Notes on Copying Velázquez in the National Gallery

Notes on the notes: this post is long overdue!  My glorious trip to the National Gallery occurred almost one year ago and the following notes I took on my iPad before, during and after my time in the National Gallery.  I had put off publication mainly because I was going to accompany these notes with a video to, but I don’t see that happening any time soon so no need to wait further.

For a look at some of the pictures taken during my time in London, please visit this page on my paintings and drawings website.

Finally, good luck to my friend Peter, who is heading to the National Gallery this January to copy Rembrandt!



December 26th, 2012, writing from Noci, Puglia

For the Painter’s Log – Copying Velázquez

January 11th

Day before the first day of copying, sitting in The National gallery in front of both paintings.

Philip IV is smaller than I imagined in my mind; Rokeby Venus is larger.

(I’m shocked by how small the virgin Mary is!)

Looks like the Admiral attributed to V by Solomon is now attributed to Mazo!

Flesh is darker than I imagined in general, especially in the Pondering of Christ by a Christian Soul.

Is the secret to exceptional flesh really more about subtlety in value and less to do with color?

There will be quite the crowd tomorrow. I must get a good night’s sleep!

Zan and Neil are the two men I met at the Duty Manager office.

Note the color of the wallpaper: creme red/burgandy red with a kind of floral pattern.

Note also the frame around both paintings. I wonder the story and age of each.

Jan 12th – Day One on Philip IV

Have worked for two hours. Pleased so far (see photo) but very difficult to understand the flesh tones. Time for lunch.

Palette so far:

  • Raw umber
  • Ivory black
  • Yellow ochre
  • Flemish white (Doak)
  • Burnt umber
  • Tried some of Doak’s raw olive umber, but it didn’t convince me.

Still don’t have the luminosity in the flesh. See second photo. Is that something that can be achieved alla prima, or will I get that only after it has dried and I can lay in more paint.

Question: try your v flesh? Or t flesh?

Color I forgot to mention: Lapis Lazuli.

Worked the V flesh (michael Harding Transparent Red Oxide + Cremnitz white with walnut oil)… Definitely improved the luminosity, but it does not yet seem to rival the brilliance of the original.

See photo 3: drawing is good, but something not yet right with drawing. Too wide? Yes, I think so, on the right side.

Am stopping for today… 5 pm. So 10:30 to 5 with one hour for lunch.

Carol, Sheila, Pat, Di, Mary… Some nice ladies I just spoke with after cleaning up.  Sitting now in front of the work… Waiting to take a quick video… But the guard is standing right next to me! Guard names: Sheik, Me-lanie, Boris.

Review of today’s process:

  1. Block in with raw umber and ivory black.
  2. Flesh started with vermilion, flemish white, ivory black, yellow ochre… Some touches of Lapis lazuli.
  3. Added burnt umber to palette for shadows and hair on right side.
  4. Eyes of black and some lapis.
  5. Kept edges soft!
  6. Built surface of background. Continued search for correct color. Mixed yellow ochre with ivory black to get more of the green tint.
  7. With flesh tacky (semi-dry), I started to lay over V flesh mix. Worked well… But I think I can still push further with this technique.
  8. Pushed shadows with a mix of burnt umber and vermilion.

Brushes used: hog bristle for background, bull hair for flesh and sometimes the da Vinci synthetic for small details.


  1. Try T flesh mix?
  2. Try softer brush for background?

January 13th

First steps:

  1. Block in background color and clothes with soft brush. Try and get color and value as close as you can. If background is greenish, then clothes are more bluish? What is the color of the black in light??
  2. Face, check the drawing: height and width.
  3. Use test strip to check flesh color. Not sure T flesh is answer. Put V and T on test str and see.
  4. Make sure shadow colors and values are accurate.

First session complete (see next photo), about one hour on the background. Used yellow ochre and ivory black with a touch of raw umber, but I wonder if the solidity of the background wouldn’t benefit from more raw umber?

In the black shirt used straight ivory black with some Lapis lazuli… The black in the clothes is certainly more of a blue black.

Brushes note: the block studio bristle worked much better than the Jackson’s black hog bristle.

Flesh: I held up the V flesh on the grey ground to the painting and it appears to brighter than the flesh on the actual painting. Curious.

Next step, darken shadows in flesh.

Eureka! Shortened the forehead… Made a big difference. Next photo. Now must fix hair.

2pm, next photo. Hair looks pretty good, but I wonder if it is still too wide.

Finding wonderful colors with raw umber, white, vermilion, burnt umber.

Used my verdaccio middle grey on the collar.

I thought that I would need naples yellow in the hair, but instead stayed with yellow ochre, white, raw umber and burnt umber.

Note the solidity of the paint! Also, have been using very little oil.

Next photo… Batteries running low on camera.

5:45, no more photos as batteries are dead.

Drawing is better, though something still leaves perplexed; I continue to suspect that the head is too wide…or maybe i just need to push the forehead back up?

I am using the Doak raw olive umber dark with the ivory black. Working well. Better covering power, which was needed.

January 14th – The Day After

Great stories to tell…

Marguerita. Or Maria Marvel! (read with your best indigo Montoya / Banderas Puss-in-Boots Spanish accent):

“Oh, this is wonderful, but the head is longer, you see? You must make it longer. But you are almost there… You are so close!”

Moments later, “I think I know what is wrong; the eye drops, you see. His right eye, which is on our left, it drops. You have a straight line, but there it drops.”

