If you've just stumbled onto this blog, please forgive the appearance; it's still under construction. If I've used one of your photos (found on Google) in a lecture and you don't approve, please write a comment and I'll remove it.

The purpose of this blog is to explain the basics of art and culture to English language learners in secondary school in Slovakia. This is not for profit. If you look to your right, you'll see a long list of topics that I plan to cover. This is a large project that will most likely take years to complete, covering some topics I know little about (like dance), so I will be borrowing heavily from other experts, with their permission, giving credit wherever possible. Please be patient, and, of course, all advice is greatly appreciated.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Art Materials of the Renaissance


One of the big questions in renaissance painting was, which is more important, draughtsmanship (drawing) or colour? Florentine artists stressed draughtsmanship, and Venetians favoured colour. Why? Well, Florentines favoured fresco paintings in their churches and palaces. With fresco, the paint dries so quickly that the drawing must be planned in detail before hand. Then, it's quickly painted in sections, one or two colours at a time.

Venetians gave up on frescoes because their wet, humid weather ruined them quickly. The Venetians turned to oil paint, which is more resilient (odolný) to humidity. Oil paint also has other advantages. If you look at Giovanni Bellini's portrait of Mary & Child, you'll see that the colours glow because of glazing. Glazing has different meanings, depending on what kind of art your making. In painting, glazing is when you create many thin layers of transparent (priehľadný) colour. The effect is often glossy (lesklý), like glass, and is perfect for blending (miešanie). With oil paint, some colours are transparent and some are opaque (nepriehľadný), so you have a choice when to glaze and when to completely cover what's underneath. This wasn't possible with fresco or egg tempera paints, which are all opaque.

Oil paints also dry slowly, over a course of hours or even days, giving artists the freedom to work slowly, in a relaxed way, and to change the composition as they work. Fresco and egg tempera are both fast drying, and prone to cracking (praskanie). For these reasons oil became popular throughout Europe, soon being the standard paint in all great academic works, all the way up to the modern era. 

Marble (Mramor)

The methods we use today in marble carving are the same as they were thousands of years ago. The process is:

  1. Roughing (hrubé opracovanie)
  2. Modelling
  3. Refining the Stone
  4. Finishing the Surface
First, to rough out your sculpture, draw where you're going to cut with charcoal. You start with a point chisel (rovné dláto), which bursts the stone away quickly.

You model with a tooth chisel, (zubaté dláto) which looks like a comb. It models form with greater delicacy than the point chisel, while still removing stone quickly. There are different sizes for smaller details.

You can refine form with special spinning tools that carve in crevices (pukliny) that a chisel can't reach. You finish the surface with rasps (rašpľa), brushes, and files (pilníky), that polish surfaces to a high gloss.


Bronze sculpture was first developed in ancient Mesopotamia. The Greeks get the credit for scaling up the process to life-size human figures. It's a complicated process involving techniques that were lost in the west and relearned during the renaissance. I think the first Italian artist to make a life-size bronze sculpture was Arnolfo di Cambio (1240-1310), with his seated St. Peter, made for St. Peter's Cathedral in the Vatican. But Donatello (1386-1466) made the first free-standing, life size nude in bronze, his statue of David, now on display in Florence.

Bronze sculptures are cast, following the lost wax technique. The process can be direct or indirect. In each case, the sculpture is hollow, to save on bronze, an expensive material. Direct casting consists of four steps:

1. Modelling
2. Casting
3. Chasing
4. Finishing

The sculpture begins as a wax model, usually beeswax. It typically has an iron wire (drôtený) frame, called an armature (armatúra) that gives the sculpture strength. Modelling is simply the process of adding wet clay and/or wax to this armature to build and sculpt a figure. If the work uses clay, it's only for the core (jadro) of the work, and wax is modelled on top of it. The hands don't need a core. Once the wax is carefully sculpted, the figure looks like a finished sculpture - but it isn't.

The next stage is to prepare it for casting. Iron core pins and wax sprues (vtokový kanál) are inserted at important points in the sculpture. The core pins hold the clay core in place after the wax melts away. The wax sprues lead up to a wax pouring cup. All these sprues will melt along with the rest of the wax, creating channels for the bronze to flow through later in the process. Some of the sprues form vents that will allow hot air to escape.

