How to Paint the Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit

This is an image thumbnail of Caravaggio's Basket Fruit

Introduction

In tackling Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit, my goal was to create a copy that was as close as possible to the original, in size, technique and materials. So before I started I did a bit of research. What follows is what I found, both from the analysis made directly on the painting and from personal experimentation.

  • Support: the original was painted on a linen canvas.
  • Preparatory layers: the Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit was painted on a used canvas. X-ray analyses reveal that under Caravaggio’s painting a grotesque picture was previously painted. Before beginning to paint the basket, Caravaggio must have applied a layer of preparation (mestica in Italian) to cover the painting on the canvas, this layer is spread across the surface of the painting diagonally (which is common for Caravaggio, like for The Conversion of Saul Odescalchi, The Calling of Saint Matthew, The Martyrdom of St. Matthew) and can be inferred from high-resolution photos in most of the painting. The color of this mestica must have been a medium-dark color (a common practice for Caravaggio) which can be inferred both by observing the painting and by looking at X-ray photos that show how the background was made partly with thick impasto strokes, and partly with lighter strokes, which allow the observer to glimpse an underlying dark background (compare to radio graphic analysis of the Boy Bitten by a Lizard – National Gallery).
  • Techniques and painting layer: throughout his life, Caravaggio had always used a wet on wet technique (see ISCR restorations) in order to increase speed of execution. This approach is even more pronounced in his later works, whereas in his earlier paintings (like in the Basket) he would adopt a more refined technique, with multiple layers and greater quality. Regarding the execution of the lights, both for the fruits and the wicker basket, a greater thickness can be found, especially when it comes to the highlights, which are made completely a impasto (in particular for the apple, the basket and the grapes). The light yellow background was certainly the last thing painted by Caravaggio, given how it outlines all the fruits with long, thick or thin brushstrokes (see x-ray). In the upper part of the painting, instead, the brushstrokes are given in dense and random diagonal and vertical patterns, which reveal the streaks left by the brush.

Caravaggio's Basket of Fruits Radiography
Figure 1: X-ray of Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit

Keeping all of this in mind, let me now explain how I created the copy.

Execution of the “Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit”

This article is divided into the following sections:

  • Support.
  • Preparation.
  • Painting Layer:
    • Fruits and Leaves (Underpainting)
    • Fruits and Leaves (Color Layers)
    • Wicker Basket (Underpainting)
    • Wicker Basket (Color Layers)
    • Background and Table.
    • Retouches and Glazing.

Realization

Support

The frame I made was the same size as the original, 47 × 62 cm (these are the measures indicated by the museum where the original is located). I then stretched a raw linen cloth on it.

Preparation

Keeping in mind that the painting was made on a used canvas, and given how the texture of the canvas is almost invisible in the finished work, I decided to first prepare the canvas in the traditional way and then to apply on top of it the mestica, as Caravaggio did. So first of all I covered the canvas with two coats of rabbit skin glue and, after the glue had dried, I applied two coats of primer composed by gesso, rabbit skin glue, linseed oil and pigments.

After this, I obtained the mestica by mixing the following colors: white + raw umber + yellow ochre and venetian red, in order to get a red medium-dark color. I applied this mestica following a diagonal pattern, bottom-up and left to right, just like in the original
painting. At this point the canvas was ready, so I transferred the drawing on it using the carbon paper technique. Finally, I started with the actual painting layers.

Primed Canvas
Figure 2: primed canvas

Painting Layer

Both the fruit and the leaves and the wicker basket itself were painted with two or three layers. At the underpainting stage, my goal is to set the volume of the objects, whereas at the color-layering stage I focus more on getting the best possible color rendering.

Fruits and Leaves (Underpainting)

For the underpainting I used one single color for each fruit. The color was applied with greater thickness in the lighted areas. These are the colors I used.

  • Quince: white + yellow ochre + a pinch of raw umber
  • Apple: white + yellow ochre
  • Pear: white + yellow ochre
  • Peach: vermilion + yellow ochre + a pinch of raw sienna
  • White Grape: raw sienna + raw umber, carmine + blue + white, raw sienna + yellow ochre
  • Red Grape: van dick brown + blue
  • Other Grapes: raw sienna + yellow ochre and raw umber
  • Brown Fig: van dick brown
  • Black Fig: van dick brown + a pinch of blue
  • Green Figs: green earth + yellow ochre + a pinch of Raw umber
  • Quince Leaves : green earth + yellow ochre + a pinch of raw sienna
  • Quince Dry Leaves: raw sienna + a pinch of venetian red + a pinch of raw umber
  • Fig Leaf: green earth + a pinch of yellow ochre + blue + cobalt green + a pinch of van dick brown
  • Vine Leaf: green earth + pinch of yellow ochre + blue + a pinch of cobalt green + a pinch of van dick brown
  • Crumpled vine leaf: green earth + yellow ochre + raw sienna + a pinch of raw umber
  • Dead Vine leaves: earth green + blue + cobalt green + a pinch of van dick brown

