Monday, August 9, 2010

Color Palettes: The Academic Ébauche Part I

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Arnaut Officer, 1857.
Unfinished panel showing Gérôme's preparatory phase of painting.

Nineteenth century students of the French Academy were taught that the ébauche, or lay-in, was an essential, if not the most important step, in the development of a painted picture.¹ Rather than making judgements against the glare of a white canvas, the addition of the ébauche enabled the pupil to approximate the qualities of color and value in their true relationships, and thereby built up the student’s confidence and skills at effective comparison. It helped them to work more quickly from the live model, and also aided them in the building of a painting which would retain its color brilliance longer, even when upper layers of paint became transparent with age.² Over the course of the century, the importance of the lay-in, and the amount of which this underpainting was permitted to show in the finished work, increased, eventually culminating in Impressionist works, in which the more expressive ébauche became the final goal of the paintings.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Greek Slave, 1870
An unfinished painting by Gérôme in which the background has been blocked in during the ébauche stage.

After the middle of the nineteenth century, the actual application of the ébauche varied slightly from teacher to teacher, which has led to some disagreement among contemporary artists as to the proper execution of this initial painting step. There is, however, a general consensus today as to the proper colors employed in these Academic ébauches, which is, namely, a palette weighted heavily toward earth colors.

In 1827, Swiss painter P.L. Bouvier published his highly influential book, Manuel des jeunes artistes et amateurs en peinture, in which he provided vital information on the artistic practices and materials used in early nineteenth century France³, including those colors best suited for painting flesh in the ébauche. The nine colors Bouvier recommended were blanc, jaune de Naples, ocre jaune, ocre de rue, ocre rouge-clair, ocre rouge-brun ou brun-rouge foncé, cinabre de Hollande, noir de bouchons, and bleu de Prusse anglais.⁴

American poet, Laughton Osborn, published in 1849 his translation of Bouvier’s seminal work, converting the colors of the ébauche into the following list:⁵

Silver White
Naples Yellow
Yellow Ochre
Roman Ochre
Light Red
Deep Brown-Red, or Red-Brown Ochre
Some good blue-black
English prussian-blue

Silver white is a “nonstandard term that has been used for both flake white (PW1) and zinc white (PW4),”⁶ but in this case it is certainly referring to blanc d’argent, by which the French always meant flake white.⁷ Roman ochre is a variety of natural ochre (PY43).⁸ Deep brown-red or red-brown ochre were each just a calcined form of Roman Ochre or brown ochre.⁹ Light red is natural red iron oxide (PR102). The vermilion mentioned would be cinnabar (PR106), which is native vermilion, and not manufactured.¹⁰ Blue-black in this case is cork black (noir de bouchons) which is also known as vine black (PBk6), made from calcined wood.¹¹ Naples yellow (PY41), yellow ochre (PY43), and Prussian blue (PB27), are all self-explanatory.

Ochre de ru as made by Sennelier

Osborn’s translation of ocre de rue as Roman ochre (PY43) is probably accurate. According to chemist and paint-maker, George O’Hanlon of Natural Pigments, ochre de ru is a “dark colored ocher, typically a yellow brown hue,” which would seem to match Ralph Mayer’s description of Roman ochre in The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Technique. Tubed brown ochre might make a suitable replacement, and in fact, Sennelier paints markets a brown ochre (PY42/PW6/PR101/PG7) whose French name is listed as “ochre de ru”, though this color more closely resembles an acidic earth green than a yellow-brown.

A digital representation of the colors of the ébauche as described by author, Albert Boime. In Boime's incomplete translation of Bouvier's palette, light red was not included, leaving only eight colors for the ébauche: silver white, Naples yellow, yellow ochre, ochre de ru, red ochre, cinnabar, ivory or cork black, and Prussian blue.

Toward the end of the century, when a more transparent underpainting became desirable, the ochres in the ébauche were replaced with bitumen, a blackish brown solution of asphalt in oil or turpentine¹², and burnt sienna (PBr7).¹³

The ébauche stage of a painting demonstration given by Jacob Collins


Mike Notko said...

Great post as always Matthew... Not sure where you get these wonderful tidbits of info but keep em coming!!! I am still on the fence with Sennelier paints, not sure if you've ever used them, but I bought a bunch tubes when the last paint manufacturer I was using got a complex and didn't want to sell to individuals anymore. Tried to replicate Sargent's pallet and Sennelier was the only manufacturer who made some of the stranger ones. Some pigments are gritty in consistency and some have a strange odor to them... but over all they've performed rather well.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks Mathew,
Great information.
The first time I used Sennelier ochers I was surprised how "dirty" they were. I was so accustomed to ocher made in the lab, really mars colors, that I had forgotten from my student days what the real earths were like. I prefer French paint, I like the way it moves. Lefranc is a great paint too. Have you ever been in the Sennelier store in Paris? That is worth checking out if you are there.I was waited on by Jacque Sennelier, and when I figured out who he was I had him autograph the box my burnt Sienna came in.

Arborescence said...

Thank you for another enlightening and beautiful post! I love your blog!

loriann said...

Excellent post! Thanks for all you do and share!

Tancredi Valeri said...

I'm just wondering about the images - the foreground figure in the first Gérôme doesn't look like it was painted with just earth colors. It looks to me like he used a cadmium yellow and a vermilion, for instance, (both of these colors are listed by Moreau-Vauthier as being part of Gérôme's palette). Did you mean that that painting is entirely an ébauche, or just the background figures? The background figures, however, don't seem to be painted in their true value relationships, even assuming that he wanted to decrease the contrast to give an effect of atmospheric perspective. They seem to be sketched in a mid-range without the darkest or lightest values. In that sense, they look very different from the Jacob Collins, which utilizes a full value range. As for the second Gérôme, I don't understand why you write that the background has been painted as an ébauche - he has just done a linear drawing of the architecture in perspective, and put a brown imprimatura over it.

innisart said...

