Archive for the ‘Zooming-in’ Category

Zooming-in #2: an unfinished picture is worth a thousand words

June 19th, 2009

zoom what it’s about: For a painter who wishes to comprehend the technique of Vermeer, the best imaginable venue would be to spend a day, even an hour, watching him paint.

The next best thing, this one at least theoretically possible, would be to be able study a half-finished work by Vermeer, say somewhere between the underpainting and the final working-up stages. No luck here either.

In fact, to think of it, we rarely come across incomplete paintings in any museums by any author or from any age, not because they are down on the gallery racks out of view, but because very few have survived. Most often, when a painter died or an incomplete work surfaced, either an apprentice or a competent colleague was called in to make it salable. Authorship, even in the case of the most renowned masters, did not have the same aura as it does today.

The third best solution would be able to study an unfinished 17th-century canvas by a competent artist. Wish granted. And not only is there such a picture, it’s viewable in an excellent Zoom on the net. To be frank, there is too much to learn just by looking, so get clicking.

If you are a painter and you need background information to make sense of Del Sarto’s canvas, my book How to Paint Your Own Vermeer on Vermeer’s methods and materials covers quite a bit of common 17th-century studio practices. If you are not a painter and would like to delve in to some of the mysteries of the masters’ workshop, you get the same information in lay terms in my Looking over Vermeer’s Shoulder.

Zooming-in #1: the selected flesh palette

June 2nd, 2009

zoom what is it?Gerrit van Honthorst, like a number of 17th-century Dutch painters, knew his trade and worked well in different genres. He was equally comfortable in history painting, raucous bordello scenes and refined portraiture alike. Although sought-after in his own age, few average museum-goers are familiar with his work even though he was far more influential in his age than Vermeer. He was also far richer. In 1654, he sold his house in The Hague for the astronomical sum of 14,000 guilders (an average Dutch house might have gone for 1,000 or less) and lent Elizebeth, Princess of Hohenzollern no less than 35,000.

zoom what to look for – Although the present canvas may not be particularly inspiring, it is nonetheless a solid piece of 17th-century painterly skill.

The most informative detail is the painter’s “selected” palette on which are disposed two rows of perfectly ordered paints blobs. The top are all the pigments conventionally used for mixing flesh tones. The bottom row presents the ready-to-use basic mixtures. If you don’t believe flesh can be so miraculously evoked with a hand-full of different tones, scroll up and inspect the faces of the lovely painter, the putto and her sitter. Analogous flesh palettes were employed by Rembrandt and Vermeer.

The choice of representing the selected flesh palette was far from random. From the very beginning of European tradition of easel painting, the depiction of human flesh was given great importance and it still constitutes one of the most telling technical challenges until this day. Willem Beur, artist and art writer of Vermeer’s time, wrote: “Just as we humans consider ourselves the foremost amongst animals; so too, are we the foremost subject of the art of paintings, and it is in painting human flesh that its highest achievements are to be seen, whenever a painter succeeds in rendering the diversity of colors and strong hues found in human flesh and particularly in the faces, adequately depicting the intricacy of the diversity of people or their different emotions.”

For the painter and the technically-minded, the top row of pigments probably are (left to right): lead white, yellow ochre, vermillion, red ochre, red madder, raw umber, black and a last unidentified pigment.

Selected palettes were the norm in 17th-century painting when complicated compositions were worked up in a piecemeal fashion, area by area. Painters laid on their palettes only those pigments which were strictly necessary for the day’s work in order to avoid waste of grinding time and raw materials.


June 2nd, 2009

zoom1 Let’s be frank, since the internet began to reach out in the 1990s, the fine art community has made little headway on the web. Art with a capital “A” lags and it lags badly. Serious monographic sites of great artists are exceedingly rare and art collections and institutions are dutifully present but, save exceptions, not much more.

One area where progress is being made is in digital imagery. Major collections and museums are slowly but surely presenting their finest works with various Flash applications such as Zoomify allowing the viewer to scan with ease over good quality images. Some are carefully tucked away where the average viewer will never chance.

Obviously, we cannot expect to experience the impact of a work of art from the computer monitor no matter how high the image’s resolution may be. But zoom-viewing permits close-quarter, detailed observation that can provide its own pleasures and food for thought. Most importantly, considering that we will never, ever in our lives see 99% of these pictures where they are physically housed, high-quality, internet zooms constitute an illuminating resource and not merely eye candy for the curious.

The following Zooming-in columns  will report some of the most interesting zooms on the net, with hopefully, some interesting comments.