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Video transcript

David I wanted to ask you about materials and I guess what we were going to focus on now was tempera painting which was very popular at the very beginning of the Renaissance period in the early part of the Renaissance up until the almost the end of the 1400s all Italian painters who are making portable paintings rather than ones painted directly on the wall used tempera paint on wood panels when we think of painting we think of oil and canvas those materials weren't really used widely until almost 1500 these kinds of tempera paintings like the one that we're looking at here would be for many different kinds of purposes they could be altar pieces they could be paintings in private settings they could be portraits like this one before we even get to the painting let's talk about what the surface was what did what did the artist actually paint on well all these paintings were on a wood panel like I said and the wood in Italy was always poplar wood and they didn't paint on just a single plank of wood because over time it would work very easily and very quickly so what artists did and usually they would actually have someone in the workshop do this is attach vertical planks of wood together and then attach them together across the back with cross beams that makes sense because in museums sometimes actually you can actually see a little bit of a crack right along the seam of those planks exactly those planks could also warp but they wouldn't work nearly as much as one single very very wide plank and those of course would be sanded down and smoothed out and they would carefully choose pieces of wood that didn't have large knots or other kinds of defects so these are this was really a kind of craftsmanship that went into this it was really like cabinet making it would exactly would the artist then paint directly on top of the wood no they couldn't do that partly because of the small imperfections like the grain of wood and the knots but also the main problem is that the wood is absorbent and so if they painted directly on the surface of the wood the paint the pigment would be absorbed like a sponge and you would really see the wood almost more than the paint itself so did they put something sort of as a barrier in between that's right they had to prepare the surface of the wood to make it completely smooth and completely non absorbent and for this they used something called gesso which is like a liquid plaster that artists still use today so that must have been a lot cheaper than the paint itself the paint was pretty expensive wasn't it paint was relatively expensive partly because of the process of making the paint that you were going to use the gesso was inexpensive and it was a preparatory stage that enabled them to paint on the wood panel now what color was that was the gesso the gesso is essentially white or off-white okay so then they've got this lovely very smooth white surface and then the artist is going to go ahead and paint now what they actually do a drawing underneath they would sometimes do drawing underneath with chalk or something like crayon or pencil let's talk a little bit about what kind of materials they used in their paint what does paint actually made out of temper paint well tempera paint is an egg-based paint and essentially the way it would work is that the artist or again more likely someone in their workshop would grind out the pigment and the pigment would come from minerals or plants or sometimes even insects and they would grind that up until it was a powder so we're talking about a mortar and pestle here or something like we're talking about really taking a rock and grinding it's a very physical kind of process it's a very physical process they're grinding something up into a paste and a powder and we might add at this point that this is exactly the reason why in the Middle Ages and in the early Renaissance painters were in the same guild as pharmacists because they both ground things up and mix them together there were these things all local to Italy not everything the things that we're local were the least expensive things and the things that needed to be imported from a distance were of course the most expensive things and the most expensive thing of all was ultramarine blue which was created by grinding up lapis lazuli the reason why it's even called ultramarine blue is that it comes from very far away from a quarry that is in modern-day Afghanistan in an Italian it was called old clay Modena meaning from over the seas and that's why it has the name when we use it for today you know you go into an art supply store now and paints actually cost different amounts if you're getting a real paint not synthetic dyes and so I guess that's really just this a reason would that just cause an artist to use less of the more expensive colors or where their purposes for using more expensive colors at times since people recognize that certain colors were more visually dazzling or more expensive to make those colors would only be used for the most important parts of the painting partly for economic reasons but also for symbolic ones and so for instance that culture marine blue that very rich deep almost purpley blue was only reserved for the most important figures or the most important parts of the painting usually in a religious painting for the dress of the Virgin Mary let's take a look at this painting for instance what kinds of materials are being used here well this painting by Filippo Lippi is a tempera painting on wood panel and panel is created in the way we discussed we should add that once they have their pigments ground up they mixed it together with egg yolk and that actually created the paint itself well that's very unexpected egg yolk I mean of all the things to choose why why the world would we choose egg yolk well it had a good consistency and it was very very strong and it would adhere very nicely to the gesso prepared wood panel and so if it was prepared correctly and then maintained well it would actually last a very long time the colors wouldn't change was very stable we need to understand that it also had certain physical properties that led to it being used in a very particular way for instance egg tempera paint is not transparent and it also dries very quickly and it's very hard to blend on the surface of painting so if you want to have shading and transition from light to dark or from one color to another you can't place one color down then put the next color next to it and try to mix them together because by the time you're putting your second color down the first one is already drying and they wouldn't mix together very well they're probably dry it on the brush actually it does people have to work quickly and had to develop special techniques in order