Old Masters Painting Techniques. References.

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As a scientist working on art examination, I was always aiming at materials characterization both in my practice as in my knowledge background, so I guess it is all around in other educational institutions. Such as chemists, physicists, geologists starting this carrier. Though, even if characterizing painting materials is the realm of the scientist, understanding painting technique should also be well understood for a more efficient art examination. A solid preparation in the art of painting I would say is recommended for those working in technical art examination.

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Pigments Checker is a collection of 54 swatches of his­tor­i­cal pig­ments that have been applied using gum ara­bic as a binder on a cel­lu­lose and cot­ton water­color paper, acids and lignin free. This paper is not treated with opti­cal bright­en­ers, it’s slightly UV flu­o­res­cent, and it reflects IR. Two cross-hair lines, 0,2 mm (ver­ti­cal) and 0.4 mm (hor­i­zon­tal) are printed on each swatch of paper before the appli­ca­tion of paint, in order to have a means to eval­u­ate the pig­ments’ trans­parency in the IR and IRR imag­ing. Among all the pig­ments and their vari­eties ever used in art these pig­ments col­lec­tion select the most used ones from antiquity to early 1950’.


There are three categories of readings on old masters painting techniques:

  • Original manuscripts.
  • Studies on old masters painting materials and techniques.
  • Studies on old masters painting styles.


Scientists working on art examination are well aware of those publications on old masters painting materials and techniques since they used them for their analytical analysis. In these studies “techniques” relates principally to only the mechanical aspects of producing art objects; how the materials are used, treated and mixed together to get durable artworks.

Though, it’s pretty common that a conservation scientist is not a painter and even if some experience with painting is part of the background, most probably this last one is not specifically related to the old masters painting styles. So, while studies on old masters painting materials and techniques are part of their essential reference literature, I like to suggest in this post some readings on old masters painting styles. This knowledge turns as much useful as that on the materials. Indeed, for example, the interpretation of the paint layering in cross-sections is much easier if you have understanding of the methods old masters used to realize figures by building up multiple layers of paint.

Old Masters Painting Techniques

Old Masters Painting Techniques. Some suggested readings.

Original manuscripts

  • About 7th century, “Mappae clavicula
  • 12th century, Theophilus Presbyter “De diversis artibus”.
  • 15th century, Cennino Cennini “Il Libro dell’Arte”, Leon Battista Alberti “De Pictura”, Leonardo “Treatise on painting”.
  • 16th century, Girolamo Ruscelli “De’ secreti del Reverendo Donno Alessio Piemontese”, Giovanni Battisti Armenini “De’ veri precetti della pittura”.
  • 17th century, Francisco Pacheco “Arte de la Pintura”,
  • 18th century, Antonio Palomino “Practica de la Pintura”.

There are a number of historical references on methods and materials written in different epochs – from middle age to modern art and from different countries. Following are just few example of the most known. Though, their reading is pretty challenging since, for example, the interpretation and translation of materials names is often problematical. It’s therefore, much more reasonable to refer to those studies on old masters painting materials and techniques, where knowledgeable scholars attempted to interpret all those information.


Studies on Old Masters Painting Materials

  • M Merrifield “Medieval and Renaissance Treatises on the Arts of Painting”, 1849.
  • C. Eastlake “Methods and Materials of Painting of the Great Schools and Masters”, 1868.
  • R. J. Gettens and G . L. Stout “Painting materials. A short Encyclopedia”, 1942.

There are two main works, that of M. Merrifield and that of C. Eastlake. Both belong to the second half of the nineteenth century, when those scholars attempted the demanding task of using historical documents to write the history of painting techniques. Merrifield started this effort publishing and commenting on a series of manuscripts on painting some of whom were just been discovered in Libraries across Europe and some found by herself. In 1840 she was sent by the British Government in Italy to look for manuscripts on painting techniques and she found and translated the 15th century Bologna manuscript on pigments’ manufacturing.

Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, artist himself and old masters scholar was appointed the National Gallery’s Keeper in 1843 and in 1855 its Director. He impressive knowledge brought him to pursue the debated cleaning program of old masters paintings which was ill received by the public which was not accustomed to see the real vivid colors of the masters but was used instead to the romantic idea of the old patina provided by aged and dirty varnish.  The book is an endless source of information, that kind of books you can read over and over and find out new things each time. You find out interesting and curious things, for example, that the word “ink” comes from “encaustic”. Eastlake says “The purple and vermilion, used for the imperial signatures and in calligraphy, received the name of encaustic. By degrees the more ordinary material of writing acquired the designation; the “incaustum” of Theophilus and other medieval writers is, in substance as well as in name, the “inchiostro” of the Italians, and the source of the English “ink”.”

