Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Corot's palette revealed! & notes on the ethereal colors of spring

I’ve written before (and here too) about the shimmery grays in Corot’s landscapes, which I find so utterly charming and bewitching. His gauzy, atmospheric veils shimmer with pearlescent grays composed of carefully toned neutral blues, ochres, greens, and violets ... his foliage trails into sky-brightness like forgotten music …  

But it’s only recently that I came across a write-up by the National Gallery summarizing the results of an analysis of Corot’s pigments during what they term his most representative period (the 1860s and 1870s). 

It’s his most muted, pearlescent period as well, and the report is both revealing and surprising. 

From the site:

The ground is composed of lead white, over which a brown translucent undercolour has been painted which can be seen through the top paint.. Corot has used cobalt blue in the sky and in the greyish mauve of the middle distance. The mid-green foreground is created from blue and yellow, made up of a transparent yellow (possibly chrome) and a fine blue (possibly Prussian blue) mixture with white, red and black in small amounts (my emphasis).
Much has been written, from Robaut onwards, on how Corot preferred to mix his greens, rather than use ready-made ones but in actual fact he used both, as is evidenced by other paintings in the collection. The very bright orange streaks in the boat and on the woman’s cap have been identified as cadmium orange, a pigment which came into use in the latter half of the 19th century. It has also been identified in Corot’s Les Evaux, near Ch√Ęteau Thierry, dated by Robaut to 1855 to 1865 (R1292, private collection).
Cadmiums? Corot? But it’s the admixture of white, red, and (shock! horror!) black to his green mixture that sent off the “ah-ha” moment for me. Between the complementary red and the black, that green is well on its way to a neutral hue, and the white just levels the value as well. 
Creating a similar mauve mixture for the background and taking these as the painting’s predominant tones, one can really control the painting's overall color and value, modulating these with just the slightest variations in the various proportions of light and dark paint.
I found this information while preparing to paint the old apple orchard across the street here in Hollis, New Hampshire. I wanted to do justice to the ethereal, tentative quality of the colors that emerge at the outset of these northern springs, so I decided to experiment a little with my own (cheerier and somewhat more saturated) version of Corot’s methods. 

Hollis Orchard, Early Spring 10 x 20

I completed the sketch for this painting on location in the orchard, staying until I thought I had most of the values right. I used burnt sienna thinned with mineral spirits. Then I took the canvas inside and mixed up a mess of murky, Corot-esque green-blue-gray using Prussian blue, gold ochre, alizarin crimson, ivory black, and Titanium white. It felt great breaking the rule against mixing colors with more than three hues, not to mention using the black! I recommend everybody try it asap.

I’ve generally mixed my own greens, detouring to try out tubes of sap green, permanent green, viridian (a staple anyway, for other reasons), terre vert (does anybody use this? If so, what for?), and olive green (the juicy one ground with walnut oil- can’t think of the brand). What are others doing?

Check out the National Gallery page on The Leaning Tree Trunk if you're as interested in Corot as I am - you can zoom in very close to the painting to check out Corot's every stroke. It was the first time I'd understood how he painted his tree branches and foliage, too (in darks first, then laying in sky over that, and then extending the branches out into the air using - yes, neutral gray, of course, in numerous little dabs of shimmering paint).