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An Introduction to Realistic Figure Oil Painting

Oil painting is the most popular and influential painting method in Western painting history. Among traditional Western painting works, oil painting has traditionally been the most popular and revered form of painting. Since many artists received large commissions from religious leaders, oil paintings were mainly created to glorify the magnificence of God and Heaven, high morality and exploits of sages as well as the beauty of natural landscapes and folkways. In particular, human and animal figures was the most important subjects of oil paintings, and reached high levels of excellence in the techniques of Western realistic oil painting.

Since the time that oil painting came into being, human realistic painting has waxed and waned: Its techniques have transformed from immaturity to maturity, with different styles at different stages. With the degeneration of society and moral values, realistic painting appeared to fade away as the most popular form of artistic expression. Eventually realism became abstracted from reality in the late 1800’s and continues to transform into our present time. Modern art heralded many inventive styles of painting and making artworks that offered different approaches to making art than realism. These artworks focus on the expression of the sliding values, atrocities and confusion of the modern world and are often concerned with personal ideas, revealing a wealth of disturbing feelings and concepts. Realism never faded entirely, it was temporarily, just less popular than before. However, we do believe that there must be some standards for arts, and that artworks must contain true compassion and gracefulness, so that they can endure through long periods of time, helping people elevate to higher dimensions. The classic works passed down to us from generation to generation, capture our forefather’s wisdom, intelligence and painstaking effort as well as the lasting value of truthfulness, compassion and beauty, which are treasured by human beings. As human beings have lost their aesthetic compass and seem to embrace a confusing set of values and an inability to make sound judgments, these valuable, visual legacies have become important references for humans to revive traditional artistic values.

In terms of artistic creation, learning from ancient people does not mean that we are fettered by old conventions. In the culturally prosperous periods in Chinese history, it was because of our forefathers’ deeply-rooted cultural heritage that people during those periods were able to prosper, enrich their culture and create new dimensions. Every artist has his or her own personality traits, thoughts and emotions, as well as, their own concepts of creation, and the impact of environment. Creative artists with these ideals firmly implanted within them would definitely know how to strike a balance in accordance with the meaning of our contemporary times to create their own styles. The objective of this NTDTV Chinese International Oil Figure Painting Competition is to help people retrieve traditional artistic value with true compassion and gracefulness. In the meantime, it will also provide artists with the opportunity to purify themselves and elevate their painting skills.

As a result, it is essential and meaningful to put emphasis on the heritage and value of our traditional oil painting all over again.

1. Realism[1]is the characteristic of Western traditional arts and the standard for evaluation of arts

Western arts have put much emphasis on realistic imitation of natural objects to achieve a sense of visual reality since ancient times. As a result, “realism” has been a basic criterion for judging an artist’s achievements, and is a major characteristic of Western fine arts. The spirits of realism can be traced back to ancient times, such as the vivid Vintage statue of ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti as well as the artistic sculptures in Greece and Rome, which are the combination of realism and ideals. Examples of work that exhibits both realism and ideas. can be found everywhere.

Due to limitations on materials and techniques, paintings in ancient times were far from being realistic and vivid. It was not until breakthroughs in concepts, techniques and materials were made during the Renaissance that painting culminated in unprecedented magnificence.

The following were some of the major achievements about realistic painting during the Renaissance:
1) Application of perspective method, which has led to painting’s extension from a two-dimensional plane to a three-dimension form.
2) Techniques have been developed that enhance and dramatize the values or lightness and darkness of paintings, which has contributed to the enhancement of sense of three-dimension and sense of weight.
3) Further understanding of the natural proportion and scale of the human body, coupled with the advancement of anatomy, has brought about accuracy in painting human structure and multiple psostures in a variety of positions.
4) More vivid and realistic depiction of the human internal state and emotions.
5) Enhancement of quality in obtaining the precise feeling and detailed exquisiteness of objects.

These achievements in realistic painting during the Renaissance laid a solid foundation for genuine Western painting in the following several hundred years, and set up standards for evaluating realistic paintings. The success of realistic painting goes hand in hand with the improvements of materials, and among others, the invention of oil painting has played a decisive role.

2.  Prosperity and Glory of Oil Painting

Origin

Ancient humans used oil-based media as pigments and applied them to objects. Originally oils only served as varnishes to be applied to painting, sculptures, and the Egg tempera. Not until the very beginning of the 15th century was a stable medium, with a gradual drying time invented. This new substance gradually took the place of egg yolk and white used in the technique of Egg tempera. Two Flemish artists Hubert and Jan van Eyck did experiments on mixing up linseed oil, walnut oil and resin to create a painting medium. The new painting medium and pigments produced a fine textured paint that remained wet longer, enabling the artist to perfectly sketch the forms of the figures. In addition, the dried pigments would not change tones and their gloss was preserved for a long time. Frescoes that had been painted with Egg Tempera lacked the advantages of oil paint. As a result, oil painting media became popular among artists. During the Renaissance, when artists were pursuing reality and perfection, the birth of oil painting was like a timely present from heavens and brought positive changes to the appearance of paintings.

