Paint Surfaces & Dutch Paintings

Gerard Dou's Portrait of a Lady, c. 1635–40

Gerard Dou's Portrait of a Lady, c. 1635–40, oil on panel, The Norton Simon Foundation

May 29, 2020

I have been looking even more closely than usual at the paint surfaces of our Dutch paintings lately, and reviewing recent discoveries regarding various painters’ techniques in preparation for an upcoming exhibition. While checking the condition of this exquisitely painted portrait by Dou, the father of the Leiden Fijnschilders, I spotted evidence of the use of a type of brush called a “blender”. This helps explain how he painted layers of semi-transparent lace on the collar with such minute detail and subtle modulation of tones of white. With this brush, he was able to spread an extremely thin layer of lead white, an otherwise opaque pigment.

Blender brushes can be fan-shaped, or sometimes closer to a modern makeup brush. In either case they have very soft, fine hairs such as badger. Painters use them completely dry, to feather already-laid paint strokes together. The tips of minute, parallel strokes of white are seen at the sitter’s shoulder.

It is also likely that Dou used a lighter drying oil here rather than linseed oil, such as poppy seed or walnut. Not only was it believed at the time they didn’t darken with age, their lower viscosity allowed such extremely fine blending.

John Griswold is the Conservator of the Norton Simon Museum, where he leads efforts to preserve and care for the Simon collections.