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
Deep Brown-Red, or Red-Brown Ochre
Some good blue-black
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