Harold Speed, Painting from the Life: Part 1
// Gurney Journey
Today we'll start Chapter 9: "Painting from the Life" from Harold Speed's 1924 art instruction book Oil Painting Techniques and Materials.
I'll present Speed's main points in boldface type either verbatim or paraphrased, followed by comments of my own. If you want to add a comment, please use the numbered points to refer to the relevant section of the chapter.
The chapter on "Painting from The Life" takes up a major part of the book, so let's break it down into parts, starting with the introduction and Painting from the life in two colors.
1. "Painting from the antique [plaster casts] is now much out of fashion."
Fortunately it's not out of fashion any more, and is very much a part of the curriculum of modern academic ateliers.
2. Why it's good to paint from casts before painting from a live model.
Speed explains why painting from plaster casts is a good idea. Skin has a lot of variation in local color. This variation has to be considered in addition to the modeling. Also, hair also doesn't follow the normal principles of modeling. I would add that if the light is placed too near the model, there's a variation in value intensity that also must be considered.
3. "Keep your work as large and simple in treatment as possible."
This is consistent with Speed's advice throughout: State the broad masses with a big brush first and save the nuances for later.
4. "Reflected lights in the shadows are what give the luminous quality to them, without which they are heavy and opaque."
Speed explains how reflected light usually comes from the direction opposite to the light, making the darkest part of the shadow (often called the "core" of the shadow), just beyond the terminator. This isn't always true, however. If there are sources of reflection or secondary fill lights near the viewer, the core won't be apparent. It's often an artistic choice whether to include it. The core of the shadow is also generally not apparent with indirect, diffused, or overcast light.
5. Painting from the life in two colors.
Speed suggests using blue-black for the cool color. You can mix such a blue-black by mixing some French ultramarine deep with ivory black. On the warm side, you can use Venetian red or burnt sienna. As Speed says, the relationship of warm and cool colors is one of the most important features to watch in flesh painting, or for that matter, any painting.
6. The advantages of painting with limited palettes
"In training oneself, the thing to aim at is taking the difficulties one at a time, and concentrating the whole attention on them....Muddling along with a full palette, and the whole difficulties of painting presented at once, which is the common method, is asking for trouble."
Using limited palettes is like living within a strict financial budget, where you're forced to account for every expense. It forces the painter to get the most out of the limited resources, and encourages clean handling.
"Fine coloring usually results from a simple palette the range of which has been fully used. You are forced, by starting with two colors, to find the utmost that can be obtained with them." Later when you use a full palette, you won't be seduced into using too many bright colors.
7. "In flesh, seen under an ordinary indoor aspect, the half-tones are usually the coolest colors, the warm being in the shadows and to a lesser degree in the lights."
I'm always a little skeptical about such hard and fast rules, but this is a good one to think about and experiment with. The Bouguereau detail at left shows a very nice distribution of warm and cool colors, with slightly cool halftones and warm colors in the shadow and the forms and hollows of the form. I suspect that subsurface scattering and the peculiar qualities of how skin reflects light may be a part of this principle.
Next week—Chapter 9, "Painting from the Life," continued.
In its original edition, the book is called "The Science and Practice of Oil Painting." Unfortunately it's not available in a free edition, but there's an inexpensive print edition that Dover publishes under a different title "Oil Painting Techniques and Materials (with a Sargent cover)," and there's also a Kindle edition.----
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