Renaissance Painting Technique

I recently talked about the book Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green, by Michael Wilcox. Mr. Wilcox is the founder of The School of Colour and author of several books focusing on color and painting. His technique helped me learn to mix colors using a limited number of base paints. The importance of this technique is twofold. First, you can consistently get the colors you strive for. Second, there is no need to purchase a large variety of premixed colors, saving money. Third, the colors recommended are all light-fast. Light-fast paints will ensure the longevity of your painting, by not fading. As I noted in a previous email, some of Van Gogh paintings are currently losing color due to poor quality, non light-fast paints.

In 2014, Michael wrote the book, Glazing. Glazing is a technique first used (in paintings) during the Renaissance. The Renaissance is the period when artists began working with oils paints.

Glaze is mainly used with oil paints, but in recent years has been manufactured for acrylic paints as well. The main ingredient in glaze is linseed oil, making it thin, oily, and transparent. A small amount of oil paint is blended with the glaze, then applied over a layer of dried oil paint. Glaze retains its transparency, showing the paint layer below. Light travels through the glaze to the oil paint layer, reflecting back to the viewer’s eye. The viewer’s eye mixes the different colors in each layer (the oil paint layer and the layer of glaze). It is a form of optical mixing. The final result is rich, glowing paint colors.

I began painting with oils when I was ten years old, but not until my forties did I start to work with glaze. Wilcox’s technique took my work to the next level. My goal was to duplicate the commonly used Renaissance glazing technique. The book description states, “The aim of this book is to equip today’s artist with the technique of glazing developed by the Masters. Lessons from the past brought fully up to date; this book will enable the reader to achieve similar colour effects.” Mr. Wilcox book provides a thorough explanation of the Renaissance technique, some history, and loads of information about working responsibly with oil paints.

Portrait of Maria Serra Pallavicino, by Peter Paul Rubens.
A beautiful example of glazing. 

In a nutshell, here is the Renaissance technique. The painting was created on a panel. First, a ground was applied; think of the modern-day equivalent of a primer. Next came the under-drawing. There are various ways artists drew under-drawings, including silverpoint, charcoal, or ink. The importance of the under-drawing is it allows the artist to work through compositional and perspective issues before committing to paint. Certain oil colors take up to six months to fully dry. There was very little “painting on the fly” with oils, at this time. Once the under-drawing was completed, an underpainting was applied. This is the stage where the artist blocks in major values, using neutral hues. Next comes the color. The last stage is the glaze.

The Adoration of the Magi, Leonardo Da Vinci, unfinished painting.
Notice the underdrawing in the upper half of the painting.

In 2014 I chose to use this technique. The result is the painting, Hong Kong. I am the first to admit that it was challenging and required patience. Drying times on oil paints and glazes can be maddening! And yet, Hong Kong is one of my favorite paintings. I learned so much about Renaissance techniques and how to use glaze. It also deepens my respect for Renaissance painters.

The subject matter of Hong Kong is a section of the world’s longest outdoor escalator, the Central–Mid-Level Escalator, and Walkway System. The escalators are essential due to the steep, hilly terrain of Hong Kong.

The painting is not for sale, but prints are available.

Hong Kong world longest outdoor escalatorHong Kong

Glazing, by Micheal Wilcox

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