Black Is the New Green

Black Is the New Green

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Now that traditional representational painting is seeing something of a revival in art galleries, there is a lot of interest among painters in the techniques employed by masters of the oil painting medium. In particular, there is intense interest in the work of John Singer Sargent, and to fully understand his craft, one must examine the teachings of his mentor, Emile Auguste Carolus-Duran.

Carolus-Duran by Sargent, oil portrait painting.

During his life, Carolus-Duran had established himself as a master of genre and portrait painting, whose naturalistic painting techniques derived from his studies of past Masters, most notably, Velazquez. By studying and copying works by Velazquez in museums, Carolus-Duran was able to understand and incorporate Velazquezs techniques into his own painting style. That painting style not only won him awards and fame, but was also considered unconventional, even avant-garde by the academic standards of the day. At that time, the accepted academic method promoted a system by which a painting is progressively built up, beginning with a highly finished drawing which is then colored by successive layers of thin glazes.

In contrast, Carolus-Duran taught his students how to make an initial charcoal indication of the model, and then immediately begin laying in the values with a large brush in planes of thick paint exactly the proper color. Mid-values were applied first, followed by halftones, shadows and highlights. If the student got off track, the surface was either scraped out or scumbled together and a fresh start would be made. This would occur as many times as necessary to obtain the desired effect. He insisted on studying from life and painting accurately and economically what nature reveals. This extremely challenging method was a revolutionary approach to teaching painting at the time, and not every painting student was open to it.

Still, Carolus-Durans reputation attracted talented students from Britain and the U.S., who wanted to learn his direct-painting techniques. By 1885-86 nearly half of the fifty students were Americans, among them John S. Sargent, Carroll Beckwith, Theodore Robinson, Will H. Low, Kenyon Cox, and many other artists of note. Sargent was one of the most talented and capable of those students and soon became a favorite of Carolus-Duran, who honored him by sitting for the now-famous portrait.

Carolus-Duran also insisted on the use of a limited palette of colors: black, verte emeraude, raw umber, cobalt, laque ordinaire, brun rouge, yellow ochre and white, laid out from left to right. To facilitate the choice of tones, he mixed two or three gradations of brun rouge with white, two of cobalt with white, two of black and white and two of raw umber, also with white. In particular, Carolus-Duran knew the Old Masters technique of mixing beautiful, rich greens from black and yellow ochre. In our Members article, Secrets of the Old Masters: Mixing Beautiful Greens from Black, we show you how to get those subtle greens in your portrait and landscape work.

–John and Ann

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