Apple and Quince Underpainting
Figure 3: apple and quince underpainting

White Grapes Underpainting
Figure 4: white grapes underpainting

Raisins Underpainting
Figure 5: Raisins underpainting

Execution of Fruits and Leaves (Layers of Color)

Having set the volume of the fruits with the underpainting, I started laying a “Base Color” for each fruit (which corresponds to the halftones color), from which I mixed one color for the lighted areas, which we’ll call “Light Color”, and one for the shadow, the “Shadow Color”. The whole operation was performed by mixing these colors wet-on-wet, and then working on the color while it was still fresh and trying to imitate, as best as I could, the brushwork that follows the shape of the fruits and leaves.

Quince Execution

  • Base Color: yellow ochre + raw umber
  • Light Color: base color + white
  • Shadow Color: black + a pinch of base color

I started by laying a glaze of the base color around the fruit, then I started painting the lighted area of the fruit, then adding the highlights with pure white, all wet on wet. Finally, I painted the shadows.

Quince
Figure 6: Quince – Layer color

Apple Execution

  • Base Color: white + yellow ochre + a pinch of raw sienna
  • Light Color: base color + white
  • Red: a pinch of vermilion + Carmine + venetian red
  • Shadow Color: van dick brown + raw sienna

I used the same approach as for the quince: I extended the base color and then obtained the lights and the highlights wet-on-wet and a impasto. Then I started to paint the red areas of the apple with the red, which I blended wet on wet with the yellow part of the fruit. After this layer of color had dried I started painting all the red and yellow lines on the apple, first laying a glaze of red tint and then getting a color (yellow + ochre) with all the tiny nuances. Finally, I painted the shadows. After this layer was dry, I painted the two holes and the petiole.

Apple - Color Layer
Figure 7: Layer color of the Apple

Apple
Figure 8: Execution of shades of yellow and red apple

Apple
Figure 9: Adding the two holes and the petiole

Peach Execution

  • Base Color: yellow + ochre + vermilion + a pinch of raw sienna
  • Light Color: Base color + ochre + white
  • Shadow Color: van dick brown + a pinch of raw sienna

White grapes Execution

  • Base Color: raw sienna + raw umber
  • Light Color: carmine + blue + white
  • Reflected Light Color: raw sienna + ochre

In sketching the grape I had already used the three above mentioned colors. I used the same colors for the layer of color, trying to accentuate the grape opalescence by applying the light color as a glaze and by highlighting the glares.
Finally I made the highlights with the white used a impasto.

White Grapes
Figure 10: Grapes – work in progress

Black Grapes – Execution

  • Base Color: Van Dick Brown + Blue
  • Light Color: White + a pinch of Color Base

I laid a thin layer of Base Color and then added the Light Color, trying to obtain the different hues by using just the right amount of color. Finally, I made the highlights with the white.

Dry Grapes – Execution

  • Base Color: raw sienna

I laid the Base Color. Then with raw umber, wet on wet, I made the darker areas, while for the brightest areas I used ochre. For the driest parts of the grapes, I added the venetian red. Finally, I made the lights a impasto with white.

Raisins and Peach
Figure 11: Execution of raisins and peach

Green Figs – Execution

  • Base Color: Green Earth + Ochre + a pinch of Sienna
  • Light Color: Base Color + White
  • Shadow Color: Base Color + a pinch of Raw umber

After laying a glaze of the base color I created the textures of the fruit using respectively the Light and Shadow colors, trying to make everything as homogeneous as possible with a dry brush. Then I made the shadows, using van dick brown + blue.

Figs
Figure 12: Figs – Work in progress

Quince Leaves – Execution

  • Base Color: Green Earth + Ochre + A pinch of Sienna
  • Shadow Color: Base Color + Raw umber

After laying the above mentioned colors and making the highlights with Yellow and White, I did all the little fungal spots, wet on wet. Finally, I did the veins with Base Color + White.

Fig Leaf – Execution

  • Base Color: Green Earth + a pinch of Ochre + Blue + a pinch of Cobalt Green + a pinch of Van Dick Brown

I covered the whole leaf with base color and then I got all the different hues, wet on wet. I got the green hues with Green Earth + Ochre + Sienna and the darker parts of the leaf with the Base Color + Van Dick Brown + Blue.

