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  • Writer's pictureLucy

Why do you like the Renaissance?

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

[BLOG POST 10/29/23] Recently I was interviewed by writer and photographer Sean Weaver who is writing copy for for use on my website and in press releases. I'm very excited about this project! He had prepared for the interview and asked a lot of terrific questions. One in particular surprised me as it was something I had never asked myself. "What is it about the style of Renaissance paintings that you like?"

I stumbled for and answer and thought "What's not to like???"

As a lover of nature Renaissance paintings are fascinating in how well they capture both ourselves and our environment through soft edges that blend into the background, vibrant color, forms that look 3-dimensional, and careful observation of the natural world.

For a point of reference, here is a painting from the Gothic era which preceded the Renaissance:

"Rucellai Madonna" by Duccio di Buoninsegna c. 1285
"Rucellai Madonna" by Duccio di Buoninsegna c. 1285

Other than a sense of perspective in the chair, the painting feels flat, there are no shadows, and the colors are, how shall we say it, not true to nature.

In 14th to the 16th century truly visionary artists developed several innovations in painting to make their paintings look more realistic:

Cangiante – Michalelgelo mastered this skill of creating highlights and shadows by using analogous colors instead of mixing black with the original color. This method hearlds from a time when the available colors were severely limited.

Chiaroscuro – The use light and shade to express three-dimensional forms and space. Caravaggio composed his paintings with strong lighting on the main subject. He used a dark background and emphasized the contrast of light and shade in order to achieve a dramatic effect that was similar to stage lighting. (I'm a big fan of chiaroscuro!)

Sfumato – Leonardo da Vinci is famous for using the technique masterfully. In it oil painters use very fine transparent pigments and a glazing medium in-between each layer. The final painting is not the result of oil paints mixed on the palette, but a natural combination of whole colors under the optical effect of light going through layers of different glazing. It has the added effect of blurring the edges which makes figures blend into their environment so that the whole painting is more similar to what we observe with our eyes than what a camera can capture.

Unione – The issue of color saturation was hampered by those last two techniques. It was resolved by Raphael who reduced the layers of glazing and increased the thickness of each pigment color plus he used pure pigments in the middle layers which created a brighter more vibrant color.

The artists I mentioned above are some of the more well known but during the Renaissance many artists were working on the issue of how to create realism in paintings. All of these artists studied mathematics and geometry, anatomy, classical culture, theology, and philosophy. These were true "Renaissance Men" and women! – they were knowledgeable, educated, and proficient in a wide range of fields.

Personally I don't work in oil paint due to a nasty allergy to oil paint solvents so some of these techniques don't directly apply to my work. However the principals behind them do--color theory, full range of values, soft edges, and layers upon layers of pigment (in my case pastels). Additionally the tools I use in my painting date back to the Renaissance--a black mirror, plum lines, view finders, and careful, intense observation of nature.

I feel a little like a bridge to the past.

And I find great inspiration in viewing artwork from this era, especially seeing them in person. Several years ago I visited the San Francisco Fine Art Museum and came across this portrait by Rembrandt:

It stopped me in my tracks and I stood transfixed in front of it for quite some time. Long enough in fact for a museum staff member to check on me.

The painting is simply stunning and cannot be captured in a photograph. As I stood in front of it admiring the simple but striking composition I felt like I could talk to Joris de Caulerij and touch his coat. He felt completely real and present despite being painted over 400 years ago.

When I moved closer and looked I saw that the details in the belt are not hard lines but rather highlights and low lights. Standing 6 feet away my eyes saw the details as being practically photorealistic but up close--well up close, I could see how Rembrandt applied the paint in loose strokes to describe how light hit the carving. It was exquisite and inspiring.

Rembrandt lived after the Renaissance but obviously took all the innovations from that time to create his masterpieces. And they are MASTERPIECES, capturing what our eyes see and what our hearts feel.

So again I ask, "What's not to like about the Renaissance?" ❤️

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