To glaze or not to glaze

November 15th, 2008

Glazing, once a standard tool in every painter’s repertoire since the invention of oil painting, is not always understood by artists and art historians today since it has fallen into total disuse. In the simplest terms, glazing consists in brushing a transparent layer of paint over another thoroughly dried layer of opaque paint. The effect is analogous to placing a sheet of brightly colored acetate over a monochrome photograph. Glazing creates a unique “shine through” stained glass effect that is not obtainable by direct application of opaque paints no matter how brilliant they might be. The underpainting, on which the glaze is applied, is normally monochromatic but it may also contain some color. Thus, the two separate layers of paint are not physically, but optically mixed. The lower layer determines the form and light while the glaze layer gives it its color.

Glazing technique served chiefly to compensate the pernicious lack of “strong colors” making it particularly adapted for the brightly colored draperies. It should not be forgotten that the masters possessed very few of the brilliant colors that are widely available today. The whole range of cadmiums as well as cobalt and Prussian blue did not exist until the eighteenth century. Glazing was also economical since some of the most important glazing pigments were costly. The principle form and lighting were built up with cheap paint and subsequently glazed over with a minimum of glazing pigment. Thus, a Dutch flower painter might work up his blue flower in white and smalt, a cheap blue, and then glaze with natural ultramarine. Natural ultramarine, the characteristic blue in may of Vermeer’s works and was the costliest pigment of all, was made of powdered lapis lazuli imported from Afghanistan.

Vermeer used glazing as other Dutch painters, with parsimony. They knew glazing is not an answer-all technical solution and is most effective in isolated areas of a painting where its characteristics are fully enhanced. By the way, the lemon yellow jackets of Vermeer’s women are not glazed. They are painted with the defunct lead-tin yellow, a rather thick, dullish yellow which pales next to cadmium yellow but through careful juxtaposition shines in Vermeer’s work.

Here is an example of my own work of a fairly common glaze that Vermeer himself never employed. The girl’s jacket was first worked-up in monochrome with white and raw umber and then glazed with red madder, a brilliant ruby red. Once the whole jacket was uniformly glazed, a little white was added in the lightest area to make them “stand up,” it was left entirely transparent in the shadows which produces a rather handsome sense of airy depth. If glazes are too even and too transparent, they tend to create a candy-apple effect.

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