If you research the oil painting history of the past, especially those techniques that produced the remarkable results of the Old Masters between the sixteenth and seventh centuries, or are interested in any modern effort to emulate them. We will find those roots lead to the Flemish and Venetian Schools.
The invention of oil painting is attributed to the Van Eyck brothers, Hubert and Jan in or around 1400 in the city of Bruges, the capital of West Flanders. Disenchanted with the use of egg tempera, the common painting medium of the time, they experimented with various oils and resins. According to the story, they were looking for a medium “that would dry in the shade”, and developed what we today would call Oil Painting.
The Flemish Technique continued with the practices of the earlier egg tempera painters, using detailed preliminary sketches transfer to small wooden panels. The qualities of this new oil paint medium was that it could be apply transparently or opaquely creating a much greater illusion of depth than prior egg tempera works. Also overcoming the slow drying time of tempera, it allowed them to develop more elaborate underpaintings. A brownish transparent underpainting;(bistre), to establish a tonal range for the subject, over which they applied thin veils of transparent local color, modeling light and darks with further glazes very similarly to a modern water colorist. It was a revolutionary process, and was what my earlier post “Spring Flowers” was exploring.
Jan van Eyck, Saint Barbara, Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp
The innovations of the Flemish painters found their way to the Italian artists of the Early Renaissance, presumably through Giorgio Bellini and his teachings. It was not long before leading artists in Rome and Venice were experimenting with the method, including Leonardo da Vinci. The Venetians were quick to see the possibilities and limitations of this method and made some unique adaptations to the process.
The thin bistre earth tone underpainting was difficult to make corrections on in the underpainting stage, was rigorously tight for many of the large mural sized canvases the Venetians were working on at that time.
And though not as noticeable in the small wooden panels of the Flemish painter, the oil-resin medium produced unwanted glare. The Venetians answer was to modify the medium by removing the resin, replacing it with beeswax to reduce glare. They used opaque mixtures of values such as a gray (grisaille) or greenish-gray (verdaccio) to paint a detailed underpainting in monochromatic, which allowed easy modification and revisions directly on the canvas before applying glazes of colors. With the advancement of the grisaille and techniques such as scrumbling, dry brushing (frottage) and impasto, the control of soft and hard edges, along with semi-glazes, and glazing allowed the Venetian painters to stretch oil painting beyond anything that came before. All adding to the painter’s tool box. The Venetians were able to propel the art of painting into the High Renaissance, and collectively produced some of the greatest works of art of Western civilization. In the painting “Woodland Phlox” I humbly attempt to explore this approach.
The majority of the Old Masters employed some type of underpainting in some variation. For example the unfinished work by Leonardo da Vinci, Madonna and Child with St. Anne, shows a brown transparent underpainting such as used by the van Eycks, but the Master begins finishing the underpainting with opaque white and tones of green- gray (verdaccio).
In Michelangelo’s unfinished work, Madonna and Child with the Infant Baptist and Angels, we have underpainting not only in verdaccio, but black and white, using the canvas as the white. Raphael, Durer, Rembrandt, Vermeer, David, all used some variation of the technique and of course as did Titian.
Attempting to understand who was doing what, and when, can get very confusing. Many of the Old Masters were contemporaries of each other, and they must have shared knowledge or observed the efforts of each other. Interesting that in 1510, about mid point of the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci was 58 years old, Michelangelo 35, Raphael 27, Durer 39, Titian 26, and all were recognized artist. Leonardo da Vinci would live for about another ten years, while Michelangelo would live on to the age of 89. Having great influence on the next generation of painters such as Rubens, Caravaggio, Veronese. Titian would live to be nearly 90, his life would span da Vinci’s and Michelangelo’s making him a contemporary of both. His work was based in the Venetian method, but was much more aggressive. Titian, painted and composed directly from life, attacking the canvas with a brush. In areas he would model form with grays and other areas earth tones, and use glazes and velaturas of color over them. He would finish with sessions of direct painting, using half impasto, full impasto, rubbing and dragging colors in the technique of (frottage). He threw everything but the kitchen sink into his paintings. For his energetic direct approach, Titian is often referred to as the founder of modern painting.
In my last installment on the techniques of underpainting I will be attempting to understand Titians method and painting a third small floral. At the bottom of this post are some links and references for those interested in the Flemish and Venetian schools.
The Flemish and Venetian Schools on Explore
The teachings and writings of Artist, Virgil Elliot
The Painter in Oil, By Daniel B. Parkhurt, online at ARC.
The Materials of the Artist, by Max Dormner, online at Google books.
Resources, and great reads.
How to Paint Like The Old Masters, by Joseph Sheppard
The Big Book of Oil Painting, by Jose Parramon
Encyclopaedia of Oil Painting, by Frederick Palmer
Formulas For Painters, by Robert Massey
Preparation For Painting, by Lynton Lamb