You, Me and The Old Masters

You, Me, and the Old Masters

I'm compiling this blog post fresh from doing my latest member's on hour StudioTalk demonstration on how Monet can help you get over that perennial problem of dealing with details - especially in foregrounds . As I was lecturing I pulled in a few examples of how other artists did similar things, and was struck once again by the wonderful continuity of ideas which painting reveals to me.

To me the study of paintings is like a wonderful series of painted curtains, draw one back and just beneath it lies another, just as beautiful, complex and wonderful but in a slightly different way; each painting is that artist's version of events.

As part of this week's Studiotalk, I got around to giving first dibs of our new Masterclasses to the members, and amongst the six new programs we launched, (covering everything from Turner's glorious late style, to seas, contemporary abstract landscapes, Corot's trademark light effects and even classical flowers), the self same continuity of ideas stood out for me.

So I thought I'd share this little piece I put together on some of those things - those wonderful shared ideas - which are the building blocks of the story of painting.

The Old Masters and You

If you’ve ever been stopped in your tracks by a painting and wondered ‘how was that done?’ then this is for you.

Over the next thousand words of so I’ll be letting you in on a few of the amazing things that only paintings and paint can do in the hands of the old - and not so old - masters - and if you think that technique is old fashioned then think again.

The schedule for the John Moores (the contemporary painting prize) emphasises that artists’ entries should above all, demonstrate what paint, and painting alone, can do.

Not convinced? Then a stroll around the Tate Modern will show you that the best ideas are the ones that are powerfully presented and forcefully brought to life by strong visual art. The craft of painting is necessary to the art of it, so while the means are not the end, you really ought to have them to hand.

As were talking about ideas, its important to decide where to begin. Picasso understood that ‘there is no progression in art’ as did Greyson Perry when he noted that ‘everything was contemporary once’. Ideas, in other words are timeless, but to explore some of the best ideas in visual art, you’ll need a bit of craft. This then is a series on the craft of painting designed to help you become a better creative artist.

With that caveat, I’d like to invite you to think about your painting and reflect on whether you’re not missing out on some powerful ideas and techniques which could help you better realise your creative vision. Let’s start at the very beginning: how you apply paint.

Question Everything

One habit of successful creative people is to question assumptions, so why do most creative artists apply pre prepared tube paints onto white canvases and spread them with brushes or knives?

If that sounds like you, then just think of all the decisions you’ve opted out of. Could you make up the paint? Could you modify how it looks, spreads or dries? Why are you be painting on a white surface? Is a bush or knife the best tool for what you want?

The great virtue of study is to see a familiar process through new eyes, the greater virtue of practical study is to both see and experience. So for the next four articles I’d like to get you quantum with a different way of seeing painting; through indirect eyes.

Indirect Painting

Most contemporary and almost all untrained painters work directly. Most trained painters, and almost all old masters work indirectly, so it seems sensible to start this series by questioning that.

Indirect painting simply means creating a work in stages or layers, one after and over the other. This in turn means that each layer has to be made in reference to both what it is painted over, and what will subsequently be painted over it.

This sounds straightforward - and it is - however indirect working requires you to consider the sequence you work in, exploit the possibilities you create and stay focused on creating a strong punchy image.

Working to a sequence

If you intend to work in several layers, its important to ensure that they in turn are orchestrated and work together, rather than negate each other. The aim here is to make each stage necessary for and useful to the next. Every artist develops their own sequence but here’s a sound working putative for you to use as a base.

  1. Prepare an imprimatura

  2. Block in an underpainting

  3. Refine the underpainting (‘model’ it)

  4. Nuance the modelling with glazing or scumbling

  5. Give it a final unifying varnish

This by and large would be a typical indirect working sequence, but within it, the emphasis one puts on each stage may vary enormously, and stages might be swapped around, duplicated, redone or omitted as appropriate. The only constants here are that the work is thought of as being a piece to be developed, and to be done so optically.

Most contemporary painters who are very happy to work intuitively, spontaneously and from the gut, just don't imagine the old masters doing it their way. While modern levels of spontaneity just weren't routine before pre prepared tube paints were available, a quick glance at a Turner, late Titian, Rembrandt or El Greco will convince any practicing artist that spontaneity was part and parcel of indirect technique, and here’s the thing - it was planned spontaneity.

Many of the Old Masters understood the value of the serendipitous and spontaneous, but also had the skills to harness the element of chance - not merely become a recipient of it.

So if you find that your paint is in charge of your creativity, and you can’t replicate the ones which go well, then you should be interested in process.

Always consider optics

As indirect painting involves layers, it’s vital to ensure that each subsequent layer works with the previous one rather than just obliterating it. This means that to work indirectly you have to ensure your paint runs the gamut of opacity from fully opaque, through milky turbidity, to glass like translucency.

Again this sounds complex, but it isn’t. If you squeeze out a bit of opaque Titanium White and spread it out it with your finger it will become turbid, dilute it with a dash of solvent and it will become translucent. Mediums make all of this more nuanced, but they are simply different means to the same end.

Some good contemporarily artists - and the Old Masters routinely exploit the optical potential of paints to make better pictures. it’s something that a mechanical reproduction of an image just can’t do, and the reason that most paintings are far better on the wall than in reproduction. If your subject is a photograph and your aspiration is to reproduce how it looks, then you’re really missing out.

A typical optical sequence simply involves alternating more opaque and more translucent paint layers of different colours to create interesting effects. Yes, it can become complex than that, if one uses lots of different mediums, but at its heart opacity is a simple principle and, more than that, for painters at least, a state of mind.

Work to keep it strong and simple.

If direct painting has a virtue, it is that it is difficult not to make it look punchy and simple. Conversely, by its layered, optical nature Indirect painting will naturally turn out complex and nuanced. So, just as artists must work to make direct painting more nuanced, one must take trouble to keep indirect work punchy.

Visual strength starts by obeying the same principles that have always informed good painting, specifically strong visual design, supported by structural value, and good colour. To this, indirect painting adds great optical quality, a benefit much harder to exploit in direct oils.

A Simple Indirect Exercise

The easiest way to experiment with indirect painting is to work over any old, thoroughly dry paintings you have in your studio.

Simply mix up some paint so that it’s not absolutely opaque and work over your old work. It’s really important to start with a strong underpainting as layering will generally reduce contrast, so try working over old pieces which are a little overstated and avoid greyed down pieces.

In this manner the original work will contribute to any new painting you do over it, creating an effect which couldn’t be done in a single layer.

You'll also see that the colours you choose for the new layer are modified by those below them, creating nuanced optical colours, which again couldn’t be made from a simple wet into wet mix.

It’s OK to do this crudely by mixing your oils with solvents, but to get some of the more nuanced effects you’ll need to use a bit more craft, so next time we’ll get into that.

In a nutshell

  • Skills facilitate Creativity

  • Reinvent old methods for yourself - ideas are timeless.

  • Question your assumptions

  • Try working and thinking indirectly

  • Work in a sequence

  • Make each layer count

  • Use lots of contrast on the initial layers

  • Experiment by painting over old, dry works

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