Vine Leaf – Execution:

  • Base Color: Green Earth + a pinch of Ochre + Blue + a pinch of Cobalt Green + a pinch of Van Dick Brown

I took the same approach as for the fig leaf. In addition, once the layer of paint was dry, I rubbed a thin layer of color (scumbling) using a dark color and a lighter color in order to get all the slightest hues. Then I did the veins using Earth Green + Ochre + White.

Vine Leaf
Figure 13: Vine leaf – Execution

Crumpled Vine Leaf – Execution

  • Base Color: Green Earth + Ochre + Sienna + a pinch of Umber
  • Light Color: Green Earth + Ochre + a pinch of Sienna + White
  • Shadow Color: Van Dick Brown + Blue

I started by laying a glaze of the Base Color and by gradually giving more and more definition to all the veins and textures of the leaf. By light strokes of the Light Color, I tried to highlight even more the kind of texture the leaf has due to it
being crumpled. Then I got the highlights on the veins with White + a pinch of Base Color a impasto.

Crumpled Vine Leaf
Figure 14: Crumpled Vine Leaf – Work in progress

Crumpled Vine Leaf
Figure 15: Execution of light areas on the crumpled vine leaf

Execution of the Wicker Basket (sketch)

  • Van Dick Brown
  • Base Color: Sienna + Ochre

Sketching the wicker basket was necessary in order to have every single twig well set. First, I laid a glaze of Van Dick Brown, then I painted all twigs with the Base Color.

Wicker Basket - Underpainting

Wicker Basket - Underpainting
Figure 16, 17: Wicker basket – Sketch

Execution of Wicker Basket (Layer Color)

  • Base Color: Sienna + Ochre
  • Light Color: Base Color + White

After the sketch was completely dry, I finally started the actual execution of the wicker. First I laid a glaze of Van Dick Brown, then, just like for the sketch, I started painting each twig with the Base Color. This time, though, I took extra care in trying to have the volume of each twig stand out, by using a thicker paint for the more lighted up twigs. After this layer was dry, I laid a very light glaze of Sienna on every twig of the wicker. Then I retouched the wicker reflecting light, using the Base Color, this time also adding the White a impasto to create the highlights. Finally, I emphasized the darkest shades of the basket using some Van Dick Brown + Blue.

Wicker Basket
Figure 18: Execution of wicker with touches of color, after laying the glaze of Van Dick Brown.

Wicker Basket
Figure 19: Execution of wicker with touches of colors a impasto, after laying the glaze of Sienna.

Wicker Basket - Details
Figure 20: Detail of wicker showing touches of colors a impasto

Wicker Basket - Details
Figure 21: Addition of the edges of the twigs, after the previous layer had dried.

Execution of background and table

The parchment colored background was laid when most fruits were still at a sketch stage. This is because I wanted to be able to recreate as closely as possible the finished hues of the original. I got the parchment-yellow by mixing Ochre+a
pinch of Sienna+a pinch of Raw Umber, then I laid it with casual vertical and diagonal strokes, so that the mark of the brush would show, and trying to follow the silhouette of the composition (as found in the original). For the table I used
some Raw Sienna, and for the basket’s shadow I laid some Van Dick Brown on top of it.

Background
Figure 22: Laying the background.

Final retouches and glazing
Lastly I added all of the water droplets, both on fruits and on leaves. For these drops I used White for the highlights, Yellow for reflections and a glaze of Van Dick Brown for the shadows. Finally, I decided to make some final adjustments to some of the hues. I glazed the shadow of the worm-eaten apple with some Sienna and Van Dick Brown. I used some Sienna + Ochre to saturate, in certain spots, some of the basket twigs.

Waterdrops
Figure 23: Detail of the droplets and streaks of imprimatura that can be seen where the color of the fruit becomes less dense.

Caravaggio's Basket of Fruits - Details
Figure 24: Detail of the finished Basket.

Edoardo La Francesca - Painting Caravaggio's Basket of Fruits
Figure 25: Work in progress.

Caravaggio's Basket of Fruits
Figure 26: The finished work.

You can take a better look at the finished painting by clicking here.


What's Next?






Comments

  1. Claes-Åke Schlönzig says:

    Hi, You applied two coats of primer composed by gesso, rabbit skin glue, linseed oil and pigments. Can you tell me the proportion of these ingredients and what pigment you use, so are you vere kind.

Speak Your Mind

*