Photos: Would the Old Masters Have Used Them?

One artist discusses the secrets of the masters and how they would feel about using photographs.

What is old master painting?

Art historians do not all agree upon who are the “old masters.” Some begin and end the period of old master painting with the Renaissance of the 15th to early 16th century, including artists such as Botticelli, Rafael and Leonardo. Others include great painters from the succeeding 17th century (i.e., Vermeer, Rembrandt and Rubens), 18th century (i.e., Chardin, Gainsborough and Tiepolo), and 19th century (i.e. Ingres, Sargent and the Impressionists).

In my Old Master Painting workshops, I use the term “old master” to describe a diverse collection of artists, from the early Renaissance up through the 19th century, who share a similar vocabulary of visual elements and design principles. These principals, evident in classical Greek art and architecture, were ubiquitous to western art for many centuries but became less important with the rise of modern art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

What are the secrets of the old masters?
People who love the paintings of Leonardo, Titian, Vermeer, Rembrandt and other great artists of the past often speak of “the secrets of the old masters.” They wonder: How did these painters create such beautiful artwork?

Many painters look for the answer in materials. They diligently search out traditional pigments, rare drying oils and lost recipes for old master mediums. However, all the greater and lesser artists of the past worked with old-fashioned, handmade materials and hand-ground pigments—and yet they didn’t all make masterpieces. Furthermore, there are masterpieces in every medium (encaustic, fresco, oil, tempera, watercolor, ink and so on). If walnut seed oil is the answer, how did Fra Angelico working in tempera, or Giotto working in fresco, achieve such marvelous results? Working with good materials is important, but hoping the right materials will add up to a masterpiece isn’t the answer.
We might also consider the many posters of masterworks (by Botticelli, Vermeer and others) that adorn people’s walls, made of nothing more than paper and ink. While of course they’re not as magnificent as the original paintings, such images are still beautiful to behold.

Another place people may look for “the secrets” is in the old masters’ working methods and technical ability. Did the artist start with an underpainting in raw umber followed by glazing? Or was the underpainting green earth with alternating layers of transparency and opacity atop? How masterfully did he handle his brush and blend layers? Every painter must decide upon a method—the steps by which an artist builds a painting—and some methods will be better than others for achieving an artist’s goals. Having virtuoso technique is helpful, too! But as with materials, the artists’ methods cannot hold the secret to old master painting, as the methods they used were as numerous as the old masters themselves. And while ability is helpful, it doesn’t guarantee a masterpiece, as any technically perfect but lifeless painting can attest to.

In short, it’s not hard to find impeccably made paintings from the past that aren’t great masterpieces. Conversely there are, materially or technically speaking, poorly made masterpieces (such as Leonardo’s Last Supper). Neither materials nor methods, important as they are, can adequately account for the beauty of old master painting. Relying too greatly on either is akin to a writer hoping that with a vast vocabulary and perfect grammar he will write like Shakespeare.

In my experience, what all masterpieces—in every medium, from every age—have in common is great design. Underlying all old master paintings is a consistent collection of basic visual truths and design principles.

Would the old masters have embraced photography?

I don’t know. Certainly, artists of the past welcomed many new technologies as they appeared: grid systems and optics, such as the camera obscura, to enhance drawing skills; and new pigments, mediums, grounds and supports with which to paint.

There’s a popular notion that all old-fashioned painters are purists, adverse to any technological amendments to their craft. In actuality most full-time painters that I know are appreciative of anything that will facilitate the painting process!

The idea that artists must be purists—always draw from life—derives in part, perhaps, from the belief that the “secrets” of old master painting lie in their materials and methods; therefore one must not deviate from the masters’ techniques in order to paint as they did. Certainly materials and method are very important—but not as relevant as being able to design well, I believe. For this reason my guess is that many of the old masters would have welcomed photography as a way to supplement and facilitate the difficult but rewarding job of designing and painting well, both of which are essential to creating a masterpiece.

A board member of the Society of Tempera Painters, Koo Schadler conducts workshops on egg tempera and old master painting. Author of the book Egg Tempera Painting, she’s a master painter of the Copley Society of Art in Boston. For more information about her book and her work, visit


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