VanDyck, Cornelis van der Geest ante 1620Van Dyck, Cornelis van der Geest, National Gallery, London, circa 1615.

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This painting, by Van Dyck, is one of my favorite paintings in existence.  Before you moan and lament the ruff he is wearing (I agree, it is awful), look at the eyes of this man.  I could gush out endless superlatives, but suffice to say that I believe they are the greatest eyes ever painted.  They seem so alive, so filled with the human spirit, that we no longer think in terms of paint and linen, but of the very soul of the sitter.

The following material I am presenting is not anything I have cleverly observed or devised in painting.  In fact, it has all been taught to me by Charles Cecil, the head of my school in Florence.  How did Van Dyck create such breathtaking eyes.  There are pages and pages of technical considerations that could be written- Van Dyck blurred what was inconsequential and/or fleshy, he set up the model just perfectly so that the light fell on both Cornelius’ eyes and underlids.  But, above all, it is the moisture of the eyes that give them life.

And how does one paint moisture in eyes?  Well in the first blog, I promised the reader I wouldn’t launch into lengthy diatribes concerning technical aspects of painting, such as lead white, etc.  But it is precisely the lead white highlights in the eyes that create that sense of moisture, in this case the watery eyes of an older man.

Portrait of Cornelius van der Geest by Van Dyck, eyes

To begin,  Van Dyck rendered the eyes in soft focus, with no sharp (photorealistic) delineation between the iris and the cornea, no harsh lines for flesh as soft as eyelids.  And then, with a blob of lead white paint, he placed impastos on the eye in just the right spots.  Successful impastos such as these are usually raised off the canvas quite far, with absolutely no blending involved.  There is no blending, no blurring, but rather the highlight is left in very sharp focus.  And why?  Because anything that is moist creates a sharp highlight.

Here are some of my paintings of eyes, all of which owe a great debt to Van Dyck, and to my teachers who pointed out this important lesson.  Hopefully, some obliging older person with watery eyes can sit for me soon (it’s so funny to write that sentence.)

matteo eyepablaeyes

hurler eyesrobertofinal2