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Art History

Old Masters

The Impressionists

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The history of painting techniques is as realistic and accurate a guide to the development of Western art as any aesthetic assessment or biographical essay. Indeed, technical considerations perhaps provide more crucial insights into the history of art than a bookcase crammed with artistic biographies. For instance, the reason artists had been painting landscapes for 500 years without becoming Impressionists lies not so much in subject matter, or even in aspiration, but in technique.

Major developments in technique have tended to go hand in hand with innovations in the materials available to the artist. Jan van Eyck may not have been the inventor of oil paints, as has traditionally been supposed, but he was the first great master of the medium - a medium without which it would have been impossible to produce the smooth, glassy surfaces and the brilliant illusionism of his Arnolfini marriage portrait. Before van Eyck, artists working in fresco or in tempera did not have the means at their disposal to achieve the dazzling trompe I'oeil effects which he attempted.

Van Eyck's Arnolfini portrait is the first great demonstration of the reasons why oil paints were to become the Western artist's favourite medium, unchallenged in popularity until the arrival of synthetic polymers in the last 30 years or so. Although the very slow drying time might have appeared the medium's major disadvantage, this in fact proved a crucial aid to the painter. X-rays reveal that van Eyck was able to make changes in his composition during the painting process while the fresco painter could never allow himself this essential freedom, and those who worked in tempera found that their colors did not have the necessary covering power.
The new medium gave rise to a quest for increased naturalness which preoccupied artists in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and which found a perfect champion in Leonardo da Vinci. This quest could best be conducted with paint which dried to a shell-like hardness, but which, as the Venetians discovered, could also soak up and reflect real light, as did the sea ringing the city in which they worked.

The high humidity of Venice made fresco painting difficult, but the flexibility of oils and the replacement of wooden panels by canvas meant that the work could be done in the studio, rolled up and finally installed in its proper location. Working in the studio ensured not only that the lighting could be controlled, but also that models could be used to increase a previously limited catalog of poses and to provide the gods and heroes painted in Venice with accurate human anatomies.

However, it was not until Titian in his old age began to deal in more reflective moods that oil paints gained a measure of independence from the task of imitating the visible world. The freedom of the brushwork in Titian's late paintings revealed the medium's hitherto unleashed powers of expression. For the first time, individual brushstrokes were allowed to show through and disturb the illusions.

Rubens and Rembrandt took the next steps. While Caravaggio's dramatic studio light effects had already put light and shadow through their expressive paces, Rembrandt was the first painter who took a highly sensuous pleasure in oil paints. The biographer Houbraken wrote that one could take a late Rembrandt portrait by the nose, so thickly were the colors applied. Looking at a detail of Rembrandt's treatment of drapery, it becomes possible to trace a line of descent from these swiftly modelled brushmarks through van Gogh to Jackson Pollock.

Rembrandt's revolutionary late style was the result of practical as well as aesthetic considerations. While some of their contemporaries accused Rembrandt and Titian of leaving their pictures unfinished, these artists persisted in trying to find ways of speed-ing up the painting process. Other painters also found ways of avoiding the laborious processes involved in producing a picture. Rubens and the English portraitists, for example, relied on increasingly specialized contributions from studio hands. Gains-borough's feathery touch dwelt on faces and hands, but seems to have hardly ever settled on the rest of the canvas while Constable skimmed over the surface and hunted for elusive atmospheric conditions. But it was the Impressionists who set themselves the sternest task of all when they attempted to find a technique with which to capture a mere instant in time.

The apparently loose system of dabs and dashes employed by Monet and Renoir to preserve the spontaneity of an autumn moment at Argenteuil, or to capture the dazzle of sunlight on a woman's torso, involved the spectator more directly than ever before. Colors laid down separately, side by side, mixed not on the canvas but in the spectator's eye. Rather than a solid carefully built-up surface, the eye perceives a mosaic of fragmented brushstrokes which only form a vibrant whole from a distance. Other artists had intuitively achieved similar effects in details, but the whole of Impressionist painting chases after an elusive moment, aided only by a scholarly color theory and the sudden rush of scientific activity which left the nineteenth century artists rich in new pigments. No matter how energetically the spectators squinted, they could no longer pretend to be looking through an open window. The colors, squeezed liberally from a tube, seem to have settled on the surface of the canvas as imper-manently as snow flakes.

