Notebook, 1993-

Eastlake's Methods and Materials of Painting of the Great Schools and Masters

Eastlake, Sir Charles Lock [One-time President of the Royal Academy], Methods and Materials of Painting of the Great Schools and Masters [Formerly titled: Materials for a History of Oil Painting]. Vol. One. New York; Dover Publications, Inc. 1960 [Originally published by Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans in 1847]

Professional Essays - Vehicle for Shadows

In painting it is safe to assume that till the darkness reaches the intensest degree, transparency increases with darkness. Warmth, therefore, increases with darkness, at least as long as any inward light is visible; and, to avoid blackness in the deepest shades--to be "deep yet clear," it is still desirable that here and there points of warm reflected light, varying in extent of depth, should be visible. The transparency of deep shades is greatly assisted by the rich consistence of the vehicle; light being then reflected not from the lucid surface, but, however faintly, from within it. For rich darks it is always desirable to have a thick vehicle. This vehicle should be clear, but it need not be colourless. It should not be liable to crack. It should be also quick drying; because, if slow, the dust which unavoidably adheres to the surface may affect the transparency of the [p. 343] shadows, and is, at all events, difficult to remove. Thickened, or half-resinified oil, is well adapted for this purpose, but an oil already inspissated with a resin is, perhaps, preferable, as the paleness of the oil is, for the purpose in question , not so essential. The oil and sandarac varnish, "vernice liquida," if made according to the old receipts [3 parts oil to 1 of resin] is sufficiently thick. In order that the richness and luster in the vehicle should be permanent, it is safer to use such an oil varnish instead of resins dissolved in essential oils only. The latter, useful as they are for some purposes, and however brilliant at first, have not the lasting clearness which is desirable in deep shadows. The defect of the oil varnishes, even when much thickened with resins, is their tendency to flow, but this, if less compatible with extreme sharpness of execution, is of less consequence in shadows and may be corrected in a great measure by the dryer.

The internal light represented by a light ground, over which transparent colours are passed, may be renewed and reproduced [and can only be reproduced] by the hottest orange-red colours. The "rouge de Mars," sometimes lightened by the scarlet Mars, together with the vermilions, and similar colours, is well adapted for this purpose, but it is essential that the colour should be impinged in its brightness and not smeared or rubbed, for, when so passed over a darker tint it will only make a [p. 343] heavy and even greyish colour. The best mode of securing its sparkle and brilliancy and, at the same time, of producing that partial broken effect only of transparency which is so agreeable is to apply it carefully with an [ivory] palette knife, the shape of which may be even adapted for minute as well as for large operations. The more solid, cooler, umber-like hues of the shadows will thus acquire great effect, and still produce a balance of warm and cold tones.

Some of Rembrandt's portrait backgrounds, though treated with scarcely any attention to form, and from the lowness of their tones presenting only an harmonious mass, are found, on inspection, to be full of a variety of hues; the warmth, as usual , increasing with darkness and with light, the cool colours pervading the half-tints. Besides this variety of tones, there is a fascinating variety of another kind, produced by the various apparent depths which a thick diaphanous vehicle insures. Here and there the lighter portions are loaded, but, being again overlaid with the semi-liquid lucid medium, broken with transparent tints, the surface is sufficiently filled up. The absence of positive form which generally accompanies this harmonious obscurity in Rembrandt has the effect of increasing the impression of depth. The result, for the particular end proposed, is perhaps more complete than in the works of any other painter, not excepting Correggio, although in his case the same principle [p. 344] and method are, to a great extent, observable. The peculiar practice of Rembrandt here alluded to has also the great recommendation of being a distinctive attribute of oil painting, and of ranking among those qualities which successfully imitate nature by means proper to one art and one method alone.

Numerous examples might be selected from the works of Rembrandt where this most satisfactory union of truth and consummate art is attained. One of the most remarkable is in a portrait of an old lady exhibited at the British Institution in 1848, [the property of Mr. Jones Lloyd, now Lord Overstone]. The general tone of the low background harmonizes perfectly with the head--at a moderate distance its depth appears to be nothingness--on a nearer inspection it is found to be full of vague forms, and a multitude of hues; golden reflexions and even crimson points are relieved by varied tints of umber and toned greys. The surface is equally diversified, sometimes rougher and more solid, sometimes evanescent--the degrees of depth seem infinite. The mysterious forms look like the stalactites of a grotto, but whether intended for them, for the fringe of draperies, or for the indistinct forms of architecture, it is impossible to say.

