France, and Northern Europe, for some three centuries, is really founded.
The accounts which have come down to us of Titian's method of work are not quite clear (the writers appear to have confused his earlier and later manners), but it is not impossible, by reading them in connection with his paintings, to recognize the essential features of his system. In his earlier works the whole subject seems first to have been carried out, with some completeness, in transparent brown upon a luminous ground. This first painting seems to have been in tempera, and the ground a white ground like those used for tempera. This monochrome foundation was left to dry thoroughly; then the oil colours were applied, sometimes transparent and sometimes opaque, as the occasion demanded, the tints being frequently softened, spread and blended with the fingers. It would seem that the first colouring was done in broad, flat, map-like masses. The work was then put aside for some considerable time, all excess oil being bleached out by exposure to sunshine. Then the final painting was begun, with scumbles of opaque colour and glazes of transparent colour, each coat being thoroughly dried before the application of the next.
This process produced what are perhaps the most beautiful oil paintings in the world, of which the Bacchus and Ariadne, in the National Gallery, will serve as an example. Two points in connection with it deserve to be noticed. In the first place the transparent brown underpainting was never covered over in the shadows, and opaque pigment, when used at all, was used in thin translucent films. Hence Titian's youthful works retain much of the gem-like beauty of colour that is found in Flemish art, and in his early manhood this quality is still retained; though it is modified in an ever-increasing degree by the cool pearly tones resulting from the rather more generous use of opaque pigment.
Secondly, the perfect drying of each film before the application of the next removed all superfluous oil. Titian's earlier works, in consequence, have retained their brilliancy just as well as the pictures of the early Flemish masters have done, although the amount of oil required was considerable enough to have proved a serious danger, had it not been removed by exposure to sunshine.
In later years Titian discarded this method. Into the reasons of the change we need not inquire. Probably the necessity of getting through the mass of commissions with which he was honoured, possibly too the desire of adding certain new qualities to the art of painting which increased experience prompted, led him to adopt another system of work.
He now took to making his first painting in solid colour, possibly black, white, and red. This preparation was of some thickness both in the lights and' in the shadows. It was carried to such a degree of finish that it was practically a monochrome version of the picture, and was kept in rather a high key. When this preliminary painting was finished and accurate in all its parts, it was dried as before, and then the colours were added by glazing. In the hands of such a great master the method produced noble results; the glazes upon the solid under-paint providing effects of rich, broken colour well adapted to the uncertain vibrant illumination in which Titian's latest subjects are viewed.
Yet, in clearness, freshness, and brilliancy, these works of Titian's old age are undeniably inferior to those of his youth, and their sombre grandeur is only now and then (as in the superb Pietà in the Accademia) a perfect compensation for the vanished brightness. The solid underpainting, even if it were kept very pale, was infinitely less luminous than the older grounds of white gesso, and so reflected much less light through the transparent colour subsequently laid upon it. In practice, it will be found exceedingly difficult to keep this under-painting quite pale. A certain amount of force is needed to separate one tone from another, yet every increase in force of tone implies a corresponding loss of brilliancy in the finished work.
What was a difficulty for Titian was a catastrophe for his successors. Being a great draughtsman, he could represent solid forms by delicate gradations of modelling; they had to represent them by excess of projection. He could, so to speak, model perfectly in low relief; they had to use high relief. He could finish his solid foundation with one or two paintings. and his glazings with one or two more; they arrived at completeness only after many reworkings. Titian's pictures in consequence were painted with comparatively little oil; his successors used a great deal of it. He was careful to dry his pictures thoroughly between every stage; they frequently seem to have neglected this precaution. Titian's work in consequence has usually kept its tone fairly well; the paintings of his successors are commonly too black in the shadows and too yellow in the lighter parts.
By tracing this difference in some detail, we can see clearly why all oil painting which depends upon an elaborate succession of processes is liable to be rather dark at the outset, and to grow darker still with time. Even if the original be in a somewhat light key from the start, the danger is not entirely removed; for the quantity of oil suspended in the substance of the paint will tend, in time, to make the half-tones dull and the pale tones yellow.
Thus it is that the paintings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which have best stood the test of time are generally those which were painted most swiftly, and upon a light ground. A ground of middle tint is convenient for securing unity of tone, and has been the fashion with more than one school and period:
but heaviness and darkness have generally resulted, notably in the case of those who worked on the grounds of strong red which at one time seem to have been in common use.
