An introduction by the way of Van Eyck

Oil painting has been with us in various forms since the eighth century, however it didn’t attain widespread use until the early fifteenth century when innovative Flemish painters such as Hubert and Jan Van Eyck (1385-1441) developed a layered method of painting known today as the Flemish Technique.

The Flemish technique evolved from the earlier discipline of egg tempera in an effort to overcome the limitations inherent in an ‘egg’ based medium. Painters using the Flemish technique painted on a white ground, which consisted of layers of gesso painted onto a rigid wooden panel. The reason for the white ground was that the subsequent thin layers of paint would allow the ground to show through, causing the paintings to glow as if lit from behind. The Flemish technique uses a strict methodology for the creation of successful paintings, making corrections to the drawing difficult during the later painting process so this technique benefits from a precise line drawing as a framework onto which the later painting can be constructed.

First various studies and drawings would be made until a final drawing or ‘cartoon’ was created. This drawing would then be transferred to the white ground by a method called pricking and pouncing. Pricking created pin holes which followed the drawing exactly. The drawing was then offered up to the ground and whilst being held in position ‘pounced’. Pouncing consisted of firmly tapping at the drawing with a small cloth bag filled with charcoal dust. The dust passed through the pricked holes and when the drawing was removed a dotted outline would be left on the white ground.

Next the artist would quite literally join the dots, using ink, egg tempera, water colour or thin oil paint using a fine brush or pen.

Once dry the now completed line drawing would be isolated by painting over a layer of varnish. This also served to seal the absorbent gesso surface. Sometimes transparent pigment was added to this layer of varnish, (usually a warm earth colour.) creating an imprimatura layer. This tinted the white ground whilst still allowing the drawing to show through. Care would be needed in tinting the varnish as this would establish the overall ‘key’ of the painting, and if too dark would of course defeat the object of painting in transparent layers over a white ground.

Once this varnish layer was dry then the artist could then proceed to painting over the sealed drawing beginning with transparent glazes for the shadows. Steadily in additional layers more tone and value would be built up with thicker and more opaque paint being used for the lights.

It is generally accepted that early Flemish painters used soft round brushes consisting of Minever (ermine) hair bound and held in a section of quill as a ferrule, and hogs hair bristle brushes.

The coloured pigment was finely ground and bound in linseed or walnut oil. There is speculation that various balsams and resins were also added to create mediums including boiled and polymerised oils with the additions of various siccatives such as lead.

Paintings were generally limited in size, primarily due to the weight and difficulties that would be encountered and transporting larger rigid wooden panels.

Although the technique began with the Flemish it was soon adopted by the German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) who visited both Italy and Flanders after his apprenticeship which ended in 1489, and the Scicillian artist Antonello da Messina (1430-1479).

Antonello da Messina is thought to have taught Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516) who in turn is known to have taught, Giorgione (1477-1510) and Titian (1485-1576). Another influence at this time would have been the Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden who was known as a great artist using these amazing new ‘oil paints’. He also visited Italy around the middle of the 15 th century and influenced a great number of Italian artists. And so the new innovative painting technique using oil came to Italy and had a great influence on the great flowering of artistic work that we have come to know as the Renaissance. However some artists refused to adopt this new wonder paint. Michelangelo is known to have ridiculed Leonardo Da Vinci for using it, (not that they weren’t rivals to begin with) whilst others such as Titian was quick to exploit the new medium, adding sophisticated refinements of his own.

Titian and the Venetian School

Tiziano Vecelli, better known as Titian was the principle leader of a method of painting that became known as the Venetian school. Based directly on the Flemish method of painting, the technique shares some similar methods with the Flemish method, such as using transparent glazes for the shadows, and use of thicker opaque paint for the lights, but it differs from the Flemish method in a number of important ways.

Essentially the Venetian method evolved out of various patrons (namely the church and the aristocracy’s) requirement for bigger and bigger paintings. It was immediately apparent that constructing large rigid panels out of wood for painting on was impractical in terms of both added weight and transportation difficulties. This led to various artists experimenting with a variety of surfaces, which ultimately led to canvas being adopted as the new support. It was light weight and the completed painting could be rolled up for ease of transportation. However the texture and makeup of the cloth led to additional technical problems that needed to be solved.

