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Studio Secrets

Studio Secrets

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Studio Secrets

197 pages
1 hour
Apr 16, 2013


FOREWORD: Were there paints used by the old masters better than ours today And were their methods superior Is turpentine a good painting medium Why do some paintings darken, discolor, or crack with age, while others do not What varnish should I use to restore the brilliancy of a painting which has grown dull Which is better, a sable or a bristle brush These are typical of hundreds of questions which painters and stu dents all over the land are constantly asking. Particularly since I started my Question and Answer Department in the Taubes Page, in the magazine AMERICAN ARTIST, have come to realize what a strong interest exists today in all such technical matters. This was not always so. In fact, this present keen attention to sound craftsmanship in painting is most gratifying to those of us who have long worked toward this very goal. For far too lengthy a period we might even say for scores of years many painters were so immersed in the purely aesthetic aspects of their art that they neglected those equally important technical phases which must always be observed if results are to be enduring. A gradual awakening has taken place only as one horrible example after another of fading, darkening, discoloration, cracking, or like type of failure has come to the fore. Even in the recent past there have been those who have treated craftsmanship so lightly that their paintings have already badly dete riorated or are doomed to an early demise. Small wonder, then, that more and more contemporary painters, profiting from all this, are turn ing to the investigation of the chemical and physical nature and action of pigments the respective functions of oils, varnishes and other me dia the preparation of grounds the possibilities of underpainting, etc.My personal feeling has always been that if a painting is worth do ing at all, it is worth doing well And by well I mean not only aes thetically well, but technically well. At the very outset of my career I was so impressed by the needless deterioration of thousands of paintings that the mastery of craftsmanship became a consuming passion. By good fortune, I was able to indulge this passion by studying at first hand the works of those leading exponents of sound craftsmanship, the old masters. In Paris, in Italy, in Vienna, in the Bauhaus in Weimar, under the famous Doerner in Munich, for years I was able to gratify my inquisitiveness along technical lines. One by one I inspected the great masterpieces of old. I compared I analysed I investigated I asked questions I read assiduously everything I could lay my hands on. And gradually I arrived at a conviction which decades of subsequent paint ing and teaching have served only to strengthen, that a regeneration of art will be possible only when painters cease to look on technical matters as superficial and return to the sound basic principles long ago established by the old masters.
Apr 16, 2013

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Studio Secrets - Frederic Taubes








WHETHER OR NOT the era of the glorified dilettante is over one cannot tell. There are indications, however, that the long-lasting epidemic of self-expression through the medium of paint may be abating. Although one encounters periodically a disdain of technical knowledge by some of our so-called arbiters, craftsmanship, as a whole, is no longer looked upon as a preoccupation of obsolescent fanatics. However, a more obstinate bromide still persists in some quarters, namely, that skill or virtuosity is the stumbling block of the painter. Let me state here that skill is essential to good craftsmanship and that virtuosity is a higher form of skill. Hence, skill is an important element in picture making. Craftsmanship serves the painter as grammar serves the writer—that is, as an instrument for articulate expression. Through knowledge of his craft the painter may express himself more clearly and eloquently; without adequate craftsmanship no great art can be born. Yet the knowledge of the various processes of painting which constitute good craftsmanship can be conveyed by an experienced teacher. For there is no sorcery involved in the technique of painting, nor any necromantic formulas.

The transformation of painter into artist is the result of hallucinations of certain modern aesthetes who, as a rule, have a rather dim idea as to what distinguishes art from mere painting. The art of painting is not blown into the soul of a painter by a whimsical muse, but can be acquired only through a relentless process of schooling. The supposed danger that one may lose his personality while being subjected to the rigors of an artistic training is, of course, a myth. I assure the student that training, no matter how rigorous it may be, has never yet deprived anyone of his artistic potentiality or damaged the delicate fabric of his inspiration. It is perfectly true that a prodigious number of painters who have gone through all kinds of schools remain, nevertheless, blissfully ignorant. This may be because some teachers who have nothing to give the student prefer to leave the student alone. What the function of such a teacher may be is shrouded in mystery. Another type of teacher urges imitation of his own way of painting. Now, imitation, as a way of teaching, has merit; but if the student is to follow a master, he should also follow a proven one—say a Titian, a Goya, or a Rubens. By following I mean following the masters’ technical devices, but not their styles or their personal modes of expression.

It is difficult to determine whether every prospective painter requires schooling. It seems that the true primitive does not need schooling. I say it seems because even the true primitive, in instances when his work possesses merit, will be found to have the capacity for good craftsmanship. The schooling, then, need not necessarily be acquired through the agency of a teacher; at times, one can teach himself. As it happens, however, practically all the so-called self-taught painters had absolutely nothing to teach themselves, though they sometimes succeeded in making a virtue out of their ignorance. And, since such ignorance is today often looked upon as a higher form of art, many skilled painters prefer to perform naively.