At First Oil Painting Inherited Elaborate Reality of Northern European Painters.

With his specialty in delicate description, the Northern European artist, Jan van Eyck was a painter known for his meticulous manuscript copies. With his invention of painting with oil media on wood panel, he combined the Gothic artistic styles with oil painting techniques. Masterpieces of translucency and delicate texture were thus created, such as The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, and The Arnolfini Portrait. Artists patiently built the figures in layers until density and depth of color were multiplied together. The result was a textured object of unprecedented delicacy and vividness. Of course, the paintings by Jan van Eyck and Northern European artists were not completely realistic. Though the paintings presented delicate texture, the portrayed figures appeared rigid and unnatural. Compared with Italian artists, Jan van Eyck and other Northern European artists still had a way to go before achieving appropriate proportions of human body and aesthetics.

Italian Artists Glorified Oil Painting

In 1475, Antonello da Messina (1430-1479), an Italian artist influenced by Flemish art, introduced oil painting techniques to Venice. Then oil paining was popular in Italy.

With the invention of oil-based media, Italian artists who had had a good command of realistic painting found oil painting easy to master and invented new techniques for painting with it. Venice artists preferred to lay the foundation in brown and continued adding white to fresco, giving it a quality of opacity. As a result, the painting appeared comparatively dark. Meanwhile, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) applied the technique of Sfumato to his paintings and displayed the features of oil painting to the fullest. The layered colors used to present gradual changes of light and shadow well portrayed gentle texture of skin, and the overall atmosphere of the painting appeared gentle and mysterious. Raffaello Sanzio (1483-1520), famous for his masterpiece in buon fresco, a technique in which pigment is mixed with water and painted over a lime or plaster surface, called, “The School of Athens,” was also known as an excellent oil painter. Raffaello combined previous artists’ wisdom and experiences with skillful techniques of realism, composing figures employing the classic values of the Renaissance. For instance, the small “Cowper Madonna” by Raffaello presented an image of pure kindness and beauty in the human world. The expressions on the portraits appeared noble, accompanied by exquisite and substantial texture of clothing and objects. Another masterpiece, called, “Transfiguration,” painted by Raffaello in his old age, skillfully combined two scenes into one. The two different scenes correspond with each other and vivid expressions of the figures and their postures filled the painting with liveliness and vivacity. Oil painting by the Renaissance artist was thus elevated to another unprecedented level.

Since artists in Venice often painted on the walls of rich merchants’ mansions, they substituted canvas for panel. The results were big-sized oil paintings. Thereafter, canvas was becoming widely popular and became the main support of oil painting. In the meantime, with availability of its materials and its expressiveness, oil painting gradually replaced other forms of painting and became the major painting medium of the era.

Spirits of Classicism: Merging Idealism and Realism

There is no doubt that realism is one of the greatest achievements for the painting of the Renaissance. However, the meaning of the Renaissance also includes the rejuvenation of classicism. Classicism originates from the pursuit of perfect forms and eternal values that were strictly adhered to by ancient Greek and Roman artists. Classicism emphasizes rationality, clarity, order, proportion harmony, structural purity and balance. It cherishes beauty as a whole which also encompasses other virtues such as: nobleness; dignity; gentleness and implication. In other words, art is not just vivid imitation of the nature; it also pursues the manifestation of ideal, perfect paradigms out of the nature’s forms and shapes so as to reach the magnificent, eternal spiritual values. Therefore, classicism usually has characteristics of perfect form, tranquility, implication, elegance and sedateness. Enlightened by unearthed ancient relics, the paintings during the Renaissance combined ideal beauty and realistic spirit and accomplished unprecedented achievements. They became a painting paradigm for the later ages.

The accomplishment of Italian painting artists during the Renaissance attracted many artists across Europe to travel to Italy to study antiques and learn new techniques and knowledge. As a result, classical oil painting that combines idealism and realism was spread throughout all of Europe. Meanwhile, art academies began to be established for educating professionals and passing down the rich heritage of art.

Classicism and Academic Art

The first academy of art was founded in Florence, Italy in 1562 by Giorgio Vasari (1511~ 1574) who called it the Accademia dell’Arte del Disegno. Lectures of painting skills, including anatomy and geometry, were given to students there. Another academy, the Accademia di San Luca was founded in Rome a decade later. The Accademia di San Luca served an educational function and focused more on art theory.

