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What painting is not

Painting is not just taking a brush, dipping it in oil color and rubbing it on a canvas. No, if you want to make a work that will stand the test of time, painting calls for a good technique.

The paintings of the Old Masters, notwithstanding the poor quality of their pigments, are better preserved than many more recent works, because their technique was perfect.

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The rule number one: “fat over lean”

The rule of “fat over lean” is the essential rule for a good preservation of the painting. It means that the first layers of paint must be “lean” (the leanest possible), and that the painter gradually increase the proportion of fat in the succeeding layers. If there is too much oil in in the underpainting, the upper layers will not adhere properly on the under layers. Try to paint a door with a water paint. If the old painting was made with oil paint, your color will not adhere properly, unless you strip, scrub, scour or sand the oil color from the door before applying your water color.

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The technique of the Old Masters

The best preserved paintings of the Old Masters were painted on wood panels prepared with a gesso ground, i.e. with a mixture of plaster (hydrated calcium sulfate) and animal glue 1 without the least trace of fat.

The underdrawing was made with silver point or wood charcoal and finished with Indian ink. Still no fat.

  1. In fact, there were two sorts of gesso:
    • The first coat was called “gesso grosso” and was constituted by anhydre plaster mixed with glue. The obtained surface was relatively coarse and rough.
    • The second one was called “gesso sottile” and was made by several coats of purified and grounded hydrated calcium sulfate mixed with goat-skin glue to obtain a very smooth surface.

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The underpainting or “dead painting”

The “dead painting” was an egg tempera: an egg yolk emulsion in water, i.e. a mixing of water and egg yolk. This watery preparation contains little fat, because the yolk is already an emulsion of fat in water.

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The upperpainting

In the beginning the upperpainting was made with the same medium. But egg tempera is a rather limited technique which prevented the Old Masters from painting smooth gradations of color, easy to realize with oil colors. Gradually they began to mix oil with their tempera and eventually there was no yolk at all left in the paint.

This way of working, beginning with lean egg tempera, and finishing with fat oil paint, was one of the secrets of the Brothers Van Eyck, at the beginning of the 15th century. This is a good example of the rule of “fat over lean”.

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The “yellowing” of oil paintings

Another advantage of this method is to prevent the painting from too much “yellowing”, which means becoming first yellower than primitively hoped, and then browner and browner, darker and darker with the time, due to the fact that the color of the dried linseed oil film has a natural tendency to become brownish yellow (thus browner and darker) with the years. (See Trials, Mediums.)

The method to prevent this is simple, it’s not a secret:

  1. always employ the least possible quantity of oil in your paintings, limiting the use of oil to the last layers;
  2. always paint in oil on a non-absorbant substratum, otherwise the oil will be absorbed by the undercoat, making its colors dull and brownish in the same time as the upper-coat will become more transparent with the time.
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