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How to Paint like the Old Masters?
I think many of us DO want to paint like the OLD Masters...
the question is, did the Old Masters paint like the Old Masters? Maybe not.
In the very appropriately titled "The Art of Painting" (see above), by Johannes Vermeer, we are shown a scene of an artist seated at his easel, placing the first few strokes upon the canvas as the model poses in a sunlit studio. Vermeer, a Dutch artist who lived and worked in Delft during the 17th century, presents us with a portrayal of the painter at work that seems archetypal-- it matchs so closely the popular image we have of the Painter-Genius communing with the muses of Truth and Beauty. Vermeer includes many factual details that reflect the practical techniques and tools used by painters, such as the diagonally held mahlstick used to support and steady the hand wielding the brush, and the (apparently) tinted canvas which many painters favor as an underlayer upon which to build up the painting in layers.
Vermeer has a reputation for mystery-- there seems to be much hidden beneath the quiet surfaces of his paintings, with more than meets the eye--- and there is much to meet the eye in each of his beautiful, soberly designed, and exquisitely crafted canvases. It is appropriate, this reputation for mystery, because it seems that Vermeer may have coyly avoided placing all the cards on the table in his portrayal of "The Art of Painting".
In fact, it appears that many other master painters, not just Vermeer, may have availed themselves of "mysterious" techniques in order to achieve their superlative pictorial results.
That is the very interesting possibility suggested by the research and ideas of three gentlemen who have invested quite a bit of expertise, ingenuity, and pertinacity into considering, and attempting to answer, the question, "did the Old Masters paint like the Old Masters"?. You will see as you read on that they have conducted some very cool--and controversial-- detective work into the history of painting.
If you examine closely "The Girl with a Red Hat" above,
another painting by Vermeer, you may come to feel there is something unique about the look of the painting-- not so much the sort of characteristic that is used to place paintings into classifications such as "neoclassical" or "impressionist". Rather a much more individualized uniqueness based on the way that light exists in the picture, and how the treatment of the paint and surface allows a special way of seeing that light. For many years, some scholars felt that this special look of Vermeer's paintings was due to an appreciation of optical effects that are typically seen in photography with various kinds of focal and exposure settings of a camera. But how would Vermeer have known of such effects? Photography was not invented till more than a century later.
These same scholars, however, were aware that a different kind of camera was available before the invention of the photographic camera. The older type of camera is known as a camera obscura, which means, essentially, "dark room". It is really just a variation on the pinhole camera, sometimes equipped with an optical lens, and allows a person to view or trace a projected image.
Use of a projected image would also help to explain the precision of drawing and perspective found in Vermeer's paintings. Of course, the idea that Vermeer might have used a camera obscura was not without controversy. Would that diminish his achievement as an artist? Was it cheating?
Whichever way one might feel about the controversy, for a long time there seemed no way to establish "hard" proof one way or the other. That is, until the publication of a book in 2001 by Philip Steadman.
Vermeer's Camera by Philip Steadman
Philip Steadman and Vermeer
Philip Steadman, rather than being an art historian, is a professor of architecture, with strong expertise in linear perspective. Noticing that quite a few of Vermeer's paintings seem to be "set up" in the same room, (look at the setting of "The Art of Painting", above, and the "The Milkmaid", below), Steadman had the idea that it might be possible, due to the extreme precision and consistency of Vermeer's perspective, to reconstruct the actual size and proportions of the room. Even details such as the decorative tiles shown edging the bottom of the wall in Vermeer's painting "The Milkmaid" (shown at the end of this hub) were important in the reconstruction, since the size of the tiles and the factory where they were made could be identified to the accuracy of Vermeer's painting. Similarly, the large map that hangs in the background of "The Art of Painting" also helped to reconstruct the size of the room, since actual copies of the map still exist, making its exact dimensions known.
The techniques by which Steadman applied "reverse" perspective to reconstruct the actual dimensions of Vermeer's studio is explained in great detail with illustrations in his book. His website, Vermeer's Camera, (see the below link) also explains much about the research process. The really exciting thing, though, was that Steadman was able to do much more than just reconstruct the room in which Vermeer worked.
Steadman was able to show, using the geometry of perspective, that if the view shown in each of Vermeer's paintings was "projected" through the viewpoint indicated by the painting onto the wall of the reconstructed room, the perspective "projection" would MATCH the size of the actual painting. Which suggested VERY strongly that with a camera obscura lens Vermeer had literally projected an image onto a canvas placed on the wall of the studio.
Steadman's findings have been the subject of a BBC documentary. You can also find additional commentary by Steadman at the below link to a brief article on the "Art and Optics" website. In this article Steadman presents a few comparisons and contrasts between his own work and that of artist David Hockney, who also has presented controversial findings about the use of optics by painters. More on Mr. Hockney and his co-theorist, Charles M. Falco, directly.
