Thursday, April 14, 2011

Skin Tone Test

Painters sometimes use color mixtures that seem far removed from the local color of actual skin.


Here’s a quick test you can do in an art museum to see what’s going on. Hold up your hand up in the air a few feet in front of the painting. (That’s my hand on the left and Jeanette’s on the right.)

This skylit gallery in the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts gave an even, white light. By looking at our hands under the same light, we now have a reference point to evaluate the color mixtures.

This painting is by the British portraitist Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792). It must have been fashionable in his day to have what seems to us a sickly pallor. In this case he painted the portrait well to the gray-green side of our skin tones.
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Addendum: According to the website "Pigments through the Ages,"  Reynolds used the pigments "lead white, yellow ochre, ultramarine, orpiment, carmine lake, Naples yellow, and vermilion."

"Today many Reynolds’s portraits show pale faces. It’s known that even in his lifetime his paintings began to fade. Using transparent glazes over a monochrome under painting, he tried to reproduce the effects of Italian old masters, but the pigment he used for his flesh tones was not permanent and faded.

17 comments:

LandPainter said...

Do you think that green cast is because the colors have faded over time?

James Gurney said...

LandPainter, there are others reading this blog who know more about Sir JR's paint methods, but my understanding is that he glazed the warm skin tones over a greyish-brown underpainting.

Whether those glazes lost chroma I don't know, but I presume the fashion of the day didn't regard warm-colored suntanned skin as desirable the way most of us do.

Tristan said...

For those of us figurative painters of the heavy melanin persuasion use the palm of your hand.

ZZDas said...

I'm guessing this method only work for white people/white people painted paintings...with the numerous amount of different skin tone...it's a ridiculous method!

William said...

It is correct to assume that the colours have faded/become less vibrant over the course of centuries, and this is most certainly the case when glazed.

But we should not forget that in these days the "rich and wealthy" made their face white with powdered chalk to confirm their social status (the painting you show also depicts an upper class women). After all, only poor people had to work outside and got a tanned skin. Being "whiter" meant being richer. Remember the era of Louis 14, the French king that was called "le roi soleil"?

So although the colours may have faded, they have not (always) faded to the degree you may think. Perhaps it's worth mentioning this in your blog post, to avoid any confusing or misunderstanding.

Final note: most of the old paintings have darkened alot, green has become a dirty brown (see the Mona Lisa...), and this affects the way we look at these old paintings: we associate old paintings with dark and brown paint, but they were painted with vibrant colours. People tend to forget this when they copy them, and even describe this dirty brown colours as "warm and rich". Perhaps thoughts for a future post.

Karin Corbin said...

No doubt the artist used paint that faded but that is only part of the story. The fashionable lady in the portrait probably dusted her face with white lead paint as was the fashion of the time. That paint contained arsenic as well as lead.
People of that era also ingested arsenic to lighten their skin. The artist of the era would have been requested to paint very white skin on his subjects.

Chris Dunn said...

I agree with Karin but I'd also like to add sun-tanned skin was the sign of a working peasant spending all day out in the fields slaving away. This was not something the aristocracy wanted to be associated with.

A good time before Reynolds, Queen Elizabeth I was famous for her powdered white face.

My Pen Name said...
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Joel Chua said...

James, just curious... how did you take that photo with both your hands up? :)

Richard J. Luschek II said...

Considering he was such a bright man, his discourses being among the great works of artistic literature, I have often wondered how he missed the whole "these paint mixtures will fade!" thing. I am pretty sure it was common knowledge. Gainsborough seemed to have figured it out.
Did he just not care? Was it cheaper and faster? I have often wondered about this.

Inspiration said...

Wonderful! Thanks for sharing!

tim b said...

Another thing about that paleness: these works were hung in what, by our standards were very dark rooms.

They had no electric light and relatively small windows to illuminate relatively large spaces. The effect of the paintings in their original environments would be very different from what we see in a museum or even a contemporary 'period' house which has been wired and lit to 21st Century expectations.

Even today, Europeans tend to turn on fewer lights than we do (the relatively higher cost of electricity there may have something to do with it). I remember sitting around talking at someone's apartment in Vienna a while back in near-total darkness. I felt weird talking to people I could barely see, but my local friends didn't find anything odd about it.

Andrew- said...

Question: would painting under a yellowish light (she seems to be artificially illuminated) cause an artist to visually balance their paints to look correct in that light?

Andrew-

Andrew- said...
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James Gurney said...

Andrew, if I understand your question correctly, yes! The color of the light can influence the color choices you use in the painting, especially if the kind of light on the subject is different from the kind of light on your work.

As long as the light illuminating the subject and your work is the same, and as long as it's reasonably white light, you should be able to make accurate choices and mixtures.

Ulrich said...

James, you are correct, Reynolds, Gainsborough, and other British 18th century painters were very keen on 'discovering the secrets of the old masters' to such an extreme extent that Reynolds scraped down a painting by Titian he owned, layer by layer. Despite their quest they were ultimately unsuccessful, as many of the paintings (particularly portraits) showed considerable fading in the flesh tones, hence the ghostly appearance. The skin tones usually consisted of a mixture of lead white, very little black (or a dark earth), red, and yellow. Paint analysis has shown that the reds and yellows often consisted of unstable organic pigments, such as buckwheat yellow. In addition, when they used a cool imprimatura like a light grey or a green earth it would eventually start showing through, as especially lead white becomes more transparent over the decades (an optical shift based on the refractive index that becomes nearly the same as the aging linseed oil). So the unfortunate ghost look is entirely accidental and unintentional! Best, Ulrich (Paintings Conservator at the Wadsworth Atheneum).

James Gurney said...

Ulrich and everyone, thanks so much for these fascinating insights.