Peter Paul Rubens, Isabella Brandt (1621), 38 x 29cm (14 x 11in)
Black and red chalks, brown wash and white heightening
This portrait drawing is a supreme example of Rubens’ skill as a draughtsman. It is of his first wife, Isabella Brandt and it serves as the study for a painting which I have analyzed in this post, here.
All accounts claim that Rubens deeply loved Isabella and he was, as one might expect, deeply saddened when she died of the plaque in 1626. She was 34 years old. They had been married for 17 years and had three children together.
The drawing measures roughly 38 x 29 centimeters. That’s 11 x 14 inches for those of us in the US. If your monitor is large enough, you’ll see the image above in the size of the original. The closeups below are five times larger than that. To see the actual drawing in that kind detail would require a magnifying glass.
The technique Rubens used on this drawing is called Trois Crayon, or Trois Crayons. Trois refers to the three chalks one commonly uses in the technique: red, black and white. The paper might also be tinted with a light wash, furthering the effect. This is the case here, where Rubens used a light, brown wash.
The detail above is of Isabella’s left eye.
It appears that, at least in this area, Rubens began the eye and possibly whole head with red chalk. Notice how, in the upper and lower lids, that the black chalk is on top of the red. Nothing, of course, would have prevented him from using the chalks in any order and at any time. However, as we progress through the details, we will see evidence of the same order; red chalk, overlaid in black, and a final heightening in white.
Moving to the upper-left of her forehead, we see a mixture of strokes and smudges. Some claim that smudging (specifically, stumping) was a nineteenth century invention. That is a topic for another post but the evidence in favor of smudges is clear in this drawing.
The keys to smudging, along with everything else related to drawing, are control and intent. A random or lazy smudge does not a brilliant passage make. But a controlled, intentional one, might.
More smudging appears in this detail of her left ear. Notice the base-layer of hair as well as the sideburn area in front of the ear.
We can also see areas where red chalk was used over the black. In fact, just to the right of the lobe, we can see that Rubens may have made a correction to the drawing. The ear looks to have originally been farther back and to the right.
Notice, too, how the halftone is treated on the left, where the cheek bone turns from the side of the head towards the front. The red chalk is only lightly applied, or simply wiped off after it was drawn. Over that is the black, in the same value.
Next we come to Isabella’s nose and mouth.
What strikes me here is that her nostril hole looks like wash. The color may be the same as was used for tinting the paper, only here it is far more saturated. Or, perhaps he simply used the red chalk and wet it a little with a small brush? There may be a slight strike of black ink applied as well.
Also notice that Rubens is both coloring and modeling Isabella’s lips, whereas he is simply modeling elsewhere.
The difference is subtle but once you see it you won’t forget it. Look at the nostril wings and the bulb of her nose. Do you see how Rubens is using lines to express form? You can see the same thing on her right cheek and upper lip. This approach is also quite obvious in the detail of her eye, above.
Now look at the lips themselves. Rubens, with his pointed stick of red chalk, is laying down a smooth tone and likely erasing lighter areas from it. In that lips are more or less red, it was appropriate to use red chalk here but the same effect could have been achieved in Aux Deux Crayons (black and white chalk).
One can find examples of other artists using line or hatching to represent the form of the lips, but Rubens’ approach was to hint at color by flatly modeling in tone. In other words, he’s not drawing curved, parallel lines which follow the form. What makes this so effective is that he has reserved the technique for the lips.
The drawing is not an attempt to produce a photographic-looking reproduction of his wife, where each value is smoothly and fully applied throughout the image. Rather, it is a drawing representing his wife, where the medium being used is also fully represented. It was drawn with a point and as such line is paramount. Smoothed tone, as in the lips, and the aforementioned smudged areas, are used intentionally and for a reason.
This detail image also shows a chalk highlight on the front of the nose. Note that when you see the entire drawing, up close, you’ll rarely find an area where red chalk and white chalk literally touch. It does happen, but very seldom.