Employing the operation model of the Accademia di San Lua, France established the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture [2] in 1648 during Luis XIV’s reign. The art principle promoted in the French Académie was: “Painting has to follow the guideline of rationality.” In order to achieve lifelike accuracy, techniques such as perspective, mathematic human body proportion, stable composition design, and skills in developing tonal value were all critical items on the training list. Since then, academies, such as England’s Royal Academy, that imitated the style and teaching methods of the French Académie were founded throughout Europe. The formal theoretic and academic training has become a tradition of Western painting.

Nicholas Poussin [3], a 17th century French painter who had profound influence in the thoughts of the French Académie, said, “A painting must incorporate the highest moral connotation, which is illustrated through the structure that can convey the cognitive contents.” Therefore, in the educational philosophy of the art academies, an art creation must master the techniques of realistic depiction, as well embody the classical spirit and deliver traditional values such as belief and morals, unobtrusively exerting beneficial influences within society.

The excavation of ancient objects from Pompeii in the 18th century triggered another wave of public interest in studying ancient arts. In addition to appreciating and learning the arts of the Renaissance, people also attempted to directly study Greek and Roman classical arts. In early 19th century when Napoleon [4] was in power, he promoted fine arts with ancient magnificence and dignity. He also led experts and scholars in collecting and researching classical arts. He spared nothing in his efforts to push Neo-Classicism forward. Rather than directly imitating the antiques, the genuine spirit of Neo-Classicism was to imitate the essence of aesthetic feeling. What was particularly emphasized by Neo-Classicism is morals, solemnity, earnest, and the realistic spirit of dedicating oneself to the principles.

After he was appointed as the court painter by Napoleon, the French painter, Jacques-Louis David, (1748~1825) led French painting circles using classical-realistic ideals. In selecting painting objects, David was fastidious about archaeological evidence and pursued genuine, realistic painting. He picked ancient myths, legends, historical heroic episodes or contemporary outstanding events as the subjects for his painting frequently. Through solemn but drastic manifestation, his painting highlighted human dignified morals and noble thoughts, aiming at reminding viewers what had happened in the past. In form, he emphasized the exhibition of rationality and utilized the sketches of the Renaissance as the basis for his painting. The result was the revelation of Classical characters of purity and clarity, including precision of composition, overall harmony of forms, colors and value as well as delicacy of the entire tableau.

Academic art in the later age

Though traditional artistic concepts were supported by academic circles, they were in conflict with the degeneration of moral standard and secular tastes. In late 19th century, the French painter, William Adolphe Bouguereau, (1825~1905) insisted on his academic artistic style, and was antagonistic towards a popular art style of the time, known as, “Impressionism.” He told his students, “One has to seek Beauty and Truth, Sir! As I always say to my pupils, you have to work to the finish. There’s only one kind of painting. It is the painting that presents the eye with perfection, the kind of beautiful and impeccable enamel you find in Veronese and Titian.” -1895 (http://groups.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=groups.groupProfile&group… ) In addition to Adolphe Bouguereau, there were quite a few other painters who simultaneously insisted on their historic mission during the same period of time. Frederic Leighton, (1830-1896) in the U.K., Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) in the Netherlands, are two examples of artists who were quite famous when they were alive, but ended up being regarded as conservatives and were even ignored by the history of art. In reality, Adolphe Bouguereau did make some breakthroughs in figurative, realistic painting techniques, especially in painting the beautiful images of women and children. He painted tender, delicate and transparent skin, pure and charming looks, making the subjects appear closer to realities of magnificent life. Though works in the later age of academic art were physically beautiful, they seemed to be lacking an in-depth content and elements that inspire deep feeling. As a result, ideal beauty and realistic painting techniques were not further developed to levels that would have created another new dimension of artistic painting.

3. The importance of figure painting

Regardless of Eastern or Western style paintings, figure painting was the first subject that was developed to maturity. On one hand, this is because artists tend to depict the objects most familiar to them; while on the other hand, arts are closely related to beliefs. All genuine arts have their origins in temples. Ancient people believed that gods created human beings according to their own images, and they used human’s images to represent various gods.

During the Renaissance, due to the progress in realistic techniques, not only did painters represent gods with realistic and perfect human images, but they also painted solemn, compassionate, sacred and glorious images to honor gods. As humans are created by gods, and are the most perfect objects in the human world, it was the goal of the artists in the Renaissance to use perfect human body to explore the artistic world of possibilities. Da Vinci depicted human inner feelings by painting figures with expressive body language while Michelangelo employed the figure as the carrier to convey his spirit and thoughts. The aesthetic feeling, dynamic state, spirit and strength demonstrated in his human body art had practically reached the peak of perfection, which had a tremendous impact on current and future artists. Da Vinci put much emphasis on creating lighting atmosphere, while Michelangelo emphasized the structure and movements of human body. However, both of them ignored, to some extent, the complexion and color of appearance.

