‘The Secret of the Old Masters’

ImageIn his book, ‘The Secret of the Old Masters’, Albert Abendschein shares the fruits of his twenty-five year search for the secrets of the Masters’ technique. A search that turned into ‘an all-absorbing life work to the exclusion of all else.’ Unlike many who have fallen by the wayside, Abendschein comes up with some novel ideas as to why Old Masters were able to achieve permanence and delicacy in their works. Everything from pigments, binders, varnish and technique is explored, with old theories debunked and new ones forged. Although many interesting points are made throughout the book, I will discuss the culmination of the work, the revelation of the ‘true medium or vehicle’ in this particular post. I strongly urge you to read the book in full if you are interested in technical art history and the creative process — it remains a staple on my bookshelf. However, if you are interested in a quick explanation of what Abendschein believes to be the secret, then read on! 

Abendschein starts chapter 10 by discussing the naivety with which artists go about creating their works, where ‘each seek[s] the easiest and quickest method possible to attain the results in view’. Artists no longer worry about the longevity and durability of their works; focus has shifted to the here and now, where time and costs govern the process used. My father had always told me that the preparation for a painting or work of art is even more important than the ability to create it. I agree to an extent, although I must confess, I often took shortcuts myself. Shortcuts that in the long run would do more harm than good. Abendschein goes on to use a quote from a chemist:

“Artists were phenomenally ignorant of their own materials, but did not lack confidence”

Artists no longer invest time into learning about their materials — everything is taken for granted. They jump from pigment to pigment without a thought for the possible incompatibility of materials, but how should they know? Technical art history is reserved for post-graduate level study and the art education system no longer supports traditional practitioners. This book however, is a fantastic tool in becoming acquainted with the subject.

The secret, as Abendschein concludes, is the slow burning out and drying of oil by direct exposure to sunlight.

‘As long as there is any soft or fluid oil left underneath the surface it is liable to darken, and this cumbersome drudgery is necessary from the beginning of the oil ground throughout the various stages of the painting to the final varnish. Many an artist has been aware of the necessity of the drying in the ordinary sense of each layer of paint, but they did not realize the very great importance and necessity of bringing about the fixed bleached state, i. e., the necessity of quickly changing the character of the oil under the outer film. This soft, subfilm oil is the chief factor of the discolourations.’

Once the painting is varnished, the paint can no longer ‘breathe’ or evaporate, so discolouration is inevitable.

‘The sunlight at one blow destroys the excess of oil that causes the yellowing, browning, and blackening, and also exposes or destroys the dishonest, the unstable, and the weak color. Good honest colors become more brilliant and beautiful.’

This all sounds great, but where’s the proof that the Old Masters had placed their paintings out in direct sunlight to ‘burn out’. Well Abendschein provides by using letters from both Titian and Rubens.

Titian, Venice, 31st July, 1568, and was addressed to the Deputies of Brescia:

‘But the paintings are somewhat troublesome to handle, if one wishes to apply varnish on certain places, which, without placing it in the sun cannot dry’.

Titian here mentions that it is important for a painting to be placed in the sun for varnish to dry. If varnish needed to be dried in this manner it is quite likely oil was dried the same way.

Giorgio Vasari, addressed to Benedetto Varchi, Florence, 12th February, 1547. Talking about Titian’s painting:

‘As happened, for instance, with the portrait of Pope Paul III, which was placed on a balcony in the sun to dry, and many persons in passing, who saw it, thought it was the Pope himself, and made their obeisance.‘

The sun once again, seems to play an important role. And now for Rubens, who I feel offers the best support for sunlight being used as part of the painting process:

Rubens, addressed to Justus Sustermans, Antwerp, 12th March, 1638:

‘I am afraid, that if that newly painted picture remains rolled and packed up such a long time, that the colors may have deteriorated and particularly the carnations and the white lead have darkened a little. As however your highness is yourself so great in our art, you will easily remedy that by exposing the picture to the sun in certain inclosed places; and should it be necessary, your highness could, with my consent, lay hand thereon, and there, where accident or my neglect makes it necessary, retouch it’.

Rubens, addressed to Nicolas Claude Fabri de Pieresc, London, 9th August, 1629:

‘If I knew that my portrait was still in Antwerp, I would have it detained there, to have the box opened, to see if it has not been injured, or become darkened, as happens often to fresh colors, if they are, as is here the case, so long locked in a box, and not in contact with the air. It may be then that my portrait does not now look as it did originally. Should it really reach you in such a bad condition, the best remedy for that would be to put it often in the sun; by this means the excess of oil, which causes such changes, is destroyed; and if from time to time it should again get dark, setting it in the sun’s rays must be renewed. This is the only remedy against this heart disease’.

The overall durability of a painting is an important concern to address for any painter wanting to leave more than just a mark on society. It’s a shame this little treasure of a book is hidden away, because perhaps it could change things for the better. I however remain skeptical, because even if ‘the fierce white light and heat of the sun is the magician’, people don’t have time to place their paintings to bathe in the rays of the sun anymore — our society driven by commercialism simply doesn’t permit it.
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