Velasquez – His Modelling And Brushwork

WHILE speaking of colour one has gone some way towards describing the office of modelling ; but there remains a little to say about this important subject. Modelling is the basis of the art of painting, the master-trick of the craft, since it is imposed upon the painter by the very convention which compels him to express depths of space and inclinations of surface by shades of colour laid on one plane. The shortest if not the best description of the convention of painting is given when you say that it compels you to have nothing to do with anything that cannot be shown at one view in a glass. This implies the single point of sight of perspective and the single focus of impressionism. In fact, the impressionists are the descendants of the perspectivists ; they fight the same battle, and are pledged to the same cause, to show, not how things are, but how they seem. Notwithstanding the contrary opinion of certain painters, I cannot but consider modelling the most valuable acquirement of an impressionist, as with it he may render his impression of shape and yet neither rivet the eye nor detain the attention by defined lines or borders. It seems illogical, and it certainly violates the continuity of light to dispense with lines round large masses, while you carefully draw them with a rigger round eyes, mouths, noses, buttons, and other details. Brushwork then enters into the question, as it is the means used to carry out the logic of modelling, especially in the smaller sub-divisions of a picture where the minuter forms of detail must often be suggested by texture or a device of handling.

If one must divide the indivisible and name some quality of technique in which Velasquez most patently excelled, one feels inclined to choose his modelling. In expressing form by real light he finally attained to that Greek combination of broad, majestic beauty of effect, with the neatest perfection of finish. Other men, it will be said, have shown a fine command of form before him, and Velasquez himself could surely model well enough in his early works. The back of the blacksmith in “The Forge of Vulcan” and the arm of Bacchus in ” The Topers,” as well as the heads in that picture, are superb bits of modelling. In what consists the difference between this early rendering of form and the modelling of the later pictures ? To some extent perhaps in a growing feeling for comparative strengths of definition, which enabled him to avoid tricky or arbitrary expression, and to pass from piecemeal modelling to impressionistic modelling. A definition may not dis-appear in nature if you pry closely into it ; but, when looked at together with a second one, firmer and yet soft in the ensemble, the first must often be made to dis-appear if due relative force is to be kept. A step in Velasquez’s progress in comparative definition may be seen by comparing portraits of the second period, like the ” Sculptor Montanés” (Prado, 1091), or the “Admiral Pulido,” of the National Gallery, with close tight early work, such as “Philip IV.” (Prado, 1070), or even Philip, full length, in the National Gallery. Though the pictures of the second period are certainly freer, broader, and less hard than those of the first, perhaps they have lost something of the intimate rendering of form which was to be regained in final work, such as “Philip IV.” (Prado, 1080), and ” Philip Old ” (National Gallery).

Let us admit then that other men have felt form before Velasquez ; it was his merit to have shown it under one effect of light and to have expressed it with the sorcery of truth and not by any kind of arbitrary modelling. The term needs explanation ; I have used it for ten years, but the other day some one asked me if it meant the use of idealised forms instead of the actual shape of the model. Here, however, the term “arbitrary” applies to the want of reality in the means used to express them, and not to any lack of actuality in the forms themselves. Idealised form can be rendered with the least possible convention, and with a fully coloured and real treatment of light, whereas actual form can be rendered with the much more conventional and unreal mediums of pure line or black and white monochrome. An extreme but well-known instance of arbitrary modelling may be seen in those maps which express the shape of a country by contour lines drawn at successive heights. The steeper the ground the closer the lines approach, till on a cliff they merge into a deep shade. If used as modelling, this arbitrary principle would assume a spectator in the zenith whose eye is the source of light, so that horizontal planes appear whitest and vertical ones darkest.

It is not necessary to describe all the kinds and degrees of arbitrariness in modelling which have been used both before and after Velasquez ; a word or two must suffice. Leonardo da Vinci, when he was writing of modelling, blames the conventionality of previous practitioners as out of correspondence with the truths of real light. He accuses them of modelling by means of a monochromatic tint used in three or four bands of increasing darkness from full light to deep shadow. These gradation tints, something, by the way, like those used now in mechanical drawings, could be mixed with the local hue of a drapery or a flesh tint, or else might be superimposed in glazes. In both cases a sort of obligato accompaniment in monochrome was called upon to produce all the modifications of local colour that we understand by the word ” values.” Without doubt, succeeding painters have used more subtle methods of modelling, but whether they attain to the beauty and finesse of Raphael, of Rubens, of Titian, of Rembrandt, or only of Sir E. Burne-Jones, their modelling seems arbitrary and their beauties conventional beside the naturalism of Velasquez.

