The Technique Of Painting
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The Training of the Painter — The Materials He Uses — Tempera — Fresco — Oil-painting — Surfaces, Palettes, Brushes, Knives, and Media — How a Painting Is Begun — Glazing — Direct Painting — Impressionism and the Vibration of Light —Mural Painting—Puvis de Chavannes and His Technique — Expression in Mural Painting.
IN all but exceptional and infrequent cases the painter is nowadays the product of the art school. Occasionally a painter will accept a pupil and permit him or her to work in his studio; in days past this was the usual thing. At the school the student draws at first from plaster casts of antique sculpture and, when he has progressed sufficiently, from the living model. These drawings are made on paper with sticks of willow charcoal. When a student is able to draw correctly, and to translate the relative values of the subject—that is, the relation of the darkest dark to the highest light, and of the intermediate lights and darks to both-he is allowed to paint. This training in drawing and painting is rightly begun indoors with simple objects in a strong, cold, steady light. The light out-of-doors is too complicated for the beginner. This is the road all painters follow; they may turn out to be painters of landscape in which not a figure is to be found; but they have been through this indispensable training of the hand and eye—of the eye, to see and analyze the light and shade which is form, and of the hand to render that which the eye perceives. As in Architecture and Sculpture, drawing is at the very foundation of Painting. It is the combination of good drawing with good color and good pattern that makes good Painting.
The technique of Painting is very complicated in itself and is further complicated by the fact that nearly every painter has his own methods. The literature on the subject is already voluminous, therefore I shall give here only some general indications of processes and materials. In modern painting there are three or four media used : oil-color, water-color, tempera, and distemper. Practically the same dry colored powders are used for all, but are ground up: for oil-color, with oil-linseed-oil in this country, principally poppy-seed oil in France; for water-color, with water—and glycerine to keep the color soft; mixed with vinegar and egg for tempera and with glue-water for distemper. The powders are made from various minerals, chemicals, or vegetable substances.
Tempera was, before the invention of oil-painting, the medium in which the works of the early Italian school were done, both easel and mural painting; but the technical difficulties of handling it are considerable and troublesome and it is little used at the present day.
We may as well, at this point, dispose briefly of fresco painting as originally practised. Fresco means, in Italian, fresh; and the term was applied to painting on fresh plaster. The great vaults and walls of the Sistine Chapel and many another series of paintings in Italy were done in fresco. The material for the final coat of plaster was very carefully prepared under the eye of the painter, who decided how much surface he could cover in a given time, and applied the plaster to that area. He undoubtedly had his drawing made in advance, and transferred it to the fresh plaster and then painted it in with a form of tempera color; the plaster being damp, the color soaked in and became incorporated with it. This required very rapid and sure execution.
The process of painting in oil-color was invented about the beginning of the fifteenth century; credit for the invention is variously bestowed. It sprang into immediate favor in Venice, and the works of Bellini, Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto are painted in oil, while the Florentine school, which included Michael Angelo, clung to tempera and fresco. The resources of oil-color are so many, it is handled with so much ease and freedom as compared with the other media, the effects are so immediate or can be predicated with such certainty, it has so much body, richness, and transparency, that the most important work of the present day is done in it.
What follows is to be understood as applying to oil-painting, unless definitely stated not to be.
Almost any kind of surface may be used to paint upon. Wooden panels were once largely used, but they warp and split in the course of time. The most generally satisfactory surface is linen canvas, stretched tightly on a wooden frame called a stretcher or strainer. The canvas is sized with thin glue to keep the oil away from the fibres of the canvas, which linseed-oil rots and burns. It is then usual to prime it with one or two light coats of oil paint and set it away to dry; the priming coat is, as the word indicates, the first or primary coating. Some painters prefer an absorbent ground to paint upon, and coat canvas or panel with a mixture of glue and whiting—which, by the way, was the usual ground the painters in tempera used.
For a surface to mix his colors upon, the painter uses one of several sorts with the generic name of palette. Some use a piece of glass laid flat upon a table; others, a large thin sheet of mahogany or walnut, sometimes oblong, sometimes oval, with a hole in it for the thumb. The colors come in tubes, and are squeezed out on the palette in a certain order which is called "setting the palette." This order varies with the painter. One may put white on the extreme left, and then the lighter colors like the yellows, then the oranges, reds, browns, greens, blues, and finally black at the extreme right. Another may follow the sequence of the colors in the spectrum, beginning at the left with red, then orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. White would still be at the extreme left, and black, if used, at the right. I say "if used," because more and more as the laws of light and color are better understood, black is being banished from the palette, except in mural painting, where it may be needed for its powerful decorative value.