Speaking of lines following the form, the image above, of her chin and neck, shows us a fine example. Notice, too, that there is some smudging here as well.
Form turns in all directions, and depending upon where you did or are attending school you’ll hear either, “follow the form” or “draw across the form.” These seem to contradict each other, but again, that’s another post.
So why has Rubens decided to turn this form using curved, horizontal parallels rather than vertical ones? The answer is in what aspect of the form is being represented, and in some cases, the direction of the light. In this case, the curve of the neck is more horizontally pronounced than vertically. Yes, the actual muscles in the neck originate and insert roughly one above the other. But here the form to be understood and represented is more or less horizontal.
As with the choice of which chalk to use where, the choice of which way to turn the form is not always clear. Rubens, however, clearly made the correct choices.
Notice too that the hair, as in the third image from the top, is almost always drawn in the direction in which it flows. An important exception is when you’re trying to represent value. There, Harold Speed’s rain from heaven suggestion is fitting.
Now we come to Isabella’s other eye, her right.
Rubens has made a slight mistake. Pupils are circular, not a misshapen oval.
This pupil and her other seem to be toned with a dark wash, just like her nostril hole. Both pupils also have slight highlights, dropped in with white chalk, though the resulting value is dulled a bit. It’s as if Rubens put in the highlights and then slightly lifted them out or stroked over them with black. Also possible is that time and wear has dulled what Rubens drew.
This detail shows more of a printmaker’s approach to form, where the lines represent the direction of the form. There is even an area of crosshatching (the lower lid).
Doing Trios Crayons well, is difficult. The difficulty lies in the fact that one’s choices are both expanded and hindered at the same time. The basic premise is that you have all of the advantages of greyscale and some of the advantages of color. But you’re not really coloring, as one would when using a full range of color. You are merely using a single tint to suggest warmth or accent in what you are seeing.
During the Baroque period, painting flesh was often done following a certain progression: shadows were warm, halftones were cool, lights were warm and highlights were cool. Some called this process, silver and gold. It served Rubens and van Dyck quite well and I will speak more about that when I post about Rubens’ painting of Isabella.
But Trois Crayon is somewhat different and finding a pattern in an artist’s work is not always possible.
The acknowledged master of Trois Crayon, Antoine Watteau, mostly drew flesh entirely in red and white, reserving black for the darker shadows and clothing.
As an aside, below is Watteau’s Trois Crayon drawing of Rubens’ painting.
Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), Portrait of Isabella Brandt (after Rubens)
Generally speaking, is it true that the middle and darker light-tones of flesh are the areas where red is most often used. The brown undertone of the paper can help with this as well because it serves as a transition between the stark contrast of unprepared paper and the chalk. The transition areas, between shadow and lighter halftone, tend to show a mixture of the red and black. These are not smudged, but exist one on top of the other. The shadows are simply black.
And yet, there are areas in the drawing where parts of the last paragraph would be considered the exact opposite of what Rubens did.
Just remember that it’s not necessarily an ‘if-this-then-that’ proposition. In fact, for the only briefly trained, following a strict rule in Trios Crayon will likely result in a mechanical looking drawing. While we might deduce that the transition between halftone and light is a good candidate for using red, that is not unilaterally the case.
An additional issue of which to be mindful is over-modeling*, especially when it comes to using the red.
As I alluded to above, when writing about Rubens’ approach to drawing Isabella’s lips, brilliance is never more complete than when one stays within the medium being used. To put that more simply, let your line drawing be a line drawing. Revel in it. You’re using a point after all. Smoothed areas are fine and even necessary at times, but an expert line drawing is mostly just that – line.
In the end, knowing what to use and where, is a matter of experience. Copying drawings done in Trois Crayon and trying to do some yourself in front of a live model are your paths to success.
*Over-modeling is defined as making your halftones (and even some of the lights) too dark, relative to the main value of the shadow.