There are countless volumes written on great masterpieces of art and their creators.
Essays attempt to translate the allegorical nature of heroic works, articles praise an artist’s avant-garde departure from the principles of design and critical reviews condemn or praise the habits and tastes of these well-known luminaries.
A student may wish to learn the techniques of their favorite artist.
Learning a little of how that artist approached an individual painting may help him focus on the direction he needs to take to learn painting in the same manner. The materials and tools used, the time frame in which they painted and a few of the techniques they used to develop their theme can give one valuable insights to the art.
Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali
This magnificent painting, perhaps Dali’s most well known, is tiny. It is 9.5 inches by 13 inches and was created in 1931. Dali termed this work a “hand-painted dream photograph,” which he meticulously painted in a photo-realistic manner.
Dali employed a jeweler’s loupe to aid his vision for the photographic quality he wanted to achieve. In this oil on canvas painting, he used fine, round brushes to create the painstaking detail that is seen in this piece. Brushstrokes are scarcely visible and he made a detailed preliminary drawing before beginning work on the piece. It is really quite wonderful how large a world he was able to create in such a small space. The cliffs, which are similar to those found in the Spanish province of Catalonia where Dali spent much of his life, are far in the distance. This gives the sense of great space in a barren world.
The colors and the dark foreground fading to the sea and golden sky, act to keep the viewer focused on the subjects of the scene. He used careful gradation of color and layering to develop jewel-like colors and intensity to the piece.
Dali was a classically trained artist, in the mode of the early 20th century, and with that basis in art theory, had all the tools necessary to create the photographically precise dream worlds for which he is famous.
During this time, Dali often purchased pre-primed, ready to use canvases. For this painting, he made a preliminary drawing in pencil. He then did an underpainting and uniformly painted the sky, sea, land and table. The other elements were painted with fine brushstrokes. Final details such as the insects, eyelashes and his signature were done using the finest of detail brushes. Dali used paints with creamy a texture, and it is probable that he added oil to give his paint the consistency he preferred. He used sable brushes in painting the details of this piece, as sable is very resilient and holds paint extremely well. Since oil paint is very adaptable, Dali could use it thickly, straight from the tube, or thinly, mixed with oil for fine detail work.
In his own words, Dali states that this piece was composed and completed in one short session. Time for creation and size are not required to create a masterpiece. Dali had a clear sense of what he wanted to portray and unerringly put it down as he saw it in his mind’s eye.
Guernica by Pablo Picasso
More has been written about Guernica than any other 20th century piece of modern art. This oil on canvas mural is 11-1/2 feet by 26 feet and was created in 1937 in response to the bombing and destruction of the Basque village of Guernica by the German Air Force. It was painted for the centerpiece of the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, France.
The preliminary composition portrayed characters previously used in Picasso’s work, and over several weeks, they were molded and reshaped. Just over 15 days from the start of the project, Picasso built the canvas mural upon which the painting was done and began drawing out his composition on the support. Because of his traditional training in art, he was well versed in allegory and reworked the traditional motif into a modern translation suited to the horrors he was depicting.
This painting is an example of deconstruction and reconstruction of a composition. It was reinvented a number of times. Over the course of the creation of the piece, Picasso painted and repainted areas multiple times, moving figures, painting out shapes and limbs and adding others. At one point, the picture was painted in full color, but Picasso decided that color would distract from the message and he repainted it monochromatic.
This painting continued its metamorphosis nearly until it was installed at the Spanish Pavilion. Picasso was not convinced it was complete even then. This indecision points up the fact that even great artists can be unsure about how they are portraying their message to their audience. Just because an idea has been made into a sketch, it does not mean it has been put down in stone. An artist may continue to explore the vision even as he paints it.
Picasso had a vision playing at his mind, and because of time constraints, refined it as he went. Using oil paint as his medium allowed him the luxury of removing, redoing and refining areas of his painting at will. The slow-drying nature and malleability of this medium allows for drastic change and alteration by the artist. It is very hardy and forgiving, albeit a more costly medium than some.
Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth
In 1948, Andrew Wyeth created this 32-inch by 47-inch egg tempera painting on gessoed panel. The subject of this haunting landscape is a longtime friend, Christina Olsen, and the setting and house are the Olsen family property.
Andrew had learned from his father, illustrator N. C. Wyeth, that capturing the essence of a subject requires intimacy. He also learned that a painting, regardless of subject, should project drama. He accomplished this on both counts, and it remains one of Wyeth’s most well known paintings. From his father, Andrew had learned watercolor and figural interpretation. He later learned egg tempera, and used both mediums for his paintings.
In Christina’s World, there is detail in every aspect of the painting. Individual leaves of grass show in the foreground. Single strands of hair are obvious on the subject’s head. This is one of the special characteristics of egg tempera. The ability to work in such detail and layer to create luminosity is one of the great joys of this medium. It is technically a time consuming process, and gives the artist opportunity to refine the work to high degree, both physically and spiritually.
This painting is a combination of realism and the artist’s imagination. The building exists as represented, but the distance and slope of the hill are purely imaginative. His wife posed as the model for the subject, Christina.
Wyeth typically did many studies and preliminary watercolors before actually creating a major work. He became thoroughly familiar with his subjects prior to committing them to permanent record. This methodical progression allowed him to take his work far beyond merely recording a moment in time.
Using watercolor to do preliminary sketches allows the artist to lay down quickly and accurately his colors to develop and refine the composition. Using watercolor to develop a composition is a more thoughtful method. In some instances, spontaneity is ill advised. Developing the piece slowly allowed Wyeth to arrive at a painting full of intensity and emotion. Using tempera and his preliminary drawings permitted him to develop his theme to the fullest.
In comparing the three artists and their styles, the student can see that there is no single method to create a masterpiece. For some artists, it can be a rush of inspiration, laying down paint quickly. For others, it is a time-consuming examination of the subject’s world and their situation in it. It is a total involvement with a place and people within.
It can be a fait accompli with no need for revision, or an ongoing process of construction and deconstruction bent on achieving an unknown goal. There are tormented artists, struggling to grasp the meaning of their art while others are contentedly secure in the work and the world they wish to portray. Other artists reveal their inner world of imagination with symbolism and twisted imagery.
An artist must find his own voice to portray the vision of his inner world. This comes from commitment, study and practice. No one method is more correct than another is, and the student may use several techniques as he studies and grows.