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I was reading about William-Adolphe Bouguereau(1825-1905), a French salon style adademic painter somewhat reviled by the (impressionist) avant-garde in his lifetime, because of a style deemed superficial and influenced by commercial interest. In particular there is reference to the licked finish. I'm not invested in this so I don't have to take sides - I just find it personally beautiful. I have extracted some detail from one of his later works, The Wave (1896) 1:

enter image description here (please right-click/view image + zoom for detail).

I find1 the woman on the painting really has a sort of photographic quality at first sight - I was mesmerized and I have to zoom on the foot or elbow to see some of the work - in particular some white paint and outline - otherwise I can't seem to read it like that; I see her body radiating a black aura and some blur for lack of better terms. So I'm trying to describe the effect and figure out how it's technically done.


How does the artist technically hide his brush strokes here and is there anything peculiar in how the flesh and light on the skin are painted in this work - is it related to the aforementioned technique or is it just "classical canons", skill and the artist's taste for the realistic genre?


1. As I have no training whatsoever with Fine Arts, I can only observe - and read.

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Apart from the relatively trivial bit — you know, putting the right colours in the right places in the right order and so forth, something almost anyone can do (that's sarcasm, by the way) — the technique is simple. Tedious, time-consuming and relatively expensive, but simple. It's just a matter of mechanical manipulation of the paint surface.

The traditional method involves pouncing the still-wet paint using a very soft brush. A quilled squirrel-hair mop would be typical for the period, but hake brushes would also be suitable, especially for small areas where a squirrel mop small enough to be useful wouldn't have enough strength to do the job. It's done with a very light tapping motion, both to avoid disturbing the colours that have already been established on the canvas, and to minimize paint loading on the mop. And you want to be working in relatively thin paint films; a heavy film with prominent brush strokes both takes a lot of squishing to lie flat and will quickly load the mop. Obviously, you need to have a lot of soft brushes handy, and will need to clean them often (and dry them before use, of course), since you can only work on smallish areas of relatively uniform colour with a single brush.

Like most things in traditional media, you can find a more complete description of the tools and techniques in Mayer's classic The Artist's Handbook of Materials and Techniques. (It's everywhere; as readily available as Itten or Sargent, which should be on every artist's or designer's bookshelf.)

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  • Thank you! I could have never guessed such a level of manipulation. That means the artist prepared beforehand because once it's painted you had a limited time to do the manipulation. I had a look at that book's table of contents and I should get that sometime! As for the "trivial bit", well, I'm completely impressed. It's the work of a master in the genre. I'm really curious about the order of the colors, if white was last, if there really is an outline to her body and why does its color change etc. but I understand this is not related to the pouncing technique you described nor its effect. – user29318 Sep 14 '14 at 9:30
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    @illuminÉ - most of the painting is "just 'classical canons'"; a cartoon, an underpainting and "glazes" (thin fairly opaque paint layers, not what you'd normally think of as a glaze these days). There is a little bit of pushing the edges; receding elements of the subject are darkened, and some faint "unsharp mask" type pushing of the surrounding values make them seem a little brighter while retaining the 3D effect. The big wow comes from just paying attention to the normal mottling of untanned fair skin, something that is usually idealized out of other paintings of the period. – Stan Rogers Sep 14 '14 at 16:53

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