We think famous painters and artists must use the most exotic of tools and techniques for their renowned works. This is certainly the impression we get from the contemporary art world which is filled with well-sold PR stories of painters who have copyrighted a particular colour or those who have bought exclusive rights to the blackest paint in existence and other such lore.
This is sometimes true. Artists have always had access to the cutting edge of stationery tools and exotic mediums because it is their livelihood. Many a classic painter dabbled with pigments sourced from all across the globe, some made from precious stones, which were the only source of some colours before the invention of synthetic paints. It is also true, however, that most artists used some of the most comfortingly familiar materials for most of their artwork.
Take a step back through the ages with us to see what stationery tools and art materials some very famous European painters used to realise their masterpieces and their lesser known work.
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The High Renaissance art period started around 1495 and continued till 1520. A surprisingly short run, considering how influential it turned out to be. Centered around Italy and characterized by realism, attention to detail and precise study of the human anatomy, the High Renaissance is considered the pinnacle of the Renaissance art period.
Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, known as Raphael, was a legendary Italian painter and architect of the High Renaissance and was considered one of its most illustrious exponents along with Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Bramante. Raphael trained in the Umbrian style of painting under master painter Pietro Perugino, mastering the techniques of sfumato, chiaroscuro, perspective, clarity of form, anatomical correctness, emotionality and expression.
He was an exceptional painter, printmaker and architect who ran one of the largest workshops of the time, comprising almost fifty pupils and assistants, many of whom became significant painters in their own right. Some of Raphael’s most exquisite and famous works are found in the frescoed Raphael Rooms (The School of Athens, The Parnassus and the Disputa) in the Vatican Palace.
Stationery Tools and Techniques
Raphael was known to paint on wood, fruit-wood and canvas, and he extensively used linseed and walnut oil as drying mediums. His color palette consisted of locally available pigments like Natural ultramarine (lazurite mineral), Verdigris (copper acetate), Yellow ocher (iron oxide), Carmine lake (carminic acid precipitated on a mineral base), Vermilion (red mercuric sulfide), Red ocher (iron oxide), powdered gold, and even less known metallic powdered bismuth.
A prolific painter, he was also one of the best draftsmen of his times, using drawings extensively to plan his compositions and paintings. Raphael’s prodigiousness in drawing was so exceptional that it resulted in drawings that were sometimes more attractive than the end result. Raphael’s initial sketches were precise with carefully outlined figures and a high degree of finish, with shading and highlights in white. Raphael was one of the first Italian artists to regularly use female models for drawing studies. He mostly used red or black chalk for his drawings and sketches, and darker chalk for adding depth to areas of the composition.
The Baroque art period flourished in Europe from the 16th to 18th century and was characterized by ornate, over-the-top, flamboyant aesthetics in art, music, sculpture, architecture and painting. Baroque artists achieved a heightened sense of movement through drama, rich, deep color, intense light areas, and dark shadows. Unlike the tranquil scenes and color palettes of the preceding Renaissance art period, Baroque artists used strong, warm colors and stressed upon emotion and movement in their paintings. Some of the most influential painters of the Baroque period are Velazquez, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Rubens, Poussin and Vermeer.
Born in Italy, Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio was probably one of the most popular, hugely controversial, nonconformist and influential artists of the Baroque period. His subject matter ranged from still life to genre scenes, and religious stories, which he depicted with such intense realism that his work was often rebuked and termed as ‘disgusting and vulgar.’
Judith Beheading Holofernes – Caravaggio Supper at Emmaus, 1601 – Craavaggio
Stationery Tools and Techniques
According to art historians Caravaggio used the most revolutionary optical instruments to ‘photograph’ his subjects almost 200 years before the camera was invented. It was Caravaggio who mastered the dramatic ‘chiaroscuro and tenebrism’ techniques characterized by a distinct contrast between light and dark areas. Historians believe that Caravaggio illuminated his subjects in a dark room with a blinding shaft of light through a hole in the ceiling. The resulting image was projected directly on his canvas using a lens and mirror. He then used light-sensitive substances including white lead paint mixed with chemicals (including mercury) and minerals to paint the image.
This realistic and dramatic approach to painting the human figure directly from life against a dark background shocked his peers and opened a new chapter in the history of painting. Caravaggio used a limited color palette, mostly earth colors ground in walnut oil and used linen canvas boards. He never made preliminary sketches and his preferred style of drawing the various elements of the composition was to sketch lines directly into the wet paint using the wooden end of his painting brush.
Boy with a Basket of Fruits, 1593 – Caravaggio Bacchus, 1596 – Caravaggio
3. Gustav Klimt
The Art Nouveau (New Art) movement which lasted from around 1890 to the First World War rejected the heavy, ornamental techniques and excesses of the Victorian Period. It emphasized functional design and propagated the idea of art and design as part of everyday life. The movement was heavily influenced by the Industrial Revolution, the Arts and Crafts Movements, Japonism and Celtic Arts, and was applied to architecture, fine art, applied art and decorative art. Floral and plant-inspired curvilinear patterns and motifs were popular Art Nouveau designs, as were the curvaceous bodies of beautiful women. This movement paved the way for the Art Deco in the 1920s. Some of the prominent Art Nouveau artists were William Morris, Aubrey Beardsley, Alphonse Mucha, Jules Cheret, Gustav Klimt and Antoni Gaudi and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, among others.
