The Venetian Technique

Titian and Giorgione are generally credited with originating what became known as the Venetian Method of oil painting. The Venetian Method, or Venetian Technique, shares with the Flemish Method the use of transparent glazes for the shadows, darker darks and for certain special effects, and opaque highlights, but differs from the Flemish method in several important ways.

The method evolved out of necessity, as the church desired large paintings of religious scenes for cathedrals, and wealthy dukes wished to adorn their palaces with large paintings of mythological themes and other subjects. The difficulties of constructing and transporting huge wooden panels influenced artists to seek an alternative. Canvas was soon adopted as the most convenient support for large paintings, as it could be rolled up and delivered, then reattached to the stretcher frame, or another of the same dimensions, at the painting's destination and hung. However, the rough texture of the cloth created a need for certain adjustments in technique and perhaps in the chemistry of the paints. A new primer was also needed, as gesso (gypsum bound with animal glue) and glue/chalk grounds are brittle, and thus unsuitable for use on a flexible support. After years of experimentation, involving the addition of oil or honey to gesso to render it more flexible, white lead ground in linseed oil became the accepted primer for canvas. The canvas was first given an application of weak glue sizing to render it nonabsorbent, as the linseed oil would have otherwise caused the canvas to rot. The glue sealed the absorbency of the canvas and excluded the oil from the linen or hemp fibers.

The gloss inherent in paints formulated for the Flemish Method was found to be objectionable for large paintings, and Titian seems to have made adjustments to produce a less reflective surface. It is likely he eschewed the use of polymerized oils, balsams and resins, all of which increase gloss, and opted instead for simpler paints ground in raw oil only. Thus the paint would have been of a short molecular configuration, rather than the (presumably) long paints of the Flemish. It was found that stiff, hog bristle brushes worked better with the short paint and rough textured canvas.

The combination of large, stiff brushes, short paint, and the tooth of the canvas made the painting of hard edges more difficult. Sharp edges occur quite naturally in the Flemish Technique, with its smooth surface, long paint and soft hair brushes, whereas the stiff brushes and short paint produced soft edges as a normal result on a coarse textured canvas. Titian (or perhaps Giorgione, who died young), however, apparently found the softer edges more to his liking, and used them extensively, as they gave the effect of being slightly out of focus. The edges could be sharpened selectively, where desired, to call the viewer's attention to an area of greater importance, or to describe an object whose edges were actually sharp, such as a starched collar, sword, or piece of paper or parchment, or they could be left soft in the interest of Selective Focus.

The systematic use of soft and hard edges together gave the paintings a more lifelike appearance, and more closely approximated the visual experience than did the overall use of hard edges, as had been the previous practice. Titian was perhaps not quite as accomplished a draftsman as Michelangelo, who is said to have criticized him for it, so he devised a technique which allowed him greater latitude for corrections. This technique involved the use of an opaque underpainting, with the edges left soft and nebulous to allow for later adjustments where necessary. Once the forms were established to the artist's satisfaction, he would allow the underpainting to dry, while he worked on other paintings. When dry, the underpainting could then be painted over in color, beginning with the transparent glazes for the shadow areas, as in the Flemish Technique, and developed further with opaque passages representing the areas of light.

In the Venetian Technique, color is often applied over the underpainting initially as transparent glazes, which are then worked into, while wet, with opaque pigments. The paint is worked together wet into wet until the desired effect is achieved, or until the paint becomes slightly tacky, at which time it is allowed to dry thoroughly. This process may be repeated as many times as necessary.

At some point, someone, perhaps Titian, discovered that a light, opaque tone, rendered semitransparent by the addition of a bit more oil and/or simply by scrubbing it on thinly with a stiff brush, applied over a darker area produced an effect that could be put to good use. This is what we now call a scumble. It was found that a scumble over a flesh tone would produce the same effect as powder on a woman's face; that is, it made its texture appear softer. This is a useful device when painting women and young people of both sexes. It is also useful for indicating atmospheric density over distance, or atmospheric perspective. See Chapter Five, Principles of Visual Reality. Both glazing and scumbling create optical illusions. As such they effectively expand the capabilities of the limited palette of the early painters in oil. It was imperative that they get the most out of the materials they had.

Glazing is the application of a darker transparent paint over a lighter area. The optical illusion created by the light rays' having passed through a transparent darker layer, bouncing off the lighter surface underneath, then traveling back through the transparent layer to the viewer's eyes, is unique to glazing, and cannot be obtained in any other manner. A warm glow is created, and the color thus produced appears warmer and more saturated (higher in chroma) than the same pigment applied more thickly and opaquely. The effect, in the darker passages, is that of a shadow seen up close, with no atmosphere between the viewer's eyes and itself. The rich, golden glow in Rembrandt's dark browns is produced in this way. Rembrandt was influenced by Titian, and is reported to have at one time owned at least one of his paintings. Glazed darks appear darker than opaque darks, because the light rays are allowed to penetrate more deeply into the paint layer, and are thus subjected to a great deal of filtration before reflecting back out to the viewer's eyes. This effectively expands the value range possible with paints, which are handicapped on the light end of the spectrum by the fact that white paint is not as light as light in Nature. The Old Masters compensated by carrying their darks as far as they could, to create as wide a range of values as possible. This can only be accommodated through the use of transparent paints on the dark extreme. Furthermore, as light contains color, the artist must make the highlights darker than white in order to include color in them. This further limits the value range, and makes necessary the darkening of all tones by a corresponding amount in order to maintain the proper contrast and relationships between each category of light or shadow. Transparent darks allow the expansion of the dark end of the range.

