The Analysis of Beauty

Chapter 14: Coloring Skin

William Hogarth


By the beauty of coloring, the painters mean that disposition of colors on objects, together with their proper shades, which appear at the same time both distinctly varied and artfully united, in compositions of any kind; but, by way of preeminence, it is generally understood of flesh color, when no other composition is named.

To avoid confusion, and having already said enough of retiring shades, I shall now only describe the nature and effect of the prime tint of flesh; for the composition of this, when rightly understood, comprehends everything that can be said of the coloring of all other objects whatever.

And herein, as has been shown in Chapter VIII of the manner of composing pleasing forms, the whole process will depend upon the art of varying; i, e, upon an artful manner of varying every color belonging to flesh, under the direction of the six fundamental principles there spoken of.

But before we proceed to show in what manner these principles conduce to this design, we shall take a view of nature's curious ways of producing all sorts of complexions, which may help to further our conception of the principles of varying colors, so as to see why they cause the effect of beauty.

1 . It is well known, the fair young girl, the brown old man, and the negro — 'nay, all mankind, have the same appearance, and are alike disagreeable to the eye, when the upper skin is taken away: now to conceal so disagreeable an object, and to produce that variety of complexions seen in the world, nature has contrived a transparent skin, called the cuticula, with a lining to it of a very extraordinary kind, called the cutis; which are both so thin that any little scald will make them blister, and peel off. These adhering skins are more or less transparent in some parts of the body than in others, and likewise different in different persons. The cuticula alone is like gold-beaters* skin, a little wet, but somewhat thinner, especially in fair young people, which would show the fat, lean, and all the blood-vessels, just as they lie under it, as through isinglass, were it not for its lining the cutis, which is so curiously constructed as to exhibit those things beneath it which are necessary to life and motion, in pleasing arrangements and dispositions of beauty.

The cutis is composed of tender threads, like network, filled with different colored pigments. The white pigment serves to make the very fair complexion; yellow makes the brunette ; brownish yellow, the ruddy brown; green yellow, the olive; dark brown, the mulatto; black, the negro. These different colored pigments, together with the different meshes of the network, and the. size of its threads in this or that part, causes the variety of complexions.

To illustrate this manner of its showing the rosy color of the cheek, and, in like manner, the bluish tints about the temple, etc. see the profile figure 1, plate 26, where you are to suppose the black strokes of the print to be the white threads of the network, and where the strokes are thickest, and the part blackest, you are to suppose the flesh would be whitest; so that the lighter part of it stands for the vermilion color of the cheek, gradating every way.

Some persons have the network so equally woven over the whole body, face and all, that the greatest heat or cold will hardly make them change their color; and these are seldom seen to blush, though ever so bashful, while the texture is so fine in some young women, that they redden, or turn pale, on the least occasion.

I am apt to think the texture of this network is of a very tender kind, subject to damage many ways, but able to recover itself again, especially in youth. The fair, fat, healthy child, of three or four years old, has it in great perfection; most visible when it is moderately warm, but till that age somewhat imperfect.

It is in this manner, then, that nature seems to do her work. And now let us see how by art the like appearance may be made and penciled on the surface of a uniformly colored statue of wax or marble; by describing which operation we shall still more particularly point out what is to our present purpose: I mean the reason why the order nature has thus made use of should strike us with the idea of beauty; which, by the way, perhaps, may be of more use to some painters than they will care to own.

There are but three original colois in painting, besides black and white, viz. red, yellow, and blue. Green and purple are compounded; the first of blue and yellow, the latter of red and blue: however, these compounds being so distinctly different from the original colors, we will rank them as such. Figure 1, plate 24, represents, mixed up, as on a painter's pallet, scales of these five original colors, divided into seven classes — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, — 4 is the medium, and most brilliant class, being that which will appear a firm red, when those of 5, 6, 7, would deviate into white, and those of 1, 2, 3, would sink into black, either by twilight, or at a moderate distance from the eye, which shows 4 to be brightest, and a more pennanent color than the rest. But as white is nearest to light, it may be said to be equal, if not superior, in value as to beauty, with class 4; therefore, the classes 5, 6, 7, have, also, almost equal beauty with it too, because what they lose of their brilliancy and permanency of color, they gain from the white or light; whereas 3, 2, 1, absolutely lose their beauty by degrees, as they approach nearer to black, the representative of darkness.

