Carolus-Duran’s Methods

Article by Darren Rousar. Most recently updated in March of 2022.

Although this site is mostly all Sight-Size all the time, there are important digressions. This article is one and may be of interest to all representational artists. It is also the third article regarding the various nineteenth century French atelier instructors who were said to have influenced Gammell’s way of teaching (the other two were Bonnat and Gleyre).

cd-001Carolus-Duran, Self Portrait.

Carolus-Duran (1837–1917) is best known as the teacher of John Singer Sargent.1 Although he was well versed in other genres, in his day he was most famous for his portraits. As a contemporary remarked, “He makes living beings, and he makes them thus because he so sees them. One feels that when he has a subject under his eyes, he scrutinizes the very soul.”2

In addition to Sargent, numerous other Americans and British students sought Duran’s instruction. Fortunately for us some would also become prominent authors as well as artists. Among them were Will H. Low, Kenyon Cox, and R.A.M. Stevenson.

On the left, Portrait of Charles Gounod (1890). On the right, Portrait of Jean-François Berthelier (1877).


It’s difficult to write about Carolus-Duran without mentioning Velazquez. The attraction his generation of artists had to Velazquez was due in large part to Duran.3 Though he denied being influenced by nor attempting to imitate Velazquez, Duran nevertheless believed him to be the ‘most complete’ artist.4

When one reads of artists who placed Velazquez as one of the giants of painting, the reason given is always due to the way in which his paintings show a high regard for observed nature. In R.A.M. Stevenson’s book, The Art of Velasquez, he writes an entire chapter on how Velazquez attempted to capture the ‘impression’ of nature.5 Duran shared the same intentions (which is likely where Stevenson learned of the idea). “The painter must go straight to nature; the study of nature alone will teach him his business. My own art may be summed up in two words: I seek to give the impression of things which touch and surround me. . . We must learn to know nature first, before we can hope to improve upon her. It is from nature that our divinity, whether as poets or painters, is derived.6

cd-003Carolus-Duran, detail of the Portrait of Jean-François Berthelier (1877).
Notice the how the grey or bone-colored ground is visible in the eyebrow areas and the jaw.

It was Velazquez who taught Duran about simplicity. “When I first saw Velazquez’s famous portrait of Innocent X at the Palazzo Doria I was thunderstruck.7 He is the master who has taught me better than anyone else to say the utmost possible with the fewest possible words.”7

You can read about my own experience with Velazquez’s Innocent X in the article Analyze This – Velazquez’s Innocent X.


Duran was criticized for not following the then current practice of emphasizing drawing at his atelier. But that criticism, while generally valid, is not the whole story. A point worth considering is that many of his students arrived at the atelier after having already begun their studies in the traditional ways elsewhere. They were therefore not specifically in search of drawing instruction from him.

Atelier hopping, then as now, was common. Will H. Low was at the atelier of Jean-Léon Gérôme before migrating to Duran’s. James Carroll Beckwith first studied drawing with Adolphe Yvon. Sargent had numerous drawing instructors before (and during) his time with Duran.

Of course some, like Kenyon Cox, left Duran’s after a short time for further instruction under Cabanel and Gérôme.

It would also be an exaggeration to say that Duran neither drew in his own practice nor taught drawing to his students. Both assumptions are in error.

On the left, Portrait Drawing of The Captain Of Ephesus. On the right, Drawing of Édouard Manet.

Stevenson explains Duran’s thoughts about teaching drawing:
“Duran set himself to teach art less on the venerable principles of outline drawing than on a method adapted to his own fashion of looking at nature — by masses and by constructive planes. Of course Duran taught drawing, but likely enough his method was not suitable to every kind of talent, for he separated drawing from modeling with the brush as little as possible. According to him the whole art of expressing form should progress together and should consist in expressing it, as we see it, by light. He regarded drawing as the art of placing things rightly in depth as well as in length and breadth; and for this purpose he would call attention to various aspects of form — the intersection and prolongation of imaginary lines, the shape of inclosed spaces, the interior contents of masses, the inclination of planes to light, and the expression or characteristic tendency of any visible markings.”8

cd-004Carolus-Duran, Portrait of Gustave Doré (1877).

Duran Begins a Portrait

Duran began his portraits by first drawing them directly on his canvas. H. Arthur Kennedy, an English artist who briefly studied with him in the 1880s, witnessed the master painting a head from life and described what he saw as follows.

