Sunday, 20 September 2009

The Old Masters

I received an unexpected present from my wife yesterday. Jill bought me the anniversary edition of How To Paint Like The Old Masters written by Joseph Sheppard. This is an unusual and yet popular book. It has been around for thirty years and is in no way intended for beginners. If you cannot already paint a portrait there is no point buying this book (the publishers might tell you different). Even then, the book has a value more for Art History than practical application.

For in this book, Joseph Sheppard takes the reader through a detailed process of describing how paintings were done in previous centuries. His example artists are Dürer (1461-1528), Titian (c.1488-1576), Veronese (1528-1588), Caravaggio (1571-1610), Rubens (1577-1640), Hals (1580-1666), Rembrandt (1606-1669) and Vermeer (1632-1675). Instead of taking the usual route of other art books, where a painting of the artist is shown and then a less than helpful whistle-stop tour of technique is given, Sheppard paints a portrait from scratch and gives photographs of each stage. That may seem simple enough but the techniques and styles of painting have changed so much that the methods given in Sheppard’s book may astonish the young modern artist.

Most modern artists use the alla prima method. Alla prima means ‘all at once’ and describes how the artist begins and finishes a painting in one sitting. It is a loose term because sometimes two or three sittings may actually be needed. In alla prima what is central is that the colour and tone is built up all at once and not in layers, usually varnished layers.

That is how the old masters did it: in layers. Paint a layer. Wait a few days while it dried. Varnish/glaze it. Wait a few days for that to dry. Paint the next layer. Wait some more days for that to dry. And so on. A single painting may take weeks to complete and along the way the look of the painting might perturb a viewer. The flesh colour appears in a portrait during the latter half of the painting as a translucent wash; before that, the subject may appear very grey or silver in one method because those are the colours used in the primary layers. The final result is worth it if you have the patience, or rather, if your client has the patience.

Another set back for the novice with this book is the necessity of making your own paints and preparing your own linseed oil. The painting methods can be done with paint from a tube and bought artists linseed oil but the end result can be hit or miss. Sheppard is somewhat upbeat on the point and encourages the reader to make up his/her own mind. However, way back when, many years ago when I received training from Ed Howard, I spent a lot of boring hours preparing oil paint from scratch. I also did what is called ‘washing’ the linseed oil to take out any colour from it that ruins the delicate colour of a thin translucent layer of paint. Even the artists’ linseed oil bought from art shops does not match this and tends to have the colour of honey rather than having a clearer look about it. The home made DIY method is troublesome and boring but produces a better quality of paint and final picture. However, the difference is hardly visible in a photograph or print and so the modern, quicker methods prevail and with some sense when art is now more commonly seen by the public in printed mediums.

Even if you cannot paint, have no intention of learning to do so but have an appreciation of 16th and 17th century art then Sheppard’s book could be useful to you in deepening your understanding of the trouble that Titian, Rembrandt and others went to in order to paint a single portrait

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