Colour has three aspects: hue, value and chroma. Colour composition begins with a value scheme (lighter or darker greys), and there are eight or ten of these schemes (the disparity of the numbers is caused by the fact that the value schemes actually elide into each other, rather than being discrete; the cut-off point between schemes is not fixed). The two examples given here use what I call the Holbein Scheme and the Two-tone Silhouette.
The Holbein Scheme comprises a light-value focus (the face) that is supported by a dark base (the clothing), the dark shape of which is then designed upward to completely surround the focus. The whole of this is seen against a mid-tone background, whether plain (as here, in fig. 1) or representational.
The artist next chooses a hue scheme from the colour wheel (fig. 2). These hue schemes can be of complimentary colours, near compliments, triads, analogous colours, etc. In our example, Holbein has chosen a complimentary scheme: red-orange (the face, the low chroma dark clothing and the sleeves) and a greenish blue (the background). Please note that these schemes have nothing to do with the style in which the painting is painted: the Annigoni (top row, second from the left) and the Holbein (third from the left) are smoothly painted, while the Rembrandt (first on the left) and the Millais (at the extreme right) are very painterly indeed, but the value schemes are identical. Please note, too, that the overall value family of the mid-tone background is the main factor in defining the mood of the painting: the darker the mid-tone family, the more brooding and/or mysterious the painting.
The most mysterious of all the value compositions is, of course, the two-tone silhouette. In our example (fig. 3), we see, on the top row, a Rembrandt, a Caravaggio and a Thomas Lawrence, all essentially a number of light shapes seen against a very dark everything-else. True, there is a value range within the assembly of light shapes, but that range is nothing compared to the overwhelming contrast created by the dark “everything-else.” Caravaggio (on the bottom row) has superimposed his usual low- to middle-chroma yellow-orange to red-orange analogous hue scheme onto this two-tone value scheme.
How to Paint Your Own Rembrandt
1. A thin coat of fairly lean oil paint is spread over the white canvas. The colour of this coat of paint is a greyed golden-brown, which was Rembrandt’s preferred field colour (the field colour is the unifying colour that pervades the whole painting, giving it a strong mood). This is left to dry thoroughly.
2. The darks are massed in, using a very dark grey-brown.
3. The lights are impastoed, using a light-value version of the field colour. This creates the basic three-value field-colour underpainting.
4. The darks are now elaborated by wiping-back and by opaque painting. Please note that steps 2 to 4 are done before the drawing stage dries.
5. Once the light shapes in stage 3 have dried thoroughly, the lighter lights are added, using thick paint.
6. When this is all thoroughly dry, the main value notes of the head, hair and white clothing are roughed in, using fairly thick paint; however, the paint is thinner in the transition tones and thin in the shadows. The colour of this roughing-in is the field colour (various values of greyed golden-brown), and the result is a monochrome underpainting, with strong, simplified form. This used to be called the dead-colouring.
7. When step 6 is thoroughly dry, the head and clothing can be painted in full detail using thin paint and full colour. Please note that the painter concentrates on the face and on the light draperies—the dark clothing is left as it was in step 4 (unless some tweaking is needed). A few extra thick highlights can be added here and there in the lights to strengthen the impastoes.
8. Last of all, the background is finished.
Paint your own Rembrandt: step-by-step
The new packages of Nitram Charcoal now feature drawings by students of the Angel Academy. The Antique Horse Head charcoal drawing is by Megan Byrne and the Carpeaux Head drawing is by Nancy Fletcher. Each was done in class, using Nitram charcoal.
There are tonnes of theories about about how Caravaggio underpainted his paintings. Below is a PhotoShop version of one of the many—each based on the available evidence—but MJA thinks that this is the most likely one. It’s certainly efficient. (Click on the image for a larger version.)
Essentially, this method comprises a three- or four-tone golden-brown field-colour underpainting onto which the main elements (the people) are worked up en grisaille, using black-&-white greys. This produces a very light base and cool, bluish transition tones onto which the semi-opaque, semi-transparent local flesh colours are broadly painted. This light grey underpainting causes the overpainting colours to glow, in a way that direct painting cannot match, and its “blueness” counteracts to a large degree the browning of the oils as the painting dries over the years.