Austrian Symbolist painter Gustav Klimt was one of the co-founders of the popular Vienna Secession movement along with a group of Austrian artists including Josef Hoffman, Koloman Moser and Otto Wagner. According to art historians Klimt’s influences ranged from the Japanese Rimpa School to late medieval European paintings to Egyptian, Minoan, Classical Greek, and Byzantine art. He rejected the naturalistic styles and made use of symbols and symbolic elements to convey his ideas. Klimt was known for his paintings, portraits, murals and sketches, and the female body remained his primary subject.
Danae, 1907 – Gustav Klimt Oberösterreichisches Bauernhaus – Gustav Klimt
Stationery Tools and Techniques
Klimt’s ‘Golden Phase’ where he prominently used gold leaf in his paintings was marked by positive critical reaction and success. The most popular Klimt paintings during this phase are the Pallas Athene, Judith I, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, The Kiss and the 112-foot-long wall cycle Beethoven Frieze. Most of Klimt’s work is distinguished by his use of elegant gold and applique materials (mirrors, gem stones, mother-of-pearl, curtain rings), spirals and swirls, and phallic shapes. He also used a wide range of paints, coloured chalks and graphite.
Later in life he produced a prolific number of explicit and erotic drawings which were never exhibited or seen until after his death. Klimt’s mediums for sketching were black chalk, pencil and colored pencils in that order. He started sketching on adapted packaging paper which was freely available, and later moved to imported paper from Japan which was lighter and stiffer.
The Kiss, 1907 – Gustav Klimt Adele Bloch-Bauer I , 1907 – Gustav Klimt
4. Henri Matisse
Fauvism, the art style of les fauves (the wild beasts), was characterized by strong, brilliant colors and spontaneous brushwork, and paved the way for the development of Cubism. The style which began around 1904 and lasted till 1910 was led by Henri Matisse and Andre Derain. The proponents of Fauvism were influenced by African and Oceanic art, non-Western folk art, the post-impressionism of Van Gogh and the neo-impressionism of Seurat. The fauvists were interested in the scientific color theories, specially those relating to complementary colors, and used them side-by-side in a painting to make each color appear brighter.
Along with Pablo Picasso, French artist Henri Matisse was a leading figure in modern art who was responsible for significant developments in visual arts. One of the most influential artists of the 20th century Matisse was a master colorist known for his intense and bright style of color, simple shapes, mark-making and drawing. He was also a draughtsman, printmaker and sculptor.
Les toits de Collioure, 1905 – Henri Matisse Odalisque, 1920–21 – Henri Matisse
Stationery Tools and Techniques
Henri Matisse had a career spanning over 5 decades and despite a chronic illness in his later years he continued to create pathbreaking art. Since movement was restricted due to his and disability, Matisse abandoned oil paints and developed an expressive new technique called ‘cut-outs’ and made a number of works termed as gouaches découpées which were made by cutting or tearing shapes from paper painted with gouache. These cut-outs were then arranged into lively compositions by studio assistants under the directions of Matisse. He called it ‘drawing with scissors’ and art historians believe it was the logical outgrowth of his artistic principles. Armed with a simple scissor and painted paper, Matisse transformed painted paper into a world of figures, shapes, plants and animals. While the early pieces were small in size they eventually grew into room-sized murals. Artists across the world continue to be inspired by Matisse’s final artistic triumph.
5. Pablo Picasso
Cubism is regarded as one of the most influential, radical and experimental art movements of the early 20th century which revolutionized painting, music, sculpture and architecture in Europe. Cubism abandoned figurative portrayals, chiaroscuro, modeling and nature-inspired themes which were the benchmarks of the earlier art periods, and moved towards total abstraction through fragmented objects and multiple vantage points. Cubism was pioneered by the avant-garde artists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque who emphasized the two-dimensionality of objects and embraced African and Native American Art influences. Cubist painters were known for their inclusion of geometric angles, lines and shapes in their artworks.
Through his long and illustrious career of 78 years, Spanish artist Pablo Picasso created over 50,000 artworks including paintings, prints, engravings, illustrations, sculptures, ceramic objects, costumes and theater sets. One of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century, Picasso’s impact on modern art is pivotal to say the least. Picasso not only co-created Cubism, but also invented constructed sculpture and co-founded collage art.
As father of modern art, Picasso laid the foundation for contemporary art and creativity. With influences ranging from Paul Cézanne and Henry Rosseau to African and tribal art, Picasso abandoned artistic refinement and mostly neutral colors and deconstructed objects to analyze them in terms of their shape.
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907 – Pablo Picasso Still Life, 1918 – Pablo Picasso
Stationery Tools and Techniques
While Picasso used traditional materials like oil paint, chalk and charcoal, he also integrated unconventional, non-painted objects like newspapers, bits of cloth, tobacco wrappers and a wide variety of other materials like coffee grounds and sawdust in his paintings and made collages to emphasize the differences in textures and poses in his paintings. While his earlier sculptures were modeled in clay and wax, he also used wood, ceramic, bronze, sheet metal, metal wires and spoons in his later works.
Picasso’s list of uncommon painting mediums and materials also included the industrial house paint, Ripolin. It was a superior quality oil-based enamel house paint which was a rage in France in the early 1900s. Ripolin was available in a wide range of fast-drying bright colors which worked perfectly for Picasso who preferred its ability to dry into a hard, glossy enamel in a few hours. It provided an almost brushless finish if used straight from the can, and allowed him to experiment with painting techniques like wrinkling and dripping.
Bowl with Fruit, Violin, and Wineglass, 1913
– Pablo Picasso
Woman in a Red Armchair, 1929 – Pablo Picasso
If we are to take anything from the practices of these varying painters through the past few centuries, it should be to use what you have. No artistic medium or stationery tool is unworthy, and no technique or process is not good enough. Make the art you want and enjoy the stationery you get to play with along the way.
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