Artist, Illustrator & Tutor

Forgotten skills: Why was I not taught any of this?

Posted by Barry Whitehouse on Sunday, October 9, 2011 Under: Enlightening reading

I have recently been reading through an English translation of 15th Century Italian manuscript called "Il libro dell' Arte" by Cennino d'Andrea Cennini and once more I have had my eyes opened. This manuscript appears to be one of the first (if not the first) 'how to' art book. Cennini explains in great detail how to paint and draw like the masters such as Giotto. It tells how to make your own paint, prepare your surfaces to paint on and gives step-by-step instructions of painting flesh tones and fabric. While this is an informative read, it also surprised me to see that as a child wanting to study art, not of this information was available to me from my many art teachers.

For example, I was told that 'tracing was cheating', yet Cennini goes into great detail of how to make tracing paper by either oiling sheets of paper with linseed oil or by stretching vellum (calf skin) so thin that it becomes transparent. Through extra research, I found that the Masters also 'cheated' by sketching inside darkened rooms or tents and using prisms on a window to capture the image they wanted to paint and it being beamed onto their panel or canvas in colour, upside down! Well surely these Masters didn't view it as cheating. Admittedly, by not tracing it has improved my hand-eye co-ordination and made me look at things more but throughout my career I have at times really struggled and would have loved to trace the odd outline but didn't because I was taught that it was wrong.

In this boo , it also explains how figures were drawn using precise measurements. I was always taught that you could get a rough sketch of a figure using shapes like sausages and circles, but I never really knew how long to make the forearm or the thigh etc. Well Cennini for the first time explains how. The whole body is measured from the 'face' (from the chin to the hair line). The face is split into three equal zones called 'sections' (i) from the hair line to the eyebrows (ii) from the eyebrows to the nose and (iii) from the nose to the chin. Together they make 'the face'.

The neck is one of these 'sections' tall and from the throat to the chest is another 'face'. From the chest to the naval is another 'face' and from the naval to the groin is another 'face'. The thigh is two 'faces' long and the calf is two 'faces' plus one 'section'. The foot is one 'face' long.

Each shoulder is one 'face' wide (from the neck to the end of the shoulder) so we are three faces wide when standing straight. From the shoulder to the elbow is one 'face' and from the elbow to the wrist is one 'face' plus a 'section'. The hand is one 'face'. For the first time this made perfect sense and i could now get exact proportions in my figure drawing every time! Why was I not taught this at school or college? Why does this appear to be hidden from view since the 15th Century. Try it out on yourself. Use your face as a measurement for your whole body and while not exact, it’s the closest you will get to a near perfectly formed figure.

Further research lead me to look at the works of da Vinci and Turner and I discovered that they understood the effects of light on a landscape to create distance. They painted in 'Aerial perspective', using zones of colour to create depth. The background was painted in blues, mid-ground in greens and yellows and foregrounds in reds and browns. This creates an amazing sense of distance and science now backs this up: Short wave light (blue light) is scattered the most by dust and moisture particles which is why the sky is blue and why hills in the distance appear to be veiled in blue. Long wave light (red light) is scattered least so it stays around longer. Also a red sky at night means a nice day will follow because the red light has not been scattered by moisture and so remains in the sky longer. Fascinating and yet to an artist - invaluable! i will blog further about painting light another time as this is also vital stuff I have recently discovered.

These are all basic techniques used by the genre of artists we call 'The Masters' - Michelangelo, da Vinci, Giotto etc. yet nobody teaches them to you. I am sure that if these basic principles were taught in art lessons along with the Colour bias wheel (in a previous blog), keen young artists would grow up having some knowledge and confidence instead of being told that things in art are often 'trial and error'. When I pass some of these techniques on in my own classes, I see flashes of realisation and students come back to me saying that they now 'finally understand' things that they have been searching for and didn't know existed. All along they have been hiding in forgotten textbooks from centuries past.

In : Enlightening reading