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.
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 www.kooschadler.com.
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