Realistic figure painting techniques have improved along with the passage of time, but the degree of reality and deliberation varies with the time period and different regional styles. Painters in the Renaissance could already vividly depict the figure’s outer appearance and inner feelings .Painters in Florence placed emphasis on drawing and structure, and those in Venice emphasized the display of color. As paintings increased in scale, drawing techniques became rather concise, and paintings were generally not as neat and exquisite as the oil paintings created on wooden planks in earlier times. During the Neoclassic period, there was another peak in the production of realistic figure oil paintings. The figures painted by Jacques-Louis David are not only vivid and realistic, with brilliant contours that represents human dignity and moral sentiments, but they also contain spiritual strength that can help uplift human morality. As for passionate romanticism painters, the structure of their figures and painting styles are apparently not as exquisite and conscientious as those in the neoclassic period.

Jacques-Louis David’s “The Oath of Horatii” Eugene Delacroix’s “The Death of Sardanapalus”
Jacques-Louis David’s “The Oath of Horatii” Eugene Delacroix’s “The Death of Sardanapalus”

Among the subjects of traditional paintings that depict human’s noble morality and sentiments, figures are the soul in paintings. Therefore, whether the figures are vivid and whether the image is appropriate are directly related to the success of a painting. When figures are successfully painted, their vivid and heart-stirring elements may directly touch human’s hearts, having an effect that is difficult to achieve through languages or words. This highlights the advantage of painting.

Chen Xiaoping’s “A Pure Call” at the International Truthfulness-Compassion-Forbearance Paintings Exhibit 2005 Li Yuan’s “A Tragedy in China” at the International Truthfulness-Compassion-Forbearance Paintings Exhibit 2004
Chen Xiaoping’s “A Pure Call” at the International Truthfulness-Compassion-Forbearance Paintings Exhibit 2005 Li Yuan’s “A Tragedy in China” at the International Truthfulness-Compassion-Forbearance Paintings Exhibit 2004

The value of traditional arts will yield great returns

Throughout the history of art, traditional paintings, that are accepted and loved by may different cultures through many different time periods period, advocate objective, realistic skills and the inner meanings of pure good and pure beauty. These artworks will never lose their value regardless of the changing time and location because these artworks conform to benevolent humanity which is also the eternal standards of arts.

Arts can change and influence human society unobtrusively and imperceptibly, and those influences can be very profound. Contemporary morality, human notions and social orders need to be straightened out and uplifted to a higher state. Therefore, artists have to take responsibility for society. A wide variety of art creations are made today. Art schools have been formed and faded out. Consult your conscience, and think about artworks that truly touch people’s heart? Which are those that can be the positive guidance to the society? And which are the eternal artworks that can truly be revered and studied for a hundred generations?

We truly believe that inheriting a traditional, upright moral concept and creating a purely truthful, compassionate and beautiful artwork will establish a foundation to benefit human society. Also it will set for a bright future for the world. We sincerely hope that foresighted artists can find their mission of being artists and recreate a splendor in the history by participating in the International Realistic Figure Oil Painting Competition.

 

Annotations:

[1]  There are two general meanings of “realism”. The first meaning is realism of visual form that is an imitation of natural objects and phenomena as they really are. The other meaning is realism of social phenomena, that is to deeply describe the true life and human nature at all levels of the society. “Realism” in this article mainly refers to the first meaning.

[2] During Napoléon’s regime in 1803, Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture (Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture) was merged with the Académie de musique (Academy of Music, founded in 1669) and the Académie d’architecture (Academy of Architecture, founded in 1671), to form the Académie des beaux-arts (Academy of Fine Arts).

[3] When people go to Rome to study artists’ theory and artwork of the high Renaissance in Italy, they highly praise Raphael’s artwork in particular. Raphael thought that a painting must have inner meanings of the highest moral standards and convey the structure of intellectual meaning. In order to make accurate and logical realistic paintings, he used a small wax stage model with all the settings to practice composition and lighting. Then based on the effects the model represents, numerous drafts were created before starting work on the finished artwork. In 1642, Charles Le Brun went to Rome to study painting, theory and skills for four years under Poussin. When Louis XIV held the reins of government, Le Brun became the director of Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture and established a system of rules which set the direction of French art academies that encouraged the rise of Neo-classical painters afterwards.

[4] Napoleon Bonaparte, 1769~1821