Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Memoranda on Painting – December 1755




For painting the flesh, black, blue black, white, lake, carmine, orpiment, yellow ochre, ultramarine, and varnish.

“To lay the pallette:—first lay carmine and white in different degrees: second, lay orpiment and white, ditto: third lay blue black and white, ditto.

“The first sitting, make a mixture on the pallette for expedition, as near the sitter’s complexion as you can.


“To preserve the colours fresh and clean in painting: it must be done by laying on more colours, and not by rubbing them in when they are once laid; and if it can be done, they should be laid just in their proper places at first, and not be touched again, because the freshness of the colours is tarnished and lost, by mixing and jumbling them together; for there are certain colours which destroy each other by the motion of the pencil when mixed to excess.

“For it may be observed, that not only is the brilliancy, as well as freshness of tints and considerably impaired, by indiscriminate mixing and softening ; but if colours be too much worked about the with the brush, the oil will always rise to the surface, and the performance will turn comparatively yellow in consequence.


“Never give the least touch with your pencil, until you have present in your mind, a perfect idea of your future work.

“Paint at the greatest possible distance from your sitter, and place the picture occasionally near to the sitter, or sometimes under him, so as to see both together.

“In beautiful faces, keep the whole circumference about the eye in a mezzotinto, as seen in the works of Guido, and the best of Carlo Maratti.

“Endeavour to look at the subject, or sitter before you, as if it was a picture ; this will in some degree render it more easy to be copied.

“In painting, consider the object before you, whatever it may be, as made out more by light and shadows, than by lines.

“A student should begin he career, by a careful finishing and making out of the parts, as practice will give him freedom and facility of hand ; a bold and unfinished manner is generally the habit of old age.


“Let those parts, which turn or retire from the eye, be of broken or mixed colours, as being less distinguished, and nearer the borders.

“Let all your shadows be of one colour ; glaze them till they are so.

“Use red colours in the shadows of the most delicate complexions, but with discretion.

“Contrive to have a skreen, with red or yellow colour on it, to reflect the light on the sitter’s face.

“Avoid the chalk, the brick dust, and the charcoal, and think on a pearl, and a ripe peach.

“Avoid long continued lines in the eyes, and too many sharp ones.

“Take care to give your figure a sweep or sway with the outlines in waves, soft, and almost imperceptible against the back ground.

“Never make the contour too coarse.

“Avoid also those outlines and lines which are equal, which make parallels, triangles, &c.

“The parts which are nearest to the eye appear most enlightened, deeper shadowed, and better seen.

“Keep broad lights and shadows, and also principal lights and shadows.

“Where there is a the deepest shadow, it is accompanied by the brightest light.

“Let nothing start out, or be too strong for its place.

“Squareness has grandeur ; it gives firmness to the forms : a serpentine line, in comparison, appears feeble and tottering.

“The younger pupils are better taught by those who are in a small degree advanced in knowledge above themselves ; and from that cause proceeds the peculiar advantage of studying in academies.

“The painter who knows his profession from principles, may apply them alike to any branch of the art, and succeed in it.


“After a strict examination of the best pictures, the benefit to be derived from them is to draw such conclusions as may serve in future as fixed rules of practice, taking care not to be amused with trifles, but to regard the excellencies chiefly.

“These are some who are very diligent in examining picture, and yet are not at all advanced in their judgment, although they can remember the exact colour of every figure, &c., in the picture ; but not reflecting deeply on what they have seen, or making observations to themselves, they are not at all improved by the crowd of particulars that swim on the surface of their brains, as nothing enters deep enough into their minds to do them benefit through digestion.

“A painter should from his rules from pictures rather than from books or precepts ; this is having information at the first hand,—at the fountainhead.  Rules were first made from pictures ; not pictures from rules.  The first compilers of rules for painting were in the situation in which it is desirable a student should be.  Thus every picture an artist sees, whether the most excellent or most ordinary, he should consider from whence that fine effect, or that ill effect, proceeds; and then there is not picture, ever so indifferent, but he may look at to his profit.

“The manner of the English travellers in general, and especially those who pique themselves on studying virtu, is that, instead of examining the beauties of the works of fame, and why they are esteemed, they only inquire the subject of the picture, and the name of the painter, the history of a statue, and where it was found, and then write that down.  Some Englishmen, while I was in the Vatican, came there and spent above six hours in writing down whatever the antiquary detailed to them ; they scarcely ever looked at the paintings the whole time.” 1

1Our readers will please to recollect that this just, but by no means complimentary, description of English travellers, was written in the interval between 1749 and 1752, the period during which Mr. Reynolds was in Italy ; but ninety years must make a great change in the information and manners of any civilized nation.  That sketch would not now have much more resemblance, we should think, to the manners of our present race of travellers, than Hogarth’s dresses of the same period have to our present costume.

Source: Original Observations on the Rise and Progress of British Art, The French and English Chromatic Scales, and Theories of Colouring by W.B. Sarfield Taylor, Senior Curator of the Living Model Academy, &c, &c

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