Thursday, March 24, 2011

Color Palettes: Sir Henry Raeburn (1756-1823)

"... he never fails in giving a likeness, at once vivd, unmistakable, and pleasing.  He paints the truth, and he paints it in love."¹  ~  Dr. John Brown speaking of Sir Henry Raeburn


It should come as no surprise that Scottish portrait artist Sir Henry Raeburn (1756-1823) employed a very limited palette.  All one must do is look at a collection of his works and it will be quite obvious that the same few colors appear in every one of his paintings.   His colors, which consisted of white, black, vermilion, burnt sienna, raw sienna, and Prussian blue, were not uncommon choices among all painters of the period, and yet, in a roomful of late eighteenth century portraits, Raeburn's stand out.

"It is impossible," says Timothy Cole in the book Masters of Art, "not to be instantly impressed with (Raeburn's) force and superiority as a portrait painter."²  Undoubtedly, Sir Henry Raeburn stands among the greatest painters in Great Britain's history.  Though largely self-taught, he mastered an approach which has often been compared to that great master Velázquez, whose work was likely not even known to Raeburn.  Using sight-size, sure and bold square brushstrokes, and an unerring dedication to nature, the over-six-hundred likenesses he painted in his lifetime express a vitality seldom seen before his debut. He was, as Richard Muther said in The History of Modern Painting, "a born painter," whose figures were "informed by a startling intensity of life."³


Of Raeburn's working practices:

He spoke a few words to me in his usual brief and kindly way - evidently to put me into an agreeable mood ; and then having placed me in a chair on a platform at the end of his painting-room, in the posture required, set up his easel beside me with the canvass ready to receive the colour.  When he saw all was right, he took his palette and his brush, retreated back step by step, with his face towards me, till he was nigh the other end of his room ;  he stood and studied for a minute more, then came up to the canvass, and, without looking at me, wrought upon it with colour for some time.  Having done this, he retreated in the same manner, studied my looks at that distance for about another minute, then came hastily up to the canvass and painted a few minutes more.  I had sat to other artists ;  their way was quite different - they made an outline carefully in chalk, measured it with compasses, placed the canvass close to me, and looking me almost without ceasing in the face, proceeded to fill up the outline with colour.  They succeeded best in the minute detail - Raeburn best in the general result of the expression ;  they obtained by means a multitude of little touches what he found by broader masses ;  they gave more of the man - he gave most of the mind.⁴

Raeburn was in love with his daily task. He used to declare portrait-painting to be the most delightful thing in the world, for every one, he said, came to him in the happiest of moods and with the pleasantest of faces. It is significant, too, of the generous temper he showed to his brother-artists that he described his profession as one that leads neither to discords nor disputes. Of his habits Allan Cunningham gives an interesting account: 'The movements of the artist were as regular as those of a clock. He rose at seven during summer, took breakfast about eight with his wife and children, walked into George Street, and was ready for a sitter by nine; and of sitters he generally had for many years not fewer than three or four a day. To these he gave an hour and a half each. He seldom kept a sitter more than two hours, unless the person happened—and that was often the case—to be gifted with more than common talents. He then felt himself happy, and never failed to detain the one client till the arrival of another intimated that he must be gone. For a head size he generally required four or five sittings; and he preferred painting the head and hands to any other part of the body, assigning as a reason that they required least consideration. A fold of drapery or the natural ease which the casting of a mantle over the shoulder demanded occasioned him more perplexing study than a head full of thought and imagination. Such was the intuition with which he penetrated at once to the mind that the first sitting rarely came to a close without his having seized strongly on the character and disposition of the individual. He never drew in his heads, or indeed any part of the body, with chalk—a system pursued successfully by Lawrence—but began with the brush at once. The forehead, chin, nose, and mouth were his first touches. He always painted standing, and never used a stick for resting his hand on; for such was his accurateness of eye and steadiness of nerve that he could introduce the most delicate touches, or the most mechanical regularity of line, without aid or other contrivance than fair, off-hand dexterity. He remained in his painting-room till a little after five o'clock, when he walked home, and dined at six.' The picture is well completed by Scott's description: 'His manly stride backwards, as he went to contemplate his work at a proper distance, and, when resolved on the necessary point to be touched, his step forward, were magnificent. I see him in my mind's eye, with his hand under his chin, contemplating his picture, which position always brought me in mind of a figure of Jupiter which I have somewhere seen.'⁵

