Dubuffet's return to painting was accompanied by a passion for primitive and naive art forms, as well as for paintings made by the psychologically disturbed. By 1945 he had started to collect so called 'ugly art' or Art Brut, and in 1948 he founded a society to promote this type of work. He also wrote some important statements, criticizing the cultural aims of post-Renaissance Western art, in the place of which he advocated the more spontaneous, non-verbal, and spiritually potent qualities of primitive cultural expression. This resulted in a totemic approach to image making which soon revealed itself in his first exhibition, where city life and images of men and women were presented with an aggressively simple and childish vigor. These paintings looked more like graffiti covered walls or tribal emblems than conventional oil paint.
The driving force behind these early works was Dubuffet's entirely novel and extraordinary painting technique. He combined almost any element with the paint surface, including cement, tar, gravel, leaves, silver foil, dust and even butterfly wings. In defence of this technique he stated that 'art should be born from the materials and, spiritually, should borrow its language from it. Each material has its own language so there is no need to make it serve a language.' Such an approach has drawn him into the field of sculpture, using materials gathered at first from beside Parisian railway lines; by the 1970s he was creating enormous architectural environments in concrete.
In 1945 Dubuffet painted one of his first portraits, a drawing of Jean Paulhan, who later introduced the artist to the group of writers and intellectuals that frequently met at the house of Florence Gould. She persuaded him to make another portrait, of the writer Paul L'Eautaud. This developed into a series and eventually into the third of Dubuffet's major exhibitions entitled Plus beaux qu'ils croient (portraits) (Better looking than they think). Dhotel nuancé d'abricot was one of this group. Andre Dhotel is its subject.
The portraits are named after the sitters, whose most curious features have been deliberately emphasized by the artist. They combine caricature, imagery and some factual elements. Dubuffet explained that for a portrait to go well: 'it must be scarcely a portrait at all. It is then that it starts to function at full strength!
Dubuffet's technique in Dhotel nuancé d'abricot can be reconstructed from a studio log book kept by him at the time. Laying the stretched canvas on the floor, he covered its entire surface with a thick, sticky pate of light colored oil paint applied with a spatula, like icing a cake. While it was still wet he took handfuls of ashes and sprinkled them over the whole area to darken the paint. Over this he dropped sand and then coal dust which would all, to a certain extent, sink into the surface. At this point some color was put on in the form of a thin 'apricot' mixture of yellow ochre, white and crimson brushed over the surface broadly. Some pure crimson was also put on, and is still visible through parts of the black crust.
The surface was now prepared to be totally covered with thick black paint troweled across with a palette knife, possibly with the addition of more ashes and dust. There was still no trace of the image at this stage - it would have looked instead like a plain smoke-blackened wall. With a broad spatula Dubuffet then carefully rubbed the materials into the surface and put the canvas on an easel to let any excess fall off.
It was only at this stage that the head was painted in with a cream white on a palette knife. Then, using a blunt point, he incised the contours of the head through this rich sandwich of paint and material, so that sometimes the canvas texture was revealed, as, for instance, on the side of the face to the left of the chin. The lines of the hair and the rest of the features were also drawn in with this instrument, sometimes lightly, as on the chin and spectacles, or deeply, as in the neck and shoulders, breaking through to the first thick impasto. A very thin mixture of 'apricot' paint and turpentine was then brushed over the face so that it ran into the gutters made by the ploughed lines, and stained the face with a warm glaze. Some of the original light paint of the face which was outside these boundaries was then blacked over. Finally, using a fine lettering brush the lines were enhanced with the addition of crimson, yellow ochre, black and white, in particular drawn into the trenches of the teeth, hair, nose and bow tie. These colors were used in a broader way in the earlier preparation of the surface, and thus the head and background appear unified visually.
The title of the work is, as usual with Dubuffet, an important final contribution. The result, in the case of Dhotel nuancé d'abricot, creates a humorous tension between what the viewer anticipated by the rather poetic description and what is actually confronted in the finished work with its primitive, earthy textures and skull-like gaze.