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Helen Dunham by John Singer Sargent, oil on canvas, 122 x 81cm, private collection, 1892

When I look at the works of the Old Masters on line I can occasionally find a very high quality image which means I can scrutinise the artists’ brilliant brushwork.

Above is Sargent’s portrait of Helen Dunham. Yes, she is lovely but what I find interesting here is the artist’s handling. If you look carefully at the highlights in the silk dress you can see that they are mostly placed with one stroke. The same can be said for the grey edges of the armchair and the diaphanous folds in the top of the dress.

Sargent would fill his brush with thick paint of just the right colour and tone and try, in one go, to get the exact shape he wanted for those telling highlights. The strokes look dashed off with admirable panache, but Sargent, if the result was wrong the first time, would scrape the paint off and start again until the stroke looked right. So yes, it does appear slapped on but it was actually carefully calculated. The technique gives a freshness to the painting which is magnificent when the painting is viewed at a distance but the handiwork does stand out rather boldly closer up.

The Rokeby Venus, Velasquez, oil on canvas, 122.5 × 177 cm, 1647 – 1651, National Gallery, London

Above is the Rokeby Venus. When you walk through the National Gallery in London to reach this painting, you can see it from about thirty yards. The main impression from this distance is of softness. Velasquez took care to blur the edges of the skin to give his Venus a gentle, feminine look.

Below is a detail of the foot on the far left showing the handling. Some of the flesh colour can be seen almost two inches in the background away from the edge of the foot. It is not clear to me if Velasquez used a brush or his thumb or finger to soften the edge but it is certainly effective.

The Rokeby Venus (detail), Velasquez, oil on canvas, 122.5 × 177 cm, 1647 – 1651, National Gallery, London

Below is another portrait by Velasquez; this one of his servant, Juan de Pareja. What I find noticeable here is the one hard edge on the face, on the cheekbone to the right. At my old art school we had it drummed into us that in a portrait a hard edge attracts the eye (it does), and two hard edges on a face is probably one too many.

To the right is a detail of that edge. Now, at the cheekbone that hardness of the edge diminishes and grows progressively into softness as we follow it upwards  until it becomes quite blurred when it reaches the hair line. This is no accident. Velasquez knew exactly what he was doing. He wanted a hard feeling to the flesh around the cheekbone where the skin is thinnest and a soft edge where the hair meets the forehead and the edge is least defined.

Below is a portrait by Raeburn, probably Scotland’s finest portrait painter. Here I find the wispy nature of the subject’s hair around the ears exceptionally well painted.

From the detail , I reckon Raeburn, to achieve that featheriness, applied some off white (probably a mix of lead white and lamp black) with a hogs-hair brush using hardly any medium, if any, and lightly applied it to an almost dry background next to the side of the face. It is a matter of just a very few deft strokes.

The next painting is self portrait by Rembrandt who was very inventive with his techniques. The golden curls in his hair are made by scraping the top layer of paint and exposing the red/gold underneath.

Self-portrait, Rembrandt, oil on oak panel, 23.4 x 17.2cm, c.1628, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel

This is another self-portrait by Rembrandt but in old age. The skin seems to hang loosely about the face. He produces this feeling by heavy impasto – large amounts of paint to give volume and texture.

To the right is a detail of the face which Rembrandt has painted with all its age-born ravages. The highlight on the nose is a stutter of fading light over battle-scarred flesh tones.

Rembrandt was often capable of brutish honesty and perhaps that is what made him outstanding.


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