Yesterday, I was at Kenwood House in Highgate (in London) and had the opportunity to see a self portrait of Rembrandt, painted in his older age, from close quarters. The canvas is large. According to the Internet, it measures 114.3cm x 94cm. Here is a picture of it:
Two thing immediately impressed me about the portrait. The image looked so realistic and life like, yet the brush strokes appear to be so deft – almost cursory. You can see a work by a master painter so comfortable in his technique, that he can dash the colours onto the canvas and get a brilliant result.
As a portrait painter, I have always had one problem. All of my skin tones are too light and too pink. I struggle to get my skin tones to be dark enough. Whenever I go dark, I lose definition, because all of my darks are the same(ish) colour. My mid tones wash out, because when I mix on the palette, I always feel they are too dark and head for the white to brighten it up. The related problem I have is one of technique. Whenever I feather or blend a light area into the dark tones, the titanium white is so strong, that it reduces the effectiveness of the medium and dark tones by washing them with a white veil.
This morning, just for fun, I did something highly unscientific. I took the image of the portrait I had seem with my own eyes up close and opened it up in Paint.NET, then blew up the face to 400% size using the Zoom feature. I then took the colour picker tool and chose interesting tones from the face only, more or less at random, choosing from the highlights, mids and darks. I got some surprises. Here is my colour swatch image:
I don’t know if these colours are accurate or if they will render well on your browser, but here is what I observed. The brightest tones are actually quite orange on the white palette. They are not white or pink at all. Secondly, there is quite a range of tones and colours in the mid tones and darks. Some of the darkest tones look almost purple. Others are brown-black, while still others are burnt umber in colour. It is clear that red is being introduced.
I was expecting the mid tones to be influenced by the addition of grey and was expecting green-greys and blue-greys, but that didn’t seem to be the case. What was surprising was the sheer terracotta redness of some of the mid tones. If I had mixed such a colour on my palette, I would have assumed I had added way too much red. But Rembrandt says no.
I also discovered that the lips are just barely redder than the rest of the skin and in the shadows, the lips are much darker than I anticipated. The whites of the eyes, of course, are not white at all. Here are the two colours I picked out from the WHITES of the eyes:
If you examine the portrait in close pixel zoom, you discover that there is an awful lot of variation of the mid tones going on to define the shapes and folds of the face. All of the age-related wrinkles and furrows are rendered not by finely detailed brush strokes, but by confident application of just the right mid tone at just the right place. The colours are blended, but not overly. There are distinct transitions between tones, where required. Sometimes it isn’t the tone that shifts, it’s the chroma. You can see areas where a mid tone gives way to a redder mid tone, but they have about the same amount of greyness.
If you struggle to render skin tones, I recommend this technique of taking a picture of a master work and colour picking in Paint.NET (it’s free) to see what colours are actually in the painting. You can also learn a lot from the impressionists about their use of pastel colours, the same way.
I want to try this with a Caravaggio next!