Yet a strong red ground may sometimes be serviceable. Constable, for many of his paintings, and for the majority of his sketches, employed a foundation of strong reddish-brown. In his case it served both as a connecting link between the detached touches by which his studies were built up, and as a contrast to the cool greens and blues and grays that he favoured, which might otherwise have looked cold. It must be remembered, too, that Constable generally painted with a full brush, so that his pigment was thick enough to prevent the dark foundation from lowering the tones materially. In one of his early experiments on a large scale, the famous White Horse, he did use thin pigment over a strong warm ground, with the result that the picture has lost its first brightness.
Among subsequent artists, Whistler may be mentioned as one who has suffered materially from the same cause. Being attracted by the delightful effect which blue or gray produce when spread thinly upon a dark ground, Whistler frequently used them in this way, with the result that some of his most delightful paintings are darkening steadily year by year, as the ground begins to tell more and more through the delicate films of paint laid over it.
Though Van Dyck learned many of the secrets of his art from the example of Titian and the great Venetians, during the years which he spent in Italy, he could never forget what he had learned in youth from Rubens. His method is a dexterous blend of the transparent painting of Northern Europe with the richness and variety of quality characteristic of the South, much of his work being based upon a foundation of monochrome, usually cool and silvery compared with the glowing monochrome of Rubens, light and sparkling compared with the preparatory work of the Italians. With his practice that of many of the best Dutch masters may be classed, Rembrandt and Hals being two remarkable exceptions.
Rembrandt's practice varies greatly at different periods of his life, but in its most characteristic phase it resembles the practice of Rubens far more nearly than a casual inspection might suggest. Instead, how. ever, of leaving the surface of the canvas to serve as a ground for all but the highest lights, as Rubens did.
Rembrandt first worked out a monochrome sketch in a fiercely modelled impasto containing much solid white. Upon this impasto, when it had dried thoroughly, be appears to have painted his picture, largely in transparent colour, but using opaque colour freely whenever the effect required it. Even the high lights were glazed, and the shadows being painted with rich dark tones, brought his works into a golden harmony, to which any slight yellowing caused by the oily vehicle employed could do no very serious damage.
Velasquez and Hals solved the problem in another way; perhaps accidentally. By painting alla prima, or nearly so, upon light-coloured canvas, they succeeded in freeing themselves to a great extent from the difficulty which attends more elaborate processes of oil painting. One coat of paint, applied thinly and swiftly, may contain a good deal of oil, but the chances are it will contain much less than a picture that is built up by successive stages and repeated glazings, each preceded perhaps by "oiling up." The method of Velasquez is not so uniformly direct as that of Hals, but both agree in approximating to consummately skilful sketching, and are therefore hailed as the pioneers of the direct painting which is the fashion at the present day.
I have pointed out elsewhere ( Burlington Magazine, January 1908, vol. xii. pp. 202 ) that the method of Hals attains its swiftness and spirit by the sacrifice of realism of colour. In the slightly less direct method of Velasquez the colours of nature are matched much more truly; indeed his fame rests on the fact that no one has combined such decision and finality of brush. work with so much naturalism and pictorial good taste Something of these qualities survives in his countryman Goya, through whom Velasquez comes into touch with Whistler and Manet. In the latter we meet with attempts to surprise more garish effects of daylight, and a less dignified humanity, which prepare the way (via Carolus Duran) for Sargent.
In England, the moment the English became painters at all, the value of this direct painting was discovered by Hogarth. His finished pictures are not always completely satisfactory, but his rare oil sketches are among the most perfect products of the English or of any other school. As with Hals and Velasquez, the colour-scheme is modest. The ground is usually a warm gray, upon which Hogarth's touches of white and lilac, and rose pink and dull green, tell with exquisite freshness. Had it not been for the coming of Reynolds a new art might possibly have risen from these beginnings, for which a certain daintiness of touch and sober freshness of colour in one or two of Hogarth's forgotten contemporaries seem to be preparing the way.
Nor can the achievement of Wilson be overlooked. Wilson was originally fired by the example of the degenerate heirs of a Venetian tradition; not the. elaborate tradition of Titian but a later and more direct realism, retaining however something of the old Venetian feeling for colour, which in landscape was represented first by Canaletto, then by the more flimsy yet enchanting Guardi. With Guardi, indeed, Wilson has more in common than with his immediate teachers, Zuccarelli and Vernet, both in his breadth of design and in his feeling for colour.
