Painting Properties and Techniques

Whether a painting reaches completion by careful stages or was implemented directly by a hit-or-miss alla prima method (in which pigments are applied in a single application) was once largely decided by the philosophy and established systems of its cultural tradition. For instance, the medieval European illuminator’s painstaking procedure, by which a complex linear pattern was gradually enriched with gold leaf and precious materials, was contemporary with the Sung Chinese Zen practice of fast, calligraphic brush painting, following a restive period of spiritual self-preparation. More recently, the artist has decided the technique and working formula most suited to his aims and temperament. In France in the 1880s, for instance, Seurat might be working in his studio on sketches, tone studies, and colour schemes in preparation for a large composition at the same time that, outdoors, Monet was working to capture the effects of afternoon light and atmosphere, while Cézanne analyzed the structure of the mountain Sainte-Victoire with deliberated brush strokes, laid as irrevocably as mosaic tesserae (small pieces, such as marble or tile).

The kind of communication established between artist and patron, the location and subject matter of a painting commission, and the physical properties of the medium employed may also dictate working procedure. Peter Paul Rubens, for example, followed the business-like 17th-century tradition of creating a small oil sketch, or modella, for his patron’s approval before creating a large-scale commission. Fundamental problems peculiar to mural painting, such as viewer eye level and the scale, style, and function of a building interior, had first to be solved in preparatory drawings and occasionally with the use of wax figurines or scale models of the interior. Scale working realizations are essential to the speed and precision of execution required by quick-drying mediums, such as buon’ fresco (see below Fresco) on wet plaster, and acrylic resin on canvas. The drawings traditionally are covered with a grid of squares, or “squared-up,” for enlarging on the surface of the support. Some modern painters prefer to outline the enlargement of a sketch projected directly onto the support by epidiascope (a projector for images of both opaque and transparent objects). In Renaissance painters’ workshops, student assistants not only ground and mixed the pigments and prepared the supports and painting surfaces but often laid in the outlines and broad masses of the painting from the master’s design and studies.

The distinctive properties of its medium or the atmospheric conditions of a site may themselves preserve a painting. The wax solvent binder of encaustic paintings (in which after application, the paint is fixed by heat [see below Mediums], for example) both retains the intensity and variation of the original colours and protects the surface from damp. And, while prehistoric rock paintings and buon’ frescoes are preserved by natural chemical action, the tempera pigments thought to be mixed only with water on many ancient Egyptian murals are protected by the very dry atmosphere and unvarying temperature of the tombs. It has, however, been customary to varnish oil paintings, both to protect the surface against damage by dirt and handling and to restore the tonality lost when some darker pigments dry out into a higher key. Unfortunately, varnish will darken and yellow over time into the sometimes disastrously imitated “Old Masters’ mellow patina.” Once appreciated, this amber-gravy film is now generally removed to reveal colours in their original intensity. Glass started to replace varnish toward the end of the 19th century, when artists wished to retain the fresh, luminous finish of pigments applied directly to a pure white ground. Air-conditioning and temperature-control systems of modern museums make both varnishing and glazing unnecessary, except for older and more fragile exhibits.

The frames supporting early altarpieces, icons, and cassone panels (painted panels on the chest used for a bride’s household linen) were often structural parts of the support. With the establishment of portable easel pictures, heavy frames not only provided some protection against being stolen and damage but were considered an aesthetic enhancement to a painting, and frame making became a specialized craft. Gilded gesso moldings (consisting of plaster of paris and sizing that forms the surface for low relief) in extravagant swags of fruit and flowers certainly appear almost an extension of the restless, exuberant design of a Baroque or Rococo painting. A sturdy frame also provided a proscenium (in a theatre, the area between the orchestra and the curtain) in which the picture was isolated from its immediate surroundings, thus adding to the window view an illusion intended by the artist. Deep, ornate frames are unsuitable for many modern paintings, where the artist’s intention is for his creation to appear to advance toward the spectator rather than be viewed by him as if through a wall aperture. In contemporary Minimalist paintings, no effects of spatial illusionism are wanted; and, in order to emphasize the physical shape of the support itself and to emphasise its flatness, these abstract, geometrical designs are often displayed without frames or are only edged with thin protective strips of wood or metal.

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