Monday, January 28, 2013

A Fresh Old Master
by Brandon Kralik

"When you have practiced drawing for a while…take pains and pleasure in constantly copying the best works that you can find done by the hand of great masters."  -Cennino Cennini

Cennini knew the value of studying the works of masters
His father had studied with Giotto and his writings are the first known instructions of the craft of oil painting, which he recorded in his treatise, On Divers Arts, written in 1125, predating Vasari's research by several centuries.

Looking at the paintings that I love, both in museums and in books have been of tremendous benefit to me.  They have given me lessons regarding the techniques that give a beautiful oil painting life.   Studying the masters has added to my repertoire.  For those of you who paint, I highly recommend periodically copying paintings that you love.  For those of you who collect, you may want to consider commissioning a copy of one of your favorite paintings.

When I was a student in New York 
I spent much of my time copying paintings, drawings and sculpture at the Met.  I copied everything that caught my eye.   Still, when I travel to museums I often find myself standing in front of the best paintings that humankind has created, making marks in my sketchbook.  It takes effort of course to take oil paints to the museum but you can do like I do, priming pages of my sketchbook in advance and using a portable plastic palette so I don't have to bring the whole studio. Copying paintings from books is another, although less desirable, solution if one cannot stand in front of a masterpiece.  
Use what is available to you.

"La Bella Principessa" 
by Brandon Kralik
after Leonardo da Vinci

A few years ago "La Bella Principessa" was displayed in Gothenburg close to where I live in Sweden.  It is the most recent attribution to Leonardo da Vinci and since the attribution this was the first time it had been displayed anywhere.  Just days after the exhibition opened I had a client call me and commission a copy of it for himself.  "I have to have it!"   I love those words.

"I have to have it!"   I love those words.

I had planned to go see it anyway, of course, but having the job of copying it heightened my visit.  I ignored the incredible challenge of faithfully copying a da Vinci painting and just spent time with it.    I just studied for hours before I began to sketch, before I began to paint.  Real understanding comes from "seeing".  By looking and listening to a painting.  I absorbed the simple profile composition.  The beautiful sadness in the gaze, the waxy transparent yellow in the background and the subtle changes of color on the face.  When I am in the presence of a truly beautiful painting, such as this one, a transcendence occurs.  It is subtle and sometimes I miss it for all of the thoughts in my head but if I allow enough time to be spent with such a painting it can feel as if it  seeps into me and silences my mental chatter.  It charges me.  The oxygen trapped in the oil, the light moving through it and across the surface remain with me when my concepts of it, when my limited understanding of quantum mechanics falls away.  Each time I experience a painting in this way it confirms to me
the power of painting and drives me to create my own fresh masterpieces. 

A beautiful painting radiates a calm, steady knowledge that leaves me feeling better every time I see it.  

I love to copy paintings like these and by doing so I draw their secrets into my canon of skills.

Having studied painting for over 20 years now, I have heard many artists and instructors relaying what they feel to be the secrets of the masters. "Seeing" and working are clearly the most important but I learn unspeakable secrets by copying a painting that I really admire and by ONLY copying the ones that are the absolute best.  I copied a Mantegna once to practice foreshortening and a stranger approached me to tell me that the perspective was skewed.  I looked closer and saw that he was right.   Then I saw that Mantegna had got it wrong too!  how could I possibly get it right if the "master" I was copying screwed it up?  I have learned to choose masters carefully and recommend that you too choose the paintings for your living environment the same way.  Intuitively.
It makes a difference.

Copying Vermeer's "Milkmaid"
at the Riks Museum in Amsterdam

"Those who do not learn from the masters waste their lives re-inventing the wheel. Priceless knowledge has been sacrificed in the 20th century. Starting from nothing you can go nowhere, but, stand on the shoulders of giants, and you possess the tools and vision to travel far.”
-Michael John Angel.

   Studying Titian at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston

By copying Van Gogh I learned that he was crude. 
By copying da Vinci I learned he was graceful.

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