Wilson's pictures seem almost always to have been painted directly, but he used large quantities of linseed oil as a diluent. In his Italian pictures, as already mentioned, this was usually dried out by the climate; in his English pictures it has too often remained, to the serious detriment of the tone and colour.
The practice of Reynolds put an end, for the time being, to all these direct methods, so far at least as figure-painting was concerned. Though the names of Michelangelo and Raphael dominate his "Discourses," and though his notes show his interest in the great Venetians and in Rubens, his paintings indicate a student of Rembrandt and a worshipper of Correggio. Under the inexhaustible variety of his poses, of his schemes of lighting and of his patterns of colour, these two influences survive. Yet neither the profound concentration of Rembrandt nor the pearly flesh tones of Correggio were enough for Reynolds. To Rembrandt's mystery of shadow he wished to add a Venetian splendour of colour, to Correggio's silvery light he wished to add a richness of substance previously unknown to
oil painting. To solve the first problem he indulged in repeated experiments in glazing with almost every vehicle, safe or unsafe, that is known to the painter's art; to solve the second he resorted to equally dangerous experiments in pictorial cookery.
The result was not so wholly disastrous as his critics have sometimes made out. Many of his pictures certainly are mere ghosts of their former selves; few, and those not always his most interesting works, have stood the ordeal of time without some marked deterioration. Yet occasionally Reynolds did get very near to both his ideals, and even where the dangerous methods he employed have produced their natural result, and left us hardly more than a shadow of some once glowing canvas, the shadow is still more attractive than the successes of his pupils and followers. Indeed we may sometimes suspect that Reynolds did not wholly dislike the pleasant variety of texture, which a moderate craquelure provides.
However, quite apart from the asphaltum with which he sometimes enriched his shadows, and the wax with which he softened and "fattened" his lights, the mere practice of depending for effect upon successive paintings with very liquid colour was, in itself, enough to ensure the ultimate darkening of the shadows. Yet the beauty of Sir Joshua's results blinded his contemporaries to this radical defect, and painting in England for some thirty years was practically buried underneath the "brown sauce," to which his example led the way. We see it even in the early work of Watts; it darkens much of the best work of Wilkie, but its effect on landscape was still more fatal, and therefore, perhaps, led the more rapidly to a reaction in that province.
Crome, the head of the Norwich School, had the good fortune to receive only the training of a house, coach and sign painter. His early work is thus often as broad and direct as that of Velasquez. The influences of Wilson, Gainsborough, and Hobbema make themselves felt in later years, and his methods become elaborate; but Crome's certainty of hand enabled him to obtain his effects so swiftly, that his most highly finished works retain much of the quality of direct painting.
Cotman is no less masterly in his use of oil paint, sometimes approaching Crome in tonality, but more usually preferring a much bolder range of colour, in which strong blues play a prominent part. Were his paintings in oil less rare they would be more generally studied, for in their austere reliance upon definite pattern they stand almost alone in English art.
Coming next to Turner and Constable, we find that Turner's youthful works are elaborately executed with much glazing. In his middle period the ground becomes lighter and the pigment thinner, till at last his desire for brightness compels him practically to become a worker on the Flemish method, though he uses it with a freedom and daring of which even Rubens never dreamed. His earlier works, originally full of strong contrasts, have darkened considerably owing to the elaboration of their technique, so that such things as the Calais Pier~ with all their power, are too heavy to be pleasant decoration. After a time Turner gradually discovered that much of the fault lay with the ground and, by working on a foundation of thick flake white, he was enabled to use even opaque colour without losing luminosity. As time goes on the loading of the ground becomes heavier and heavier, while the superposed colours become thinner and thinner, till his method at last becomes a transparent one.
Constable also began with elaborate methods and repeated glazings, and employed them in his pictures right up to his thirty-fifth year. His sketches from nature however almost from the first were painted directly, without retouching, and vary from his youth to his old age only in the thickness of their pigment, and the freedom of their handling. After a while he learned to build up large pictures on a brown foundation of the traditional kind, not hesitating to employ glazing where necessary, but minimising its tendency to darken by taking care that the body of light pigment beneath was considerable, and often working into the glaze itself with cool opaque colour, In his later years, desiring still greater force and brightness, he used the palette knife to apply touches and scrapings of pure colour, and so became a pioneer of modern solid painting; although, as he retained the brown monochrome sketch as the foundation of his design, his principle was really more allied to the Old Masters than to the Impressionists.
