Colnaghi Foundation Journal 04 - Page 66

Painting techniques in the work of Jusepe de Ribera: a study based on development of the artist’s style
Painting techniques in the work of Jusepe de Ribera: a study based on development of the artist’s style
The use of pigments is wide-ranging and rich, as are
the technical resources deployed to bring out their
full potential. For instance, in the Susanna, her blue
tunic has been worked up from a base finished with
grisaille over which a light covering of high-quality
lapis lazuli was applied. In other works, however,
Ribera chose a thick layer of azurite, which has a
much greener shade and is less chromatically vibrant,
as is the case with the tunic in Saint Andrew.10
Fig. 1 / Cross section and SEM
image of a sample from the
blue mantle in the Susanna and
the Elders, showing the priming
typically used by Ribera during
his Roman period, as well as
the paint layer of high-quality
lapis lazuli.
It is quite revealing that the use of a few lines to set out
the main compositional elements (known in Italian as
an abbozzo) is a typical feature of Caravaggio’s painting,
particularly in his Roman period, a practice Ribera
used together with other types of underdrawing and
incisions in the priming layer (figs. 2 & 3).6
Fig. 2 / Susanna and the Elders,
oil on canvas, 138.5 x 179 cm,
Madrid, Galería Caylus.
Ribera’s handling of paint is direct and flowing,
and from this early stage he showed an outstanding
command of the brush, using very few paint layers.
Despite this, and although he clearly based his
compositions on detailed drawings, he often made
significant compositional corrections to his works
( pentimenti). An example occurs in the Madrid Susanna
and the Elders, where Susanna’s right leg was originally
higher, as were her right shoulder and forearm,
indicating that the artist initially intended to cover her
Fig. 3 / X-ray detail of fig. 2.
Fig. 4 / The Sense of Smell, oil on
canvas, 115 x 88 cm, Madrid,
Abelló Collection.
Fig. 5 / X-ray detail of the lower part
of the work. Note the difference
in the height of the table.
naked breast to a greater degree. An obvious change
has also been made to the facial features, which
were originally lower, and perhaps the correction to
the shoulder forced the artist to reposition the face.
The elder on the left originally extended his right
hand out, closer to the woman, and Ribera later
repositioned it further back in its current position.
Another important example of the artist making
significant changes to his composition occurs in
The Raising of Lazarus (ca. 1616), published by Javier
Portús in 2011, where whole figures were eliminated
and many of the poses in the composition changed.7
However, in other cases, works reveal a tremendous
confidence in execution and an almost total absence
of pentimenti, as in The Sense of Smell (ca. 1615-1616) in
the Abelló collection (figs. 4 & 5),8 and Saint Andrew
(ca. 1615-1616) in a private collection.9
The way the f lesh tones were produced also shows
an interesting, unusual, feature, already noted in the
paintings of Saint Andrew and Susanna: the presence
of dead colouring (an intermediate layer of paint
over the ground), which was quite dark for the f lesh
tones and always made up of manganese black,
ochre earth, and organic brown. This base would
have been intended to bring life to the f lesh tones
through an effect of transparency, although in other
works examined from this period, this layer does
not appear. This is a technique which, although
highly unusual, has been noted in the f lesh tones of
Caravaggio’s northern disciples such as Gerard van
It is precisely during this period that Ribera began
to develop one of his most characteristic techniques.
This was to outline his figures’ heads with loose
strokes, using lead white, as if creating a halo. This
defined the outlines, and these brushstrokes would
later be covered with the background colour. This
outlining of the heads can still sometimes be seen
with the naked eye and always shows up clearly in
X-ray images of his works.


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