Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Tadema’s Marble Secrets

British painter Lawrence Alma Tadema (1836-1912) painted realistic scenes of the classical world for his fellow Victorians. He loved to paint images with big expanses of white marble.

This was a bit of a fantasy, because the Romans more often used cement and faux painted plaster, avoiding the cost and hassle of real marble as much as possible. But in Tadema’ vision, white marble was everywhere, and he was good at painting it.

What were some of his secrets to painting marble?

He often uses a red-brown iron oxide staining into the structure of the marble along the joins, and grey or black veining in both the surface and deep layers of some of the stones.

The veining works best if it's very subtle. It can be accomplished either with opaque mixtures or glazing, but ideally with a combination of both.

One secret of getting the marble to look translucent is to use lighting from above and slightly behind. This plays up the effect of subsurface scattering along the illuminated edge.

Remember that besides transmitted light, there’s a lot of light bouncing around from all directions, so save the dark accents only for deep hollows or pits in the stone.
See a lot more Tademas at ARC virtual museum.
GurneyJourney post on subsurface scattering.


Tim Durning said...

There's an amazing of example of his work in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, "A Reading from Homer," and I've always stopped to admire the piece. The marble is uncanny in that image, and I love the one sliver of sky he included in the upper left corner. Thanks for giving us a look into his work.

Unknown said...


Great example at the Smithsonian Pompeii exhibit. A HUGE Tadema with marble technique abounding.

Merry Christmas..thanks for the card!

blessings bro

Anonymous said...

I have often wondered if Tadema worked with a decorative painter - a faux finisher as it were - to paint the marble in his paintings... I know of examples where things like trompe l'oeil stone niches or urns were added underneath an artists still life of flowers, or where a portrait might contain a window in which a view is executed by a landscape artist...(if so, it's not noticeable in the original works I've seen..but still! could be!)

Michael Lukyniuk said...


I just want to wish you a Merry Christmas and a big thanks for having kept such an interesting website over this last year. It's one of my favorite sites.


Jason Peck said...

Hey James,

What a great post, I wonder if he used both Burnt Sienna, and Light Red.

Blessings and Merry Christmas,


r8r said...

Nowadays, the showpiece finish for realistic artists is..... chrome!

Tom said...

Saw the painting at the pompeii show also. Great for marble as the painting is of a Roman sculpture shop. Just read your post on the correct viewing distance also, I might have misunderstood what was written but the right viewing distance without distortion (i.e. Without moving your head to take in what you are seeing) for a 6 foot figure would be 18 feet away from the model. If you are drawing a
100 foot building the right viewing distance would be 300 foot. Always enjoy your blog. Thanks alot

Michael Damboldt said...

Wonderful stuff. I always wondered how he worked the paint to give the marble the..well... marble look.