In France the primitive Flemish tradition was replaced in the sixteenth century by the Italian style. Then the influence of Rubens was felt, and these two traditions dominate most French work up to the nineteenth century. Poussin may stand as the great representative of the Italian Renaissance, Watteau as the heir of the Flemish one. Chardin used the full resources of both transparent and opaque colour with consummate artistic power, but it will be noticed that, while some of his most directly painted pictures have lasted perfectly, those where the workmanship is more elaborate, and the pigment heavily loaded and glazed, have cracked and darkened. The swift brushwork of Fragonard has on the whole lasted much better.
The pioneers of the Romantic movement in the nineteenth century, Gros and Gericault, retained so much of the oily elaborate manner that their pictures are now almost uniformly brown and dark. Delacroix had the advantage of seeing Constable's work, and this taught him to aim at brightness; but he sought for it rather by painting his lights thickly, than by giving attention to the luminosity of his ground. Hence, though most of his work is directly and forcibly painted, the shadows have become heavy. Both Daumier and~ Millet often suffer from the same cause, the darkening in the case of Millet being often augmented by the frequency with which he re-worked his canvases.
'Theodore Rousseau's practice in landscape was not dissimilar from that of Millet, and his work generally appears to us now in a more sombre guise than it did to his contemporaries. Corot's method has lasted better. At first he painted entirely in solid paint. Then shaking off the dryness of his early manner, he gradually advanced to a lighter style. Upon a luminous white foundation he appears to have built up his picture in transparent monochrome. When this was dry, colours were applied in thin films, forcible impasto being reserved for the high lights.
Lastly a word may be said of Monticelli, Courbet, and Manet, through whom we come to the Impressionists. In the best works of Monticelli we find glazes of the richest colours applied over luminous white, and then retouched with opaque colour in considerable body. The effect is striking in a somewhat incoherent way, and where the ground has been strong enough his pictures have stood well. Courbet's methods vary much, being sometimes dependent upon very thick opaque pigment, modified at the last by a glaze, at others being thin and direct. Had his grounds been brighter these last would have been more uniformly well preserved; the former class remain powerful but rather heavy in effect. The direct painting favoured by Manet in his earlier period has darkened a little, perhaps, but otherwise remains unaltered. His paint seems to have contained no more oil than was needed to make it manageable. Mutatis inutandis his method might be compared with that of Sargent, though his colour-schemes, being much more deliberate, should suffer less from the slight dulling and "leatheririess" which come with time than Sargent's complicated naturalism may do.
I have sketched the progress of the mixed method of oil painting at some length, because it is the method employed by the great majority of working artists. There are good reasons for its popularity. It is capable of the utmost variety of expression: permitting the plastic suggestiveness and luminous force of a solid impasto to be combined with the richness of thin, liquid and transparent colour. The works of Rembrandt and Reynolds exhibit many illustrations of the felicitous blending of these extremes. Indeed, it seems at first sight to possess the advantages of both the opaque and transparent methods, without their disadvantages; and the long roll of the great artists who have employed it, is sufficient testimony to its practical convenience.
Not only does it possess variety of substance and texture, but much of this variety can be obtained at a single sitting. The use of thin liquid pigment enables the artist to spread his shadows broadly and rapidly: while the lighter portions of the subject can be suggested with equal ease by the use of forcible impasto. It is thus almost perfectly adapted for making sketches and studies.
For elaborate painting too it offers many advantages. The design can be first sketched in; then any number of subsequent paintings can be executed upon it; the most elaborate effects of quality can be attained by judicious use of glazing and scumbling; unsatisfactory passages can be altered; the technique of a picture may in fact be made just as simple or complex as the painter chooses. If he be sure of himself, and his subject is one which is best treated by direct painting, he can be direct; if it calls for extreme subtlety of modelling or colour, as in the case of certain kinds of figure and landscape painting, he can refine ad infinitum upon his first conception.
Yet, in considering its record as a whole, one unpleasant fact has to be reckoned with. A very large proportion of the pictures thus painted fall short of complete success; more still are to some extent lacking in decorative beauty. In the case of transparent oil painting, and of tempera too, the feebler men produce pictures that have some outward attractiveness of general colour. Their pictures may be ill-conceived, ill-drawn, and tamely painted, yet they make excellent decoration.
