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How to Rival the Old Masters

29 Jan 2014

What was emulation?

The classical formation of artists and architects in the Renaissance and Baroque took the apprentice on a trajectory from imitation to emulation to invention. If imitation was the foundation of an artist's training--copying a master's drawings, drawing from casts, eventually drawing from the live model--emulation marked the stage where the apprentices began to establish their own mastery by rivaling their masters' work. That's what defines emulation: rivaling, by means of imitation. Those of us who love the Old Masters often revere them to the point of worship--"We're not worthy!"--but they challenged themselves by challenging their own masters. If we want to recover that culture, plucking up the courage to emulate the Old Masters, not just imitate them, is how to do it.

Trois crayons drawing copy of Baciccio's St. Joseph and the Christ Child, from the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, 2007.

Trois crayons drawing copy of Baciccio's St. Joseph and the Christ Child,
from the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, 2007.

Historically, imitating someone else's work was part of forming your own style, but it wasn't a way to make your own work. The imitation of subject matter, though, was part and parcel of the humbler genres of documentary art--still lifes, landscapes, portraits. The pinnacle of artistic production was instead what they called history painting, and this involved imagining scenes from mythology, history, or the Bible; how one imagined was supposed to depend on the canon of previous imaginings. Artists who practiced history painting shaped their approach by emulating other artists, whether contemporaries or the ancients. That's how I've trained myself over more than thirty years, by drawing in museums, churches, and the great houses of Europe.

 

The materials of emulation

So, how does one go about learning from the Old Masters in order to rival them? Choosing materials is an essential part. Another is by trying to reconcile what were once opposing camps. One of the big debates in Renaissance and Baroque culture was between partisans of drawing (or line), versus those of color; in the sixteenth century that was a battle between the Florentines and Venetians, while in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was between the followers of Poussin and those of Rubens (Poussinistes vs. Rubenistses). But Rubens himself was no partisan, and one of the ways he tried to reconcile the camps was with trois crayons drawing. By using three chalks (red, black, and white) he could depict not just value but temperature, and hint at palette. Drawing from painting using trois crayons lets you apprehend not only form, but the essentials of color as well. You can also invent a painting in the early stages in ways that simultaneously resolve composition, subject, and atmosphere.

Historians who discuss trois crayons often treat the red (sanguine) chalk as an embellishment of a black line drawing, but my experience tells me that sanguine should in fact be the first phase, since it's more forgiving in laying out preliminary outlines. I treat trois crayons as a sanguine drawing with black and white accents. Of course, white implies working on a medium-toned paper, and the value and hue of the paper is a big part of the eventual palette of the final drawing. Warm-hued paper establishes warm middle tones, whereas cool-blue or grey-paper highlights the red as the sole warm tone. The latter, it seems to me, was the primary choice of the Venetian camp, although Rubens himself often worked on warm-toned paper.

Trois crayons detail drawing copy of Lorenzo the Magnificent Receiving the Muses in Florence, from the Palazzo Pitti (Museo degli Argenti), Florence, 2012.

Trois crayons detail drawing copy of Lorenzo the Magnificent Receiving the Muses
in Florence
, from the Palazzo Pitti (Museo degli Argenti), Florence, 2012.

Working while traveling means keeping a sketchbook or portfolio with multiple sheets, and the portfolio is best suited to carrying a variety of papers. Since fixing chalk is usually not convenient while on the road, I prefer drawing with an oil based crayon or pencil, which smears less. I also need several pencils, since I go through at least two or three sanguine points in each drawing, and sharpening in most public institutions is also inconvenient (it helps if you have a sharpener that collects the shavings).

Drawing after the Old Masters shapes not only your skills, but also your taste. It impresses on you their idea of the beautiful, which can't really be apprehended any other way. And knowing how they operated, how they saw themselves with respect to their rivals, alerts you to how you might begin to rival them.

--David

David Mayernik is an artist, architect, professor, and author of The Challenge of Emulation in Art and Architecture (published by Ashgate, 2013).


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