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The Venetian Painting Technique of the Italian Renaissance

Flora by Titian, Venetian painting technique

Titian (Tiziano Vecellio)
c.1515-1520. Oil on canvas. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

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The Venetian painting technique of artists like Titian and Giorgione during the Italian Renaissance was derived from the painting technique of Northern Renaissance artists. Strongly influencing Venetian artists were the oil painting techniques developed by the Van Eyck brothers, Flemish painters working around 1400. The Van Eyck's painting technique combined the use of egg tempera and oil painting. The underpainting was done in a grisaille technique of tempera, with pure colored oil glazes applied on top. This combination painting technique worked well for their small panel paintings, producing the luminous, jewel-like tones for which they are so famous.

Before the Van Eyck's hit upon their combination oil-tempera painting technique, various experiments in painting techniques were tried with varying degrees of success. The tempera painting technique alone left a flat, dull finish, and it was difficult to model as it dried rapidly with its egg binding agent. Successful modeling was a laborious process. Artists used wood background panels which limited the size of the composition. Venetian artists by Titian's time had perfected the oil painting technique, but it was Titian who realized that canvas was better suited to the Venetian painting technique producing larger compositions.

In the Venetian painting technique, artists prepared the canvas with a glue-gypsum mixture, providing a pure white ground similar to gesso used today, a technique we call "priming". Next, the Venetian artist applied a medium value tone, usually brownish in color, to the entire surfaces, then began to apply an opaque underpainting in glazes of white for the highlights and darker values to define the shadows, creating a monochromatic image of his chosen subject.

After the underpainting was dry, the Venetian artist began to further "flesh out" his forms, painting with transparent glazes of boldly applied color. To finish, the artists of the Venetian painting technique applied many subtle glazes of pure color and more white to further model his figures until he was satisfied with the end result. The Venetian painting technique has mostly been abandoned by modern artists who prefer a more direct, immediate result.

Brenda Harness, Art Historian

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