His practice of painting very directly with moderately thin paint on a white linen twill canvas of the kind called 'ticken' (showing a diagonal line in the weave), and primed to a luminous white surface, made it possible to obtain a high power of color with Raw Sienna, which is slightly translucent.⁶

Raeburn's method stands in no need of further explanation.  His intention was to be absolutely true to nature, and to reach that aim he was compelled to treat details as they actually came into his vision relatively to his sitter.  His vision, that is, was concentrated on his model;  of anything else he had only an indistinct impression.  He never, therefore, obtruded accessories to the division of attention with his principal subject.⁷
Even beyond the play of light and its transformations of color and surface Raeburn sought vitality, the inner life which includes character and temperament, or sentiment individuality.  In that also he followed nature, followed her into the inmost recesses of humanity.  Only by adhering to nature did he secure variety.  He did not pass all his sitters through one mechanical process, or turn them out of a common mold.  He differentiated them not less in mental characteristics than in physical form.⁸

His method may... be reduced to a formula:  (1) He posed his sitters upon a raised platform;  (2) he placed his easel either beside or behind his model, and did not copy a face by constant reference to the original, but laid it down by a series of swift impressions committed to memory;  (3) he used only unprepared blank canvas;  (4) he painted with a free hand, without a mahlstick or other support;  (5) he made no preliminary drawing, but began at once to model with the brush in colour;  (6) he made no measurements;  (7) he did not tire his sitters, but kept them only from an hour and a half to two hours;  (8) the number of sittings ranged between four and six;  (9) he aimed his conversation at bringing out character and living interest;  (10) the forehead, chin, nose, and mouth were his first touches;  (11) a fold of drapery, or the disposal of a mantle, cost him more study than a head. He made a pleasure of every sitting, a friend of every sitter. He did not treat his subjects as lay-figures, but reached truth by freeing them from self-consciousness and constraint, and infusing into them something of his own animation.
The difficulties of such a method are more obvious than its advantages, and yet the latter are great. Its simple directness made for naturalistic truth. Neither was time thrown away upon preliminaries, nor was the painter's first fresh enthusiasm allowed to evaporate while they were being performed. Having read as well as posed his sitter, he did not allow the first sitting to pass without stating the conception he had formed of his subject-model, and indicating the general artistic effect he intended to work out of the facts before him.⁹


¹ Edward Pinnington, Sir Henry Raeburn, R.A., (Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1904),  p. 129.
² Timothy Cole, Masters in Art:  A Series of Illustrated Monographs:  Old English Masters, (Bates & Guild Company, 1905), p. 454.
³ Richard Muther, Masters in Art:  A Series of Illustrated Monographs:  The History of Modern Painting, (Bates & Guild Company, 1905), pp. 455.
⁴ Allan Cunningham, The Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Vol. II, (George Bell and Sons, London, 1879), pp. 268-269.
⁵ Walter Armstrong, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, vol. 47, as retrieved from,_Henry_(DNB00),  on March 23, 2011.
⁶ Frank Morley Fletcher, Colour-Control:  The Organization and Control of the Artist's Palette, (Faber & Faber Limited, London, 1936),  pp. 17-18.
⁷ Pinnington, p. 204.
⁸ Pinnington, p. 205.
⁹ Pinnington, pp. 125-126.


Connor de Jong said...

Wonderful post Matthew, great information and a great painter!

Jason Peck said...

I second that, great post and great painter! Thanks Matthew.

Tawana said...

THanks Matt, good post. I read a little about this painter sometime ago. I never seen these pictures you posted, they are a feast to the eye. It's encouraging to know he also used a limited palette.

Hermes said...

Its so useful to see his works from the painter's point of view.

