Renaissance Painting Techniques


The Renaissance period is marked by an explosion of innovation, thought and social change. Nowhere was this more evident than in the fine arts. A growing middle class, plump with assets, began commissioning paintings. New innovations and ideas set the stage for new techniques to emerge. For the first time, artists began using oil paints on stretched canvas while standing at an easel. The techniques they invented 500 years ago during the Renaissance are still relevant today.

Canvas Preparation and the Initial Drawing

  • The use of canvas was a major innovation to painting. Prior to the use of canvas, paintings were done on wooden panels or plaster walls as frescoes. Panels could be portable but limited in size, and frescoes were larger but not transportable. Canvas solved both of these problems. Once stretched, the canvas was prepared for painting by applying gesso, and the artist could begin his sketch using charcoal. The sketch was quite detailed, with the forms completely modeled. To fix the charcoal sketch, the artist used a light ink wash.

Beginning the Underpainting

  • The way Renaissance painters achieved the look of depth, especially with skin tones, was through the use of underpainting. A complete, monochromatic painting was created that later would be painted over in color. The example of Ingres' Odalisque (see image), although not created within the period being discussed, is a wonderful example of underpainting. The northern Europeans used shades of gray for this step. Leonardo Da Vinci preferred sepia tones. Many of the Italians preferred to used a greenish grey color called terreverte for this step. You can mix your own by combining chroma green half and half with black. Once this is mixed well, take some of the mixture and add it to white in a 1:3 ratio. Continue mixing in this manner until you have a light value close to white. You now have your completed palette and can execute your underpainting.

Adding Color

  • Color was added using the technique known as glazing. There are several formulas to create glazing mediums. One of the most common is a combination to Damar varnish and linseed oil to which the paint or dried pigment is added. Very thin layers of paint were then applied to the canvas. This resulted in the subtle blending of color so that no perceptible change could be seen. This technique also created the perception of depth to skin tones. Da Vinci coined the word "Sfumato," which means smokey, to describe it. It can take weeks to compete a painting in this way since each layer must dry before the next one it added. Although time consuming, the results are spectacular when executed correctly.

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  • The Craftsman's Handbook "Il Librio dell Arte"; Cennino d"Andrea Cennini, translated by Daniel V. Thompson, Jr.; 1933
  • Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting; Daniel V. Thompson; 1956
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