Sunday, January 27, 2013

Color Palettes: Rupert Alexander (b. 1975)

Rupert Alexander
Robert van Wijk
oil on canvas
70 X 60 cm.

With the frenetic pace of life that most people keep today, it can be quite difficult for a portrait artist to pin down a sitter long enough to complete a painting from life.  Artists will often have to remain very flexible in order to accommodate the schedules of their busy subjects, but this frequently results in a painting which takes months or years to produce, when, under ideal circumstances, it could have taken only a small fraction of that time.  Rarely would a portraitist expect a commission to last more than a decade, but then again, rarely is an artist asked to paint a portrait of Her Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth II.

In 1998, when London-born artist Rupert Alexander was asked to paint portraits of the British Royal Family, he was, at the age of 23, the youngest artist charged with that task since the 18th century. Sittings with HRH Charles, The Prince of Wales, and with HRH Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh, were arranged, and Alexander was able to paint both men under natural light within Buckingham Palace, but the remaining subject of his commission, Queen Elizabeth, had a diary so full that she could not, at that time, spare a moment for Alexander to capture her likeness.  It would take another eleven years before the Monarch was finally available to sit for Alexander, and nearly two more for the artist to complete the portrait.

In total, Alexander was granted only three sessions with the Queen, each one lasting just an hour. These meetings were planned to take place all within a four-month period, but with the many demands imposed on the Queen's time, the gap between the second and third sittings was prolongated from a few weeks to a year.  To then make the most of this limited exposure to the Queen, Alexander spent his time at Buckingham Palace concentrating on Her Majesty's visage, while her clothing and even her hair had to be treated as incidental to his information gathering.  Back in his South-London studio, Alexander then employed friends and family as body doubles for the Queen, and dressed these sitters in a custom-made copy of the Queen's jacket, and in a hairpiece he had hired a professional wigmaker to create.  Eighteen months after the initial sitting, and twelve years after the commission had been made, Rupert Alexander's portrait of Queen Elizabeth II was finally unveiled at the Royal Warrant Holders Association in London, just days after the Queen's 84th birthday.

Alexander's portrait of the Queen gives proof to the adage that "Good things come to those who wait." Its stark and intimate portrayal reveals that the vitality and strength possessed by the Monarch are intrinsic to her character, and are not qualities bestowed upon her through the accoutrement associated with her position.  It is a truthful portrait of the woman, and not just a picture of her title.


Alexander's initial studies in art took place at the Chelsea College of Art, which, with the aid of a Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust awarded to the artist in 1995, were followed by studies at The Florence Academy of Art, and at the Charles Cecil Studios in Italy.  

Of his palette, Alexander has this to say:

My flesh palette is a traditional limited palette: lead white, vermillion, yellow ochre and ivory black. Occasionally I add cobalt blue, primarily to cool shadows where necessary. In other areas of a painting I expand this palette to include French ultramarine, cerulean, alizarin crimson, cadmium red and cadmium yellow, and occasionally other colours like manganese blue, colbalt violet, red ochre and so forth. For the most part I use Michael Harding's paints as I find them to be the best tube paints available. The only exceptions are yellow ochre (I use ochre Romana, prepared by Zecchi of Florence - traditional yellow ochre with a small addition of raw sienna) and ivory black (I use Blockx as it has greater depth than any other I have found). 
I used to grind all my own paints but the only colour I prepare myself now is lead white. White provides the majority of the body of the paint layer, so I find having a white of ideal consistency is crucial, and the only way to achieve that is to grind it oneself.

For more information on Rupert Alexander, please visit his website,

HM Queen Elizabeth II
oil on canvas
52 X 40 cm

HRH The Duke of Edinburgh
oil on canvas
60 X 50 cm.

HRH The Prince of Wales
oil on canvas
60 X 50 cm.

Christopher Darroux-Xavier
oil on canvas
65 X 50 cm

oil on canvas
28 X 20 cm.

oil on canvas
45 X 35 cm

oil on canvas
60 X 50 cm.

charcoal on paper
46 X 38 cm.

Roger Knight, CEO of the MCC at Lords
charcoal on paper
52 X 38 cm.

oil on canvas
55 X45 cm.

Rob Fahey, Real Tennis World Champion
oil on canvas
96 X 71 cm.

