12 Old Masters Principles

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Learn from Masters, Not Grandma Moses

This morning I was checking out literary magazines I didn’t know and found an artist who advertised herself as, let’s say, “New-York-City raised novice who creates her works sporadically in between many other interests and draws realism inspirationally, inherited talent, no formal education,” examples of her pictures supplied.

Well, I’m sorry, call me cruel, but I laughed my head off. Why do literary people brag about untaught talent in visual arts and demand rigid schooling in other arts, like poetics? This bio truly wins the ‘educated fool’ of the year award. I don’t make fun of people’s fledgling attempts, by the way, only of their attempt to make their stubbornness against learning visual art skill into a badge of honor, a résumé.

Educated fool sounds a lot like ‘noble savage,’ a school of thought which maintains, for instance, that people like Reubens used talented-but-untaught students to paint his museum quality paintings. Sure, students were used in many studios, but they underwent rigorous training in the effects and techniques of the artist they worked for, high-end, not gauche techniques. There’s a line to be crossed here past happy little trees, fan brushes, liquid oils, and dabs.

On one Facebook feed a Canadian artist was touted who used students–but he taught them in such a way as to produce a consistent high-end look prior to his stepping in to put his expertise to the final. I don’t understand people in education who think skill bubbles out of talent full-blown. Why would we need schools?

Okay, you’re on the side of the angels. You have talent. You’ve drawn how-to’s, taken a course in high school. You know you have to work for it. So the idea of artists learning skills in art drawing, painting, perspective, and design does not make you stubbornly resistant to learning. A teacher who believed students painted Reubens’ paintings asked me, what ARE Old Masters’ techniques? For all of you I’ve delved into my Old Master’s studio training in oils and watercolors in Germany and come up with 12 principles gleaned from the Old Masters. Enjoy. And please try them out.

1. Principle of Lost and Found Lines. Sounds mysterious, but really it is just a step beyond outline drawing per se. Most people drawing outlines of subjects think they must draw a figure, for instance, without lifting their pencil. Even sketchers who dab pencil strokes will do this, fully roping in a face, an ear, a shoulder until it looks like a forensic appendage cut off and pasted back on. They have ears growing out of necks, make noses hang from eyes and all sorts of literal disasters. For this principle to make real sense to you, think about the sun shining on an object and observe that happening, and you will see there IS no line on the outside of a nose on a bright day. Start in the middle of open space with a line. At the hair line, leave spaces between hair strokes and avoid the swimming cap effect. Keep on looking for places to lift your pencil or brush and leave a space, and your sophistication will grow. This is the opposite of the stained glass effect with black outlines around everything.

2. Principle of Avoiding Lines Pointing Off Your Work.

Straight line, dark next to light, going off top of page

Avoid drawing or painting stiff straight lines toward the edges. At an exhibit, the viewer will follow them to the next painting. Also, anything organic like a tree has bumps, turns, and curves here and there, and are not perfectly straight. Likewise avoid painting into the edges or corners.

3. Principle of the Foot Against the Edge. I’m guilty of this one. Next time I do it, I’ll try to do a trompe l’oeil post to strain against. The trick is to plan your composition to keep the limbs well within the picture plane.

4. Principle of the Focal Point: If you are not conscious of this, you might create 10 different focal points in one painting which will make the eye jump around like a jumping bean. The focal point, or the place in the painting you want the eye to return to again and again is defined as where the darkest dark meets the lightest light. This you want intentional, not accidental.

5. Principle of Unrelieved Tension. When you position two objects next to each other with only a centimeter or two’s space between, you actually create a kind of focal point, because the eye goes back and forth between the spots seeking to join them and can’t concentrate on the rest of the work.

6. Principle of Too Many White Spots. This happens accidentally in an oil when there’s no under-painting and not enough paint on the surface, the paint contracts and leaves bare spots. or in watercolor when you drag a dark, nearly dry color over a light space and the brush hops over the paper’s bumps–a technique known as dry-brushing. This is another way of achieving a focal point, by the way.

7.  Principle of Limited Highlights and Accents. My German Old Masters teacher in Munich taught there should never be more than 3 of each. Highlights should be one spot of pure white or near it, one spot of white mixed with yellow ochre, one a little less than that. Again, much goes along with this. You would never put a white highlight in a black forest,

White highlights in near-black

for instance. You don’t go suddenly from one extreme to another. Accents are the darkest darks. You put them in at the end where you want to emphasize focal point. Nothing finishes a painting like a well-placed accent.

8.  Principle of Facial Proportions: Make sure your eyes are placed halfway down the head. Too high up, and they look quite strange. People forget there needs to be space allowed above the hairline.

9.  Principle of Stretching Color. Learning to discern colors in objects is a lifelong artof looking, comparing, testing combinations of paint. If there is a hint of green in a shadow, you can stretch the color and add a bit more for enhanced effect.

10. Principle of Not Over-mixing. Why people think they must go back and forth on their palettes until their paint is one uniform wall paint color, I cannot fathom. We could learn from our brother craftsmen, the toll painters that we may double and triple load our brushes and carry colors side by side onto the surface for a much nicer effect. One of my young students dipped 10 times and brought it back to black. Also over stroking. If you stroke over your beautiful colors more than twice you have blended them back together. One very important place this truth shows up is in hair.

11. Principle of feathering. This means going in one direction with a slight lift at the end. Using a soft touch, barely touch a painted edge at the edge.

Grey edge on arm turns it

12. Principle of Grey Edges.

Grey edges turn a round form. A light edge makes it turn up to the eye. Something one can easily forget and produce figures that are too crisp and cookie cutter.

All of these principles keep the eye forever exploring, checking, comparing. And checklists are sometimes what mastery is all about. Have fun trying these out!


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