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How to Appreciate Painterly Skills

Painting is a visual art which means that the greatest paintings tend to be those with the greatest visual impact, while the most popular painting movements are typically those that are easiest on the eye. But this doesn't mean painting is trivial or superficial; on the contrary, many pictures can be extremely complex. Such complexity arises because of the artistic methods used to paint the picture (colorito), and/or its narrative content and message (disegno). Painterly techniques used can vary enormously. Jan Van Eyck was famous for his virtuoso oil painting technique to achieve his characteristic luminous finish; Mantegna and Tiepolo for their foreshortening; Leonardo for his sfumato; Michelangelo for his fresco (Fresh) painting technique, anatomical skill and male nudes; Titian, Veronese, Matisse and Jawlensky for their colourism; Caravaggio for his Tenebrism; Rembrandt for his chiaroscuro; Masaccio, Raphael and Canaletto for their linear perspective; Degas for his pastel drawings; Georges Seurat and Paul Signac for their Pointillism; Frank Auerbach for his impasto. These techniques, and many more besides, are all important elements which can be employed to increase the complexity and depth of a picture. So in order to appreciate a painting, one needs to analyze the presence of these elements and their effects.

Colour has always been an important feature, and its use was often subject to certain rules. Egyptian painters, for example, used only six colours: red, green, blue, yellow, white and black. Red was the colour of power and authority. Green symbolized new life and fertility. Blue symbolized rebirth, while yellow symbolized the eternal, such as the qualities of the sun and gold. White symbolized purity, while Black was the colour of death. Male bodies were always painted in darker colours than female bodies. Understanding these colour rules is essential in order to read Egyptian paintings. Byzantine icon painters were subject to similar rules in their use of colour. Blue was reserved for human life, white for the resurrection and transfiguration of Christ. If you analyze icons of Christ and the Virgin Mary, you will notice that Jesus usually wears a red undergarment with a blue outer garment (God becoming a man), while Mary wears a blue undergarment with a red overgarment (she started as a human but is becoming closer to God). In the aftermath of the Renaissance, the emerging European art academies laid down rules which restricted the use of bright colours unless the context was appropriate. Several disputes erupted over this, with colourists like Rubens (and later, Delacroix) opposed to Poussin (and later Ingres). It was only with the advent of the French Impressionists and the Fauvists, that colour was freely used as an independent element. Of course, the development of new colour pigments, from time to time, had a significant effect on the tonal range available to painters. So the colours on a Renaissance colour palette looked quite different from those on a 19th-century palette.

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