I can remember sitting in an art history class in college, studying the Old Masters, and feeling certain that I could never paint like that. The subtext being that if I can’t make paintings that will make it into the art history books, there is no point in trying.
At the time, I was well into a science major but wanting to take more art classes. I used the Old Masters as my excuse for not following my heart.
It would have been helpful at the time if someone had told me how the Old Masters painted like that. It seemed like such a mystery; so unbelievable that anyone could paint that well. And they did paint that well, but they also had some help.
I doubt I would have changed my major, but it may have encouraged me to paint.
This is all wishful thinking of course, because no one knew how the Old Masters painted like that — until artist, David Hockney decided to figure it out in the 2000s.
His book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, is fascinating reading for artists and art lovers. The premise is that as early as the 1400s,
“. . . many Western artists used optics —by which I mean mirrors and lenses (or a combination of the two) — to create living projections. Some artists used these projected images directly to produce drawings and paintings, and before long this new way of depicting the world — this new way of seeing — had become widespread.”
Hockney tells a lively tale as he walks the reader through all the scientific and artistic evidence that led him to his conclusions.
“It is worth repeating here, I think, that optics don’t make marks — they only produce an image, a look, a means of measurement. The artist is still responsible for the conception, and it requires great skill to overcome the technical problems and to be able to render that image in paint. However, the moment you realize that optics had a deep influence on painting, and were used by artists, you begin to look at paintings in a new way.”
The most interesting art history book I’ve ever read.