There’s a marvellous painting by John Singer Sargent called An Artist in his Studio. It shows a balding man in obviously reduced circumstances, his canvas half onto his mussed bed. He’s attempting to match colours from what appears to be a postcard.
The painting is bitter-sweet and, in a way, sad. By the window’s clean light, the old fellow is trying to get it right. It’s even sadder when we realize that these days “trying to get it right” is in danger of becoming a lost art. We are in the days of anything goes. Verisimilitude is often suspect, and many artists bend toward fashion, decoration and expediency. In times such as ours, matching suffers.
In one of my earlier incarnations I took a flyer at ornithological art. Birds. In those days I laboured over found kills — “road pizza” — the remains of falcons or bluebirds. Pinning out the wings I attempted to match the colours of nature. There was the miraculous gray-blue of a heron’s breast and the iridescent head of a mallard drake. Local colour aside, this sort of work is complicated by the colour of the ground, and nearby colours reflecting their light on the subject. I can tell you that the job turns decent young chaps into incoherent babblers. Maybe that’s why bird artists are such odd ducks.
But what lessons these efforts hold! What an education is in the wings of a teal. I don’t regret a feather. Next time you’re looking over your subject — a head of sandy hair, a sandbar, a Sandhill Crane — ask yourself, “How do I match that colour?” Nowadays you have your choice — you may not have to get it right. But it’s good to know that you can.
How? Patience. Trial and error. Going to bed with your tubes. Like the old man in the Sargent painting, getting by the window-light and looking — back and forth — really looking and seeing. Mixing and matching. Did I mention patience?
Esoterica: Many artists have realized that you can match most of the tones found in nature with a variety of pigments, from a variety of directions. Furthermore, some ingredients seem to simply disappear in the brew, and yet they make their contribution. Bright cadmiums are surprisingly useful for neutralizing and sophisticating earth tones into luminous grays.
This letter was originally published as “The art of matching” on June 3, 2003.
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“They’ll sell you thousands of greens. Veronese green and emerald green and cadmium green and any sort of green you like, but that particular green, never.” (Pablo Picasso)