“He drew it in on the canvas in charcoal, and had it fixed before beginning to paint; and the drawing of it was as interesting as the painting. Of all materials known to art, none enables skillful fingers to produce an effect more instantaneously than soft charcoal on a half-primed canvas. As the drawing proceeded, and one began to grasp its meaning, it became obvious that he was reserving all the effect for the painting, toward which this was the sternest preparation.”

On the left, Sketch of Édouard Manet. On the right, Sketch of Man.

“With the care of a general, who surveys the ground on which he is about to hazard battle, did Carolus place his masses and lines: rubbing out occasionally, making alterations, and holding up the stick of charcoal between his eye and the model to take measurements, as humbly as any tyro setting out his first drawing from the antique. When done, the only remarkable thing about the drawing was its extraordinary precision: the lines were such as any one might trace had he the knack to persuade them to go exactly into their right places.”9

Duran Paints the Portrait

Unlike Léon Bonnat’s practice, Duran suggested the use of a set palette to his students, or at least one that was somewhat set. John Collier, in his A Manual of Oil Painting, recounts an artist friend’s description of Duran’s advice to his students. “We were supposed to mix two or three gradations of yellow ochre with white, two of light red with white, two of cobalt with white and also of black and raw umber to facilitate the choice of tones.”10

Also according to Collier, Duran was against a method of painting which is currently called windowshading. “Duran does not consider it advisable to finish each bit at a time, but prefers that all the tones should first be blocked in very coarsely before any of the finishing touches are given.”11

On the left, Louis Ghémar the Elder (1871). On the right, Study of Lilia (1887).

Kennedy, Duran’s student previously quoted above, continues his description of Duran painting a portrait:
“He used two vehicles in this work: his usual diluent of linseed-oil and turpentine (about half and half) and some siccatif [a dryer, like lead]. His use of the latter was probably owing to the rapidity with which he was going to execute this head.”

“The first touch went on to the very darkest part of the whole subject, the shadowed side of the hair. The darks of the hair being given, he sketched in the shadows on the face with brun de Bruxelles and siccatif, and then swept in the mass of the hair and the dark colour of the background.”

“Then came the demi-teint general [general halftone], laid on, as he tells his pupils, with the difference that the practiced hand of the master combines a second process with this laying on; and the demi-teint, as he spreads it, seems, almost imperceptibly, to model itself. Then the exact colours and tones of the shadows were painted into the brown preparation. Last of all came the high-lights. The process, including drawing and a little interval whilst the fixatif was drying, took thirty-five minutes.”

“Then M. Duran left it, saying that he was too busy to give it more time, and emphatically adding that if he were to do more it would be in the direction of simplifying, and not of adding detail.”12

cd-008Two portraits by Carolus-Duran.

Duran Teaches Painting

Carolus-Duran taught his students to paint in much the same way as he himself painted. There are a few recorded instances of this instruction and what follows is my combination of two of them, both mentioned before: John Collier and R.A.M. Stevenson.

The model was always posed in full light, without shadow effect, and against a strongly-colored background, which we had to imitate exactly in its relations to the figure. After a slight search of proportions with charcoal, then we were allowed to take a sable brush and strengthen the outline with some dark color mixed with turpentine, but not to make any corrections, nor put in conventional brown shadows.

We were then supposed to mix two or three gradations of yellow ochre with white, two of light red with white, two of cobalt with white, and also of black and raw umber to facilitate the choice of tones.

cd-009Carolus-Duran, Portrait d’Alexandre Falguière (1870).

Then we blocked in the background, followed by the subject using big touches. These few surfaces — three or four in the forehead, as many in the nose, and so forth — had to be studied in shape and place, and particularly in the relative value of light that their various inclinations produce. They were painted quite broadly in even tones of flesh tint, and stood side by side like pieces of a mosaic, without fusion of their adjacent edges.

The result looked like a coarse wooden head hewn with a hatchet.

No brushing of the edge of the hair into the face was permitted, but just pasted on in the right tone like a coarse wig. There was no conventional bounding of eyes and features with lines that might deceive the student by their expression into the belief that false structure was truthful.

On the left, Portrait of Georges Feydeau. On the right, Portrait of Philippe Burty.

In the next stage we proceeded in the same manner by laying planes upon the junctions of the larger ones or by breaking the larger planes into smaller subordinate surfaces. Of course, these touches were a gradation between the touches they modeled.

You were never allowed to brush one surface into another, you must make a tone for each step of a gradation. Thus, you might never attempt to realize a tone or a passage by some hazardous uncontrollable process.

Duran believed that if you do not approach tone by direct painting you will never know what you can do, and will never discover whether you really feel any given relation, or the values of any contrasting surfaces.