Let us then, for distinction and preeminence sake, call class 4 of each color, bloom tints, or, if you please, virgin tints, as the painters call them; and once more recollect, that in the disposition of colors, as well as of forms, variety, simplicity, distinctness, intricacy, uniformity, and quantity, direct in giving beauty to the coloring of the human frame, especially if we include the face, where uniformity and strong opposition of tints are required, as in the eyes and mouth, which call most for our attention. But for the general hue of flesh now to be described, variety, intricacy, and simplicity, are chiefly required.

The value of the degrees of color being thus considered, and ranged in order upon the pallet, figure 1, plate 24, let us next apply them to a bust, figure 3, plate 24, of white marble, which may be supposed to let every tint sink into it, like a drop of ink sinks in and spreads itself upon coarse paper, whereby each tint will gradate all around.

If you would have the neck of the bust tinged of a very florid and lively complexion, the pencil must be dipped in the bloom tints of each color as at No. 4; if for a less florid, in those of No. 5; if for a very fair, from No. 6; and so on till the marble would scarce be tinged at all: let, therefore. No. 6 be our present choice, and begin with penciling on the red, as at r, the yellow tint at y, the blue tint at b, and the purple or lake tint at p.

These four tints thus laid on, proceed to covering the whole neck and breast, but still changing and varying the situations of the tints with one another, also causing their shapes and sizes to differ as much as possible; red must be oftenest repeated, yellow next often, purple-red next, and blue but seldom, except in particular parts, as the temples, backs of the hands, etc. where the larger veins show their branching shapes — sometimes too distinctly — still varying those appearances. But there are, no doubt, infinite variations in nature, from what may be called the most beautiful order and disposition of the colors in flesh, not only in different persons, but in different parts of the same, all subject to the same principles in some degree or other.

Now if we imagine this whole process to be made with the tender tints of class 7, as they are supposed to stand, red, yellow, blue, green, and purple, in line with each other; the general hue of the performance will be a seeming uniform prime tint, at any little distance, that is a very fair, transparent and pearl-like complexion; but never quite uniform as snow, ivory, marble or wax, like a poet's mistress, for either of these in living flesh, would in truth be hideous.

As in nature, by the general yellowish hue of the cuticula, the gradating of one color into another appears to be more delicately softened and united together; so will the colors we are supposed to have been laying upon the bust, appear to be more united and mellowed by the oils they are ground in, which takes a yellowish cast after a little time, but is apt to do more mischief hereby than good ; for which reason care is taken to procure such oil as is clearest, and will best keep its color in oil painting.

Notwithstanding the deep-rooted notion, even among the majority of painters themselves, that time is a great improver of good pictures, I will undertake to show, that nothing can be more absurd. Having mentioned above the whole effect of the oil, let us now see in what manner time operates on colors themselves ; in order to discover if any changes in them can give a picture more union and harmony than has been in the power of a skillful master, with all his rules of art to do. When colors change at all, it must be somewhat in the manner following, for as they are made some of metal, some of earth, some of stone, and others of more perishable materials, time cannot operate on them otherwise than as by daily experience we find it does, which is, that one changes darker, another lighter, one quite to a different color, while another, as ultramarine, will keep its natural brightness even in the fire. Therefore how. is it possible that such different materials, ever variously changing — visibly after a certain time — should accidentally coincide with the artist's intention, and bring about the greater harmony of the piece, when it is manifestly contrary to their nature, for do we not see in most collections that much time disunites, untunes, blackens, and by degrees destroys even the best preserved pictures? But if, for argument sake, we suppose, that the colors were to fall equally together, let us see what advantage this would give to any sort of composition. We will begin with a flower-piece : when a master has painted a rose, a lily, an African, a gentian, or violet, with his best art, and brightest colors, how far short do they fall of the freshness and rich brilliancy of nature; and shall we wish to see them still lower, more faint, sullied, and dirtied by the hand of time, and then admire them as having gained an additional beauty, and call them mended and heightened, rather than fouled, and in a manner destroyed? How absurd! Instead of mellow and softened therefore, always .read yellow and sullied, for this is doing time the destroyer, but common justice. Or shall we desire, to see complexions, which in life are often, literally,, as brilliant as the flowers above mentioned, served in the like ungrateful manner? In a landscape, will the water be more transparent, or the sky shine with a greater lustre when imbrowned and darkened by decay? Surely no. I own it would be a pity that Mr. Addison*s beautiful description of time at work in the gallery of pictures, and the following lines of Mr. Dry den, should want a sufficient foundation: —