The first problem was gesso (gypsum combined with animal glue), whilst it bonded well on both wooden panels and canvas it was found to be too brittle, the flexible canvas causing it to crack and break all too easily. Eventually after further experimentation involving the addition of oil or honey, a gesso was created that was far more flexible, this eventually lead to white-lead pigment bound in oil as becoming the most reliable primer for use on canvas. However these experiments with grounds and primers led to the discovery that oil, and linseed oil in particular applied to the raw linen or hemp canvas, actually attacked the fabric, causing it to rot. This in turn led to artists first priming the raw canvas using size (weak animal glue) so as to seal the canvas fibers, preventing the canvas from coming into direct contact with the primer, and thus preventing the canvas from rotting.

The next problem was the gloss that was imparted to the paint in the Flemish method. Whilst this allowed the colours to look full and saturated, on large scale paintings the glare created a real problem, so the medium itself, the carrier of the pigment was next to be modified.

Titian, the most known innovator of the Venetian technique, was thought to have made various changes to his mediums to produce a less reflective surface, cutting out the additions of various balsams and resins in favor of a medium that consisted of just raw oil. This in turn fundamentally changed the handling of the paint, and it was found that hog’s hair bristle brushes worked rather better on the rough canvas and shorter paint than the softer round brushes that up until now had been favored in the Flemish method.

In the Flemish method sharp edges occur quite naturally with its use of a smooth ground, soft brushes and longer paint, but this new combination of a flexible, rougher ground (canvas) stiffer brushes and shorter paint made the painting of hard, sharp edges far more difficult. However this was not without its benefits. The softer edges that appeared as the painting progressed in the Venetian method actually gives a much more natural appearance, and lent itself well to producing a more life-like painting. Titian used this new found ‘edge’ technique extensively. In nature there are very few actual hard edges. Edges tend to be softer, occasionally blending together, becoming lost and then found again, and this new method of painting with softer edges brought painting yet another step forward on the road towards realism.

Another development was said to have been caused by Michelangelo crticising Titian for not being such an accomplished draughtsman as himself. Apparently this caused Titian, to create a softer, (in terms of edges) underpainting, that gave him more latitude for correction in later overpainting.

In subsequent over-painting the artist would continue in a similar way to the Flemish method, firstly establishing the shadow passages with transparent glazes, together with working more opaque pigments into the still wet glaze. The artist would then continue with more opaque heavier passages of paint in the light. Once a particular layer was completed to the artists satisfaction, or if some particular effect was required, the layer was allowed to dry and then once again painted over, repeating the technique as many times as was required.

During this period of intense development several other techniques were discovered, the first of which was scumbling. Scumbling is where an opaque light tone is painted thinly over an area of darker tone. This is done by taking an amount of paint and adding a little more medium to make it thin and semitransparent, very much in the same way that cosmetic make-up powder is dusted onto a woman’s face. It is a very useful technique and can be used when the artist wants something to appear generally softer, such as the distance hazy horizon in a landscape painting.

The Direct Painting Method

The last technique that should be mentioned in the evolution of oil painting technique is the Direct Painting method. The Direct method of painting differs from both the Flemish and Venetian method in that it requires no prepartory drawing and underpainting, and is ideally completed in one sitting with one layer of paint. The Italians call this technique ‘Alla Prima’, the French ‘Premier Coup.’

The Direct Painting method was known to all the great painters of the past, but was generally only used when the artist need to make quick sketches or colour notes in preparation for a larger work. Frans Hals (1580-1666) was the first artist to be recognized as having completed works using the Direct Painting method, although it is still argued that some of these works are still really sketches.

Today the Direct Painting method is the most recognized method of painting, due to its rise to prominence in the nineteenth century under the hand of such great artists as John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Anders Zorn (1860-1920) and Phillip Alexius de Laslo (1869-1937)

Although oil painting techniques themselves have changed very little over the centuries, there were still technical innovations, most notably the invention of paint tubes in 1841, which allowed artists to easily paint outside for the first time, notably of course would be Claude Monet (1840-1926) and the other impressionists. There was also the creation of a new range of colours through advances in chemistry in the nineteenth century, and today we have mediums based on the modified resin or ‘Alkyd’.

In conclusion the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, especially the sixteenth are when all the major developments of oil painting technique took place, and these techniques are used in exactly the same way today as they were when first discovered, and over the centuries artists have added very little to the Flemish and Venetian technique with perhaps the exception of Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-1669) who rather than invent any new techniques, combined the various methods to great effect, especially the Venetian method and the Direct method, creating great thick impasto (thick, heavy, sculptured paint) and then applying rich glazed layers on top. Rembrandt was an exceptional case however and deserves exploration of his own which is beyond the scope of this article.

Rembrandt aside there are still a large body of artists whose work is well worth studying. Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Antony Van Dyke (1599-1641), George Stubs (1724-1806), the pre-rapahlites, the classicists, the impressionists…. to name a few among many, many great artists.