When we see a quite white world after a heavy fall of snow, we do not see a monochrome but the chromatic hues of a coloured atmospheric effect. Sometimes it is a tissue of rose, blue, and yellow all in a high fairy-like key, or again it is a harmony of brown and silver ; but, whatever it may be, it goes far to disprove the theory that a shadow is only a darker shade of a light. The shapes of this equally white ground are revealed by the various inclination of their slopes to the light, yet this light is yellow on one slope, blue on another, and by no means merely darker or brighter shades of one tint. The distances of the snow-fields are indicated by their absorption in atmospheric hues, but the foreground is not another shade of the colour that wraps the distance.

A red, blue, or yellow world would also model chromatically under light, and so we may be sure that every change of plane in the real compositely-hued world should correspond in the picture to a change of value in true colour.

Velasquez’s idea of finish in modelling consisted in making his rendering of light logical, convincing, and beautiful. He taught himself not to over-model every bit of a picture because he saw that the range of available values is graduated according to the inclination of real planes and not according to their size or structural importance. To burden a plane with smaller planes, perhaps steeper or equally steep, means frittering away the values that should not only distinguish, but eloquently proclaim important changes of surface. The constant repetition of sharp accidents tires the eye ; it is like the false cry of wolf that forestalls the effect of the really momentous occasion. This appears especially evident in landscape, where it is counted unwise to pretend to fully outline and model objects too small to properly exhibit the effect of shadow and light. The artist who insists on giving such accidents an important treatment generally employs a false kind of definition which really belongs to the convention of outline drawing and not to that of full-toned oil painting. Indeed, the traditions of laborious or gorgeous styles of the past linger incongruously in later art, as buttons and lappets, the relics of former fashions, remain on the coats we wear today. In a difficult passage of naturalistic modelling, painters are apt to take refuge in the older conventions of line, which contradict and destroy the consistency and mystery of revelation by true light. If bad tone is often a relic of decorative or monochromatic styles, hard and linear definition often comes from traditions of primitive draughtsmanship.

In the art of outline drawing itself, it is held difficult to perceive the true sweep and sentiment of a long line which contains small indentations often steeper in their slopes than the main inclination of the large contour. In this case, however, experience proves that breadth of treatment can be cultivated by training. It is said that in France drawing can be taught even to a man without a turn for it, but, it may be added, drawing with no merit except that of a proportionate subordination of parts. However this may be, it is certainly more difficult to teach a man to perceive relative values of colour and relative forces of definition. He must not only learn to sweep his eye along one line, but to embrace a whole area with an imaginative grasp of sight. Hence it is easy to observe contiguous values and difficult to note the relation of value between tones separated from each other by a considerable angle at the observer’s eye. It requires an impressionist to feel the connection between such values with anything like the sensation of certitude with which one feels the harmony of a chord. That is to say, it requires one whose faculty it is to conceive of all the spots and markings of a scene only in some relation to its whole aspect. The ensemble of a scene hypnotises and fascinates an impressionist as if it were a real, personal, and indivisible entity and not a mere sum of small quantities.

Breadth of view was Velasquez’s most admirable possession ; by it he made composition, modelling, and style, the slaves of his impressions. This breadth of view led him in his later pictures to vary his manner of painting according to the sentiment of his impression, so that you will find in his work no pattern of brushwork, no settled degree of intimacy in the modelling, no constantly equal force of realisation in edges, and, in short, no fixed habits or methods of expression. In the comparison of ” The Topers ” with ” Las Meninas,” it was pointed out that three single heads which are just sufficiently broad in treatment to look comfortable, would produce, if composed in one frame, a pattern too crowded and spotty from a decorative point of view. But such a compilation of unmodified studies would sin also from an impressionistic point of view. It would imply three focuses of impression, and therefore whatever character each of the separate impressions might have possessed would be jostled out of existence by the others, and it would be impossible that there could be any agreement of meaning between the aspect of the picture and its technique.

