Sunday, 7 March 2010

Renaissance painting aids

I recently read that many Renaissance artists, including Dürer and Leonardo, would use grids to aid them in their composition – rectangular wooden frames with wire drawn through them in a grid form. They would place the frame between themselves and their subject on a stand. If there is a technical name for them I’ve forgotten it but I’ll edit this post if I find it.

Reading this made me realise how little, if any, ’artistic expression’ was actually sought in Renaissance painting on the part of the painter himself. Everything seems to have been for documentation’s sake. Much of Leonardo’s work was, after all, either commissioned or part of research. In other words, all of it was a record of some sort, be it a fresco of the Battle of Anghiari or a portrait of some rich man’s wife. Even in paintings of the Holy Family artists would include the portraits of high-ranking officials or rulers as a nod to their greatness! That’s like writing Gordon Brown into a pop song. To think that people now would fork out millions for something that was dragged around Italy in a cart 600 years ago is a little strange (I’m thinking of the Mona Lisa). Something I just can’t buy into is all of the mysticism that people read from these paintings – the Culture Minister Kim Howell summed it up well in his comment on some Turner Prize entries, ‘conceptual bullshit’. Surely it’s enough to accept that many people in the Renaissance were simply highly skilled, intelligent men who documented the world around them with precision and necessity rather than lofty principles or self-expression.

[Addition 7 March]

I just read that Leon Battista Alberti, a Renaissance scholar who wrote a treatise called On Painting, actually invented his own painting aid – a translucent cloth or veil with a grid of squares which would be placed between the artist and his subject.

He is also said to have suggested using a mirror to consult paintings and highlight any errors in perspective or relations between objects. I’ve noticed a similar thing myself in regard to typography – in turning a piece of text upside down your eye is no longer distracted by meaningful shapes and you can more readily notice awkward letter-spacing. I’m sure Leonardo d.V. would have used the mirror technique to check his works – considering he did, at one time, read Alberti’s books, that he made use of painting aids and that he used mirrors to write in his notebooks.


  1. Hi Ben! An Alberti's perspectival window was a central and recurring device in Peter Greenaway's 'The Draughtsman's Contract'

    Some also believe that Leonardo's mirror writing was to hide his dyslexia.

    Keep up the great work on the blog. I'm slowly meandering through the older posts!

    Kind Regards
    H Niyazi

  2. Hi, very interesting – I'd never heard of Peter Greenway's film before.

    I've found it really difficult to keep up the blog while working as I do but I'll have to figure it out. Thanks for the visits!


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