Saturday, January 14, 2012

Technique: Lord Leighton (1830-1896)

Frederic Lord Leighton
Self-Portrait (1880)
oil on canvas
30 X 25¹⁄₈ in.

Frederic Leighton, Lord Stretton, drew much inspiration from early Italian painters and often took trips to the continent to study their works.  A certain acquaintance of his, a Mr. Simonetti of Venice, apparently had access to damaged works by past masters, and would dissect the paintings, peeling back their various layers for Leighton to inspect.  In this way, Leighton was able to draw conclusions as to how Andrea Schiavone, Jacopo Bassano, Giorgione, and Titian built their paintings.¹

A Girl

Giovanni Costa, a fine painter in his own right, often accompanied Leighton while he was in Italy, and the two based their techniques on the discoveries they made.  After Leighton's death, Costa wrote a remembrance of his long-time friend and included the following information about their method:

The result of these studies and of the experience of years was that Leighton and I definitely adopted the following method.  Take a canvas or panel with the whitest possible preparation and non-absorbent - the drawing of the subject to be done with precision and indelible.  On this seek to model in monochrome so strongly that it will bear the local colours painted with exaggeration, and then the grey, which is to be the ground of all the future half-tones;  on this paint the lights, for which use only white, red and black, avoiding yellow, and stabbing (botteggiando) with the brush while the colour is wet, make the half-tints tell out from the grey beneath, which should be thoroughly dry.  When all is dry, finish the picture with scumbles (spegazzi), adding yellow to complete the colour.

Portrait of Professor Giovanni Costa (1878)
oil on canvas
19 X 15³⁄₈ in.

Leighton formed his method of painting from these general maxims, and he painted my portrait at Lerici on these principles as an experiment, and then in 1878 we adopted the system definitely.  For this portrait he had four sittings - one for the drawing and the monochrome chiaroscuro, one for the local colours;  then, having covered all with grey, he painted the lights with red, white and black, making use of the thoroughly dried grey beneath for his half-tints.  With scumbles he completed the colour and the modelling (sic).²

Leighton's full palette consisted of the following colors:³

Flake White
Yellow Ochre
Raw Sienna
Raw Umber
Red Ochre
Green Earth
Malachite Green
Cobalt Blue
Ultramarine Blue
Ivory Black

Head of a Girl in a White Dress (c. 1893)
oil on canvas
15 X 10 in.


¹ Costa, Giovanni, "Notes on Lord Leighton," in The Cornhill Magazine, Vol. II, January-June (1897), pp. 381-382.
³Osborne, R. and Pavey, D. (2004), Color Academy 2006- Artists' Palettes and Colour Mixing, retrieved January 13, 2012 from {}


Juan Jr Ramirez Fine Art said...

Hi matt, is there a chance where you can illustrate this with an oval shape and photoshop? its just hard to visualize some of it. Juan Jr Ramirez. but great post either way!

Justin said...

Wow, thank you for posting this.

Tancredi Valeri said...

I'm assuming that he means that the monochrome is painted in the shadow color, a reddish-brown.
What I don't get is the part about "covering all with grey". Does he mean that he first paints the local colors exaggeratedly, and then greys them down by scumbling grey over the whole painting?

Tancredi Valeri said...

Are you sure that Leighton didn't have vermilion on his palette as well? It seems hard to believe that the red robe in his self-portrait could have been painted with only red ochre and madder.

innisart said...

@Tancredi I read the technique the same as you- laying in intense local colors over a dried bistre underpainting, then use gray to model and knock back chroma in the lights and midtones. The model the lights in red, black, and white, blending them into the gray of the midtones. Finally, do a layer of scumbling to complete the work (this time including yellow).

As far as his palette goes, I do not know what the source of the source was, and if these color choices were in use by Leighton before or after 1878. In any case, the colors listed would not have been enough to do all of his paintings. Flaming June was painted in 1895, and there is no way he painted her dress with only the colors listed. I'd assume he added pigments to his palette as needed.

Tancredi Valeri said...

What struck me as odd, though, was that the text states that the grey was thoroughly dry before he painted the lights with red, white and black. In other words, he didn't paint into the grey, but over it, and rubbed off the paint in areas where he wanted the grey to show through. So does that mean that he did a grey scumble and then let it dry, with local color showing through?

innisart said...

@Tancredi That's what it sounds like, as weird as it seems.

paraskevi malouxou said...

Beautiful... the profil of the last!!! wonderfull

Off the Coast of Utopia said...

I too was wondering about that covering with gray part. So, just to clarify:
1. Drawing on white canvas
2. Monochrome modelling (Wash drawing in red brown shadow colour)
3. Colour - would this be modelled or flat dead colouring? Colour is light and bright.
4. Gray scumble of varying thickness over dried colour.
5. Modelling of lights with red, black, and white, over the throughly dried gray. Vary thickness of this layer to achieve desired effect.
6. Final layer of scumbles using red,yellow, black, and white.
Does this sound right to you guys?

innisart said...

@ Utopia - That sounds right to me. In step #3, the coloring would not be modeled.