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Painting Then and Now
Being an artist is not easy. It never has been. But, being one today, if not easy, certainly is nowhere near as difficult as it was five or six hundred years ago. But then, I suppose that's true of all of today's older professions. Times have changed, and with them, nearly everything about being or becoming an artist. Today, we sometimes shake our heads in wonder and dismay at the extremes in specialisation that have crept into the artist's profession. Virtually everything an artist might be able to do can be "farmed out" to a specialist, including the actual creation of the work itself. At its most primal level, we think of an artist as an "idea person." But, from the moment of conception, the idea may, in extreme cases, pass through the hands and heads of dozens, even hundreds of art technicians, production workers, and marketing specialists before it reaches the purchaser. Even the idea itself might not be the brainchild of a single individual but the work of a team of conceptualists, as in the case of the typical Disney animated film.

An artist before the Renaissance had none of these specialists to depend upon. In the first place, a young man (or in very rare cases, a young woman) had to really want to become an artist just to get a foot in the door. There was no such thing as an amateur artist. As a bare prerequisite, the would-be artist had to have developed, on his own, great eye-hand co-ordination, have been blessed with exceptional intelligence, and exhibited a willingness to withstand many long hours of difficult, menial labour (a work ethic that would probably eliminate 90% of all artists today). There were no art academies to attend. A provincial lad of twelve or thirteen would have to travel to a major city and there practically sell himself into slavery for a period of no less than four years (often twice that) just to master his trade.

As an apprentice to a master artist or engraver, he would start his art training by learning to clean out the stables and sweep the studio floor each night. For this he would be afforded a meagre room over the stables (which he would share with perhaps a dozen others like himself), leftovers from the master's table as sustenance, and perhaps a couple hours a day of drawing classes under the tutelage of the master's chief assistant. As the years passed, he would move up to learning all of the menial, but skilled, tasks associated with the production of great art. He might begin by learning to cut oak or poplar boards for gluing and planing into panels, then preparing and applying layers of chalk or plaster mixed with rabbit skin glue to form a smooth surface upon which the master might paint.

The would-be artist would learn by doing, by digging up and grinding down the earthen or iron oxide pigments, or the burning of peach pits to obtain black. Having mastered that, he might be allowed to prepare the more precious minerals such as cinnabar to make orange-red vermilion, or malachite for use as green pigments or, rarest of all, lapis lazuli, imported from what is now Afghanistan, for use in making ultramarine, a pigment then even more costly than gold. Or, he might find himself grinding smalt (a powdered blue glass), azurite, or copper ore for cheaper, but less intense, blue pigments. Today we think of the cost of paint and other materials as almost incidental to the price of a work of art. During the fourteenth and fifteenth century, art commission contracts often specified in great detail the colours, especially the amounts of blue and gold, to be used in the work.

Even the tools such as paintbrushes, which we often take for granted, could be purchased from brush makers only in major art centres such as Florence, Rome, or Venice. Otherwise, the artist, or his apprentices, would have to fashion them from the tail hair of the ermine, gluing them into a cut quill, which was then fastened to the pointed end of a wooden handle. Many tools we take for granted today, such as a common graphite pencil or eraser, simply didn't exist at the time. One used charcoal in one form or another, or perhaps a soft, silver stylus (silverpoint). Although the paper an artist or his apprentices might use was seldom made "in house," it was nonetheless quite costly and not to be wasted on either side. Yet paper was indispensable in the preparation of preliminary drawings, which were, in turn, indispensable in avoiding costly mistakes on painstakingly prepared panels or newly plastered walls.

Today, when we visualise an artist, we picture a solitary individual working alone, often in a single room of his or her home. Before the Renaissance, and even for hundreds of years after that, master artists almost never worked alone, nor did they do work on speculation, hoping it might sell, as artists do today. It was too costly. Moreover, in that there were no art galleries or even museums at the time, the artist was also a gallery owner and salesman as well. In fact, by the time an artist reached the top of his profession, he might do little actual painting himself, his time consumed in chasing commissions, preparing preliminary drawings and proposals, supervising assistants or, on rare occasions, training apprentices. I started by citing the corporate nature of today's large-scale multimedia productions. Ironically, Medieval artists and their workshops of apprentices and assistants in training were, in a sense, a combination art school/production company not all that different from Disney or Jeff Koons. Although today such enterprises are not specifically in the business of training artists, their employees do learn from their supervisors and more experienced co-workers. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
29 September 2001

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