"Well - this method is very simple, very ancient, very
laborious, and by no means original with me. It is somewhat
like the modern reproductions in four-color half tone, where
the various gradations are obtained by printing one color plate
over another on a white ground of paper. In painting it is an
ancient process, and anyone can read in the many books written
about the methods of the old masters, telling how each one had
his own particular way of going about it: some by starting with
a monochrome underpainting, some with a few colors, over which
were glazed more or less transparent colors.
"Yes, it is rather laborious, but it has some advantages over the usual ways of mixing colors together before applying them. It is generally admitted that the most beautiful qualities of a color are in its transparent state, applied over a white ground with the light shining through the color. A modern Kodachrome is a delight when held up to the light with color luminous like stained glass. So many ask what is meant by transparent color, as though it were some special make. Most all color an artist uses is transparent: only a few are opaque, such as vermillion, cerulean blue, emerald green, the ochres and most yellows, etc. Colors are applied just as they come from the tube, the original purity and quality is never lost: a purple is pure rose madder glowing through a glaze of pure blue over glaze, or vice versa, the quality of each is never vitiated by mixing them together. Mix a rose madder with white, let us say, and you get a pink, quite different from the original madder, and the result is a surface color instead of a transparent one, a color you look on instead of into. One does not paint long out of doors before it becomes apparent that a green tree has a lot of red in it. You may not see the red because your eye is blinded by the strong green, but it is there never the less. So if you mix a red with the green you get a sort of mud, each color killing the other. But by the other method, when the green is dry and a rose madder glazed over it you are apt to get what is wanted, and have a richness and glow of one color shining through the other, not to be had by mixing. Imagine a Rembrandt if his magic browns were mixed together instead of glazed. The result would be a kind of chocolate. Then too, by this method of keeping colors by themselves some can be used which are taboo in mixtures. Verdigris, for instance, is a strange cold green with considerable power, with an exceptional luminous quality, rare in greens. If in contact with coal gas it will change overnight, but when locked up in varnish it seems to last as long as any. Alizarin Orange, given up by color makers, is another. I have examples of both done forty years ago which show no signs of change.
"I used to begin a painting with a monochrome of raw umber, for some reason: possibly read that the ancient ones often began that way. But now the start is made with a monochrome of blue, right from the tube, not mixed with white or anything. Ultramarine or the Monastral blues, or cobalt for distance and skies. This seems to make a good foundation for shadows and it does take considerable planning ahead, and looks for all the world like a blue dinner plate. The rest is a build-up of glazes until the end. The only time opaque color is used is painting trees. The method of early Corots and Rousseau is a good one, suggested by nature herself, where a tree is first painted as a dark silhouette and when dry the outside or illuminated foliage is painted over it. This opaque may be a yellow or orange as a base to glaze over with green, as the problem may demand.
"It must be understood that when transparent glazes dry they look like nothing at all, and their glazes [color] must be brought back to life by a very thin coat of varnish. This varnish also protects one color from another should protection be called for. And it must also be understood that this varnishing is a craft all by itself and cannot be too carefully done. Hurry it, and put it on too thick and too cold, and disaster follows. Fortunately colors in their transparent state are dry when they feel dry, these glazes are extremely thin and have a chance to dry much faster than heavy impasto, whereas whites and opaque yellows seem to take forever to become thoroughly inert. Varnishing should be done in a very warm room where the painting and varnish have been exposed to the warmth for some hours. This is to drive off all invisible surface moisture and to make the varnish flow better and thinner, to be applied as thin as possible. Also, the varnished surface should remain warm until set. Days should be waited until this varnish coat is thoroughly dry: then a light rubbing of pumice flour and water takes off dust particles and makes a surface somewhat better to apply the next process.... Copal Picture Varnish is the varnish used."Maxfield Parrish (1950)
Parrish is correct in acknowledging the historical antecedents of his technique, but none of the masters approached it with such scientific rigor, and none had the advantage of actually seeing a color separation plate wherein the components of each color are made obvious - as in the blue tree above!
A simplified diagram below shows the visible colors mixed by the light reflecting off the white base that coats the board (or canvas). Letting the light do the mixing results in brilliant, luminous colors that actually intensify with the application of a stronger light.source.
Note that the varnish layers are as thin, transparent and smooth as Parrish could make them and the primary colors (blue, red, and yellow) are pure, transparent thin oil glazes,
Over the last coat of varnish any number of opaque colors can be added for highlights and/or details (represented by the rainbow strip of "Opaque Colors" streaking down the "Visible Colors" band at the right).
When you view a Parrish original, one of the most amazing characteristics (after you're through enjoying the image) is how smooth his paintings are. The last layer of varnish is invariably networked with tiny cracks, but the surface is flat as can be.
See my comments on "Daybreak" back on the main Parrish page for the effect of light on his paintings.