Painting Properties and Techniques

Whether an artwork reached completion by considered stages or was implemented directly by a hit-or-miss alla prima method (in which pigments are applied in a single application) was previously decided by the ideals and established systems of its cultural tradition. For instance, the medieval European illuminator’s painstaking procedure, by which a complex linear pattern was slowly decorated with gold leaf and precious pigments, was contemporary with the Sung Chinese Zen practice of immediate, calligraphic brush painting, following a restive moment of disciplined self-preparation. However, the contemporary artist has decided the technique and working method most suited to his aims and temperament. In France in the 1880s, for instance, Seurat may be working in his studio on drawings, tone studies, and colour schemes in preparation for a large composition at the same time that, outdoors, Monet was endeavouring to emulate 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 type of relationship established between artist and patron, the site 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 submitting a small oil sketch, or modella, for his client’s approval before carrying out a large-scale commission. Distinctive problems peculiar to mural painting, such as viewer eye level and the scale, architecture, and function of a building interior, had first to be solved in preliminary drawings and sometimes by using wax figurines or scale representations of the interior. Scale working drawings are crucial 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 frame 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 inherent properties of a 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 keeps the intensity and tonality 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 believed to be fixed only with water on numerous ancient Egyptian murals are protected by the dry climate 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 with time into the sometimes disastrously imitated “Old Masters’ mellow patina.” Once admired, this amber-gravy film is now generally removed to reveal colours in their original intensity. Glass started to replace varnish towards the end of the 19th century, when painters wished to retain the fresh, luminous finish of pigments applied directly to a pure white ground. The air-conditioning and temperature-control systems of modern museums make 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 introduction of portable easel pictures, ornate frames not only provided some protection against being stolen and damage but were also considered an aesthetic addition to a painting, and frame making became a specialized craft. Gilded gesso moldings (made of plaster of paris and sizing that forms the surface for low relief) in extravagant presentations of fruit and flowers certainly seem almost an extension of the restless, exuberant design of a Baroque or Rococo painting. A substantial 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 illusion intended by the artist. Deep, ornate frames are unsuitable for many modern paintings, where the artist’s intention is for his forms 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 intended; and, in order to emphasize the physical shape of the support itself and to accent 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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