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Master Copy: Simon Vouet Self Portrait

Most alla prima (single-session) painting done today is inspired by Sargent and the Impressionists. But the fluidity, efficiency and ease with which 17th Baroque artists like Rubens, Velazquez, Vouet, and Van Dyck executed studies and preparatory sketches was clearly inspirational to 19th century artists like Bouguereau, Sargent and Delacroix, so I've been studying those sources of their inspiration.

Self portrait by Simon Vouet, probably around 1623

Vouet was French but he studied and worked in Italy for many years, and the influence of Caravaggio is clear. I started with a linen panel that I first toned with a warm grey mixture of raw umber and lead white, and allowed it to dry completely before painting on it. I believe Vouet probably painted his self portrait on an umber-toned panel instead of this warm grey tone, but I enjoyed experimenting with this surface.

After the umber underpainting was slightly set up, I scumbled a thin wash of color over the face with broad, soft filberts. ("Scumble" is commonly used today to describe a thick, broken impasto of light paint over a dark layer, but it simply means applying lighter paint over a darker layer, whether thick and opaque or thin and transparent.)

I placed just a mark of black to remind myself of the full value range. I used lead white, raw sienna and burnt sienna for the lights, but no white at all in the darker reddish shadow mixture. Then I massed in the hair with ivory black:

Vouet's painting has another layer of umber darkening the background, but I preferred to focus my time on the face for this study, so I didn't bother more with the background.

Once the thin, dry-brushed color wash was applied, I switched to small brushes and began the final layer. I used a soft touch of the brush, loaded with opaque, full-bodied paint so I could paint over the wet layer without lifting it up. Starting at the hairline and with long, roughly hatched and somewhat broken strokes I built up a full value range, working from the forehead downwards.

When I got to the lower part of the face, everything below the cheekbones and nose, I used no white at all. Black, raw umber and burnt were all I needed to indicate the mouth, moustache and goatee.

The collar was painted with just lead white, following the basic marks I'd sketched in the raw umber underpainting. I worked from left to right, finishing each section of the collar as I went, by first brushing in some very faint landmarks with lead white thinned with linseed oil, and then when I had the shapes marked out proceeding with more confidence while applying full-bodied lead white. I adjusted and corrected some of the edges by carving with a clean brush slightly wetted with linseed oil, as if it were an eraser.


Lead white, raw sienna, burnt sienna, burnt umber, raw umber, ivory black.

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1 Comment

Oct 19, 2020

As always sadie I am inspired and awed by your talent. Hard to believe you get such a full spectrum of color and value with such a limited palette.

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