@ Tancredi - Hi Tancredi! I wish it were easier to find perfect and historic visual examples of techniques like the painting of the ébauche, but of course, such unfinished works have not always been preserved. The ébauche color palette of which I spoke seems common enough, but far from universal. I imagine every skilled artist familiar with his materials took a slightly different approach, including adding colors to the first lay-in palette as was necessary.

The figure of the "Arnaut Officer" has elements of what I consider an ébauche, but it is not of the same level of completion throughout. Obviously there are more opaque passages in the white of his costume, and in the sand not adjacent to the shadow, which is not in keeping with an ébauche (either the paint was applied more thickly, or the opaque passages are the result of repainting over a transparent underpainting). The painting was a sketch for "Egyptian Recruits Crossing the Desert," and I don't know if he intended to finish it, or if it was just a study. In the "Egyptian Recruits..." Gérôme did play with atmospheric perspective, reducing the contrasts in the figures behind the Arnault Officer; I don't see an inconsistency there. As for the color of the officer's sleeves, I can see why Gérôme would not begin those areas with an earth color such as yellow ochre. Because of the transparency of the yellows, he would need to build up the layers over a light imprimatura to retain the brilliancy of the yellow, which here might be cadmium yellow or maybe mars yellow. I know many painters today who still lay-in yellows this way to preserve the chroma in upper layers - it is easier to try and glaze it back in upper layers than to try and keep the yellow bright once it's been laid over a darker ground.

As for the second painting example of Gérôme's, I would have to say the background is neither exactly an imprimatura nor an ébauche. It is a bit heavily applied for an imprimatura, and, as you pointed out, it lacks the value relationships of an ébauche or dead color layer. It does, however, show the manner in which an ébauche layer is applied in regards to the brush marks and level of opacity, and that is why I included that image.



Tancredi Valeri said...

Thanks Matt. However, it still looks to me like the ébauche in the first image is intentionally kept in a somewhat higher key than what must have been intended for the final image. In Dagnan-Bouveret's letter to Moreau-Vauthier, he states that his ébauche is always kept in a higher key than the final painting ("J'ai, toujours après dessin très arrêté, ébauché mon tableau presque toujours légèrement et plus blond que je que je désire obtenir"). Dagnan-Bouveret studied under Gérôme, so it doesn't seem unlikely that his procedure would have been similar to that of his master.

innisart said...

@Tancredi Key or chroma? I think we are in agreement, but sometimes in writing, it can appear as the opposite.

I would say in general, as a recap, ébauches are low in chroma, but higher in key (because of the nature of how they are applied, and with the planning of what will be done in later stages). It can sometimes be advantageous to keep certain colors more chromatic in early stages, depending on the desired final outcome - some colors need multiple layers in order to really reach their brilliance (such as yellow). Of course, some colors, like yellow ochre, are more chromatic thinly applied over a light or white ground, than if they are applied thickly or in multiple layers; I think in most cases where that would occur, the artist would compensate, and reduce the chroma, but not always (and maybe in that case it might not be true to the original idea behind the ébauche).

innisart said...

Maybe we're are getting caught up in the semantics too much- I did say that the ébauche portrays the value relationship of the final painting, but maybe that is saying too much. The value relationships are kept within each layer of the painting, ie. the shadow area in the ébauche is darker than the midtone area, or the light area. That also relates to the final layer, but in the final layer there will be more nuance. The ébauche will be higher in key than the finished work, by nature and by design.

If you look at "Egyptian Recruits..." the figures farthest back in the crowd are all painted in a limited value scale in order to push the atmospheric perspective. I am supposing that in the "Arnut Officer," Gérôme was working out that atmospheric depth. I think he may have decided the difference between the Officer and the other figures was too much, and did bring them closer in value and contrast in the finished "Recruits." Interestingly, in "Recruits," he added another figure just behind the officer's right shoulder - this figure helps describe the depth in the picture, with the Officer on one plane, then the near row of figures, then the far row of figures who show very little contrast in their values.

In all, "Arnault Officer" is more of a sketch than a true ébauche, though I would argue he was using a similar technique in creating the sketch as he would to begin another work, such as "Egyptian Recruits..." Other sketches of his, such as those he did of landscapes, were not handled quite the same way, because I think they were not intended to be taken any further, other than as possible reference for new works. "Officer" was more likely done to work out some problems Gérôme intended to tackle in the larger "Recruits."

Tancredi Valeri said...

My understanding of a sketch is that it is a study of composition as well as value and color relationships, leaving aside any concern with accurate drawing. In that sense, I don't think the "Arnault officer" can be called a sketch. To me it looks like an unfinished painting.
Would you say that the French word "ébauche" refers to something different than the English word "lay-in," or are they equivalent terms? In French, the verb "ébaucher" means "to rough in," to roughly indicate form and arrangement in sculpture or painting, and it was done in thinly and transparently (hence, presumably, in a higher key).ébaucher

innisart said...

Yeah, I'd consider "lay-in" and ébauche to be equivalent. And I see your point on the "sketch vs. abandoned painting" in regards to the "Arnault Officer," although there are many artists who have and do go to extreme lengths in their exactness, even in the sketch stage.