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  • Writer's pictureMichael Skalka

Can the Old Masters Teach Us Anything Useful?

Updated: 18 hours ago

Summary: A visit to a museum can be a rich and rewarding educational experience. Looking carefully at paintings as a learning tool is a time-honored tradition for artists. If we take the same opportunity to examine works of art, we can begin to understand the multitude of techniques used by artists to build a painting. We can also observe how time, an unwise selection of art materials, and the physical interaction of incompatible or unstable materials will have on works of art. Keywords: Can the Old Masters Teach Us Anything Useful?

Greetings and Happy New Year 2023.

The winter months here in the upper latitudes of North America give us pause to pursue other aspects of art rather than face the rigors of going outdoors and turning our hands into frozen popsicles. It is a great time to visit museums, stay warm and learn from the work of other artists.

Painting of Lady Elizabeth Delmé and Her Children, 1777-1779 by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Joshua Reynolds, Lady Elizabeth Delmé and Her Children, 1777-1779

Can a visit to a museum give us an opportunity to acquire knowledge about creating works of art? Journals written by artists in the past have noted that careful observation of artworks in a museum has been a critical part of their education. So how can we approach a museum visit as more than an opportunity to be visually enriched by looking at pictures?

Some impediments exist when trying to decipher how a painting or three-dimensional work of art was made. A completed painting does not easily yield how it was executed. It is similar to the barrier that exists preventing a layperson from understanding the complexities of engineering and construction of a skyscraper when observing a completed building. But we need to remind ourselves when visiting a museum that we are not laypeople. We know something about painting and with a bit of background reading, can understand the construction and use of materials that created great works of art.

Some of the factors that obscure or confuse our interpretation of techniques are time, materials, and the effects of chemical interactions on paint. Let’s examine these factors a bit further.

Time: There is nothing like letting a work of art age a few hundred years that influences its appearance. Paint tends to change and become more translucent over time or fade to an extent and that can make passages in a painting look like they were applied as a glaze rather than as opaque paint. This translucency or change in hue intensity allows light to penetrate into the surface of the paint, bounce around inside and make areas of the artwork look different than when the painting was initially completed.

Materials: The ”Secret of the Old Masters” was the label used to describe the luminous glow that old paintings have. But instead of attributing it to changes wrought by time, the notion that some sort of “secret sauce” was responsible for the appearance of Old Master works of art. These observations beckoned the creation of many horrific concoctions that mimicked the look of Old Master paintings minus the need to wait a few centuries to create the glow naturally.

This artificial means of creating paint that simulates natural aging comes at a cost. Paint mixed with leaded oils, varnish, and various resins has deleterious consequences that result in deterioration and can make their conservation extremely complex or, in some cases, untreatable.

See if the museum you are visiting has works by Joshua Reynolds. Carefully examine the works of Reynolds. He is a “poster child” for an artist who employed bad techniques and materials. Approach a Reynolds painting a bit differently. Rather than viewing the works at a normal distance, straight on, stand to the side of a Reynolds painting and try to use the reflection of whatever light source is illuminating the painting to highlight the surface of the artwork. While this is a rather clumsy way of viewing an artwork in raking light, it will expose the topography of the surface. On many sections of Reynolds’ paintings, you may see the surface wrinkled like the skin of a Shar-pei dog, revealing his use of questionable paint additives or a violation of the fat over lean rule.

Reynolds was recognized to have significantly experimented with materials. His use of wax, bitumen, resins, and lead oil dryers is well-known and documented by Reynolds, his contemporaries, and conservators who have treated his paintings. (National Gallery Technical Bulletin No. 35, Joshua Reynolds in the National Gallery and the Wallace Collection. 2014)

Chemical Interactions: Not only do material age with time, but the paints and media also interact with each other to create changes that the artist never intended. We can see that paint can become translucent. Paints can also age badly because the materials used are incompatible with each other. Art materials are composed of chemicals and these materials can interact with each other resulting in visual changes. A pigment that contains sulfur can interact with other pigments and cause discoloration.

Analysis has revealed that Reynolds used several fugitive pigments that faded or changed color over time. Paintings by Reynolds and others who emulated his techniques tend to have artwork that is lacking a broad variety of strong colors. While at first glance we might attribute this to the artist selecting a narrow, muted range of hues or that pigments were not readily available or invented in the 18th century. However, in many instances, the pigments have changed color and become dull and muddy due to chemical deterioration or light interaction.

A trip to a museum to see old paintings can teach us a great number of things about the history of the use of art materials. With a little bit of background reading and allowing enough time to closely observe what the surface of a painting conveys to us, we can begin to decipher how a work of art was created, what went wrong and so many other things that went right.

Diving a bit deeper into a painting, (pun intended) if we study the history of priming canvas, we can gain knowledge about how the ground layer plays a significant role in the appearance of a painting. Looking closely, we might also see how a monochrome brown underpainting or a colored underlayer is used to create an effect. Remember that the training of artists was regimented, and geographic regions practiced similar methodologies for putting toge

ther the elements of a painting from the ground layers to the glazes that completed the appearance of a work of art.

Visit and support museums in your area. They are a rich source of information and inspiration while we await better weather for painting outdoors to arrive.

The Syntax of Color

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Michael Chesley Johnson
Michael Chesley Johnson
Jan 27, 2023

For anyone wishing to delve deeper into the sort of dangers and difficulties old paintings run into, I recommend the UK show, "Fake or Fortune.". The program hosts make good use of infrared and xray photography and conservators in the series. They even uncover a Reynolds or two! You can find it on YouTube.


Jan 26, 2023

Great read...thank you!

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