Oil Painting: A Study of Velázquez Results in Portrait Colors

21 Oct 2006

John Howard Sanden is one of the country’s leading portraitists working today. His clientele includes leading political, business, and religious figures, and he has toured the nation teaching his portrait-painting technique to thousands of artists.

by John Howard Sanden

In 1624, in Madrid, Spain, Diego Velázquez stood before his easel opposite King Philip IV of Spain. As the light from the window fell on the young monarch's face, the artist dipped his brush into the white pigment, then into yellow ochre, and finally into mercury vermilion, the warm red then in use. The artist's brush swirled the three pigments together, producing just exactly the shade on the king's forehead.

 

Three hundred years later, in New York City, a young Russian émigré who was beginning his art studies, stood before another Velázquez painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  That swirl of three pigments still lay glistening on the painted face.  Experiments on the student-artist's palette (substituting cadmium red light for mercury vermilion) confirmed the mixture.

The young art student was Samuel Edmund Oppenheim (1901-1992), who became a leading American painter and teacher.  His popular classes on oil portraiture at the Art Students League of New York, in Manhattan, were innovative and influential. Oppenheim continued his studies of Velázquez throughout a long painting career.

Oppenheim's years of intimate and painstaking scrutiny and analysis of Velázquez’s paintings resulted in a series of pigment formulations, which Oppenheim considered fundamental to the structure of a Velázquez portrait.  These pigment formulations were passed on to Oppenheim's students at the Art Students League of New York. 

These formulations included three pigment combinations for light-struck areas (in the normal Caucasian complexion), two combinations for transitional—or halftone—areas, and two darks for shadow areas. These seven pigments had to be further modified with additional colors to precisely match the observed phenomena.  In other words, the Oppenheim/Velázquez pigment combinations were not "formula" colors but simply starting points for the final color mixture, to be arrived at through traditional observation-based analysis and adjustment.

In 1972, Oppenheim retired from teaching at the Art Students League of New York, and I was hired to teach his class. Eager to perpetuate his teaching concepts, I formulated the pigment combinations that he had given us and asked the Martin/F. Weber Company—which was founded by Frederick Weber, the longtime lecturer on artists' techniques at the Art Students League—to produce them.

This fact inspired me to approach Stewart Klonis, the executive director of the Art Students League, with the proposal that the league serve as a financial sponsor for the colors, which by now had been christened the "Pro Mix Color System." Klonis took the proposal to the league's board of control, which voted unanimously to fund the undertaking. Thus the Velázquez/Oppenheim pigment combinations were born in 1974 with the league's blessing and financial backing. In the 32 years since, the colors have been purchased by 50,000 artists worldwide.

To learn more, visit the John Howard Sanden section of www.worldofportraitpainting.com, and click on "Commentary" followed by "A Study of Velázquez' Technique Results in Portrait Pigments for Today."   

John Howard Sanden is one of the country’s leading portraitists working today. His clientele includes leading political, business, and religious figures, and he has toured the nation teaching his portrait-painting technique to thousands of artists. To learn more about Sanden’s approach, see his feature article in the fall 2006 issue of Portrait Highlights (“John Howard Sanden: Following Reliable Procedures,” by M. Stephen Doherty).


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