Velazquez, Detail from Las Meninas

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A Look at Technique & Pigments
A painter's technique is one of the mysteries of artistic creation. During the seventeenth century, all painters used the same materials, materials which tended to be rather simple if not at times crude. Cloth served as the support, and the pigments and binding materials were made by combining a range of organic and inorganic substances. Yet the results obtained vary considerably from painter to painter. These differences surely result from a given painter's vision of the possibilities of his art; in other words, his pictorial intelligence. The more daring, ambitious, or unconventional that vision, the more the painter had to experiment with the basic materials and techniques of execution-thus the unfailing coincidence between technical mastery and great art.

Velazquez is certainly a prime example of this corollary, and the process of trial and error which ultimately led to the inventive technical means by which he sought to re-create and refresh a vision of the world is the focus of this section. It is also crucial to understanding the commentaries on individual works, which are the heart of the book.

The range of pigments is very small. With one or two exceptions Velazquez used the same colors throughout his career. However, the technique of mixing and applying them changed considerably as his understanding of the art of painting deepened.

In the seventeenth century, painters made their colors from a range of organic materials, such as lake, and inorganic materials, such as minerals, which were combined with each other and with protein-based binding materials (glues, eggs) or with oily substances (resin, drying oil). The pigments were ground and prepared in the painter's workshop, following traditional recipes which were handed down from one generation to the next, always with the aim of perfecting the technique by finding the most stable materials possible. The binding mediums were prepared with the same care in order to achieve the best qualities in the mixtures. in this way, the processes of aging and discoloration could be forestalled.

The actual number of pigments used in this period is really quite small, and even more so in the case of Velazquez, who used only those listed below to make his colors:

WHITE: comprised of lead white and calcite

YELLOW: yellow iron oxide, lead-tin yellow, and
Naples yellow (the latter, sparingly)

ORANGE: orange iron oxide and vermilion of mercury

RED: red iron oxide, vermilion of mercury, and organic red lake

BLUE: azurite, lapiz lazuli, and smalt

BROWN: brown iron oxide and manganese oxide

BLACK: organic black of vegetal or animal origin

GREEN: azurite, iron oxide, and lead-tin yellow

PURPLE: organic red lake and azurite

from Velazquez The Technique of Genius
by Jonathan Brown