Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Color Palettes: The Academic Ébauche Part II


In this detail of a beautiful painting by Angela Cunningham, the ébauche is still visible in the model's lower body.

The execution of the Academic ébauche followed a deliberate set of organized steps. Using his nine parent colors, the student would typically begin by laying out his palette, which consisted of more than a dozen rows of mixtures arranged into three sections of tone; one for the lights, one for the shadows, and another for the half-tints.¹⁴ He would then trace an earlier-completed preliminary drawing onto his canvas in charcoal, and, when the transfer was finished, would either repeatedly tap the work surface with a mahlstick, or blow upon it, to remove the excess charcoal particles.¹⁵ With the drawing thus ready to accept oil paint, the student would then retrace the drawing’s outline, and establish his principal dark masses using a mixture called the “sauce.”¹⁶

This unfinished painting by Bouguereau shows where the artist stopped working after only completing part of the finishing stage. Bouguereau was known to have worked quickly, often painting on top of the ébauche while it was still wet. In this painting it can be seen that Bouguereau treated the adolescent's skirt as if it were entirely a shadow, laying in a brown tone, then going over that with a frottis of red-blue.

“Sauce” was a term used throughout 19th century France to refer to a transparent, fluid mixture of red-brown paint, diluted with turpentine and a boiled drying oil like linseed oil.¹⁷ Often, the color used was red ochre¹⁸, but sometimes bitumen was added, which, unfortunately, was not archivally sound.¹⁹ By the end of the century, detractors of classical art used “sauce” as a derogative term, saying of paintings executed with a brown underpainting that they were painted with “gravy.”²⁰

After the outline was established and the shadows were loosely yet accurately blocked in using the “sauce,” the painting was ready for “first-painting” or “dead-colouring.” This was often begun while the “sauce” was still wet. First the highlights were rendered in pigment mixed abundantly with white²¹, using a thick impasto for the most “impressive light areas.”²² This paint was to be laid in “spontaneously and freely to lend interest and brilliance to the pictorial arrangement.”²³ Next, the half-tints were painted, moving from the highlights to the shadows using no fewer than six separate tones. Finally, the deepest tones were applied to the shadows, allowing the student to work over the thinly-painted, initial red-brown lay-in, and thereby establish an overall basic effect of the finished picture.²⁴

Contemporary realist Anthony Ryder lays in his underpainting with an open palette, though his results are very similar to the 19th century ébauche.


In these early stages of the ébauche, the varying tones were not to be blended together, rather, they were to be laid next to each other so as to form a mosaic. Only after the tones were laid accurately, and the dimension and relief of the subject could be read from across the room, were the individual value patches to be linked. This was accomplished using a clean brush for each separate juncture, or by using a brush lightly loaded with pigment of the correct value, and teasing the line between divisions of tone by dragging the brush across the painting in the manner of mimicking the form of the model.²⁵ In this way, the patchwork of tones in the painting would be quickly melted into each other, leaving a smooth gradation throughout.

Many painted academiés from the nineteenth century leave areas of exposed ébauche. Though today this may be a stylistic choice, in the past it was often because the students ran out of time when trying to complete their finish- students usually had only a week to work from a single pose. In this painting by Will St. John, the ébauche can be seen in the lower part of the painting. St. John teaches a class on the ébauche for The Grand Central Academy School of Art.

To complete the ébauche, all that was left to do was apply several “inspired brush-strokes” in both the light and dark areas as to enliven the surface and retain the original feeling of immediacy in the underpainting.²⁶ The greatest freedom was permitted in executing these last touches.²⁷

A picture properly laid-in, or dead-coloured, should present in general a quiet atmospheric effect, with silvery gray, and transparent neutral brown tints predominating among the other colours.²⁸

Jacques-Louis David, Portrait of Madame Adélaide Pastoret, 1791-1792.  A very fine example of the antique ébauche.

Before the “second-painting” was begun, the ébauche was set aside to thoroughly dry. It was then scraped, and oiled-out with linseed or nut oil which was applied with a brush, then wiped down with a silk rag.²⁹ The same procedure as was used for the ébauche was used again to work toward the finish, though the lights were rendered more brilliantly and colors of greater chroma were introduced in the later stages.³⁰



3 comments:

Charles Valsechi III said...

Very nice posts! Thanks for the information. This blog is definitely a service to all artists, especially us in the early stages.

Angela Cunningham said...

wow Matt, Thanks for including my work in your post. Great Blog. Flattered to be apart of it.

Terry Strickland said...

Thank you Matthew, these are great posts for those of us continually trying to refine our technique.