The Holy Grail of Flesh Tones, Part II: Velazquez

A funny thing happened the other day as I was googling through the web universe in search of greater enlightenment on flesh tones… I found a blog post entitled “The Holy Grail for Painting Flesh Tones.”  I smiled, took the bait and after (re)reading the post found myself asking what kind of heartless bastard serves up such a promising title only to leave the starry-eyed believer in concrete craft alone in the foggy abyss of theory and performance avoidance?

To which I realized the only answer was to make it up to my starry-eyed self and to anyone else out there searching for what can sometimes seem an impossible question to answer.  So here goes…

I was able to print what I think were a couple of pretty good quality photos of the head of Philip IV by Velazquez, though I hope to learn better just how close this next January (and more on that next February).

Below are my notes on the process.

Notes on the copy of Philip IV (Old) by Velazquez

Sept. 3rd, 2011 – First Session

I started with the following palette:

Michael Harding:

  • Yellow Ochre
  • Trans Oxide Red
  • Vermilion
  • Titanium White
  • Ivory Black

Robert Doak:

  • General Ivory Black
  • New Titanium White

Used the Monarch brushes on Belgian canvas from Poggi.  Used Doak’s Ivory black for drawing and for the eyes.

End of session observations: Doak’s General Ivory Black is grittier and more purple than Harding’s Ivory Black, which is bluer.

Sept. 5th, 2011 – Second Session

Stef rightly observed that the color was off. There was more green in the image… if the photo is to be believed.

So, added Raw Umber to my palette. Revelation: Raw Umber + Titanium White for flesh!

Used Doak’s Raw Olive Umber Dark for the background.

My set up during the process: note that as I would mix colors I would not only test them on blank canvas, but also dab some on to the photograph.

Sept. 8th, 2011 – Third Session

Continued with Raw Umber, White, Vermilion, Ivory Black… then Doak Gen. Ivory Black and Harding Burnt Umber.

End of session observation: Burnt Umber is definitely the color of the shadows in the eyes.

Sept. 10th, 2011 – Fourth Session

Burnt Sienna, where have you been? How is it I have thought that Trans Oxide Red took your place. Not true. Burnt Sienna is more opaque (obviously) but also more brown, less red. Beautiful when mixed with some Tit. White and Vermilion. This, I think, is the proper flesh palette, together with Raw Umber.

Painted Doak’s Trans Sepia over the olive background.

So, final flesh palette for this painting:

Ivory Black (both Doak and Harding, use the latter for more bluish shades), Titanium White, Raw Umber, Burnt Sienna and Vermilion.  Raw Oliver Umber Dark was used only in the background.  Note that I never used Yellow Ochre.

To those who felt cheated after reading the first Holy Grail, I hope this has made up for it!

The final result. Copy of Velazquez by TJA, September 2011


7 replies
  1. Don Carlson
    Don Carlson says:

    I always found it interesting that if you lightened a reddish-orange with titanium white you get a warm flesh tone, but if you lighten a yellowish orange with titanium white it just looks like a really light yellowish orange. For Flesh, my best results have been raw umber with some titanium white mixed in. But I don’t paint, I sculpt… So the darker tones in shadow details are accomplished with my lightening, as opposed to actuallyc creating those shades with paint.

  2. Anthony Apesos
    Anthony Apesos says:

    Why does anyone use titanium white?–it kills the colors. If you don’t use flake white because you are avoiding lead–well then stop using cobalt, mercury and cadmium colors as well–they will all kill you–some even faster than lead. Lead white is warmer and more transparent and dries faster into a stronger paint film. If you are trying to copy old master effects, you can’t be without it

    If you don’t eat it or breath it, it won’t hurt you. Titian and Picasso died old.

  3. tja
    tja says:

    Anthony, it is indeed hard to believe that without a good lead white, emulating the flesh and effects of the Old Masters would be very difficult. However, Odd Nerdrum does it; his only white is Titanium White:

  4. Anthony Apesos
    Anthony Apesos says:

    really! i am surprised– but then again Nerdrum is not trying to copy but emulate. also he glazes so much that his mixtures with titanium white are–i would guess–rarely on the surface. i must admit– i have only seen only about a half dozen of his paintings in person.

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