THE ALCHEMY AND CRAFT OF PAINTING

One should make it a point to know as much as possible about their craft. Many Painters are fascinated by the materials and techniques of the Old Masters. The methods or procedures used are far more relevant than the materials. The materials available today are far superior to those used in Renaissance and Barque periods. 

Some would like one to believe otherwise, but rest assured if they Old Masters were alive today, they would use today’s superior materials.

These advocates of traditional methods point to paintings that are three, four, or five centuries old and proclaim it is because of the materials the Old Masters used. Of course, all the paintings referenced have undergone multiple restorations and cleanings.

Their longevity is directly related to their care and treatment in climate-controlled museums or private collections. The actual materials have little, if anything, to do with their well being.

The primary factor that was at play here is their knowledge of their craft. Painters like Rembrandt were masters of their craft.

They apprenticed in Renaissance and Baroque workshops and learned every phase of the Painter’s Craft.

That system does not exist today, and the Master-Apprentice training scenario is hard to come by.

Claims that the materials the Old Masters used were superior to what is currently available is flim-flam. We can learn a good deal from their procedures, but gain nothing by using the actual materials they used. 

THE OLD MASTERS DID NOT HAVE SUPERIOR MATERIALS; THEY WERE SUPERIOR CRAFTSMEN.  

Today’s painters need to master the craft of painters if they want their paintings to stand the test of time. 

If one does not like chemistry, they are at a disadvantage. A good deal of one’s knowledge base requires understanding the chemical interactions of materials.

Some materials just don’t like each other like Zinc White and Acrylic Gesso.

Many of the materials painters use are toxic especially Lead White; this is an area that is glossed over by some in the industry.

The following books Are mandatory reading for The Artist if they wish to master their Craft. 

Seminal writings about late medieval/early Renaissance painting techniques as observed by Cennino d’Andrea Cennini (c. 1370 – c. 1440).

The unfinished Italian treatise is a study of art materials and their uses, spread over 245 chapters that cover an encyclopedic range of topics from choosing the right kind of chicken bones to burn and grind into a white ground layer, to how to cast a death mask.

The major goal of this massive work was to elevate the Painter out of the ranks of craftsmen and into the realm of the scholar.

Much of the material in antiquated and irrelevant for today’s painters. Its importance is to illustrate the concern for craftsmanship that was prevalent in the Renaissance.


Alberti’s On Painting

Della pittura or On Painting was the first modern treatise on painting. People before Alberti had written about art in a practical sense, like how to grind pigments for paints and make brushes, but Alberti was interested in more than basic instructions and penned the first scientific and philosophical foundation for art and art history. He wrote On Painting in 1435 in Latin, and it was translated into Italian a year later. To make the subject clear to his audience, he divided the content into three books.

BOOK ONE:_’To make clear my exposition in writing this brief commentary on painting, I will take first from the mathematicians those things with which my subject is concerned. When they are understood, I will enlarge on the art of painting from its first principles in nature in so far as I am able.’

BOOK TWO:_’Because this [process of] learning may perhaps appear a fatiguing thing to young people, I ought to prove here that painting is not unworthy of consuming all our time and study.’

BOOK THREE:_The function of the painter is this: to describe with lines and to tint with colour on whatever panel or wall is given him similar observed planes of any model so that at a certain distance and in a certain position from the centre they appear in relief, seem to have mass and to be lifelike.

LEON KNEW THAT TO BE A TRUE ARTIST ONE HAD TO KNOW MORE THE CRAFT AS PRESENTED IN CENNINI’S WORKS. ALBERTI UNDERSTOOD THAT THE TRUE PAINTER NEEDS TO BE GROUNDED IN THE LIBERAL ARTS.

The art-historical significance of the Treatise on Painting cannot be overstated. This text was primarily responsible for the dissemination of his art theory from the mid-sixteenth century to the early nineteenth century.

From 1651 onward, the Treatise on Painting was available also in printed editions, which appeared in many vernacular languages.

The Treatise on Painting becomes fundamental to Leo’s legacy among Renaissance and Baroque artists, scholars, and natural philosophers.

Giorgio Vasari (1511–1571) is well known for his celebrated work on the lives of the Renaissance artists. But not many people know that Vasari was a painter and architect as well as a biographer, and that he wrote one of the most valuable treatises on the technical methods of the painters, architects, and sculptors of his time.

This is the first and only English translation of this important technical material (originally published in 1550 as an introduction to Vasari’s Lives of the Artists).

Vasari, as a practical craftsman, brings to his work an unusual understanding of the processes and materials he writes about.

The final section, on painting, discusses aesthetics, perspective, foreshortening, how colors were blended, fresco painting, painting in tempera, oil painting, and much more.
Scholars and historians of art have long used this book as the most detailed and valuable source of its time. But its full, readable discussions, combined with the sense of actuality and historical presence it contains, make it also perhaps the best possible description of the Renaissance artists in the heyday of their achievement.

Pre-eminent among rare reference books, this 1849 work reprints manuscript collections on painting and related arts from the 12th through 17th centuries.

These treatises describe European oil painting practices, methods of mixing pigments, much more. The original-language versions appear with English translations on facing pages, and preliminary comments introduce each treatise.

This is not a read, it is a reference about specific techniques by specific artists.

Solomon advocates a traditional 19th-century style of drawing and painting. Solomon has some interesting ideas about the way to approach drawing. For example, he advocates the drawing of what we today call “negative space.” (Solomon calls it “shapes left.”) He considers awareness of negative space fundamental to seeing with an artist’s eye.

‘The Practice of Oil Painting and Drawing’ by S.J.Solomon is another in the genre of books that strive to elucidate how the old Masters arrived at their station and status, and what one should do to put yourself on the same artistic path.