In the case of the mixed method, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the only pleasant pictures made by its help have been made by great masters. All other men, clever and dull, proficient and incompetent alike, have produced pictures which are rarely pleasant in colour, and are usually heavy in tone. If we pause for a moment to recall the thousands and thousands of dark and disagreeable canvases for which the method is responsible, we may begin to see that, while it has been of service to a number of great artists, it has been the reverse of helpful to nearly all who have fallen short of supreme excellence. Their failure is accompanied with a colouring that is either too cold or too heavy, and with a tone that is dull and dead, the latter fault being practically universal.
The cause of this failure may not be apparent at first sight, but a little consideration gives us two or three facts to work upon. In the first place we often find sketches and slight studies which have retained their freshness, while the finished pictures of the very same artists are uniformly dark and heavy. Secondly the artists who have used the method with success, have either approximated in their practice to the transparent method, by painting lightly over a luminous ground; or have painted alla prima so that their pictures have the quality of very brilliant sketches. Van Dyck and Hals, Velasquez and Goya, Watteau and the Barbizon painters, Turner and Crome, might be instanced as examples of the former practice; the paintings of Tiepolo and Canaletto, of Guardi and Whistler, and the oil sketches of Constable as examples of the latter.
Again, those who have made copies of the work of the old masters will have noticed that, after a time, the copies usually become heavier, browner, and duller than the originals; especially where the painting process has been elaborate, and has necessitated the use of much oil, or has been used upon a dark ground. So constant is this change, that it is usually possible to distinguish at once between an original painting and a copy simply by the difference of the tone; the original being always the fresher in effect of the two.
It is generally recognised by painters that this darkening is due to the action of the oil mixed with the pigments, and the fear of it has driven many moderns who paint in a high key to use their colours as dry as possible, and in considerable body, so that the risk of future change may be minimised.
Oil, as already indicated more than once, tends, after a time, to rise to the surface of a picture and settle there in the form of a yellowish film.* * I have throughout used oil as meaning linseed, poppy or nutoil. These were the oils commonly used by the old masters, and the best prepared colours a~ the present day are generally ground in linseed oil. Thus, although a painter may mix his colours with varnish or petroleum or turpentine to get particular effects, or to secure ease in manipulation, his pigment will contain a large amount of oil-nay, even if he dispenses with all diluents, and dries his tube colours on blotting-paper before applying them, much oil will still be left.
The more oil the picture contains the thicker this film will be, and the greater the subsequent lowering of the tone.
Even a picture painted alla prima may suffer seriously from this cause if it be painted either with too much medium, or with too great a body of solid colour. The case of Richard Wilson has already been mentioned in this connection. Thick, solid paint as it comes from the tube may not alter very much, but the amount of oil contained in ordinary tube colours is so large that, if they are used in any considerable body, enough oil will ultimately come to the surface to dull all the more delicate tones. The painters who, like Guardi or Constable, have worked on reddish grounds, have thus to sail constantly between the Scylla of painting too thin, in which case the ground will show through in the course of time (as Whistler's dark grounds have done), and the Charybdis of painting too thickly, and thereby deadening their colour.
On the whole it is evident that a firm white ground, if necessary veiled with some simple tint, is the first condition of safety in this form of oil painting. Next, the painting should be as thin as possible; if done alla prima, so much the better. If subsequent paintings and repaintings are necessary, each should be thoroughly dried and bleached before the next one is started. Except on these conditions, the mixed method of oil painting cannot be regarded as likely to retain its freshness.
The brushes used by painters have so direct an influence upon their work as to deserve a few words of notice. Very large brushes suggest breadth but may lead to vacuity: very small brushes suggest finish but may lead to feebleness. This last defect is the one most feared by the painters of to-day, so the brushes they use are neither very small nor very soft. Yet exclusive devotion to middle-sized brushes has disadvantages of its own. In the first place it tends to produce monotony of touch, a failing pardonable in a large mural decoration but tiresome in the case of small pictures where the brushwork is clearly seen. Again, and this is more serious, it makes real delicacy of handling impossible, and thereby sins against the condition of infinity, as it sins against the condition of vitality by its monotonous character. Logic would thus seem to advise the employment of large brushes for laying in the masses of a picture, and of small brushes to complete the details, these last having points fine enough for the most precise drawing where precision is needed. The use of softer brushes than than ordinary hog tools for passages of special delicacy is also suggested.
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