Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Copying at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

 Ingres Copy of Jacques-Louis Leblanc, 8"x10" Oil on Linen

As an artist working to convey a subject’s character while studying the subtleties of human form from life I am constantly tasked to choose specific aspects of the model to include.  All master works of art present a series of important decisions that effectively depict the reality of a subject’s mood.  Through studying what master artists have noted I gain insight into ways of portraying a subject to convey a particular sensibility.   I recently have had the opportunity to copy Ingres at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in their Copyist Program.

The opportunity to copy in front of the actual painting allowed me to study the piece in its highest resolution, which revealed more aspects of the piece to me than just copying from a reproduction.  For example, by studying the painting in person I could more clearly see the range of how thickly he applied paint to highlight areas versus how thinly he left other sections of the portrait, how paint strokes were applied in a perpendicular direction to the angle of light for representing form and how he layered paint in the background to suggest atmosphere.  I learned a lot from Ingres' incredible painting and am sharing some of the things I learned and the process I followed in this post.

Image from
 James Gurney made a blog post on area by area painting,, that mentioned this study above completed by one of Ingres students.  This study demonstrates the process of completing a painting one form at a time.

I researched an article published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, "'Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch': Reflections, Technical Observations, Addenda, and Corrigenda": Metropolitan Museum Journal, v. 35 (2000) ,
, The article notes that "Ingres usually prepared his paintings with lead white grounds over which he would sketch in his composition in a dry medium such as pencil or black chalk." On top of this drawing the layers of paint would be applied.  Ingres paintings are observed to reveal a procedure without much glazing for correcting.  The article states, "La Belle Zlie (cat. no. 8; Figure 5) is a tour de force of Ingres's early career, painted in a very direct manner with only the minor revisions noted"  Furthermore, the article states, "... the portraits of Moltedo, Queen Caroline Murat (cat. no. 34) and Gouriev. Here, the fluidity of medium and the openness of execution, with gaps at the junctures of forms revealing a warm pinkish underlayer".  This observation seems to suggest that the thinner pink areas between individual forms are a result of a pinker underlayer showing through where the artist was thinly attaching to a previously painted form during subsequent painting sessions.

 I have found focusing on one form at a time to allow for more concentration on developing each area within a given time frame.

After completing a linear block-in I transferred my drawing to the canvas with an oil transfer.  Then I completed a thin underpainting with oil paint diluted with Odorless Mineral Spirits, in this picture seen in the cheek, mouth, chin and hair.   This underpainting served as a base layer so that if the translucency of oil paint in the more opaque final layer did not completely cover the ground, the underlayer showing through would be closer in color and value to the final layer than the white of the canvas.  

According to the article from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Ingres used an underlayer for this painting.  The article states, "that of Monsieur Leblanc has a brown-red imprimatura".  I can imagine that he used a slightly thicker underpainting based on how I noticed colors mixed with lead white were covering my underpainting.  Because my underpainting was so thin and lead white can be quite translucent I had a difficult time entirely covering up my underpainting in some places.  If my underpainting was thicker than the underlayer would be closer to my final colors and the final layer of paint would sit more opaquely on top of an underpainting that already had more paint.


I worked on a smooth oil primed linen, ArtFix 84C.  I used two different sets of colors for this copy.  At first for the initial two sessions I used the colors I normally use for my painting, which included modern colors that wouldn't have been available to Ingres during the 19th century.  That palette consisted of Titanium White, Cadmium Yellow, Cadmium Orange, Cadmium Red, Yellow Ochre, Transparent Brown Oxide, Raw Umber, Ivory Black and I did use some Flake White to more thickly apply highlights.  

I was used to the opacity of Titanium White but after I switched to a palette that included Flake White and colors that would have been available during the 19th century I noticed a difference in the translucency of the paint quality that seemed closer to the finish in Ingres painting than when I was using the more opaque Titanium White on my palette.    I can imagine that Ingres' palette was similar to David's palette.  According to Birren's "The history of color in painting", David used oils that consisted of red and yellow earth colors and the addition of Chrome Yellow and the purest form of Vermilion in his later paintings.  The palette I used for the rest of the copy included Flake White, Naples Yellow, Cadmium Yellow (they had "Chrome Yellow" in the 19th century but the closest approximation I could find to that color was Cadmium Yellow), Yellow Ochre, Transparent Brown Oxide, Vermilion, Chinese Vermilion, Venetian Red, Raw Umber and Ivory Black.

I developed this copy one form at a time.  I focused on individual sections within each three hour copy session. While studying each individual form I observed ways that Ingres described features of the portrait.

 One of the most captivating aspects of his painting that I was studying is its incredible specificity to paint each moment of the curve of form on every feature. A distinct value and color are opaquely painted with each brush stroke to describe form with a three dimensional tangible quality that brings the portrait to life. It was as if he built the portrait out of tiny blocks of paint strokes that seamlessly bend into each other.  Additionally,  I was studying how the individual features flow naturally into each other in his painting, such as the cheek merging into the mouth along a curved pathway.  It is as if all of the forms hug the curve of the forms they merge into and flow into each other like waves following a current.  By studying the painting in person I could more clearly see the range of how thickly he applied paint to highlight areas versus how thinly he left other sections of the portrait and how he layered paint in the background to suggest atmosphere.

For as seamlessly Ingres could merge forms into each other he also specified areas with clear straight divisions at times to clarify distinctions between features.  I noticed in the shadow shape of the eyebrows how the straightness of parts of the shape added strength and clarity to balance the more curved areas of the portrait.

 I noticed a strong clarity to shapes of shadows that in some cases was enhanced by grouping the shadows with other dark areas.  In the eyes I noticed that he would group the shadow shape of the upper eyelid to the cast shadow and pupil shape which created a dynamic unified shape.  The turn into the eye from the upper eyelid was subtly blended from the value of the eyelash shape softening into it to suggest the last bit of curving down into the eye. By just subtly using the softness of the shadow shape to turn the form he maximized the use of the strong unified shape of the shadow on the eye.

In terms of color I noticed Ingres used a strong sense of value and form to guide the progression of color decreasing in intensity as forms turned away from the light.  For how bright his painting appears at a glance it was surprising to see how much of this painting is vastly grayer than the brightest and most intense area on the forehead.

There are many other aspects of this painting that gave me insight into how Ingres made effective decisions to powerfully describe the sitter in this portrait but these were a few that stood out to me.

I also made a smaller color study to reference the larger color and value relationships while working on my final painting.

I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to study one of my favorite paintings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and learned so much from the experience.  There is an exhibition of the copies from the Fall Copyist Program this Friday, December 15th, from 5 - 6 PM at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Uris Center for Education in the Carroll Classroom.  The address is 1000 Fifth Avenue, 81st Street Entrance, New York, NY 10028.

For more information on the Copyist program at The Metropolitan Museum of Art please visit,

- "Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch": Reflections, Technical Observations, Addenda, and Corrigenda"
Gary Tinterow - Charlotte Hale - Eric Bertin - Metropolitan Museum Journal - 2000
- Birren, Faber. 1964. The history of color in painting. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, Inc.