Although the schooling of a painter is very important, it is more than probable that a Leonardo da Vinci would still be a Leonardo da Vinci even if he had not spent more than a decade in the workshop of Verocchio, and that Raphael would have arrived at his artistic level even if he had not had the chance to spy on Perugino’s studio secrets. Rembrandt’s secrets were open to Nicolas Maes, Ferdinand Bol, Gerard Dou, and others, but, in spite of this fact, none of these painters attained Rembrandt’s stature. We can say with certainty that a genius unfolds regardless of schooling, and that a mere talent cannot very well outstrip its own limitations even though its possessor stood at Rembrandt’s elbow when the master painted his Syndics.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that any painter may profit by the experience of another painter, instead of being forced to make his own discoveries without the benefit of a competent guide. Moreover, any talented student can be taught to paint well. If anything can be taught, it is craftsmanship, for it is acquired through schooling most—and through inspiration least.

The knowledge which our contemporary apprentice should acquire is not imparted by his immediate teacher alone, for the best teachers of all are the works of the great masters of the past. An intelligent study of these works is the most important part of the education of the painter-to-be. The paintings of the old masters are the supreme source of our knowledge, and through them we may receive the benefit of the teachings of a Velasquez or an El Greco. The painter should live with the great works of the past, for art breeds art. A Louvre alone will become a breeding place of art, for such an environment will stimulate talent and produce a painter. I have not yet heard of an art grown in Belgrade, or in La Plata, or in Timbuctu, or in Bakersfield, California.

I realize, of course, that many an artist doesn’t have the opportunity of even seeing the great masterpieces of painting, let alone living with them. He must become acquainted with them largely through printed or word-of-mouth descriptions, supplemented by reproductions, the best of which are bound to prove disappointingly inadequate. Especially do reproductions fail to give the observer more than an inkling, if that, of technical procedure.

This is where I hope to be of assistance through this volume. I can extend to the reader, I believe, certain highly valuable technical lessons which my own intimate association for years with numerous paintings of the great masters has taught me, thus playing my small part, at least, in this particular highly important phase of the painter’s education.



IN OUR DAY an increasing number of younger painters take to combined tempera-oil technique. I have previously stressed the relative usefulness of tempera underpainting in my book, THE TECHNIQUE OF OIL PAINTING, but I did not go into the subject of tempera painting because I believe that oil painting is more adaptable to our purposes, and that it is more elastic in handling. By this, I do not mean to imply that a Benozzo Gozzoli, an Andrea Mantegna, a Roger Van der Weyden, does not reach, in his means of expression, the standards of those painters who have used pure oil painting technique. There is no doubt that these painters produced as great works as any of those executed in pure oil painting technique. In certain respects, indeed, the technique of these early tempera-oil masters is superior to the method of the oil painters.

The assumption that paintings underpainted in tempera have a better chance to remain stable down through the centuries is theoretically true. In practice, of course, this is not necessarily an irrevocable principle. The greater durability of tempera painting is the consequence of a light underpainting and the sparsity of fatty constituents in the painting medium. However, when a tempera emulsion contains one-third or more of the oil ingredient it will behave like an oil medium. A leaner emulsion, on the other hand, can be used only on a rigid support. Painting on such a support has its decided drawbacks. I am not going to dispute the solidity and durability of the presdwood board. According to laboratory tests, this material is unobjectionable. Wood panels must be ruled out entirely if they are to be exposed to steam heat. Only controlled humidity of air, as found in some of our more modern museums, will prevent a wood panel from eventually warping and cracking. However, well-seasoned and properly cradled panels will prove to be extremely durable under favorable conditions. Yet, such an expensive support is beyond the means of the average painter. The chief disadvantage of a rigid support is its lack of give-in, which makes the use of a stiff bristle brush awkward. Such a brush can hardly produce sensuous textures and strokes on an inelastic support. A skillful painter can, of course, overcome such a drawback, but still the disadvantage of a stiff brush applied to a panel cannot be very well disputed. Another important consideration is that the use of a palette knife on board is inappropriate. I have not yet found the palette knife which will produce a successful effect on a rigid support. On the other hand, soft hair brushes will do very well on a panel, and for the use of an aqueous tempera medium the panel is most suitable.

There is a great deal of confusion concerning the so-called mixed techniques; one reads of oil-on-tempera and of tempera painting on oil. The idea of painting tempera on top of dry oil color is absurd. We hear of tempera painting applied to a wet oil color. There is no doubt that the Renaissance masters painted with tempera colors into a wet oil color in order to execute minute details. An aqueous medium does not mix easily with oil color, and a fine line executed in tempera medium on a wet oil surface does not fuse with the surrounding color. But in practice, it all depends on the consistency of the oil color and the nature of the tempera emulsion. Fine sharp lines in tempera color can only be applied into a wet glaze and not into a heavy oil color film. However, under certain circumstances, which I describe on pages 25-26, the finest delineations may be executed in oil colors into a wet, pastose oil color.

Although I do not favor the tempera-oil method, I do not dispute the fact that even today great works of art can be created in this technique. Pure oil technique has served, however, our predecessors well for approximately five centuries,

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