The Hockney-Falco Thesis
If you look at the above painting of Bacchus (the Greco-Roman god of wine), by Caravaggio, you will see that it has been rendered with considerable accuracy in its perspective. You will also notice that Bacchus is holding the glass of wine in his LEFT hand. More on why that is important soon.
Now, another book that reinterpreted the achievements of painters "in light of" the use of optical equipment was David Hockney's Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters . Whereas Philip Steadman had concentrated on the work of just one artist, Vermeer, Hockney's books looked at the works of dozens of artists over hundreds of years of art history.
Hockney worked on much of his research with optical expert Charles M. Falco. Together, they found evidence of optical "artifacts" (such as tell-tale perspective distortions in portions of paintings) that pointed to the use of a lens to project an image. Or if not a lens, Falco, suggested, then a concave mirror, which could also be used to project an image onto a surface. Besides optical "artifacts", many other interesting pieces of evidence that suggest use of optics are put forward by Hockney. For instance, Hockney noticed that a disproportionate amount of the people shown in old paintings appeared to be LEFT-HANDED, like the Bacchus by Caravaggio. It occurred to Hockney that rather than supposing that such a high percentage of artist's models were left-handed, it made more sense to suppose that the images of right-handed models were being REVERSED by the use of a lens or mirror to create a projection.
Secret Knowledge sets forth many other ideas in support of the Hockney-Falco thesis on the use of optics in art. I would say that Hockney's/Falco's work is more controversial than that of Steadman, because the Hockney-Falco Thesis is much more along the lines of a "sweeping generalization". However, I think it's also because Hockney is willing, eager even, to go out on a bit of a limb and actually court controversy. I'm not always a fan of controversy, but in this case I personally all for it. Not because I entirely agree with Hockney on all of his points. And not because I think that Vermeer depended on a Camera Obscura to be one of the greatest painters of all time. But I think this controversy has generated a great deal of very valuable discussion. Some new things have come to light because of it. Also, more people are now aware of things that were already known, but not WIDELY known. And reading the account of the detective work, sagacity, and energy displayed by Steadman, Hockney, and Falco-- and all of the experts, etc. who have responded to agree or disagree with those three gentlemen-- makes one deeply appreciative--maybe even a little awed-- at the dedication and intelligence of those who dedicate themselves to the practice and the study of art and its techniques and history.
- Vermeers Camera, Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces
"Over 100 years of speculation and controversy surround claims that the great seventeenth-century Dutch artist, Johannes Vermeer..." (A fascinating website by Philip Steadman)
- An Interview with Philip Steadman
Read through for very interesting insights not just on Vermeer but on how the act of painting actually causes temporary changes in our state of perception.
- Art and Optics : Philip Steadman: Page 1
Philip Steadman comments on similarities and differences between his own views and those of David Hockney on the use of optics in art.
- David Hockney — Secret Knowledge
Short clips in which David Hockney demonstrates how a fairly simple optical set-up could be used to project an image of sufficient quality to help an artist render a painting.
- Frequently Asked Questions on the "The Hockney-Falco Thesis"
Very detailed explanation by Charles M. Falco, an expert on optics, of evidence for the use of optics in paintings by artists throughout the past several centuries.
Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
For a slightly different view on Vermeer's possible use of the Camera Obscura,
you can always check out the DVD of the movie, Girl with a Pearl Earring , or read the book by Tracy Chevalier of the same name, upon which the movie is based. Of course, this fictionalized account may perhaps embellish upon the actual facts. Did Vermeer himself really pierce the model's ear? Were their sessions tense with the emotions of unrequite-able attraction? For Scarlett Johansson fans, the attractions of this movie will be many and obvious. But even if you are considering whether or not to view the movie based solely on its informative worth on actual facts about Vermeer, art and history, I think that there are things to be said in its favor. Details such as the reconstruction of daily life in Delft and life in Vermeer's household probably are based as much on up-to-date historical knowledge as they are on "artistic license" and "narrative necessity". Also, certain ideas are presented that may not be verifiable but do seem practical and insightful. An example is the way in which Vermeer's model DUSTS the furniture and items in the studio. Vermeer, by all accounts, worked quite slowly, and allowing dust to accumulate during the weeks or months devoted to a painting would in all likelihood make it hard to create consistent color and tonal schemes within the painting.
Also, I almost forgot about the camera obscura: In the movie, Vermeer is shown consulting a camera obscura with a ground glass screen upon which to view a small projected image. He uses the device as a compositional aid, but not as an aid to project the actual size image directly onto the canvas. This is a view actually held by some artists and historians who may not be convinced by Steadman's findings.