Monday, October 21, 2013

Master Study in Oil: J.W. Alexander's "Isabella"

The painting Repose by John White Alexander caught my eye at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year. I hadn't previously heard of or studied Alexander, but Repose resonated with my soul in the same way some Sargent paintings do. It came up in conversation that it was impossible to find a good art book about Alexander's work in print; you're more likely to see him in compendiums on American art or bad b&w reproductions.

Of course, I wanted to see more of his work in print too, and I saw this as a challenge. I went looking around online and there really wasn't much. There's a digital Kindle book containing a good number of his color paintings, which is worth grabbing for $2.99 if you have a full-size color Kindle. But nothing to be found in a printed book with the same color images. I thought I had something when I contacted an independent bookseller about a 40+ page show catalog from 1980 (the same year the Met acquired "Repose"). They said it had color plates... I got my hopes up, but when it came in the mail, I saw that it had only four color plates. The rest was reproduced in black and white. What a shame.

Study After "Isabella and the Pot of Basil" by J.W. Alexander
approx. 6x13 in. Oil on paper, October 2013

I hate giving up on a dull note, so I decided to get the best reproduction I could find of my favorite JWA work, "Isabella and the Pot of Basil" and do a master study. No color plates available? Fine. I'll make one.

Pencil sketch, on my drawing board next to the reference image

Unlike copying a photograph, which teaches you how to mimic lens trickery, copying a master painting (especially if you have an opportunity to do it in person) forces you to explore how the original was created, and contrast the methods of the master artist against your own. For example, immediately after putting down my first pencil stroke, I thought, "huh, did JWA start this painting with a drawing at all, or did he go straight to paint?" It's got an alla prima feel to it... not having his process notes available, I made a mental note and forged ahead the way I start my paintings...

Early and late stages of underpainting

The same story applies to the underpainting. Of course JWA wouldn't have used acrylic, but because it looks like there's color showing through thinner-infused brushstrokes in the background, my best guess is he used a warm/sepia-toned ground.

Creating masked edges and a border

This step was for presentation/preference only. JWA's original work has non-standard dimensions, so I masked off the edges around the small painting area and painted in a black border on the 11x14 paper. By tearing strips of tape down the middle, I masked out what looks like a torn paper edge. Combined with the bits of sepia underpainting showing around the border it should have a classy antique look when the tape comes off later...

The palette: titanium white, yellow ochre, burnt sienna, alizarin crimson, raw sienna, prussian blue, ivory black

Before deciding on a palette, I did a bit of research. As I've mentioned before, my pal Aaron keeps a blog on oil palettes from all kinds of painters, so I popped over to his 19th century section and cross-checked some common colors against what I have in my studio. It's sort of a pared-down version of what Bonnat or William McGregor Paxton might have used.

Oil painting in progress.

At this point I'm focusing heavily on the subtle temperature shifts in the background, caused where the warmer toned ground is showing through the cool paint.

Almost finished. Note the spots of paint daubed on the reference photo for loose color matching.

My biggest takeaway from this study was getting a feel for how Alexander uses subtle gradients over large areas, or maybe more succinctly large abstract shapes, to create depth and interest in simple compositions. That kind of thing really sinks in when you mix and lay down the paint for yourself.

There's also a lot to be said for the experience of recreating the glowing effect in Isabella's dress- I observed JWA's technique in the reproduction, and tried to recreate it by carefully applying white paint only in the brightest area, and using more thinner as the highlight dissipated (letting some of the underpainting show) before blending that into darker pigments.

Someday I must go to Boston and see the piece in person, to appreciate it fully and uncover the mysteries left unsolved in the digital reproduction. Oh, and if anyone has a John White Alexander book in print, please leave a comment!!


  1. What an impressive study, Cynthia. You successfully captured the dramatic lighting that makes this such a stellar painting. I am a fan of Alexander but I haven't had any luck finding a book. Thank you for sharing your process.

    1. Thanks so much, Kim! I think to study JWA's work requires a study in luminous paint effects, for sure. All still quiet on the book front- have had one or two suggestions that I publish one, haha.

  2. Amazing study! Thank you so much for sharing your process.
    The transparencies of background and the use of opaque painting are awesome, really catch the light effect.

    How hard is to paint a figure in a small scale like you did? Specially on the face, the expression are so well done!

    About color book of JWA's I also have not found, but I have a book about Simbolism that shows this painting in color. You can see on the link

    this is the book:

    Keep doing your inspiring and amazing work!