Undoubtedly, Spaniard Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez is one of the most important figures in painting history. His innovative brushwork and direct manner of painting were revolutionary, creating a sense of atmosphere and energy in his work which led to more than one contemporary commenting that while others painted art, Velázquez painted "truth". Since his rediscovery in the early nineteenth century, Velázquez and his method have inspired countless young artists, from Manet and the Impressionists, through Whistler, Sorolla, Sargent, and many, many more.
It can be argued that by using a simplified palette, limited even when compared to the small selection of pigments available to seventeenth-century artists, that Velázquez was freed to be more ambitious in the technical execution of his paintings. His color palette, in fact, changed very little during his entire career. What did alter was his manner of paint application, and the grounds upon which he painted, changes which benefitted his art, and which were only possible through his increased knowledge of his working materials.
According to Carmen Garrido, Head of Technical Services at the Prado Museum in Madrid and author of Velázquez: Tecnica y Evolución, Velázquez's palette consisted of the following colors:
- WHITE: composed of lead white and calcite
- YELLOW: yellow iron oxide, lead-tin yellow, and Naples yellow (the latter, sparingly)
- ORANGE: orange iron oxide and vermilion of mercury
- RED: red iron oxide, vermilion of mercury, and organic red lake
- BLUE: azurite, lapis lazuli, and smalt
- BROWN: brown iron oxide and manganese oxide
- BLACK: organic black of vegetal or animal origin
- GREEN: azurite, iron oxide, and lead-tin yellow
- PURPLE: organic red lake and azurite
For mixing these organic and mineral compounds into a workable paint, Velázquez used mostly cleaned oils, but also added a "protein-based binding material"¹ such as eggs or animal glue for the more opaque passages. Smalt and calcite were added to his mixtures not only to modify colors, but to also alter the working qualities of the paint: smalt sped the drying time, while calcite increased the transparency of a particular color. His pigments were usually not very finely nor coarsely ground, though he did at times require a certain pigment texture which required a shift in either direction according to the desired effect of reflection for which he was searching.
His choice of supports varied throughout his career based on the end result he was trying to attain. Generally, Velázquez used linen or hemp, though the thread count of the cloth was a conscious choice particular to each composition. At times he also used mantellilo, a Venetian fabric woven in a "discernible criss-cross pattern," and at others, he used taffeta, a "somewhat coarse, evenly-woven canvas."²
The ground on which Velázquez painted changed several times in his life based upon his experience and the overall effect he knew each ground would impart to his finished work. Early in his career, Velázquez primed his canvases in the manner taught to him by his teacher, Pacheco, with a medium tone of ochre called "tierra de Sevilla." Later he changed to a red earth ground favored by the artists of Madrid called "tierra de Esquivias." This was more commonly applied directly to the sized canvas, but at times it was part of a two-layer priming, the initial layer being composed of organic black, calcium carbonate, and a copious amount of glue. After his first trip to Italy in 1629, however, he experimented with lead white grounds to preserve luminosity in his paintings. Usually he tinted the lead white a pale gray or light brown, but at times he left it nearly pure. This lead white ground would normally be spread on the canvas using a palette knife, though, for certain commissions where Velázquez wanted an overall smoother surface, he applied the white ground using a fine brush. For the last three decades of his life, this was the ground he preferred, yet it did not stop him, while working on certain paintings, from experimenting with other colors, including the dark grounds favored by the Venetians. Generally, however, once Velázquez abandoned a specific priming method, he never returned to it.
Philip IV of Spain
In his 1924 book The Science and Practice of Oil Painting, author Harold Speed discusses his own interpretation of Diego Velázquez's colors and technique as pertaining to the portrait of King Philip IV of Spain housed in The National Gallery, London. After studying Velázquez's paintings in the Prado, Speed came to the conclusion that the artist used a neutralizer to control the chroma of the colors in his subject's flesh. This neutral, Speed theorized, was made through a combination of two blacks, one warm, and one cool. The warm black, he concluded, was negro hueso, what the English referred to as bone brown, a color with a poor drying time. Speed substituted ivory black mixed with a little of burnt sienna to create his own variation of bone brown. For the cool black he chose blue-black to which he added a little cobalt blue to better suit his needs.✝
Speed goes on to dissect the painting of Philip:
In the first sitting I imagine he rubbed-in the head with very simple colours, little more than his two blacks; and concentrated his chief attention on placing the main masses of his light-on-dark scheme in the handsomest possible manner, and getting that basis of fine drawing on which the whole thing rests. All this being done in a fairly light key, and with very little paint everywhere except in the lights, which while not loaded were solidly painted. In the next sitting this was scumbled with negro hueso (bone brown) and a yellow that Velázquez used. It is the yellow he painted the lights on the gold chain with. It turns up in most of his pictures, and I made it when copying in the Prado with pale cadmium and a little yellow ochre. Into this scumble he painted the lights with a cool red, possibly madder; a blue, possibly smalte, and the yellow above described. The distinguished red of the lips can, I think, be made with madder and the yellow. The particular pearly quality of the colouring, is just such as one gets painting with light touches, cool colours over a warmer scumble. You can find the scumble still showing on some of the edges and in the shadows. Working into warm scumbles is much out of fashion in these days of solid painting, and it is rather a recipe of the brown school. But, undoubtedly, very exquisite qualities can be obtained in this way. A colour painted in a second painting upon a similar colour underneath is poor-looking and dull. The advantage of scumbling all over your work before painting into it is that you make it all wrong and have to take the whole thing up again. but if you have allowed for it in the first painting, and more or less solidly finished your shadows in a light key, a scumble may well be left in these parts and solid lights dragged over the half-tones, giving a beautiful contrast with the transparent shadows. All such attempts at beautiful colouring should be left until the student is far advanced, as they need much more certain and deft painting, than he will be able to command for some time. But this head of Velasquez certainly exploits the beautiful effects of thin, cool, solid lights painted into transparent shadows. The danger of working into a warm scumble is, that it puts your eye out, and you are likely to get the tone of the scumble into the finished work. To avoid this it is necessary to at once paint cool lights, to correct the warm impression of the scumble, using pure blue if necessary as the scumble will modify it considerably and this should be allowed for.But the chief distinction of this head remains, not how it was done, but who did it. The eye that controlled each touch and had in mind the effect aimed at, is the thing you must try to acquire. The distinguished sense of form, its large and simple treatment; the beauty of the light suffusing the cool flesh. Here an instructor in the craft must leave the matter in the student's own hands.³
✝ According to Garrido's research at the Prado, Velázquez's usual flesh formula consisted of lead white, iron oxide, azurite, and a touch of vermilion.⁴
¹ Jonathan Brown and Carmen Garrido, Velázquez: The Technique of Genius, (Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1998), p. 16.
³ Harold Speed, Oil Painting Techniques and Materials, (Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1987), pp. 171-173.
⁴ Brown and Garrido, p. 72.
Note on Harold Speed's description: Sadly, during Speed's lifetime, he witnessed the aftereffects of a poor cleaning job done to the portrait of Philip IV at The National Gallery. Much of the subtlety in the painting was lost when an overzealous stripping of old varnish also removed delicate glazes in the topmost layer of paint.