Painting Like A Sculptor | Lessons From Leonardo and Michelangelo

During the Italian Renaissance there was a contentious debate as to which was a nobler art form: painting or sculpting. Painters claimed that they had the harder task because they had to invent the illusion of everything within the scene, including the light. Sculptors claimed it was they who had the greater challenge, because they had to create something that was capable of being viewed from all angles, often in unforgiving stone. This debate played out most notably in the legendary rivalry between Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. In public, the brusque Michelangelo had once taunted Leonardo over his failure to cast a colossal-sized equestrian bronze statue in Milan. And Leonardo voiced his regard for sculptors by describing the act as little more than a mechanical exercise accompanied with a great deal of sweat.

Today the debate has pretty much evaporated with both painting and sculpting being considered part of the same visual arts family that rely on parallel aesthetics. Of course, there are major mechanical differences. A painting is done on a flat two-dimensional surface and the appearance of depth has to be portrayed. A sculpture is by its very nature three-dimensional.

A Sculptural Approach to Painting
There’s an old statement concerning painting and sculpting that holds a lot of insight: The representational painter has to think like a sculptor, while the sculptor has to think like a sculptor. Simply stated: The painter has to be aware of the bulk and depth of the objects being portrayed beyond their physical width and height. They have to manipulate color, value, edge and size to create an illusion of what the sculptor physically produces. This philosophy can be applied to pastel painting by considering the painting surface as analogous to a block of marble stone. Darker pastel passages will represent the chiseled away portions and lighter sections will represent those left protruding from the stone. This sculptural approach to painting can also be applied to the initial drawing on the surface. Instead of methodically drawing every subtle curve of an object’s outline, make marks that symbolize the first chisel cuts into a blank block of stone. These basic knife cuts (slashes) make it easier to envision the mass and bulk of the objects to be portrayed, before becoming distracted by detail (see image no. 1) below. They represent the simplified direction and motion of what’s there. Just as a sculptor allows the figure to emerge from the stone, so too does a painter from the painting surface.

The initial knife cut drawing done with a hard pastel stick in advance of pastel.

The initial knife cut drawing done with a hard pastel stick in advance of pastel.




The finished painting, Summer Fields (pastel, 7×10)


Leonardo may have proclaimed that sculptors, covered in marble dust, looked like bakers, and that their homes were both noisy and filthy in contrast to the more elegant abodes of painters. And Michelangelo may have hated doing the commissioned Sistine Chapel, but everything they knew about accomplishment in sculpture led to their mastery in painting. Whether or not you take a side in the debate, there is something to be gained by painting like a sculptor.


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