A layer of clay, called an investment (forma), is painted over the wax, and will serve as a mould (forma). The investment is then turned upside down and heated to melt all the wax, which then pores out. One curious fact about the process is that the sprues are all pointing up at this stage, so that the wax must somehow flow up before flowing out.

Now that the wax is out, the investment is turned right-side up and buried in sand, to protect workers in case it explodes during the next stage - which is to pour in molten bronze. This happens in a workshop called a foundry. People who work there are called founders. The bronze is placed in a crucible (topiaca nádoba), a kind of bowl, and melted in a furnace (pec), at about 2000 ºF (1093 ºC). Impurities called slag (kal) is scraped off the top of the molten bronze and thrown away. The crucible is then taken out of the furnace and poured gently into the investment.

After the investment cools and the bronze hardens, the investment is broken down with hammers to reveal the sculpture inside. All the sprues are now bronze and have to be chiselled away (osekaný dlátom) in a process called chasing (tepanie). The core pins are also removed with pliars (kombinačky). All the soot (sadza) of the sculpture must be rubbed away. Imperfections must be fixed, and any holes from the sprues must be plugged (zazátkovaný) with bronze. Details are refined with a variety of tools. The sculpture is then polished (vyleštené) to a shine, and finished with a patina to protect the surface. There are many kinds of patinas, using materials such as acid, lacquer (lak), or wax, that can change the colour and lustre (lesk) of the work. Long exposure to outdoor weather can ruin a patina.

With indirect casting, the wax model is cut into pieces and cast separately in plaster. The moulds are then filled again with melted wax, which coats the surface of the mould, creating a hollow version of the piece. These hollow wax pieces are joined back together creating a hollow wax figure. This hollow figure is then filled with "core material" a mixture of sand, clay, and plaster. Iron pins are inserted before this core solidifies to help hold it in place. Solid wax sprues are attached, and the sculpture is encased in an investment, just like with direct casting. The rest of the process follows identically to direct casting. The advantage of indirect casting is that you still have those plaster moulds, which are reusable, so you can make hundreds of copies of your work.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Art Materials of the Middle Ages

Illuminated Books 

Parchment - a kind of paper made from animal skin. soaked in lime water, to loosen hair. then soaked in fresh water and tightened on a frame. It was scraped thin over several days, and continually tightened. Parchment lasts much longer than paper, for thousands of years, although it is vulnerable to humidity. It was roughened with pumice powder and dusted with a sticky powder to help ink stick to it. You can erase marks by scratching. Parchment pages were folded and nested into "gatherings" of 16-20 pages. These gatherings were bound together with linen thread on leather thong supports. Thongs were held with nails or wood, and the covers were made of wood wrapped in leather. Clasps held the book closed to limit the damage caused by humidity.

Quills - pens from the feathers of a bird. They were washed, dried, and hardened with hot sand, then cut to a fine point. Scribes used quills to copy text into these books.

Ink - from gallnuts, or carbon (for lamp black).

Gold Leaf (zlatolist) & Paint - done by an illuminator. Illuminated pages were prepared with gesso (gypsum: sadra) or gum, The moisture in his breath was enough to glue the gold leaf to the page. The leaf was burnished (leštený) and then the design was painted on top. Gold leaf comes in pieces that were four fingers' width.

Gold-Ground Panel Painting

Poplar Tree Planks - these were glued together to make a frame, done by a carpenter. It was carved and attached to a frame. Then coated with glue because the bare wood is too absorbent (absorbujúci). The panel was then covered in..

Linen (bielizeň) - which was soaked in warm glue and stretched over the panel.

Gesso - was painted and sanded for a perfectly smooth surface. Gesso had to be perfectly prepared or there would be cracks or air bubbles. Charcoal powder and steel scrapers help smooth the surface.

Charcoal - was also used to sketch a design. Mistakes were erased with a feather. The under-drawing was traced out with ink. Outlines were then incised with a needle before gold leaf was added.

Bole - a red clay painted onto the linen, wherever the gold leaf would be placed, to make the gold colour warm and more attractive. Gold Leaf is so thin it's transparent, and can look greenish over a white linen.

Gold Leaf - is placed over moistened bole, and then burnished with a dog's tooth. Once burnished, the surface was tooled with stamps, a compass, and needles, creating punch-mark patterns and stippling. Mordent gilding was when gold leaf was placed directly over oil or garlic juice.

Egg Tempera Paint - was used on top of the gilding to paint the picture. Different coloured eggs were used for different colours.