Sunday, July 22, 2012

Learning from the Best

What do you see when you look at this picture?

Clearly, it's a painting, or at least part of one. What does it have to do with miniatures you ask? Read on to find out.

In point of fact, it is part of a 17th century still life by the Dutch painter, Willem Kalf, on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. I spent some time there during my recent July vacation, and learned more about the 'how' of painting that I have ever gotten out of an art museum before.

I can only assume that what I am about to describe is obvious to anybody who has ever studied art, either professionally or casually, but I was a Computer Science major in college, and never had any training in the fine arts to speak of. Learning painting techniques, like NMM and object-source lighting has changed the way I look at pictures.
As an example, this is Willem Van Aelst's "Still Life with Fish, Bread and Nautilus Cup", painted in 1678.
 A finer work of art than any I hope to produce, to be sure. Even so, in past years, I'm not sure I would have spent much time observing it, but, on this visit, spent some time studying the way Van Aelst arranged the colors to produce a believable luster on the nautilus shell, and the way the light reflects off of the faceted knife handle sticking out to the right of the piled items. I even took this detail photo of the handle for later reference:
The places where Van Aelst placed his highlights and the way he colored each facet to reflect how light played on the real object is very instructive to the fledgling miniature hobbyist. Imagine trying to paint a faceted gem. Even though a miniature is three dimensional, the challenges for placing light are much the same as those faced by Van Aelst. Using only paint, you must create the illusion of light reflecting off of a complex surface.

Kalf's "Still Life with Armor" is just as instructive. The sword hilt pictured above is a part of that painting. Kalf's placement of flat browns, yellows and other colors produces a very convincing metallic effect on the blade. The technique he used is much the same as a miniature painter's non-metallic metal technique.  Here's another sample from the same painting:

The armor looks highly polished and reflective, in spite of being done entirely with oil on canvas. As has I have mentioned in the past, a lot of that effect comes from the extreme contrast between dark and light on the metal surface, and the sharp, bright highlight shining towards the viewer. I wish my technique was one tenth so good.

By studying how the masters applied such techniques, I very much hope to improve my own. It certainly can't hurt!

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