The richer portions of this picture are probably painted with such a vehicle as the "vernice liguida" in all its original thickness, rendered sufficiently drying. There is scarcely any sharpness in any part of the work, yet a gradation in this respect is preserved. [p. 345] The quantity of vehicle used by such a painter as Rembrandt in such effects is scarcely conceivable by modern artists; but it is plain, from an inspection of many of Reynolds' works, that the founder of the English school very commonly aimed at this method. He sought to give the requisite body, combined with more or less transparency, by means of wax very copiously used, and with what unfortunate results his pictures often tell.

It does not appear likely that Rembrandt used wax. His scholar, Hoogstraten, who describes the technical habits of the time so fully, would probably have noticed this had it been common.

To return to the portrait referred to: it is plain, from the sharp, arrested, unmixing touch in the head, that the flowing vehicle was exchanged in this case for an essential-oil varnish, mixed in due quantity with the colours ground in oil. [See Mansaert; compare De Piles.] No other vehicle of the oleaginous kind produces this unmixing, abrupt, unflowing appearance more completely. But the flowing quality can be no objection to a glazing vehicle, and it is therefore probable that, except where a rapidly drying surface was wanted, the transparent glazings were in all cases applied with an oleo-resinous, and more or less thick medium. For the lights, the purest bleached oil, with mastic or even with fir-resin, would be preferable to the dark "vernice liquida," and the dryer might [p. 346] be sugar of lead, in moderate quantity, instead of gold size.

The preparation of the lights in Rembrandt's heads appears to have been often cool, and the quick-drying, broken, and arrested masses and touches that are applied on it, leave the cool tints of various degrees of darkness half visible at edges and uncovered dragged potions, as it were, through them.

It was important to cover the whole surface as much as possible at one painting, so as to insure sufficient union of the tints with all their occasional abruptness; when the surface was quite dry a slight application of thin and quick-drying varnish would answer the same end if covered at the right moment.

The flowing of the touch in consequence of using the oleo-resinous vehicle in the shadows may be corrected by implanting the last dark, sharper lines and touches when the thick transparent lucid shades are nearly dry; the touch then remains in its place.

As in the rich shadows the warm ground may be reproduced or represented at any stage, so the cool under-painting in the lights may be renewed at pleasure with a view to superadding warmer tints upon it. The transparent tintings last added, as in the more vivid hues of the flesh, had still better be introduced on a surface not quite dry: a thin application of varnish is one mode of contriving this, but such touches may also be added in the [p. 347] final glaze or even before, on a dry surface, provided it is not too glossy to receive them.

It remains to observe that, as warmth increases with transparency and consequently with darkness, a picture may be richly coloured without any positive colours [since the richest hues on a low scale do not tell as such]. Gilbert S. Newton, who had a fine eye for colour, was remarkable for selecting neutral colours for his dresses, while, like Gainsborough, he gave an impression of richness by avoiding coldness, blackness, and opacity in all his darks--even in dark blue skies. The shadows of trees may thus be warm; the shadows even of white or grey architecture are painted by Rubens and Vandyck with the richest transparent browns. The colourists took care of the darks, and left the lights to take care of themselves.

One consequence of this system, however, is, that the lights can never consist of "sickly white"--they must be toned, though comparatively colourless. Another consequence is that the picture can never be "poor." Depth of shadows supposes richness of vehicle, and the quality of the lights must sustain this. There is, however, a difference between the richness and depth of the two. The character of RembrandtÍs lights is that transparency is attained not by thin paintings, but by half seeing what is beneath, between, or beside solid touches: sharpness and brokenness of touch is attained by a rapidly drying vehicle [mixing a portion of essential-oil [p. 348] varnish with the tints]. The transparency of his shadows is quite different--the diaphanous effect is more simple; that is, tints are seen as if through a glass, and the operation of glazing is more general--the use of a thick oil varnish is also not compatible with much sharpness.

As Corelli and other musicians are said to have composed their bass first, so the Flemish and Dutch colourists painted their rich shadows first: a flesh-coloured ground being supposed, the outline defined [whether upon or underneath it matters little], and the glowing and brown shadows inserted, it is impossible for the lights to be crude, though they may be comparatively neutral--it is also probable that they will be boldly impasted and freely handled. When the lights are inserted first, [before the shadows], they are almost sure to be too light, and the consequence is that the key is always changing as the darks become increased. It is therefore on every account better to establish the maximum of darkness and richness at once somewhere, as a guide to the eye. [pp. 342-349]



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