The Post-Impressionists subsequently felt the need to challenge this impermanence, but, nevertheless, the methodical working up of a picture in layers had been irrevocably challenged and replaced by a system of work that focused evenly across the canvas. As Cezanne said, the painter could now treat the entire work all at once and as a whole. The gates were open for an idea to reach the surface of the canvas without undue delay.

Seurat turned a spontaneous Impressionist technique into a system by purifying the colors still further and reducing the dabs to dots. Van Gogh was more concerned with the expressive brushstrokes with which the Impressionists had begun to apply their colors: Gauguin noticed that, just as these brushstrokes no longer modelled themselves on visible forms, so colors were endowed with their own expressive values and need not mirror those outside the canvas.

However, these technical innovations were concurrent with, and, to a great extent, dependent on developments in artists' materials. The general availability of ready-made canvases and mass-produced brushes, and the dramatic expansion of the artist's palette in the nineteenth century had a far more profound effect on the course of Western art than the career of any one artist. It is easy to go painting out of doors when all you have to do is pack a bag with canvas and tubes of paint; it is quite a different matter if the canvas first has to be measured, stretched and primed, the colors mixed and then stored in unreliable containers.

In this century, it is debatable whether, had synthetic household paints not been developed, Jackson Pollock could have found a paint which flowed so freely from the can that it responded to his every instinctive movement, and dried quickly and effectively into puddles and dripped lines. Similarly it is unlikely that if David Hockney had not had acrylics at his disposal, Mr and Mrs Ossie dark could have been treated to such a cool, modern interior, so unlike the cluttered home shared by the Arnolfinis.

In the artistic deluge that followed the Impressionist breakthrough in the 1860s and 1870s, when the canvas came to be recog-nized as a self-sufficient object, then abstraction became possible. Picasso introduced foreign elements such as pieces of newspaper and chair caning onto the surface; Max Ernst invented new techniques such as frottage, which allowed chance to play a major part in the appearance of the image. Technique increasingly became not only a painter's language but also his subject matter, a process that found its ultimate expression in the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock.

Our contemporaries, then, can hardly be accused of feeling intimidated by the materials that they select to serve their cause. They deploy them without inhibition to achieve the efects they want. How this freedom contrasts with the practice's of their pre-Renaissance forebears! Painters of frescoes such as Giotto (1267-1337) had to proceed according to a strict scheme by which the tasks of each creative day were pre-ordained, while the devotional triptychs of painters such as Duccio (active 1278-1319) are the products of a highly organized artisanal system in which skills were passed on from master to apprentices and the tasks necessary to prepare and complete the commission were carefully allotted to assistants.

The greater possibilities of working on a canvas rather than on a prepared wooden panel or wet plaster, and with the techniques that successive masters such as van Eyck, Titian, Velazquez, Rubens, Rembrandt, Constable and Turner developed in achieving their distinctive effects in the endlessly versatile medium of oils.

Paint media Paint is made by grinding pig-ment and dispersing it in a medium. The medium binds the pigment to the support or ground. The earliest known medium was wax (1). used mainly by the Greeks and Romans. It fell out of general favour around the eighth century. In the Middle Ages the main type of paint was tempera in which the pigment was bound with egg (2). From the fifteenth century, oil (3) became increasingly popular as a medium. The slow drying time, despite the addition of drying agents, was both an advantage and a disadvantage. Corrections were easier to make than with the faster drying tempera. but the painting could not proceed so quickly. As a medium, oil has dominated painting ever since. During this century acrylic medium (4) made from polymer-ized resin has become popular thanks to its quick drying time. resilience and flexibility. Watercolor is bound with gum arabic (5). When mixed with water. the paint can be applied smoothly and it adheres to the surface when dry.


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