Layering – Coloured Priming

Early Renaissance artists would often apply a thin layer of coloured size, tempera or oil paint to their panels in order to reduce the stark whiteness of the gesso. By the mid 16th century this mildly coloured layer had frequently evolved into an imprimatura, a coloured priming of reddish-brown, grey, or even greyish-pink or green, which was exploited to unite and sometimes to participate in the final colorific effect. On this the underdrawing would frequently be developed in tones of red or brown with highlights of white lead. In the work of Titian and Veronese there occur instances of local coloured priming: for instance, a passage of white drapery or blue sky might be preceded by an area of pink in order to “shine” through the final modelling. This could be interpreted as a development of such earlier practices as priming limb-portions with green earth to give complimentary undertones to the flesh-pink.

By the 17th century the imprimitura, in the works of Rubens and Van Dyck had often become two-layered itself, with a preceding reddish-brown or ochre being worked over with grey.

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