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Colour and Technique
  A key way in which to look at portraits is through technique, to understand the painting or sculpture as a physical object made using different processes. When we look at images in books or on the screen, we can easily overlook technique, but there are certain questions we can ask ourselves to remind us of its importance.
  Painting Technique

Many of the works of art featured on this site are created using oil on canvas or panel, but they vary significantly in their finished appearance because of the different techniques used to create them. For example, look at Rembrandt’s portrait Titus. Rembrandt first blocked in the composition in broad brush strokes, then built up paint layers, working from dark to light. The heavy use of impasto (areas of thickly-applied paint) lends the image a feeling of spontaneity and immediacy. In some areas the rough textures look as if they have been applied with a palette knife rather than a brush, while some of the fine lines of the hair have been etched into the paint by the artist’s brush-handle.

Rembrandt’s bravura handling of paint on canvas was equalled only by Frans Hals in 17th-century Dutch art. In The Laughing Cavalier the vivid colours, differing textures and details of the costume are brilliantly captured by Hals’ fluid brushwork. The face is quite carefully executed in fine brushstrokes that blend together to illusionistic effect while the layers of lace in the ruff are conveyed by the build up of layers of opaque white paint. The more translucent cuff is quite a thin wash of white with opaque strokes depicting details. Strokes of black and grey are then used to convey the sheer of the silk satin sash. It is as though Hals is creating an essay in paint and showing off his various techniques. In other paintings, artists use ‘dry’ white paint on the surface to evoke lace or the shimmer of light on silk, for example those of Queen Charlotte, The Byam Family and Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni.

The technique used on the portrait of Admiral Lord Exmouth is a much more naïve style and is almost childlike in appearance. ‘Folk art’ typically uses flattened perspective and the inclusion of objects out of scale with each other. Pictures such as this tended not to be painted by professional artists but by untrained people who painted for fun or who had a particular story to tell.


Colour can be used specifically to structure a painting: look at the relationship between the blue of the dress and the sky in The Byam Family or the feather, the bow and trimming in Madame Perregaux. Colour can also be used symbolically. For example, red symbolises the position of Cardinal in the portrait of Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni and Pauline Bonaparte’s white dress could symbolise simplicity and purity. Many artists use a limited palette, for example in the portraits Titus and Pauline Bonaparte, which can add considerably to the force of the portrait. The use of colour here focuses our attention on particular aspects, such as a feeling of intimacy or an attempt to unravel the character of a person. Other artists use a range of colours to convey luxury and opulence.

Which portrait would you say is most luxurious in its use of colour?
  Scale and viewpoint
  The scale and viewpoint of a portrait are often connected because they decide how we relate physically and psychologically to the person represented. The Earl of Leicester’s grand portrait seems to look down at the viewer. This feeling is magnified by the dog in the portrait that looks up at his master, encouraging the viewer to do the same. Although much smaller than life-size Hals’ The Laughing Cavalier seems quite grand. What is our viewpoint? Are we looking down on him, straight at him or is he looking down on us? How does this positioning of the sitter affect how we react to them? The scale of Gainsborough’s Byam Family (in reality it is around 235 x 245 cm) invites us to relate to the group in a different way: we feel almost that we could enter the space and share it with them.
Discussion Points:
  • Try comparing fast and slow processes: create a portrait of another class member in 30 seconds, 3 minutes and 10 minutes. How do the three portraits differ? How much can you say about a person in the given time?
  • Some artists use technique to show off their skills. Do the class think technique should be obvious or disguised? As soon as we are aware of the brushstroke, as in the paintings of Hals and Gainsborough for example, we are reminded of the painting as a physical object. Other painters, for example Louise Marie Jeanne Mauduit, aim for a smooth, ‘seamless’ paint surface where process is disguised completely. Which do you prefer? Which technique seems the most ‘realistic’ and why?
    Related Portraits
Rembrandt van Rijn  Titus, the Artist's Son  circa 1657
Rembrandt van Rijn
Titus, the Artist's Son
circa 1657
Frans Hals The Laughing Cavalier 1624
Frans Hals
The Laughing Cavalier
Johann Zoffany Queen Charlotte 1766
Johann Zoffany
Queen Charlotte
Thomas Gainsborough  The Byam Family  circa 1762
Thomas Gainsborough
The Byam Family
circa 1762
Francesco Trevisani Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni 1700
Francesco Trevisani
Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni
English Provincial School, Admiral Lord Exmouth, circa 1815
English Provincial

Admiral Lord Exmouth
circa 1815
Élisabeth-Louise  Vigée Le Brun  Madame Perregaux 1789
Vigée Le Brun

Madame Perregaux
    Louise Marie Jeanne  Mauduit  Portrait of Pauline  Bonaparte 1806  
    Louise Marie Jeanne

Portrait of Pauline

    Steven Van der Meulen, Robert Dudley, First Earl of Leicester, circa 1564  
    Steven Van der Meulen
(attributed to)
Robert Dudley,
First Earl of Leicester

circa 1564