PleinEric said...

Lots of great info there Matthew! Thank you for posting.

jeff said...

On of my favorites. I use to live in Edinburgh and his work is all over the city. In the Royal Bank of Scotland on the Mound I remember going onto the bank just to look at all the Reaburn' hanging on the walls.

By the way if Raeburn was not measuring as was described in the description of his methods does this not mean he did not use the Sight Sizing?

Personally from seeing a fair amount of his work I would say he did not use this method as we know it today.

Laurel Alanna McBrine said...

Thank you so much for this! I discovered Raeburn on a visit to The Montreal Museum of Fine Art where there are several wonderful examples of his work. I was struck by the similarity to Sargent's oeuvre and was interested to observe that he preceded that great man. In reading about his routine and method, I am even more struck by the similarities in those particularities as well. I wonder if Sargent knew and perhaps emulated his work?

innisart said...

@ Jeff - The fact that Raeburn placed his easel next to his model, and observed model and canvas from a distance before approaching the canvas to make a mark (and painting the model life-size), indicates he WAS using sight-size. The only odd point in the descriptions (at least to me) is that it sounds as if, upon reaching the canvas, he painted from memory for some time before retreating again. From reading accounts of others using sight-size (eg. Sargent), it sounds as if they made 2 or 3 strokes at most before retreating. Of course, Raeburn was advised early on to paint nothing from memory, and he took that to heart. Maybe the descriptions of his process are slightly off; Raeburn, unfortunately kept no notes or diaries so we don't have his personal description of his methods.

Richard J. Luschek II said...

I agree with Jeff's comment or at least his question that Raeburn was not painting sight size. Just because the canvas is next to the sitter does not mean that it is sight size.
That position just makes the most sense. Other than the position of the canvas, every thing else in the description indicates that he was working relationally. Not measuring, getting in the big masses and shapes quickly- very much a non-sight sized way of working. I do not work sight size, though I do have my canvas next to the subject.
Maybe he did, but I am just saying that nothing in the description really indicates this for sure. I would say the breadth and use of memory indicate a more conceptual, relational way of working.

Richard J. Luschek II said...

One other thing, I would love to see an unfinished Raeburn. Anyone ever seen a work in progress? Would be very interesting to study.

innisart said...

According to others who have done research on the topic, it appears Raeburn is considered to have worked sight-size. It is not the system I employ, but those who use it and teach it seem to consider Raeburn as one of their own.

Read the Nicholas Beer article through the Cecil Studio's site:

jeff said...

I'm not saying Raeburn did not employ some kind of sight size method I just do not think it's the same as what is being taught in ateliers today.

I've seen a a fair amount of Raeburn's and I have to say they are not all life size. Most of the shoulder length portraits are a little smaller than life size. Which to me seems to indicate that he was do doing the exact same thing as we know it today.

jeff said...

I just realized my last comment had some typos. What I meant to say is that I does look as if Reaburn did something that we might think of a sight size today but it seems to me that he was doing more of a akin to relative measuring. It's hard to tell as we have no records or definitive proof. I'm also inclined to come to the same conclusion on Sargent.

I read Nicholas Beer' article and he does have some very good argument to support his ideas, but it's a lot of speculation and some of the examples are pushing it a bit. The Da Vinci example used seems to push the boundaries of the idea a little to far for me.

As for unfinished Reaburn' I've not seen any myself but there is a unfinished Lawrence at the MFA in Boston which is a real gem of a painting that he did at about 22 or 23. Lawrence used the same technique as Reaburn or so it seems.
It's hard to tell from the Lawrence if he was using a sight size method or not.

Mikko Freeman said...

As long as the painter's canvas is next to the sitter, and the painter steps back a fair amount to compare the two, returning to the same spot with each pass, we can safely say that it is "sight-size". What ateliers are teaching today is that very system, but, with every possible aide to help students learn to catch their errors : measuring, mirrors, flicking of the eyes etc... It is my opinion that the attempt of any student would be to shed these aids as time passes eventually to paint somewhat like Sir Raeburn, without them.