The tonal organization is very simple, aided by the soft frontal lighting. The plane of the forehead and the front plane of the nose have the highest tonal value. The cheeks and the rest of the face are slightly darker.
Allowing the forehead to shine as the highest value in a portrait suggests a person with spirituality or intellect. It gives the face a generous, luminous quality.
According to Royal Academy instructor Solomon J. Solomon (writing about a century ago), the painting was made with the following steps*:
1. A brown grisaille, keeping the shadows warm.
2. Loading of stiff white impasto in the forehead and the ruff.
3. When the impasto was completely dry, glazing the skin tones and lips. The glaze sank into the pits around the impastos, making them come forward even more. Translucency like this is almost impossible to achieve with an opaque alla prima handling.
Note the softness in the eyes:
1. The edges of both the iris and the pupil are soft.
2. The eyelashes and eyebrows are understated. You don’t see individual hairs.
3. The highlights are very carefully placed. On the bottom eyelid, there’s a highlight on the edge of the lid and the moist area where the lid meets the eye.
4. Finish is not a matter of greater detail, but rather of more complete consideration.
Softness takes conscious, deliberate effort, and it’s often the mark of greatness.
According to British academic master Solomon J. Solomon, “there is more to be learnt in the painting of flesh from this picture than from almost any other I know, so luminous is this masterpiece.”
The painting is 14.75 x 12.75 inches. It is at the National Gallery, London. Their website lets you zoom into it.
* ADDENDUM. Note: a friend of the blog, who knows a lot more than I do about historical painting methods, sent me the following clarification, based on his research:
"I've one disagreement though. Your step by step list says that he did a brown grisaille, upon which he impastoed with plain white. Then, on top of the dry impasto he glazed down.
Generally, the evidence does not seem to support that as his usual procedure. Both the NG (London) Technical Bulletin #20 and the catalog from the 1990 exhibition in Washington (NG) show flesh cross sections which contain other pigments in addition to lead white, within the lead white layer.
Contemporary writings, written by those who purport to have known van Dyck also do not mention a brown grisaille followed by a white system as you have described. All list a dead color layer followed by a carnation color layer."
Thanks for the insight!Previously on GJ: Eye Highlights
Wikipedia on Anthony Van Dyck
National Gallery website
“Muddy Colors” blog post on eyes.