To people who have never painted, such terms as impressions, fields of vision, and angles of sight, may seem fanciful, or at least irrelevant to art. An illustration may help to show them that there is no absolute realism of appearance, but that different eyes and different habits of looking at the world would manifest different qualities and different aspects of truth. When a man reads, he does not focus individual letters but takes in a whole line at a glance; so that in ordinary reading for pleasure he overlooks misspellings, reversed letters, etc. On the other hand, a child reading letter by letter, with a smaller field of impression, cannot avoid seeing such mistakes. The large print used for children is extremely fatiguing to grown people as in order to see at one time the amount of letters required to give them the current impression and meaning of writing, they have to work over an unusually wide field of sight. If they hold these large letters at a distance from the eye, proportionate to their size, they will observe that the eye defines differently, and altogether loses very fine strokes. It is easy to apply this to painting, and it may serve to show that what you look for you will see, let it be a large thing and a continuous meaning, or small things and a jerky interrupted meaning.

Many people must have noticed the occasional effect of a portrait upon a blank canvas—an effect of grand importance, too often speedily impaired as the painter proceeds to fill in the space. This blank space happened to correspond roughly to the degree of attention which the painter had accorded to surroundings when he was painting the head ; its emptiness justified the closeness of his modelling and the precision of his definitions. When he began to focus elsewhere and to fill in accessories, the head began to look mean and too tightly modelled. Velasquez’s most closely-studied heads are for the most part isolated portraits, painted against utter blackness or against an atmospheric grey or fawn tone of great simplicity. Such are, for instance, ” The Crucifixion ” (Prado, 1055), and ” Philip IV.” (1080), in the same gallery. Indeed, the black blankness surrounding ” The Crucifixion” alone saves its antique Bellini-like details of lettering and wood-graining from looking common-place and topographical. As he became an impressionist somewhat slowly, the qualities of modelling which Velasquez always possessed appear to best advantage in those early pictures which are simple busts, as “Philip IV. in Armour” (Prado, 1071), and not in those which are full-lengths, as “Philip IV.” (Prado, 1073), or the older full-length of Philip in the National Gallery. In his later art, Velasquez never painted a wide view as he would a narrow one, nor a simple subject as a complicated one. When he painted a wide angle of sight, he either concentrated himself on a point, or steeped his whole canvas equally in a soft envelope of light. Indeed, whatever he painted, he always painted the quality of his attention to the scene, and, in virtue of that principle, his best pictures never look spotty, and never tempt one to cut them up into gem-like bits. His ensemble is always equally easy to grasp, whether he paints great groups like ” Las Meninas” and ” The Spinners,” solitary full-lengths like ” Moenippus ” and ” Aesop,” costume-portraits like “Maria Teresa” (Prado, 1084), or simple busts like the head of Philip (Prado, 1080).

But if the art of all these pictures is based on the same principles, and perhaps for that very reason, the technique is very different in them all. You may note a wonderful variety in Velasquez’s style of modelling a head, not only in different periods of his life, but in pictures of the same period, and, what is more, in heads on the same canvas. Some heads are modelled very broadly and softly, without a sharp mark, a hard edge, or small steep planes. The surface slide into each other in a loose, supple manner, that almost makes them look as if they were shaped in jelly or fluid. Some consist of bold, rough-hewn planes which give a face the force and vigour of firm chiselling. Others, again, are completed to show the finest niceties of shape and inclination, with an intimacy of feeling and a delicacy of proportion that no man has ever equalled. The handling is always discreet and inspired by the necessities of the occasion neither does it follow a determined pattern, which might impart a frozen and artificial look, nor does it seek an effect of bravura dexterity which might arrogate an undue share of attention and interest. Although no certain rule can be laid down, generally speaking, Velasquez inclines to brush in the obvious direction of the forms, so as to supplement tone and structure by the sentiment of the execution. In many cases, however, he smudges so subtly as to convey no sense of direct handling. The limb or object treated seems to grow mysteriously out of dusky depths and to be shaped by real light.

In the foregoing account of the art of Velasquez, it has been contended that his impulse to arrange a canvas grew out of the scene before his eyes ; that his severe and stately colour is. founded on nature, and that his execution becomes quiet and exact, or burly and impetuous, as the occasion demands. More than any other man’s, his work convinces us that he knew what he saw and was incapable of self-deception ; it is wholly free from haphazard passages, treacly approximations to tone, or clever tricks and processes that evade rather than resolve a difficulty. Above all, his art is interesting without the extravagance which may kindle a momentary excitement, but is apt, like a passionate mania for a woman, to die of satiety from its very violence. The restrained force and dignity of Velasquez inspire one with reverence and lasting respect ; one cannot easily fathom the depth of his insight nor weary of his endless variety.