Lost Secrets of the Masters Part I

We are in the midst of a surging revival of interest in historical painting methods. More is written on the topic each day. Many authors point to received experts (Eastlake and Doerner to name just two—my own threadbare copies are much-thumbed) and claim to have rediscovered or reinvented long-lost methods.

The pursuit of the ‘lost secrets of the masters’ has been going on for some time—centuries, in fact. Sir Joshua Reynolds (the first president of the Royal Academy; died 1792) spent his entire life trying to discover the ‘lost secrets.’ So artists have been engaged in this pursuit for a long time.

Artists today have available to them more and better supplies than at any time in history. With some few exceptions (the supply of the all-important lead-based materials grows increasingly worrisome) the variety of materials available is astonishing. Equally important is the amount of information available. It’s a great time to be engaged in craft-related adventures.

But—a big BUT—one thing we don’t have that Sir Joshua and his contemporaries had is a shared aesthetic. Sir Joshua could compare the results of materials and techniques to the near-universal cannon and quickly determine its efficacy. Today, by contrast, glowing accounts about materials cannot be taken at face value but must be apprised against the background of artistic aims. What might work for one technique might be woefully unfit for another.

To complicate the picture further, while it’s true that more artists are interested in craft than when I was a student, the general level of interest is still very low. Indeed, most artists today have contempt for the entire topic (one thing that hasn’t changed since I was a kid). But we proud band of autodidacts don’t care a fig about that.

So experienced band members already know what I’m about to say, but for those of you poised at the doorway, here are the rules of the road:

  1. Accept nothing you read at face value. Prove it for yourself. It’s important to identify your artistic aims and filter everything through that prism; what might work for me, might not for you.
  2. Be suspicious of commercial products, especially painting mediums. Use only those that provide transparency about their materials and production methods. Remember that even if a product works as advertised, suppliers change (Le Franc) and fail (David Davis? Studio Products?).
  3. Keep track of your materials and techniques; build your own database. Results can be bogus if they are the product of unidentified factors. A failed medium might actually be the result of a poor ground and not the medium itself, to name just one possibility.

Much more could be added, but those three are the essentials from which the others that come to mind derive (keep things as simple as possible; make your own materials, etc., etc.).

(First in a series.)

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