Wednesday, 19 February 2014


I recently attended The Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery’s ‘Allan Ramsay: Portraits of the Enlightenment’ exhibition symposium which as a whole was an extremely interesting event. One lecture that particularly caught my attention was one given by Rica Jones (conservator and historian of paintings) her lecture, titled ‘The significance of Ramsay's technique in context and perspective’ really captivated me -and I think anyone else interested in painting. 

Detailed bellow is some of Rica Jones’s insights in to Ramsay’s painting technique:

As a painter myself Rica’s lecture interested me because it discussed in great detail Ramsay’s portraiture painting technique. One thing I thought that really stood out to me was Ramsay’s use of under-painting for the face and skin tone of his sitters. He was known to make the initial underpainting in bright red mixed from ‘Vermilion’ and ‘Red Lake’ pigment a technique Ramsay learnt on his travels around France and Italy, the technique was at the time unknown in Britain. As a trained painter from art school this was something that curious to me, I’d always been taught that the best way to prepare a canvas was to create a tonal underpainting/first layer in Raw Umber (a kind of earthy brown colour) because Raw Umber was a neutral color that worked well with whatever subsequent layers would be paced upon it and this first layer would work well as a tonal guide helping you develop further layers towards the finish painting. The thought of using a colour other than Raw Umber for the initial underpainting foundation had simply never occurred to me.

After some internet research I couldn't find much on the subject of underpainting although I did stumble upon this blog with examples of underpainting and other painting techniques (It‘s well worth a read: )! It was noticeable that the examples of underpainting featured in this blog are a mixture of Raw Umber and Lead White! The blog states that the Lead White base gives the finished painting a translucent effect gives a face its luminosity and is especially good for use against dark backgrounds (see the pictures bellow). Apparently Ramsay’s contemporary and rival Reynolds often painted face White then worked in while paint was still wet, although Reynolds technique was inconsistent.


 California-based artist Adrian Gottlieb demonstrates the 'verdaccio' technique (pictures above). 

As for information on Ramsay’s painting Rica highlighted one source the engraver and antiquarian George Vertue who writing in mid-1738 comments on Ramsay's technique saying;

Ramsay still accustoms him self to draw the face in red lines shades ect. Finishing the likeness in one red colour or mask before he puts on the flesh colour, which he proposes as a method to make the flesh clear & transparent – and such a method was used in Italy, by Cavaliere Luti & amp; others. So did Titian he says… however when the faces are painted 4. 5. Or six times over little or nothing of that first red is to be seen.

It's worth mentioning that in many ways 1740’s Britain lagged far behind the rest of Europe in terms of art and few painters in London had enjoyed an apprenticeship from an established painter, as a consequence there was no established technique for painting flesh tones of the face. Red facial underpainting is not a technique known to be used by any of Ramsay’s contemporaries in London, nor the Scottish painters whom would have inspired Ramsay in his youth in Edinburgh. Neither does it appear to have been used by Hans Hysing, a Swedish painter who Ramsay trained with in London 1732. As George Vertue points out however the underpainting is often painted over several times meaning that the underpainting is often only visible with aids such as high magnification, x-ray, or scientific analysis of paint and pigment. As Verture tells us, Ramsay came across the technique in Italy, though it is not known precisely from whom, Benedetto Luti, who Vertue mentions, would have been dead since 1724, though many of his pupils would have been working in Italy during Ramsay’s time. In this way Ramsay would have seen himself as allying his work with the great artists of Italy, living and dead.

When it comes to the red underpainting itself Rica Jones says that the face was often elaborately done with Vermillion and Red Lake, which were used mixed together and separately to produce a tonal likeness or 'flat red mask' in intense red tones. Once this red layer was completely dry the final tones containing significant amounts of black and green-earth pigments, to stop the final face appearing too ruddy, would be added. Oil paint becomes more translucent with time allowing this salmon coloured underpainting to show through a little more over time. Its likely that this delicate underpainting technique is what makes Ramsay stand apart from his contemporaries, its noticeable that Ramsey’s flesh tones compared to other portraits of the time often seem more warm and life-like, in comparison other portrait faces of the period often appear grey and pale like dead skin masks. I think ultimately it’s this style of painting that demonstrates Ramsay as a true innovator of his time and it’s his attention to technique and detail that stand testament to his dedication as a painter.

A portrait of William Hunter from the Hunterian museum permanent collection -note the warm skin tone of the face.

As for me, next time I paint this knowledge has given me the incentive to experiment with my underpainting and attempt to put some of Ramsay’s influence to use.

More information on the Ramsay exhibition can be found here.

I also used this exhibition catalogue 'Allan Ramsay: Portraits of the Enlightenment' from the Hunterian which features an essay by Rica Jones. 

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