In 1966 Gettens and Stout publish “Painting materials. A short Encyclopedia”. Gettens was Head Curator at The Freer Gallery, Washington while Stout Director at Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.  As the title states a review of pigments, binders, solvents, and other painting materials. Indeed, as the preface says: “This was not started as a book. It was begun as a series of notes and was published as separate sections in Technical Studies in the Field of the Fine Arts from 1936 until 1941. ”  All these books have been reprinted by Dover and are available for few bucks.


Studies on Old Masters Painting Techniques

  • Robert Beverly Hale “Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters”, 1964.
  • Hereward Lester Cooke “Painting lessons from great masters”, 1968.
  • J Sheppard “How to paint as the old masters”, 1983.
  • P. Abrahams “Beneath the Surface. The making of Paintings”, 2008.

Before dwell with actual painting, it’s appropriate to get used with techniques of Drawing, as it’s the basic of old masters art, at least the Florentine School. An understanding of its principle turns useful when dealing with infrared reflectography of underdrawing. Robert B. Hale published “Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters” in 1964. He was the Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Eventually, talking about painting, “Painting lessons from great masters” by Hereward Lester Cooke who was the Curator of Painting at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, both a old master scholar and an appreciated painter himself. J. Carter Brown, assistant director at The National Gallery, Washington, writing the foreword for this book said:

“This book should be made required reading for graduation from anywhere….in this image-flooded world, in this age of visual illiteracy, it is no less vital that every citizen also know how to see.

One good way to learn to see is to learn to paint…I submit that for the non-painters, a category in which I sheepishly, must include myself, this book is equally indispensable.”

Following the steps of Cooke, J Sheppard, who actually was his student, wrote “How to paint as the old masters” in 1983. Who better than Sheppard himself can introduce his book?

“I hope that the artist, the teacher, and the art student will find this a more practical book than so many others that have been written on the techniques and secret formulas of the masters. Most of these volumes are just recipe books; their authors never really show you how to paint the way the masters did. And all the documents and verbal hypotheses mean nothing if in actual practice the methods do not work.”

Old Masters Painting Techniques

Sheppard shows step by step Titian technique. Burnt umber outline, grey toning, shadow accents, white highlights, blending and softening of tones, vermilion glazing. J Sheppard “How to paint as the old masters”, 1983.

While surfing Amazon.CO.UK I came across “Beneath the Surface. The making of Paintings” by Philippa Abrahams.  I just discovered this book by chance and I was fascinated by the author practicality and non-academic style.  She is many things, artist, conservator, museum education consultant. Rather than theoretical reasoning, this book is full of images of tests made by Mrs. Abrahams to explore painting techniques and it’s full of enjoyable anecdotes like she making a gilder burnisher with her children baby tooth! So creative! I like her style. I agree with her introduction of the book, “The evidence of how artists worked remains in the paintings and drawings that have survived. Conservation scientists can investigate and give us more information through various kinds of analysis, …This book is complementary to that science and I hope enlightens in an accessible way.“ It should be more of these books.

Old Masters Painting Techniques

Philippa Abrahams made a gilder burnisher with her children baby tooth, since Cennini recommended little animals’ teeth to be used. From Philippa Abrahams “Beneath the Surface. The making of Paintings”, 2008.

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  1. katia weber June 4, 2013 at 9:42 pm - Reply

    The National Gallery series “Art in the making” I think are also very interesting.
    Congratulations for your website and blog.

    Katia Weber
    Paper conservator

    • antonino June 5, 2013 at 8:19 am - Reply

      Hi Katia, nice to hear from you! Sure, National Gallery London has done a terrific work with the “Art in the making” series.

  2. lew November 23, 2013 at 1:55 am - Reply

    I am a Chinese painter, concerned about the materials and techniques of old masters have nearly three decades of time, but would like a detailed study of this material and technology, he will be able to get your help?

  3. lew November 23, 2013 at 2:24 am - Reply

    I think these formulations is very important, we should also pay attention to the use of these formulations produced paintings of steps, and each step is how to use between these formulations! Today’s art of painting out of the so-called beyond imagination, technology and materials is simply shoddy!

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