"The portrait is of ten-times real tennis world champion Rob Fahey,
seen on the court at Lord's cricket ground.  The portrait was painted
over the course of six weeks both on location and in the studio. 
Alexander's aim was to show the sitter's dominance in the sport and
something of the atmosphere of the enclosed space."¹

David Burbidge
oil on canvas
140 X 104 cm.

¹BP Portrait Award 2012:  Rob Fahey on Court, retrieved January 24, 2013 from [].


Terry Strickland said...

Thanks for this post. These are really gorgeous. It makes me want to try a limited palette for flesh tones. Curious about the vermillion? Haven't I read on your site that vermillion is sometimes considered fugitive?

innisart said...

Hi Terry - No, vermilion is permanent. I think there were concerns once that it could turn black, but that was a century ago, and probably had more to do with the quality of the pigment. Genuine vermilion purchased today I would expect to be safe - and expensive. Natural Pigments usually sells it at a discount at the PSoA convention, and they sell out fast.

labergerebasque said...

wow…humbling experience. I have and continue to REALLY enjoy your website.

Terry Strickland said...

Oh, yes the turning black thing...That's what it was. Thanks Matthew. I actually have some Rembrandt vermillion I may give a try. Surely that is good stuff.

innisart said...

Terry - I'm sure Rembrandt Oil Colors won't blacken, but unfortunately, the paint they offer isn't genuine vermilion (PR106). Rembrandt makes two "vermilion" colors, but both are actually pyrrole orange (PO73); in mass they might look comparable, but I always feel that genuine colors behave differently in tints and mixtures than their substitutes.

Mona Diane Conner said...

Matt, beautiful work by Rupert - in particular I admire his painting of the Queen; it is so genuine, and her spirit really comes across.

As we know by now there is a danger with using lead white paint, unless it is a substitute. Artists have died from lead poisoning. When I took icon painting lessons for a year, (where we use hand-mixed egg tempera as I do in my own work) lead white was to be used, but if we preferred we were permitted to substitute titanium white for safety reasons.

Rupert is mixing his own, and I know there are a number of artists out there who have returned to the use of lead white. Are you aware of artists using any special safety precautions? I wonder does Rupert wear a NIOSH mask, and nitrile gloves? It's not the only toxic pigment, and I know it is felt to be the most brilliant white, yet I still wonder why risk using it at all?

innisart said...

Hi Mona- Grinding your own lead white doesn't require as much precaution as you might think. Using common sense care, most people will be fine. The problem usually comes with contamination from not cleaning your work area afterwards (there are products out there which will reveal residual lead so that you can remove every last trace of it).

There are no records of artists ever dying from lead poisoning (other than bullets). The only recorded incidence of death from leaded paint happened in Victorian England, and it was the result of an error at a bakery. Hot cross buns with yellow tops sell better, so bakers would color their cakes to attract buyers. Unfortunately, the baker's supplier provided lead antimony instead of the non-toxic pigment which had been ordered. Several children died, and several others became ill.

Painters of the past that suffered mental issues as the result of exposure to lead might have just as easily been poisoned through prolonged exposure to lead from plumbing pipes and dish ware.

Care of course should be used, but typical handling of lead-based paints by artists shouldn't panic people. Paint-makers, on the other hand, are exposed to lead in much greater quantities, and their precautions should be much the greater.

innisart said...

As the night has gone by, I've been thinking about the story of the hot cross buns, and I think i may have made an error in my storytelling. That case may be the only one where deaths were attributed directly to artist's colors, but I may have the pigment wrong. Instead of antimony, I now think the pigment was orpiment (i.e. arsenic). In that case, there would be no historically recorded deaths attributed directly to leaded oil paints.

I will have to go back to the researcher who related the information to me and verify the story.

Mona Diane Conner said...

Matt, thanks, I appreciate your response. I was taught not to use lead white by a number of my painting teachers in my art school days, and had an impression that it was more common to avoid it than to use it. Over time I was also impacted by some of the stories told by museum docents about how lead white fell out of popular use due to the health hazards it presented for artists.

Two of the artists who I read were speculated about with lead paint as a possible factor contributing to their deaths are Goya and Caravaggio. Regarding actual historical records, it would no doubt be tough to pin down who may have died from lead paint or not, just as you say.