A Closer Look: Techniques of Painting by Jo Kirby (2011)

This is a superbly informative, crisply written and lavishly illustrated little book. It’s one of a series of slender volumes (this one is 93 pages long) in the National Gallery’s A Closer Look series. To quote the blurb,

Techniques of Painting aims to help readers develop a painterly eye by learning to recognize different materials and methods of application and to appreciate how these features contribute to how a painting looks.’

It ranges far and wide to find examples from the National Gallery’s vast collection of over 2,300 paintings. Almost all the 94 illustrations are in good quality colour, with well-chosen close-ups from works both familiar and strange, to illustrate precise aspects of the craft of painting. Although there are examples from the gods of later centuries – van Dyck, Rubens, Gainsborough, Lawrence, van Gogh and Monet – the book tends to focus interest in, and encourage a better understanding of, earlier painters, especially of the early Italian Renaissance.

Thus you come to appreciate the extraordinary skill and craft which went into creating, for example, both the floor carpet and the individual halos – made from gilt which is then elaborately stippled and decorated – in Nardo Di Cione’s Three Saints (1365).

Nardo Di Cione's Three Saints (1365)

Three Saints (1365) by Nardo Di Cione

I learned that:

  • Paint is made of two ingredients, the pigment which gives colour and the binding medium which allows it to be applied with brushes (of various size, shape and density). These latter include egg tempera, oil, flue and gum.
  • Egg tempera dries rapidly. It tends to be applied in fine parallel strokes. Most Renaissance painters up till about 1480 used egg tempera.
  • The use of oil as a binding medium was pioneered by painters in northern Europe. It is more versatile. Oil can be built up by repeated layers, creating areas of solid thickly applied colour, or thinned to create sketchy dry strokes.
  • The thing a painting is painted onto is called the support. Until the early sixteenth century, most paintings were painted onto wood panels. For larger panels, multiple planks of wood would be battened together. Canvas began to be used in north Italy, around Venice and Verona, in the early 1500s, and only slowly spread to north Europe. The most popular wood in Italy was poplar, in northern Europe it was oak.
  • Supports are primed for painting. Wood supports were sanded smooth. Sometimes fine canvas or parchment was glued onto it. Then a ‘ground’ for painting was created. A layer of white calcium sulphate, known as gypsum, mixed with animal glue was applied, dried and sanded flat. The Italian for gypsum is ‘gesso’ and this became the generic name for all white grounds. For expensive paintings a coarse gesso was applied and dried before a much finer one, gesso sottile, was applied. A handbook of the time recommends no fewer than eight coats be applied. Part of the reason for this care was when gold leaf was applied to earlier Renaissance paintings, any flaw showed – hence the need for absolute flatness. As the use of gilt declined, gessos became less perfect. In northern Europe natural chalk was used, in glue solution. Then a priming layer was applied to prevent the oil pigment being absorbed, generally oil with light pigments.
  • Canvas, no matter how tightly stretched, is more a more coarse surface than prepared board, and springy. These factors encourage a looser handling of the paint. Linen, hemp, silk and wool cloth were all used as supports. Cotton became available in the nineteenth century. Van Gogh and Gauguin painted a series onto part of a roll of jute cloth Gauguin bought. To be usable canvas had to be stretched onto a wooden framework called a strainer. Canvas on its own would absorb some of the binding medium, giving the painting a more matt appearance. To prevent this canvas also was primed or prepared, a process called sizing.
  • For both canvas and wood panels, the primer or ground could be any colour – over time the tendency was for darker grounds to be used. The pre-Raphaelites returned to using bright white grounds and this is one factor in the astonishingly brilliant colouring of their paintings.
  • Copper plate was a fairly popular support for paintings in the 17th century.
  • Paper has always been used for pencil and pen sketches; in the 19th century it became used as the support for watercolours.
  • Fresco is the Italian word for ‘fresh’ and also the name for the technique whereby pigments are mixed with water and applied to lime plaster which has been freshly laid over walls or ceilings. As the plaster dries the pigment binds into it. Some colours reacted badly with lime, namely the blue pigment azurite, which explains why frescos are generally light and creamy in colour. These alkali-resistant pigments could be applied later, mixed with egg, in a process called a secco. But they were less bound into the actual plaster and so have tended to flake off and disappear over the centuries. Fresco was popular in hot dry Italy and not very popular in the damp north of Europe.
The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Four Angels (1495) by Quinten Massys

The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Four Angels (1495) by Quinten Massys

The book shows a close-up of the hem of the Virgin’s cloak to show the extraordinary care and subtlety with which the realistic patchiness of the sheen on the gold lining was achieved, and then the detail of each pearl, complete with individual spot of light, and shadow cast on the cloth. The closer you look, the more you marvel.

Terms of art

  • Maestà (Italian for ‘majesty’) – a type of religious subject for a painting, namely a representation of the Madonna and Child in which the Madonna is enthroned in majesty as Queen of Heaven, surrounded by a court of saints and angels. An example is the Maestà painted by Duccio in the cathedral at Siena (1308-1311).
  • Predella – a separate frame of smaller paintings running along the bottom of an altarpiece. In medieval and Renaissance altarpieces, where the main panel consisted of a scene with large static figures, the predella usually contains a set of small-scale narrative paintings depicting events from the life of the dedicatee, whether the Life of Christ, the Life of the Virgin or a saint. Typically, three to five small scenes, in a horizontal format. An example is this Altarpiece by Carlo Crivelli, complete with predella showing four scenes from the Passion of Christ.

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