Scumbling is the opposite of glazing. A scumble uses a lighter opaque paint, spread thinly enough so as to become translucent, over a darker passage. The optical effect thus produced is bluer than the paint applied, as the underlying layer is not completely obscured, and exerts its influence on the overall sensation, as has been previously described. It is very effective in softening surface textures, as soft cloth, such as velvet or cotton, or youthful complexions, the surface of a peach, etc., and, as mentioned, for indicating atmospheric haze over distant land planes and in the sky near the horizon. Overcast skies may be scumbled all over, as in Bouguereau's "The Broken Pitcher."

There are still more advanced and sophisticated developments of the Venetian Technique. The "semiglaze", which can be either transparent or semiopaque, or anywhere in between, is a very thin application of color to an area of the same value as the paint being applied. Its purpose is to modify the color of a given area after that area is dry, as in the addition of a tiny bit of vermilion to a cheek or nose, and/or to allow subsequent wet into wet painting over an area in which the paint has dried. It tends to soften unintended too-harsh transitions of tone from the previous sitting, if used properly, and thereby adds a higher degree of refinement to the image. It is applied thinly, by scrubbing it on with a stiff brush, after the addition of a small amount of oil or a painting medium to lubricate the dry surface of the area to be repainted. Titian is reported to have sometimes applied glazes and semiglazes with his fingers, or perhaps he was wiping the excess away after having put too much on with a brush. Stippling with a flat tipped brush is a good technique for applying glazes, scumbles, and semiglazes, though other means work very well in skilled hands. As a further development of the Venetian Technique, the underpainting, or certain parts of it, may be executed in opaque color, rather than totally in neutral greys. One popular variation was Venetian Red and Flake White. The underpainting palette should be limited to lean paints (paints with low oil absorption) which are opaque and/or very high in tinting strength. High tinting strength fat paints (paints with high oil absorption) may be used if mixed in very small quantities with very lean paints like Flake White. The objective is to keep the underpainting leaner than the layers applied over it. When dry, the color may then be subsequently modified with glazes, scumbles, and semiglazes, or painted over with opaque color. These steps may be repeated as many times as necessary. The highlights are placed last, applied wet into wet with a fully loaded brush. Impasto is often employed in the highlights, to produce the most opaque passages possible, and to ensure that they remain opaque. Oil paints become more transparent with age. Therefore, in order for the highlights to retain their opacity over the centuries, they must be applied heavily. The illusion thus created is that of direct light falling on a solid surface, ricocheting from that surface to our eyes. It is not actually an illusion, as that is exactly what is happening. Juxtaposed with the transparent shadows, the illusion of depth is thus enhanced.

The underpainting, sometimes referred to as a grisaille if done in greys, should have its darkest passages painted somewhat lighter than the desired final effect, or the superimposed colors will lose much of their brightness and depth . Except for certain special effects, as in the technique of Rembrandt, the texture of the underpainting should be as smooth as possible. Any brushstrokes not smoothed out before the underpainting is dry, or scraped down before painting over, will produce a problem area in the next stage. Artists who prefer visible brushstrokes should decide where to place them in the final stages of the painting, as accents.

The Venetian Technique allows the widest range of possibilities of any oil painting method yet developed. Its systematic use of opaque passages, glazes, scumbles and semiglazes stretches the capabilities of oil paint to the absolute limits, and allows the artist the greatest latitude for adjusting the picture at any stage. The employment of the optical illusions created by glazing and scumbling, combined with the control of edges (selective focus), enables the oil painter who has mastered it to indicate three dimensional reality more convincingly than is possible with any other technique.

Among the Old Masters who used the Venetian Technique in one variant or another were Rembrandt, Franz Hals, Nicholas Poussin, Jacques Louis David, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Jean Léon Gérôme, and many other great Masters whose names are not well known today.

It should be stressed that the wonderful results achieved by the Old Masters and other great painters were attributable, in great measure, to the preparations undertaken prior to their beginning work on the final canvas or panel. The concept for the painting had first to be worked out in smaller drawings, sketches and studies done on separate surfaces, to solve all the problems to the artist's satisfaction beforehand. This accounts for the impression most often conveyed by their paintings, of having been executed without the necessity of corrections. In truth, there were many corrections, but the major ones, at least, were most often solved in the study stage before the painting itself was touched. For very large paintings, the usual practice was for the Master to paint the painting first on a smaller scale to work out its composition, and then turn it over to his apprentices to be transferred to the large canvas by means of a grid. Refer to the sidebar for a more detailed description of the grid method of enlarging a design. In some cases, the smaller painting was done without color, to be used by the apprentices as a guide in applying the underpainting to the large canvas, which process the Master would oversee, and usually correct and complete after the students and/or apprentices had done most of the work. Often many supplemental studies were drawn and painted by the Master, either to aid the assistants in painting the large picture, or to solve some of the problems for himself, in the development of the concept for the painting. This practice is as much a factor in the excellent quality of the works these great painters produced as were the actual painting techniques they used so well.

Canvas Painting For Beginners

Canvas Painting For Beginners

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