What Any Artist Can Learn from Old Masters

Draming Salome, an oil painting by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet. A copy of a detail from Loretto da Brescia's old painting "Portrait of a Lady as Salome".

If you have followed me on Instagram or Facebook, you’ve already seen that I have had a special project in November. I have been painting a replica of an old painting and learning techniques that artists used already hundreds of years ago. These are called old master painting techniques. Famous old masters like Leonardo da Vinci and Johannes Vermeer used them when creating their masterpieces. My painting is a copy of detail from Moretto da Brescia‘s painting “Portrait of a Lady as Salome.” I call mine “Dreaming Salome” because I gave her a more dreamy look and different meaning. The portrait was painted in the course organized by The National Museum of Finland. The teacher of the course was Emmi Mustonen.

5 Tips You Can Learn from Old Masters

After painting my first oil painting, and the first one that uses these techniques, I feel that there is still a lot to learn. So I will be painting another one with these techniques during the spring. However, I have already found out a lot of things that can be used with any supplies, and I wanted to write a blog post about what you can take from my experience. These tips can be applied to any themes, even to abstract art. At the end of this post, there’s also a short video (watch it on YouTube) that shows more images from the process.

1) Don’t Get Discouraged in The Beginning!

A sketch and the finished painting using old masters techniques. By Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

My process of making the painting started with a charcoal sketch. While sketching, I felt I was just making a big mess. I pressed too hard, and the drawing wasn’t detailed enough. The image shows the sketch once it was cleaned with an eraser – just before the first layer of paint. If you compare it with the finished painting, there’s a huge difference between the two. The expression of the lady looked sad in the drawing, but she has a half-smile in the finished version. I understood that the facial features and characteristics are so subtle that it takes a long time to get them right.

When sketching, I hadn’t the persistence to finish her hair and shawl but still, I was able to make them quite detailed during the painting process. If I had made the original sketch without attending the course, I would have called it a failure and lost my hope of achieving something that would look like an old painting.

I often talk about raw ideas (see this blog post) and that applies to realistic art too. The first lines are just the beginning for understanding what the final work will be. When I was sketching, I only had a rough idea about how my lady should differ from the original version. But once I continued the painting process, my vision got clearer. So, stay curious about the insights that you will get during creating, and don’t get discouraged in the beginning!

2) Before Diving Deeper, Limit Your Supplies!

A detail of an underpainting when painting with old masters techniques. By Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

In my painting, the first layers were made with just two colors: burnt umber and zinc white. These first layers form a so-called underpainting that shows where the shadows and lighted areas are. It enforces the painter to look for contrasts, and on the other hand, it enables working with details without making color choices. The philosophy of underpainting can be applied to any media and style when it’s seen as a phase where you limit your supplies and add more content to the piece. When you go through every area in your work and make sure that it connects well with the next one, you will control the big picture through details. I find this much more enjoyable than trying to see everything at one glance all the time.

3) Slow Down to Maintain a Gentle Focus!

I was surprised by the positive feelings I went through while painting with old masters techniques. I thought that there would be a lot of demanding voices in my head, but the process surprised me. Even if I was stretched out from my comfort zone, I realized that there could be “a gentle focus,” where you put all your energy into work so that it improves your self-image too. I believe that this kind of new self-acceptance was based on two things.

First, I knew that it would take a long time to finish the painting. Six sessions in the classroom weren’t enough. I also had to do homework. Each of the layers had to dry before adding a new one, and drying took several daysThis slow pace felt old fashioned but good too. It made me think how much gentler we would be in general if weren’t so busy all the time. I also noticed how I became less worried about mistakes. When the progress is slow, mistakes start small, and it’s easier to correct them.

Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet learning from the old masters.

The second thing that helped me was that we were using a finger to remove the brush strokes. When I gently caressed the canvas with paint, it affected my whole thinking. It felt like the beauty created and seen by Moretto da Brescia caressed my brain.

4) Don’t Try to Make Your Middle Look Like the End

Before attending the course, I made one decision: I would do my best to follow the teacher’s advice. Because I was not familiar with the techniques, I didn’t know beforehand how the painting should look after each layer. When I teach art, I often see people worry over details that will look gorgeous once they just move on to the next steps. It’s human to compare your middle to the desired end. But if you can set your criteria according to each phase, it will lead to the better quality.

Phase photos of an oil painting using old master painting techniques. By Päivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

So, when laying the colors one by one, I tried to quench my worries about how yellow the dress looked or how red the fur was. When using old masters techniques, colors are not mixed on a palette. The pigments from the tubes are laid in thin layers as they are. So if you want green, you will start with yellow, let it dry for few days and then move on with blue. The transparent layers with soft edges result in a mixed color and a realistic look.

When painting these thin layers of color, I couldn’t help thinking that the skin was too uneven. But my teacher advised me to continue creating color differences to get the painting ready for “a white wash.” A thin layer of zinc white made the skin more even, and all the previous layers made sense. Try this approach of seeing layers and elements as building blocks to new ones!

5) Sharpen The Soft, Not Vice Versa!

I was often reminded to make every area and detail softer. Even most of the tiny spots were softened with a finger to make them more translucent and blurry without sharp edges. As a result of that, the painting looked blurry and untidy. But when finishing, sparingly added sharp lines and dots did the trick. It felt magical how suddenly the whole painting looked accurate. I learned that it’s very easy to sharpen the softness. Adding few strokes finished the fur. Adding a tiny sharp dot finished the eye. The nose didn’t need sharpening at all because I wanted to bring the eye to the mouth where I added a small white spot.

A detail of a painting made using old masters painting techniques. By Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

When you add softness, you will also make your work look more dimensional. Leonardo da Vinci has said:
“The beginnings and ends of shadow lie between the light and darkness and may be infinitely diminished and infinitely increased. Shadow is the means by which bodies display their form. The forms of bodies could not be understood in detail but for shadow.”

After painting my “Dreaming Salome,” I have become fascinated by watching the edges of items and how soft they are. I know that today’s world is sharp. We aim for sharp photos, clean graphic look and turn on the fluorescent lighting. The things we use are industrially made and as perfect as they have been designed on a computer. But try visiting Leonardo’s softer world! Light a candle and observe the lights and shadows. Let everything soft inspire you when you are creating art and reflect that softness towards yourself too!

Bonus: Make it Meaningful – Watch the Video!

My “Dreaming Salome” is now framed and she has a special place in our library room. I was so happy to be able to finish her before Christmas.

Dreaming Salome, an oil painting using old master painting techniques, finished and framed. By Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

This painting is my first exercise when learning from old masters, but it also has other symbolic meaning. I have made a short video showing the images from the class and how she was painted layer by layer. In the same time, I also explain what Dreaming Salome symbolizes to me.

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If you have followed my blog before, you know that painting a replica of an old painting is not what I usually do. But if we limit ourselves to learning only one style, one approach, one tool, it prevent’s our artistic growth and the full use of our imagination.

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