I said to her, “ok, stand there and watch, I’m going to fix it.” Michelangelo, the hand of David and Marble dust came to mind.


“Oh, yes, much better. It is wonderful, you are very close.”

I told her to come see me in Rome. We’ll see.

* * *

Julie Jackson: she started to talk to talk to me about paints, Michael Harding, then medium and she noticed there wasn’t any smell of turps… Only walnut oil, I told her.

Then: “I run a life drawing course at the Royal Academy on Wednesdays, would you like to come?”


* * *

Maurizio and Daniel, some nice end of the day critics. But just before :

“That looks nothing like him.” without turning I chuckled; I knew it was Angela. And Kareen was there. They took some fantastic pictures. And Angela had some really good guidance, especially regarding the flesh. Which brings me to the ultimate lesson: solidity.

January 16th

Eowyn and I mixed some paint yesterday and made some really interesting discoveries: for a good flesh base, the best formula appears to be Doak Flemish white with a touch of Williamsburg Lemon Yellow Ochre and a tickle of Vermilion… Later adding some of the Italian Roman Black Earth to get a nice shadow tone.

We also muted and warmed up the Galena Grey / New Titanium White mix by adding a “wash” of burnt umber, Italian black roman earth and flemish white.

January 17th

National Gallery: 2 days before the Venus. Sitting in front of her as I write.

It really is about solidity: the ability of a color to hold a space and how visual strength of the color depends on its thickness.

I had previously asked the question: “are there areas of painting that are painted thinly but represent the illusion of solid forms, like stone, flesh etc?”

But it is the opposite that should be examined: are there areas that are painted thickly, yet not intended to hold the space? The thickness of paint, I think corresponds to two things: 1. The importance and power of the space and area and 2. The importance it plays in the overall balance of the composition.

Sweet Venus! See you day after tomorrow.

January 19th, Day 1 on Venus

Flesh tones are MUCH darker than anticipated. Using only vermilion, Flemish white, roman black earth and a touch of lemon ochre. Also, using walnut oil to draw, but stand oil and calcite to mix the body of the paint.

Still perfecting the drawing… Though I have played with some of the flesh colors on her bottom. Now back to the drawing…

January 20th, Day 2, 10:20 am, Last Day

Right away I saw the drawing that needs adjustment: bottom buttock needs to be longer to the right, maybe higher up.

Angle of back also need to arc a little higher to the right.

Head position looks good but I think the right arm needs to come lower. Yes, looking at it now the bottom of her thumb must be even with top left of where her shoulder meets her neck.

Need to make background much darker to get a better sense of light in figure; when my painting sits beneath the picture it appears to be brighter, but when it is on the easel it appears darker.

I have a very pink figure; I’ll need to think of ways to make her a little more golden and a little more blue (purple) in the shadows.

No guts, no glory.

11:46 am

Okay, I think I have figure a few things out:

  1. The drawing is better: elongated the lower buttock; lowered the right shoulder; fixed the arch of the back.
  2. Used some burnt umber with the roman black and red to work the shadow where the back meets bed sheet.I
  3. It’s the warm over cool! Plus the use of bull hair! Have used the Titan flesh over yesterday’s mixes.
  • Plus ivory black to cool them off when needed.
  • Note the Titian flesh is Cremnitz white in walnut oil + a Dan of crimson lake. It works well because of its transparency.
  • Should also note that I’ve added some damar to my walnut oil.
  • Also of note: my premix of lemon ochre and vermilion.

Now going to use a second bull hair brush to work the shadows around the neck…

2:18 pm, just back from lunch. The head needs to be smaller.

Saturday, January 21st – The Day After

Understanding flesh tones:

  1. Work only with roman black, lead white and vermilion. Get the drawing with a walnut medium. Use hog bristle brushes and a mix of black and red.
  2. Build form with solid contrasts, use palette knife if needed. Also use calcite carbonate to extend paint. CaCO3 Use stand oil as medium. Soften edges of form with large soft hog bristle. Let sit for day.
  3. Now starts the process of working from cool to less cool to warm. In the Venus copy, I’ve now switched to a medium of walnut oil with damar.
  4. Build flesh with the Titian Flesh: Cremnitz white in walnut oil + crimson lake. Switch to bull hair brushes to get better diaphanous flow. Vary the warm and cool with vermilion, lemon ochre and black; cool over shadows, warmer on flesh…. Though in some cases shadows will go warm (lower back of Venus where she is lying on the sheet).
  5. After building and smoothing form further with the above, use big bristle to unify.
  6. Now switch to Velazquez flesh and warm up the lights and reduce further the contrast between light and shadows. Then final touches with big brush, and there you have it.

Color Palette of Venus and Resulting Affects

Ground: galena grey + new titanium white, washed with burnt umber, lead white and roman black earth.

Roman Black Earth: top right background with varying body to creat the gradiation.

Lapis Lazili + Lemon Ochre + Ivory Black: bottom blue drape and covering chiffon. Note the extraordinary transparency covering her lower buttock! Also worth remembering that this was painted over an initial layer of blue painted with black and blue ultramarine.

Vermilion + Crimson Lake + Lead White: top right curtain, ribbon. Note: ribbons were one shot! Laid in shadows first, then pulled the whites and reds over the top.

Flemish White: laid over the under painting for the white sheet.

Sent from my iPad

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