Monday, November 30, 2009

How to paint like Peter Paul Rubens

After studying the work of the seventeenth century Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens in College, books and at the museums, one can conclude that there was not only one set of steps or fixed formula this particular Old master followed. In art school I was taught that he started out with a "grisaille" (underpainting with grays) and then glazed over this underpainting with transparent colors.  This seems to fit perfectly well  into the nineteenth century French Academic painting protocol but Rubens to me seems to be far more spontaneous and even less methodical.  Before the French Academy there was little or no systematic way of teaching painting. You learned how to paint becoming an apprentice to a master in his workshop and every master had a  different approach to their craft. Having a closer look at the work of Rubens at the Metropolitan Museum , National Gallery of the Philadelphia Museum of art, the work seems to reveal a different set of steps.  I had already thought about this debatable issue a time ago and devised for  my Old Master techniques class two useful demos. These demonstrate the two possible ways that someone like Rubens might have worked. The first follows the protocol I was taught at The Savannah College of Art and Design. The second derives from my own observations on the different noticeable layers Ive studied of Rubens work. Ive written many notes about how he worked by observing his work up front.  What I'm showing here is super simplified information. Both protocols should be valid approximations to the original. Of course there are many books on techniques of the old masters but they don't seem to agree all the time on how a particular painter from the past painted so most of the time I find it  even more useful to go on directly to the work of a painter I admire and see for myself what the painting has to say about how it was done.  Every time you go to a museum you should be able to learn something new about art. Take many notes and make the museum your school. That is my best advice. So here I share with you my two demos. Enjoy!

Note: I have substituted Flake white by Titanium White for those who are afraid of being poisoned with lead.
I myself use Lead white as it gives  a warm, metallic semi translucent  and fast drying quality that is so much appreciated in the work of Old masters.


  1. It's not exactly right but for beginners, it's very cool

  2. It's great that you are posting this info! Very generous.

    I would say though that Rubens (and Netherlands’ artists in general) had a different conception from the venetians and what you are showing as Rubens’ technique is closer to the Italians’...Rubens school in my opinion (based on experimentation, research, and training) applies the lights and darks in the same sitting fully developed (first painting and second painting) trying to keep them separate and contrasting in almost every aspect (application, thickness, opacity, colour, etc.)Instead of applying dead colour layers and then glazing over like the Italians. In short artists from Dutch and the Netherlands from the 17th century forward relied less in overall glazes over opaque applications and more on fluid syrupy strokes and separation of light and darks in terms of application, finishing them at once if they could. all academic...a good guess only.

    Though De Mayerne Manuscript is the closest reliable source we can use...

    Thanks again...your info is really good and sound...and your work is beautiful.

    Pablo T.

  3. Very nice of you to share this. Thank you!

    There are few unfinished paintings of Rubens at the Getty. It seems that after doing the underpainting, he went straight to color, moving from light to dark and blending (perhaps with a cloth, as it is extremely smooth) as he went along.

    For those of you who have a chance to visit the Getty, take a look at those paintings.