Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Italian mastercopy

In 2005, my wife and I spent 3 weeks in Italy, staying mostly in the beautiful Tuscan town of Cortona. My wife was doing an archaeological dig, and I was intent on studying old-master oil painting techniques. At this time I was getting heavily into Classical realist painting and pursued knowledge from the source.

Cortona, Italy is a lovely place. The movie "life is Beautiful" was shot here, as the town retains all its past charm and is a great setting to experience authentic Tuscany. In fact they were shooting a WW2 movie when I was there, complete with Nazi side-car motorcycles whipping through the town square. Buildings, residences and storefronts have little new signage and cars are forbidden in the center of the town, all in keeping with the timeless charm that visitors yearn for.

Cortona is a center for Etruscan archaeology, and in the town is a museum with many local finds. There are also a smattering of paintings, one of which I chose for an extended study.

An Annunciation by Pietro Da Cortona was my muse. The choice was more dictated by logistics of where I could realistically stand, not blocking an isle, and far enough away to take the painting in. This wasn't the Louvre, so my choice for what to copy was limited. You can see below my canvas set up and away from the massive picture. Here I am plotting in the proportions and composition.

Below is a close up of the first stage. I have run a vertical plumb line down the center of the canvas and made marks dividing the vertical proportion in thirds. As I drafted the scene, it was amazing how much of the composition fit into these divisions. A careful examination shows the hand of god, the angel's left wing and the bed post all lining up exactly with the center of the canvas. There were less obvious but still handy elements falling on the thirds markers.

The broad angular shapes above get subdivided and drawn into more recognizable forms. Things are taking shape. I am using sharpened vine charcoal and drawing directly on the canvas.

Below we can see the charcoal drawing strengthened with an umber paint layer. Lights and darks are separated and simply stated. The drawing becomes more exact and with these darker values, the image starts to emerge.

Starting the color painting, I am really getting into the mind of the creator here. Without trying to sound mystical, the act of copying can nevertheless impart upon the student the thinking and even philosophy of the master being studied. By seeing the real scale of the object, studying the paint application and using the same pigment choices, I may understand aspects of the production intimately. In this case, I get the feeling this commission is a real "nuts and bolts" affair. All the detail is loaded at the bottom of the canvas so when hung high in a massive church building, the important stuff is clear and beautiful and the rest is effort saved. Big contrasts of broad shapes are composed to read well in a dimly lit setting, and targeted use of expensive blue pigment kept to the focal point. The use of warm yellows and warm neutrals allow black to be used as an inexpensive substitute for a cool pigment in the upper portions. (gods robe and sky outside the window) The paint is broadly scrubbed in; this is a huge painting done for money, and the artist expertly and efficiently fulfills his obligation to the client.

It was likely a bit unrealistic to expect to do a copy of a 14 foot tall painting on my trip. I did what I could, and established the main color notes accurately. I took photos before I left and attempted to finish the painting at home using the computer monitor to display my photos and written notes for reference. Unfortunately, I didn't have a good camera or tripod, and my photos are presently of an inferior quality to finish the painting. I still intend to contact the museum to see if they can send me a better reference photo so that I may finish.

Below is where this painting currently stands; probably 70% done.

The lower portion of the painting was more clear in my photos, so the lower figures are a bit more resolved from the reference I took home with me.

Things I learned:
  • Supplies can readily be obtained in vacation settings, so don't go through pains in bringing too much equipment and supplies. I spent a long time before we left preparing painting panels and I lugged all my supplies around Italy, not needing most of it. I found better quality supplies right in Cortona and threw all my panels away to save weight for souvenirs.
  • Detailed studies such as I undertook take so much time (indoors!) that you waste the opportunity to do more sketching and enjoying the location. Do it once for the experience, but be warned: the museum may be deadly quiet or full of school children
  • Get a good photo before you leave! Also, make color notes. Are there differences between your copy and the real thing? How are the photo colors different?
Another good resource for copies is the poster shop in museums. You can often obtain quality posters sufficient to make copies from, and compare the poster to the actual painting at the museum, noting color differences. I did this for the Raphael copy seen on my website.


Mark Harchar said...

Mike, intriguing and informative blog post. I have come to expect nothing less from you and you delivered. Not many of us get to do master copies of old Italian paintings...in Italy.

Calydon said...

I tried to find that painting online - I was wondering if the museum you visited was part of the Google Art Project (which has very high resolution images of master works). However the only Italian museum that appears to be participating is in Florence.

I was particularly interested in the preparatory drawing you made that has a lot of angular (straight) lines. Do you think the human mind (eye) has more 'respect' for things that are built with definite angles, because the shapes it produces are more 'composed'? I remember you advising using straight lines when making the initial sketch.

Mike Sass said...

The straight lines are an artistic convention to simplify the early drawing stage. You first state all curves as angles, as 2 lines are more easily reoriented than a curve with infinite direction changes. Curves may tend towards generic arcs that the hand and eye make, and its a trap to think you can accurately draw a curve properly, especially early when all the parts are coming together at once on a blank page. Angularity allows for "enveloping" where you can encompass multiple parts with a bounding line that carries through multiple forms. The use of straight lines is the key to not tracing and getting exactness, while avoiding generic shapes.
As far as more respect, I think it comes down too what you say, as far as a more overt statement of artistic planning in the composition, but the straightness also serves to catapult and excite the eye as it travels through the zig zag of the2-d picture plane.