Sunday, March 13, 2011

Painting fine detail: Lessons from Caravaggio

Amor Vincit Omnia, by Caravaggio

I've spoken before about one of my golden rules: Never get out the small brush until you're done with the big one!

Knowing when to whip out the #0000 brush and concentrate on details is an all important lesson we can learn by studying the Masters. Caravaggio knew as well as anyone that he could leave large areas of his canvas almost completely devoid of detail as long as he threw in a painterly flourish here and there. Even a small area of fine detail is enough for our brains to read the entire painting as a fully finished and convincing representation of space.

Consider the striking Amor Vincit Omnia, noted for it's realistic representation of Cupid and for it's "photographic clarity". It's worth concentrating for a moment on what that means in terms of the construction of the painting.

The areas in red (above) have almost no detail at all, let alone fine detail. You could even include large areas of the rendered flesh in there too. Even a quick glance shows us that Caravaggio painted over 50% of the canvas with a big fat brush. Only the dark areas (highlighted above) were painted with his tiny brushes.

Cupid's charmingly crooked teeth and the huge wings lent by the painter Orazio Gentileschi as props are among the very few areas that receive Caravaggio's closest attention. Less than 10% of the canvas, in fact. Yet the painting as a whole invoked huge acclaim for it's realism. That's good news! Think of how much time can be saved by learning this lesson.

Detail from Amor Vincit Omnia

I had an opportunity to apply some of these techniques while working on a painting that was an homage to Caravaggio's theme of 'Love conquers All'. I know first hand just how long it takes to really focus on creating detail on such a precise level. I painted sheets of music that had been torn up and taped back together. The notes painted on these scraps took forever. I posted some details from the painting below.

Besides the compositional merit of leaving plenty of breathing room in a painting, of not overwhelming it with tons of distracting detail, it's also a simple and practical matter for the professional painter whereby it's commercially unrealistic to spend massive amounts of hours on any one painting.

It's not about cutting corners necessarily, but I do love finding ways of spending less time working. Thanks, Caravaggio!

Let's examine that even further: I know from experience that it would take me at least one day to complete each of those areas of detail in the Caravaggio's painting (if I was bold enough to attempt a copy). There are roughly 10 areas of detail, and you value your time at $300 per day. Congratulations! By painting all that detail you've just added $3,000 worth of value to your new painting. What was that? The buyer isn't prepared to pay an extra $3,000 for your effort?

Make no mistake: Somebody pays for all that effort. And if it's not the buyer, then it's you.

I know I cannot paint faster than I already do, because I've tried it. I'm not fast by any means, but I know my limits. I realize that if I'm about to paint a small still life of some fruit, then I had better finish that painting in one day and no longer because the most I can get away with charging for a small painting like that is roughly the same as my day-rate.

Duane Keiser does exactly that. Besides the marketing caché of 'a painting a day', it's also sound financially. If the most you can charge for a small painting is $300-$400, then you had better fine tune your technique so that you spend no more than a day painting it.

It sounds harsh to break it down in terms of money, but if we want to make a living (and maybe even retire one day) then I believe that we have to be a little businesslike about Art production.


  1. Yes! And doesn't it help to have a dark ground? takes a lot longer to build up form on a light ground. Thank you Alan! Beautiful astounding work.

  2. A much needed bit of information! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and work with us.

  3. Very enlightening piece of information, thanks! And your piece is masterful in it's own right! :)

  4. This is certainly an important lesson! I remember as a very young commercial artist painting a product in a field of grass, and I got hung up on blades of grass. The result was awful, and I eventually learned my lesson, but I wish I'd had this type of guidance then!

  5. A little bit of smoke and mirrors, huh? You are right, the mind perceives more detail than is actually there. A great post Alan.

  6. Posted on my Facebook page by Steve Shriver...

    "I was very struck by this at the Met show a few years ago called Painters of Reality, etc. (book link below) Their study, knowledge, and practice allowed them to keep their painting time brief and simple.

    While it is truly abstracted (in the original sense of the word, meaning that extraneous detail is left out) it's also based on accuracy of line and shadows that reflect exacting study of anatomy and rendering of form, something that modern arts education seems to be neglecting for the most part.

    These paintings are a good example of how photography cannot entirely replace what paintings can do."

  7. First of all, your sheets of music? Sublime. You can *def* see that it took you quite some time. I love these lessons of perception of a work of art versus the artist's own version of "fooling the eye". I saw Simon Schama's series a few years ago, "Power of Art". It single-handedly changed how I viewed paintings and the work and life experience it took to create them. My favorite? Caravaggio - I fell in love with the rascal. Loved this post!

  8. I always learn something from you,thank you for sharing.

  9. Great Article, Caravaggio was a master of light and dark painting, I find your work to be sublime, congratulations

  10. I am very impressed with your thoughts on this matter and am excited to try the theory out on canvas!

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  11. What amazing blog! thanks for this!

  12. Hi Alan, Thank you again for a truly inspiring post. I always find myself getting deeper and deeper lost in awe when I surf through your blog. I started somewhere else and will not end here I'm sure. It's so nice to support the studies of fine art with people of our profession. I saw his works in person and they are unbelievable. Again kudos! I have to give a shout out "hi" to Jennifer above, as I relearned from her that same concept some years back. :)