Oil paint in Venice

A review of fresco and tempera and the development of the use of oil paint by artists in Venice.

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] Drawing or color, which is most important?

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:07] This was a burning question for artists and art critics in the 16th century.

Dr. Zucker: [0:12] And helped to divine the styles of entire city states.

Dr. Harris: [0:17] We’re here in the Accademia in Venice and looking at Bellini’s “Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist and Saint.” Looking at this painting, I would say Bellini would have said that color was more important. The reds, the blues, and the greens just glow.

Dr. Zucker: [0:32] They’re spectacular, and that’s of course because Bellini is using a new technique which had been perfected in the North, known as glazing.

Dr. Harris: [0:39] That’s right, taking their cue from the artists of the Northern Renaissance, artists like Jan van Eyck. The way that they painted was to apply oil paint on a white ground in layers, or what artists called “glazes.” You would paint a thin layer of color, the oil would dry, and you would paint another thin layer.

[1:00] Each of these layers were translucent and reflected the white ground underneath, creating an intensity and depth to the color that was unprecedented in Italian painting before this, where tempera and fresco were the main media that artists used.

Dr. Zucker: [1:17] Oil was so different. Not only did it allow for glazing, but it also stayed wet. That meant that you could rework the surface. Tempera dries very quickly. Of course, fresco is staining a patch of wet plaster. It also has to be done quite quickly, and cannot be reworked.

Dr. Harris: [1:34] Tempera is opaque. In other words, you can’t see through it. That, plus the fact that it dries quickly, meant that when an artist wanted to show the modeling of form, the movement from light to dark, they had to use lines, a hatching technique.

Dr. Zucker: [1:49] Oil allows for the very soft modulation of light and shadow. Look for instance at the Christ child’s left leg—the light moves from a brilliance at the knee that helps it project forward, to the shadows of the top of the thigh that help it move back in space.

Dr. Harris: [2:07] This is because oil paint stays wet and it can be blended. It’s an oily substance.

Dr. Zucker: [2:12] The Venetians gave up fresco in the late 15th century because Venice is a series of islands and it was a bad atmosphere for fresco. You have this division between the Florentine tradition and the Venetian tradition.

Dr. Harris: [2:28] The Florentine tradition is one where drawing is the most important—that is line, not color. That has to do in part with the Florentine interest in fresco. In a fresco painting you need a final drawing because fresco dries quickly. You need to know what you’re going to do before you start painting.

[2:49] What happens in the 1500s is that this early technique of glazing that we see in the art of Bellini changes when we look at Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto later in the 1500s. They really exploit what oil can do and the way that oil can allow for a very different kind of process.

Dr. Zucker: [3:12] That process allows artists to change things on the fly, freeing them from being slaves to the original drawings. A good example of that might be Giorgione’s “Tempest,” where we know that the figure on the left was once a seated female figure.

Dr. Harris: [3:26] This idea of the artistic process on the canvas itself—

Dr. Zucker: [3:30] Directly on the canvas.

Dr. Harris: [3:31] —and working out your ideas, having them evolve in that same place where the finished painting will eventually be, is something that’s unique to the possibilities of oil paint and something really exploited by the artist Titian.

[3:44] Let’s go have a look at a late painting by Titian, where we can really see this different approach to oil paint.

[3:50] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Oil paint in Venice," in Smarthistory, August 18, 2019, accessed April 16, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/oil-paint-in-venice-2/.