Friday, May 29, 2009

Portrait in Burnt Umber, and some thoughts on fugitive colors and Rembrandt

This is an 11"x14" oil sketch on canvas board, painted from life in 2008, in Anne Saitzyk's introductory painting class. We were limited to one color, burnt umber, which had to be painted fairly thickly and uniformly on the support. I actually painted the portrait into this by rubbing out paint with towels or fingers. There are a few places where I used a brush to get more darkness. (By the way, this is the same model as for Long May She Wave, but a much more realistic depiction.) This was a terrific exercise for me because it let me use the paint without needing to master using a brush at the same time.

This makes me think of fugitive colors. Something I learned at the materials seminar last Saturday is that Rembrandt used a palette loaded with fugitive colors (colors that fade badly over time). About half his palette were fugitive colors, so that there is no way for us to know what his paintings really looked like when fresh. Even partially faded, his portraits are amazingly compelling, and I feel lucky to have examples at hand to study, at the Norton Simon in Pasadena.

A few hours later
: I made it over to the museum and spent some time looking hard at the Rembrandts. There were some places where it seemed very likely that colors had faded and changed, other areas that looked fresh and immediate, especially in his partially completed portrait of his young son and in his self-portrait painted during the prosperous times.

There are many, many other Rembrandt self-portraits in existence, including very moving ones painted during bad times at the end of his life (the one I've seen is at the Louvre). Taken together they are truly formidable and tell his story clearly. (You can find them easily on line at .)

Later still: I've been reading the material at the above web page and it's fascinating. One very interesting term is "tronies," which describes certain "portrait" paintings that are not really portraits, in the sense that a tronie is not commissioned by a particular person, of a particular person. Instead, tronies are paintings, of exagerated expression, interesting types, the outlandish perhaps, which were made to be sold on the open market. Some apparently consider the Rembrandt self-portraits as tronies, useful to the artist as character and expression studies, popular and self-promoting as works of art.


  1. Fugitive colors -- I'm going to remember that term. I'm curious, it seems some sort of computer model could reconstruct the original colors, no?

    To my mind, art that shows its age is no necessarily a bad thing.

  2. The term is so romantic, I couldn't resist writing about it. I have no idea about computer reconstruction; I would guess that problems would arise in figuring how much of what colors went into making the remains. And yes, showing one's age definitely can be a good thing.

  3. Jon Singer Sargent's work has the same issues. He went with thalo green and alizerin crimson (In the 1800's, AC became the first natural pigment to be duplicated synthetically). The colors went black. You can see it in his work at the Huntington

  4. PA, sounds like I've got a trip to the Huntington in my very near future. With your comment and AH's stories on her blog, I'll have a lot to look at in new ways.

  5. Jean,

    Something else to consider is that oil paint becomes transparent over time - especially the lighter colors.

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  7. The transparency over time sounds like it could be an interesting thing to look for in old paintings.

    PA, I went to the Huntington--the first time I'd been back in over two years. So much has changed. I didn't make it to some of the new pavilions, but I did go to the re-opened main residence (mainly because of AH's description of the Huntingtons' relationship), which was fantastic, and also to the 19th and 20th century building, where the Sargents are. I could easily see the effect you spoke of in the Landfair portrait, also some wrinkling around the hand, which, with my new knowledge, I'm guessing came from too much oil.