Some painters use one medium and some another to thin the paint, such as turpentine, colloquially known as "turps," benzine, refined petroleum, thin varnish, or a combination of oils and varnishes. Other men prefer to use the paint as the thick paste in which it comes from the tube, and even extract the oil from it with blotting-paper to make it less fluid.
The color is transferred from the palette to the canvas with brushes of hair or bristle, some flat in shape and some round, and of varying widths and sizes. Some men use a palette-knife to the exclusion of brushes—either the thin flexible knife with which the color is mixed on the palette, or specially shaped and tempered painting-knives.
When a painter begins a picture the procedure is about as follows: he takes a primed canvas, sets it on his easel, and with a piece of charcoal or a brush dipped in thin color draws in the subject. If in charcoal, he "fixes" it, to pre-vent its rubbing off, with a thin solution of shellac, called fixatif. He then paints in, in a broad and simple way, the principal shadows, then the half-tones-the tones midway between the darkest and the lightest parts—and finally the lights and high lights. This is not always done all at one time. When as much as may be safely done at the first painting is accomplished, the painting is set away to dry to a point where it may be worked on again. A painter usually keeps several canvases going at once for this reason. When a canvas previously begun is taken up again he further refines upon the first blocking in, correcting the drawing, the values, the color, and their interrelations, until it is carried as far as he wishes. This is a very summary statement and does not include a hundred things that a complete treatise on oil-painting would deal with. In the bibliography will be found some titles that will be useful to those who would like to know more than our scope permits us to give.
When the painting is finished it is frequently varnished, more or less heavily, according to the painter's method, or waxed and polished.
We may touch upon one or two more matters just here that will assist in a better comprehension of the paintings you may examine in the museums and galleries. In the early days of painting, and indeed up to very recent times, it was the practice to paint and completely model the subject in some gray or brown, cold or warm, monotone. By "model " we mean : to paint all the light and shade of the forms. When this monotone painting was thoroughly dry it was lightly varnished, and when the varnish was dry, "glazes" of color, that is to say, pure pigment mixed with varnish and oil to make and keep it transparent, were painted or rubbed over the monotone lights and shadows. The glazes being transparent, the modelling of the monotone painting, all its light and shade, showed through them. Other glazes were subsequently carried over the whole or parts of the first glazes, and wonderful and transparent tones were built up in this way. Many of the old Italian, Dutch, and Flemish masterpieces are so built up. To sum up this process, painting a picture was divided into two stages—the first being to paint the light and shade only, and the second, to paint the color only.
Modern painters with few exceptions discard this beautiful but slow and laborious technique as a complete system in favor of "direct" painting, wherein the light and shade and color are all rendered at the same time. This is due to the discoveries made in the vibration of light and the use of broken color, and even the texture of rough paint, to render the aspects of nature. The Impressionist school, headed by Claude Monet, a landscapist, and Edouard Manet, a figure-painter, in the closing years of the nineteenth century, cast aside the old academic formulas and painted nature as they believed it actually to be. Monet especially became interested in problems of light; he and his friends uttered the dictum that "the light is the principal personage " in any picture, landscape, or figure. Analyzing sunlight and shadow and the colors of natural objects, their keen, trained eyes perceived that the effect of what seemed to be a green tree could not be rendered by the use of green paint; that there are other colors in this green tree—blue, yellow, violet, red. So, by placing small areas of pure unmixed color side by side on the canvas, the eye blends them at the right focal distance into the tone which most people with eyes untrained think is the color of the tree and which, if painted entirely in that solid color, would not properly represent that tree. These were revolutionary theories at the time, and feeling ran high between the official, academic faction, and the innovators and their friends. Slowly the truths they contended and suffered for have prevailed, and the debt of the world to Monet, Pisarro, Sisley, and their group is freely and universally acknowledged.
The differences between the school in France immediately preceding the birth of the so-called Impressionist idea and the exponents of the latter, may be summed up by saying: that the Impressionists went direct to nature for information, and thought for themselves, whereas the Academic school used old recipes for producing effects handed down in the studios and to which they clung; that the Impressionists painted, whether indoors or out, directly from the object or scene they were depicting; where the old school painted always in the cold north light of the studio, with a conventional, assumed, and artificial lighting of the subject in-stead of the light of out-of-doors; that the Impressionists used pure fresh color put on in such a way as to envelop the subject in light and air; the old school clung to the "brown sauce" of its period-brown sauce being a kind of brown tone used for all shadows, no matter what the color of the object. Some of the Impressionist paintings that looked so boldly revolutionary in 1890 seem conservative enough now; but the Impressionists took the academic bandages from the eyes of the world of art and taught it to see color and to paint the light.