to achieve the effects that they wanted to get unlike oil painting as we know it this is almost like drawing innocence in a way it is more like drawing and they needed to be able to get very fine details to achieve the kinds of shading and colors that they needed to get and we should add but sometimes they use brushes that only had one hair in them because they could achieve this kind of detail with tempera since I mentioned before that it was very difficult to blend from light into shadow or from one color into another what artist did was they would lay one color down and then they would place very very thin fine lines of another color on top of that if those thin fine lines were very close together you would see mostly the color on top but if the artist started to make them even thinner and thinner and spread them out more and more then you would see more of the condylar underneath shining through from a distance here and you can see those lines it just looks like a nice even gradation from one tone to another but when you look closely you can see that hatching and you can see the way that the artists achieve that effect here you can really see it on the chest of the young woman where it goes from a bright highlight on the left into the darker red on the right if you look closely if you zoom in or see this painting in person you can see the actual lines and how their white lines are thick and close together on the left and then slowly get thinner and thinner and spaced out before you get to the right we wanted to talk about gold because tempered was not the only material that was used in these early Renaissance paintings I think here's a good example what are we looking at this is a painting of Saint Andrew by Simone a martini that's at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and this is a really great example to talk about how gold was used frequently up until the early Renaissance specifically or most widely in religious images to give them a kind of otherworldly quality to make them seem more spectacular and spiritual so this is real gold this is real gold in the background the figure is painted with egg tempera in the manner that we discussed before so if you look carefully you can see the hatching technique that we talked about but in the background we see gold and that is in fact real gold it's gold leaf and the way that someone in the artist workshop would prepare that is by pounding gold very very very thin and because gold is really malleable that's really elastic is it's very very soft it's very elastic and it can be pounded into extremely fine thin practically transparent sheets of gold and that's exactly what they did they prepared lots of small squares of this thin gold leaf in preparation for putting it on the painting so what you're telling me is if I scrape the gold off of this I wouldn't really end up with that much gold probably not there's not very much there it's very very thin which is important for a reason that will come to but they couldn't just stick the gold onto the painting and expect it to stay there they had to prepare the surface of the painting much in the same way that they use gesso to prepare the painting for the tempera in this case they used a very sticky red clay to attach the gold to the surface of the painting this actually served a couple of purposes one thing is that like I said it was sticky and so it helped the gold stay where I was supposed to go but the other thing is that was important it was red because the gold is pounded so thin it's essentially a little bit transparent and the clay underneath helps give the gold a very very warm glowing tone rather than a colder yellow that it would otherwise have I can actually see that especially on the left side of the painting that's exactly why this is a great example to use to talk about gold leaf because you can see the red clay coming through a little bit since the painting is about 700 years old and the surface has degraded a little you can see the red clay and a much more visible way than you would've originally and you can also see the individual squares the individual leaves that they used where they overlap it's a little bit thicker and it makes a grid where you can see how these were laid down on the surface now gold survives pretty well why would this degrade was it cleaned did somebody it could be from over cleaning probably so somebody actually does is takes a rag and actually rubs it you would not believe the way that paintings have been cleaned in the past several hundred years and actually that makes sense because in a church you know soot would build up sure there were no electric lights of course exactly in fact that's an important reason to think about why they used gold because the churches and these small chapels that these kinds of paintings were displayed in were of course not Lautrec electrical lights but were primarily lit by candle light burning in front of these objects and so that gold especially with the red clay behind it would create an incredibly reflective glowing surface that really contributed again to the otherworldly quality of the represented subject well it must have been beautiful because you have the flickering flames actually and it would sort of dance against exactly it had a much more vibrant flickering almost vital quality than what we see in a museum where something is lit with a steady spot but I want to pick up on what you said a moment ago because you said that there was an otherworldly quality so the gold actually has a real symbolic value here sure exactly likely blue that we were talking about before obviously only the most important paintings and subjects would have gold in the background and it does contribute a symbolic quality that comes in part from its economic value so now I understand eventually pieces of gold leaf were applied and I see the scenes that you mentioned and that's really great but I also see that there's there's a lot of detail in the gold and maybe even some words can you speak a little bit about that sure if you zoom in on the head you can see that the halo around the figure is actually in the gold and the way that artists did that in this by tooling they use different kinds of tools to punch and rub and pound into the goal to give it a three-dimensional textural surface and again if you think of this in front of candles the light flickering from the candles when it hit that textured surface would shine even more brightly and more vibrantly than the flat gold around the rest of the paintings it's just gorgeous and ended it does do something really interesting which is that it makes Andrew really feel like he's not in our world that he's really in a kind of different in a kind of spiritual space exactly and that was largely the point of religious paintings up until the early 1400s