This severe system, it must be remembered, served merely as the gymnastic of art, it was a means of education for the eye, not a trick of mannerism, or a ready-made style of painting.13 & 14

Educate the eye before you educate the hand. The hand will become cunning soon enough when the eye has learned to see, whereas if the hand be educated before the eye one may never see.15


To summarize Duran’s methods (as well as combining Stevenson’s, Collier’s, and Kennedy’s accounts of how his students were to work):

  1. The subject was broadly sketched in using charcoal. Stevenson called this a slight search of proportions with charcoal.
  2. Sometimes, you would then paint over those lines using a dark oil color thinned with turpentine. Kennedy does not mention seeing Duran do this, though Stevenson, as well as Collier’s contact mention he taught his students to do it.
  3. Then the general halftone was laid on. From the accounts given and the evidence of his unfinished paintings, I cannot tell if this really was a halftones first approach or simply a general flesh tone lay-in. I lean towards the latter.
  4. From there, the main plains were broadly brushed in using a large brush. As much as possible, each of these planes was to be painted in the correct shape, placement and value.
  5. The edges were not to supposed to brushed together. It’s difficult to tell how closely Duran followed his own advice on this matter. Some edges in his paintings are blurred into oblivion.16
  6. In future sessions the artist would correctly place the secondary and tertiary planes and this would effectively round the form.

cd-012Carolus-Duran painting an under life-size portrait of the king of Siam, on location in San Remo.17

Carolus-Duran and Sight-Size

Did Carolus-Duran practice Sight-Size in his own work? That’s a fair question, especially given the primary subject of the site on which you’re reading this article. Photographs I’ve seen of Duran at work, like the photo above, show him out of Sight-Size. Of course that neither proves nor disproves a rule. We also know that the ateliers of the time had their students work in comparative measurement in their figure rooms. That would make sense given the space available and the number of students involved.18

On the other hand, I have personally witnessed many Sight-Size trained artists do portraits in Sight-Size using the process Stevenson, Collier, and Kennedy described above.19 I do the same myself. But I have also witnessed portraits painted in the way Duran did, only using comparative measurement instead.

In the end, and despite what I personally think, we have no incontrovertible proof either way.

1 Sargent was good friends with another American artist, Dennis Miller Bunker, and Bunker was one of William McGregor Paxton’s teachers. Like Bunker, Paxton also studied with Jean-Léon Gérôme in Paris. Gérôme had studied with Delaroche and then Gleyre when Delaroche retired from teaching. Paxton was one of Gammell’s teachers.
2 Eugène Montrosier, Galerie Contemporaine, 1876.
3 As we saw in another article, Bonnat greatly admired Velazquez as well.
4 Rowland Strong, Carolus-Duran – A Visit To His Studio In Paris, The New York Times, March 17, 1900.
5 R.A.M. Stevenson, The Art of Velasquez, London, G. Bell, 1895. Note that Stevenson spells ‘Velazquez’, Velasquez with an ‘s’.
6 Rowland Strong, op. cit..
7 Rollin Hartt, as quoted in Current Literature, A Magazine of Record and Review, Vol. XXXVIII, New York, page 368.
8 R.A.M. Stevenson, op. cit., pages 102-103.
9 H. Arthur Kennedy, In the Studio of Carolus Duran, The Contemporary Review, May 1888, London, pages 705-706.
10 John Collier, A Manual of Oil Painting, Cassell & Company, London, 1887, page 58.
11 John Collier, ibid., page 59.
12 H. Arthur Kennedy, op. cit., page 707.
13 John Collier, op. cit., pages 57-59.
14 R.A.M. Stevenson, op. cit., pages 102-107.
15 Carolus-Duran, as quoted in Notes Of The Fine Arts – Gossip About the Painters and Sculptors, The New York Times, January 9, 1881.
16 This is where Gammell’s methods depart from Duran’s (at least as I was taught by some of his students). No edge was to be left sharp at any stage of the painting until the very end.
17 From L’illustration, Number 3531, October 29, 1910, page 286.
18 Harrington Mann, student of Legros (as well as Boulanger and Lefebvre at the Académie Julian in Paris) had this to say about Sight-Size and the Parisian ateliers: “In the crowded ateliers in Paris of course all this [Sight-Size] was impossible. We had to sit or stand close by the easel. If you stepped back you would crash into the next student. We always carried a little pocket mirror to help to overcome this difficulty.” But also note that arranging upwards of 16 students around a single figure model, with each student standing and in Sight-Size, happens all the time in many ateliers around the world nowadays.
19 Among them are Richard Lack, Charles Cecil, Allan Banks, and Richard Whitney.



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