However imaginative or otherwise gifted the painter may be, HE HAS FIRST OF ALL TO BE A PAINTER, A SOUND CRAFTSMAN. The knowledge of his medium of expression and its capacities are his first essential requirement; without it, he is dumb–dumb as a thinker who is incapable of properly reducing his thoughts to words.’

My favorite in this genre is ‘The Materials of the Artist,’ by Max Doerner, a Professor at the Academy of Fine Arts, Munich. This isn’t to say that the books coming from people like Parkhurst and Solomon aren’t valuable or their content lacks worth; they are grounded in sound atelier working principles and methods and are certainly worth a read.

If one is reading treatises that were formulated in the 19th century and speak to the working methods and practices of even earlier Masters, then we are on the same page, they should be the core of any competent art curriculum.

A widely cited resource on painting in the style of the old masters, this classic guide contains a wealth of insights for amateur and professional artists.

Daniel Burleigh Parkhurst, one of the foremost artist/instructors of the early 20th century, presents a master’s course in the science and technique of painting that encourages the use of traditional tools and methods.

Parkhurst’s four-part treatment encompasses materials, general principles, technical principles, and practical applications.

There is some very good theory here that will help you on your creative journey.

The Materials of the Artist and Their Use in Painting: With Notes on the Techniques of the Old Masters by Max Doerner.

This little gem was published in 1921 and focuses on the techniques and materials of the Old Masters. It is the definitive book available on the subject. It is the major reference source for Restorers and conservationists who want a scholarly account of the techniques and materials used by the world’s great masters.

Max encompasses the teachings and techniques derived roughly from the Renaissance through to the 1930s. So this work, in many ways, acts as a bridge between the traditional and the modern era of art, keeping alive the traditional methods and materials of working whilst covering the methods of modernists, i.e., Impressionist painters with their improvised design and heavy impasto characteristics.

There is much here to commend this book, important information on traditional working methods, grounds, pigments, light-fastness, chemical interactions and reactions, mediums and mastics, permanence and archival considerations.

This is a mandatory read for the serious painter who wishes to infuse their work with lessons learned from the Masters.

Speed’s book is rimming with pertinent insights into the technical aspects and painting in oils, it is also designed to help students perfect powers of observation and expression.

Harold Speed has distilled years of painting and pedagogical experience into an expert instructional program covering painting techniques, painting from life, materials (paints, varnishes, oils and mediums, grounds, etc.), a painter’s training, and more.

Especially instructive is his extensive and perceptive discussion of form, tone, and color, and a fascinating series of detailed “Notes” analyzing the painting styles of Velasquez, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Franz Hals, and Rembrandt.

Clear, cogent, and down-to-earth, this time-honored handbook will especially appeal to Painters interested in the technical aspects of oil painting, but its rich insight into the mind and methods of the artist will enlighten and intrigue any art lover.

The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques by Ralph Mayer is the ‘Artist’s Bible.’ 

Since 1940, when it was originally published, The Artist’s Handbook has been indispensable for thousands of practicing artists and art students. The book has remained continuously in print through many editions and has some more than a quarter of a million copies. It is, as American Artist Magazine calls it, the “artist’s bible,” an invaluable reference for the painter, sculptor, and printmaker.

The Handbook does retain its original, user-friendly format. Mayer intended that this encyclopedic volume be referred to frequently, and he therefore, gave specific, practical advice on every aspect of his subject. In addition, he compiled valuable lists for the artist: retail sources for materials, a pigment catalog, a bibliography, and an extensive appendix. And the detailed index makes all of this information immediately accessible.

The Artist’s Handbook: Is a good primer of the materials used in the craft of painting. It was last revised in 1991 and needs a new expanded edition to bring is up to date with the current day materials.  

First published in 1993, and revised in 2006 The Painter’s Handbook by Mark David Gottsegen is the logical addendum to Ralph Mayer’s work. It picks up where Ralph leaves off expanding on one’s knowledge base as it applies to the craft of painting. 

Much more than just another guide to artists’ materials, The Painter’s Handbook is an amazingly useful resource, with information on everything from the canvas up: the canvas itself, plus paper, sizes and grounds, pigments and binders, solvents and thinners, varnishes and preservatives.

Mark David Gottsegen, chair of the federal government’s ASTM committee on artist’s materials, the revised Painter’s Handbook considers the enormous changes in the art-materials world since the first edition was published in 1993. New materials, new health issues, new information on outmoded and even harmful supplies and practices mean that every painter needs a copy of The Painter’s Handbook.

This is the trusted resource for working artists and art students written by the leading authority on these health hazards.

Whether you work in painting, photography, sculpture, ceramics, printmaking, woodworking, textiles, computer, or children’s art, this is the only reference book that covers all the dangers associated with metals, minerals, and chemicals.

With illustrations throughout, this first aid book shows how to treat injuries and work with proper caution while still being creative. Updates include new ventilation, photo processing, and computer systems. Whether you are a beginner or professional, this is a must for every school, art studio, and home.

This is the most important book in the mix because nothing is more important than your health. The industry plays down the various health issues that are associated with Lead Poisoning.

They try to glamorize it by telling us that Lead Carbonate is what the Old Masters used. A leading manufacturer of Lead Carbonate Pigments and their Toadies try to convince us that the only way to paint like the Old Masters is to use Stacked Lead-White pigments.

Read this book and then decide if using Lead White is worth the multiple associated health risks that come with it. By the way, using Lead White will not help you paint like the Old Masters; it will just expose you to the same health risks they encountered and suffered from.

By the way, using Lead White will not help you paint like the Old Masters; it will just expose you to the same health risks they encountered and suffered from.

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