For time shall with his ready pencil stand, Retouch your figures with his ripening hand; Mellow your colors, and imbrown the tint; Add every grace which time alone can grant; To future ages shall your fame convey , And give more beauties than he takes away.
— Dryden to Kneller.

Were it not that the error they are built upon, has been a continual blight to the growth of the art, by misguiding both the proficient, and the encourager; and often compelling the former, contrary to his judgment, to imitate the damaged hue of decayed pictures ; so that when his works undergo the like injuries, they must have a double remove from nature; which puts it in the power of the meanest observer to see his deficiencies. Whence another absurd notion has taken rise, viz. that the colors nowadays 'do not stand so well as formerly; whereas colors well prepared, in which there is but little art or expense, have- and will always have, the same properties in every age, and without accidents, as damps, bad varnish, and the like, being laid separate and pure, will stand and keep together for many years in defiance of time itself.

In proof of this, let anyone take a view of the ceiling at Greenwich Hospital, painted by Sir James Thornhill, forty years ago, which still remains fresh, strong, and clear, as if it had been finished but yesterday: and although several French writers have so learnedly, and philosophically proved, that the air of this island is too thick, or — too something, for the genius of a painter, yet France in all her palaces can hardly boast of a nobler, more judicious, or richer performance of its kind. Note, the upper end of the hall, where the royal family is painted, was left chiefly to the pencil of Mr. Andrea a foreigner, after the payment originally agreed upon for the work was so much reduced, as made it not worth Sir James's while to finish the whole with his own more masterly hand.

Upon the whole we find, that the utmost beauty of coloring depends on the great principle of varying, by all the means of varying, and on the proper and artful union of that variety; which may be farther proved by supposing the rules here laid down, all or any part of them, reversed.

I am apt to believe, that the not knowing nature's artful, and intricate method of uniting colors for the production of the variegated composition, or prime tint of flesh, has made coloring, in .the art of painting, a kind of mystery in all ages; insomuch, that it may fairly be said, out of the many thousands who have labored to attain it, not above ten or twelve painters have happily succeeded therein: Corregio, who lived in a country village, and had nothing but the life to study after, is said almost to have stood alone for this particular excellence. Guido, who made beauty his chief aim, was always at a loss about it. Poussin scarce ever obtained a glimpse of it, as is manifest by his many different attempts: indeed France has not produced one remarkably good colorist.

The lame excuse writers on painting have made for the many great masters that have failed in this particular, is, that they purposely deadened their colors, and kept them what they affectedly called chaste, that the correctness of their outlines might be seen to greater advantage. Whereas colors cannot be too brilliant if properly disposed, because the distinction of the parts are thereby made more perfect; as may be seen by comparing a marble bust with the variegated colors of the face either in the life, or well painted: it is true, uncomposed variety, either in the features or the limbs, as being daubed with many, or one color, will so confound the parts as to render them unintelligible.

Rubens boldly, and in a masterly manner, kept his bloom tints bright, separate, and distinct, but sometimes too much so for easel or cabinet pictures; however, his manner was admirably well calculated for great works, to be seen at a considerable distance, such as his celebrated ceiling at Whitehall chapel: which, upon a nearer view, will illustrate what I have advanced with regard to the separate brightness of the tints; and show, what indeed is known to every painter, that had the colors there seen so bright and separate been all smoothed, and absolutely blended together, they would have produced a dirty grey instead of flesh color. The difficulty then lies in bringing blue, the third original color, into flesh, on account of the vast variety introduced thereby; and this omitted, all the difficulty ceases; and a common sign painter, that lays his colors smooth, instantly becomes, in point of coloring, a Rubens, a Titian, or a Corregio.

SymmetryArt Theory