Mural Painting does not aim at the rendition of the truth of nature, and its technique is quite different from that of easel painting. It will be remembered that Mural Painting, being closely related to Architecture, partakes of its nature and is subject to many of its laws; the object is to embellish the surface of an important structural feature of the building; not to pierce it, but preserve the sense that the wall still exists. A drawing of the panel or space, with the architectural elements about it, is made at such a scale that the whole effect may be easily grasped no matter how large the finished picture is to be, and a sketch of the big masses and lines of the composition made upon it, and studied and restudied until Harmony, Balance, and Rhythm between these lines and masses and the lines and masses of the room are established. The sketch is then enlarged and a more careful study of details and of color pattern and masses made. These sketches are made on paper, or cardboard, or canvas, in charcoal, pastel, water-color, or oil-color. Special details of separate figures are then made, usually from life, and frequently at the scale of execution. A great piece of canvas has been prepared on a stretcher; the canvas for large mural paintings is usually woven specially, to avoid joints and seams. Some painters prepare a complete cartoon, as it is called, of the whole picture at full size on paper, and then transfer it to the canvas by one of the several methods of transferring. Others merely mark off their studies, full size or at smaller scale, into squares which bear a proportional relation to similar squares marked off on the canvas, and re-draw their picture on the latter by the aid of these squares and the lines forming them. Others take a small scale drawing, put it in a kind of giant magic lantern, throw the image up to the size they want, and draw it by following the lines of the projected image. The picture entirely drawn, it is ready to paint.
A Mural Painting finished, it is affixed to the wall with a heavy coat of white lead and varnish, spread thickly on the plaster with a trowel.
Where, in an easel picture, the edges of objects would be softened, "lost" as the painter says, the forms in a mural painting are outlined with a strong outline. In brief, a mural painting is more like a large colored drawing than like an easel picture.
There is as wide a divergence in Mural Painting as there is in easel painting, in theory, method, and treatment, and we may do no better than to describe some of the methods of the greatest of all modern mural painters, Puvis de Chavannes. He preserves the sense of the wall and yet attains a sense of depth and perspective, and avoids the flat and papery effect of a poster, partly by his treatment of light and shade, partly by his handling of values, partly by his color. His color is cool and gray and its range has been aptly described as his "lilac chord." Lilacs, blues, and grey blues, grey greens, cool yellows, cool, but often rich reds, are his palette. His values are "close"; that is to say, a figure robed in blue in the foreground is little different in value from one farther back in the picture also robed in blue. There are no violent contrasts. In one of his panels in the Hotel de Ville or City Hall of Paris, some trees in the background are just about as dark as the group of men in the foreground, but the two take their proper places by reason of the way they are drawn; by this device he secured the effect of depth and perspective in his drawing and yet brought the distant plane in which the trees lie up to the first plane (the plane of the wall) with his color values. His pictures are bathed in a soft, diffused light—"the light that never was on land or sea "—and his figures have their being in an enchanted land. And while each object and figure is modelled in light and shade in itself, it is to be observed that they cast no shadows on other figures or objects. A little darkening of the ground at the feet of a figure, a touch of dark where the butt of a staff touches the ground, suffices to locate it on the ground plane. His drawing is simplified in a remarkable and very personal manner ; his preliminary studies for the separate figures of his compositions are ac-curate transcripts from nature, but he translates them, by subjecting them to a process of simplification, into something quite different, sculptural in its massive strength. And thus, by the strength of his drawing and the masculine quality of his forms, the delicacy of his color is redeemed from any sense of weakness; were his drawing not as virile and rugged as it is his color might seem too ethereal.
One of the masters of Mural Painting of the Renaissance, Pintoricchio, attains a sense of decorative flatness and conventionalization by modelling certain portions in relief and gilding them. This followed the old tradition of illuminated books, and Pintoricchio may have adopted the treatment through the influence of the paintings of Gentile da Fabriano and Benozzo Gozzoli, both of whom made a similar use of gilded relief, and both of whom were in their turn influenced by the work of Fra Angelico.