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Video transcript
(piano playing) Narrator: I think sometimes when we're talking about our history, we forget that the people who are making this are really artists. So, it's really important to have a sense of what this material feels like and why people used it. What we have up on the screen is a [sezicaria] altarpiece painting by Giovanni Boldini who is known for this vivid color and very complex, sort of atmospheres, glorious luminosity in his paintings. In fact, he used oil paint in a really interesting way. Oil paint has a kind of translucency and he really used that to advantage, but in a way that modern painters don't generally. Female: Can you explain what that means? Translucency? Narrator: What is oil paint? Isaac, when you paint, you don't go and grind your minerals and add linseed oil to it, do you? Isaac: No, not at all. But that's what they would have done in the time of Boldini. Narrator: How does he get this kind of jewel like color? That's something that we might have expected to see in northern painting in the 15th century. Isaac: Well, it comes from northern painting. Oil paint have different consistencies depending on what varnish you use with them. If you use damar resin with them. Damar resin is just a natural tree sap. It looks just like amber. It's like a jewel and what you do is dissolve this into turpentine and then mix it with the oil paint in order to make these transparent glass-like, they're just panes of paint. They're almost like stained glass layers of translucent paint. Narrator: So, when the light hits this, the light is not hitting just the top surface of the canvas and the paint on the canvas. It's not sort of an opaque layer. What you're saying is that light is actually entering in, almost like a prism. Isaac: The light can enter through all of them and go to the white surface before it reflects back. So, they seem to glow from the inside. Narrator: So, that really is like a gem. That's really what happens when you look at a diamond. Light is entering. It's bouncing around inside before it finally comes back out again. Isaac: Yeah. Female: So, I think a lot of people have this idea of oil paint as being kind of a thick and gooey substance, but the way that you're talking about it with Renaissance artists applying thin glazes of color and many layers of that, it's a very, very different idea of oil paint application. It's not thick gooey-ness, but a rather thin layers of it. Is that right? Narrator: That makes sense to me. And so that means that when Boldini was painting this, he must have been painting ... Let's, for instance, if you look at that brilliant blue of the Virgin Mary's dress, it wouldn't have been that blue on his brush. It would have been that blue very, very thinned out. Female: Does anyone know how many layers they applied? Narrator: Well, I've heard in the dozens. Female: Really? Narrator: Yeah. Female: The paint had to dry in between each layer completely, right? Narrator: Right. Isaac: But what damar does, is damar speeds up the drying a little bit. Female: Oh. So, how long would it take a layer to dry normally? Narrator: Well, it depends on how much ... Female: Humidity is in the air? Narrator: And how much oil there is. I mean, there are those stories of very heavily built up canvases by Van Gogh. You have a skin that is dry, but inside there's probably still some viscosity. Female: Uh-huh. Narrator: So, this luminosity, this brilliance of color is a really important characteristic of oil paint, but there's another important characteristic of oil paint which really differentiates it from tempera before it, which is that if you're not using the damar that the oil would have this really sort of wonderful liquid quality and it allows for the paint to come off the brush in a very long stroke and it allows for the paint to be mixed on the canvas as opposed to just on the palette. This is Turner's Rain Steam Speed, The Great Western Railway. Female: So, you think Turner is actually mixing the paints on the canvas? Narrator: Oh, that's a tough one. I don't know exactly. Isaac: I think so. Yeah. I would build on what you said about oils. This tempera is relatively flat, as is acrylic and, sort of, the best tempera I think of is Botticelli's work where it's very linear and all the colors form these flat, kind of, interlaced lines. Female: Like hatching? Where it's like you're hatching. Isaac: Yeah, like hatching. The basic unit of the painting is line, but in oils the basic unit is surface or atmosphere. It becomes infinitely more complex. One color can penetrate another and just by working with two colors you can get an infinite array of colors. My position, I guess, on Turner, knowing the repetidy of his pace is that with this painting, yeah, he probably let the colors be alive and mix them on top of each other and allow them to penetrate each other and emerge and sink down beneath one another. Narrator: That sounds so much more as if the process of painting exists in this direct confrontation of the artist and the canvas as opposed to something that's much more premeditated, much more sort of worked out and more completely preconceived. What I'm thinking about is here we have a much more modest canvas and I'm wondering ... Isaac: Right. Narrator: ... how much of a role media played ... Female: Yes. Narrator: ... in the development of modernism as an aesthetic. In this canvas we have this ... We have a painting that was criticized. A perfect exemplar of modernity ripping through what have been a pastoral landscape. Female: So, what comes first though? There's a kind of individualist part of the, kind of, romantic sensibility at this birth of modernism, but it does fit so perfectly with the medium of oil paint and oil paint fits well in other ways with modernism, right? It's something that can go on wooden panels or on canvas. It can be bought and sold and moved around and treated as private property. There's so many things about oil paint that allow for this development of modernism in a way. Narrator: It's true. Even the heroism of paint, and that's something I think is worth touching on. The idea of this extraordinary, sort of, expressive brush stroke. Female: Right. Narrator: I'm thinking about the work of Velasquez. There's a kind of heroism in there that I think becomes very much rooted in this notion of the individual. Female: And it's kind of virtuosity ... Narrator: Absolutely. Female: ... that one can show off with the brush. Isaac: You know, oil paint is the most historical medium. It's the medium of modernity and I've never found myself able to use, what for some reason, the bias in my mind from my education considered weaker media. My latest thing is to paint with water colors. Female: The weakest medium? Isaac: Yeah. The associations of being feminine and delicate. Female: Yeah, women painted in water color. Isaac: Yeah. Female: As amateurs, so I can't take it as something that serious artists do. Isaac: Yeah, but now I'm kind of interested in those issues. Like, why are the materials so gender-ed? Narrator: Material is really sort of critical. It doesn't only allow us to create a work of art, but it absolutely informs what that work of art means. (piano playing)