Glazing – with an emphasis on the craft of painting || Michael Wilcox

Glazing is one of those things you grow up with as an artist. It’s also one of the things that most of the textbooks tend to assume you know. It’s pretty simple: transparent layers of paint that overlie and modify each other without physically mixing. The result, properly handled, adds considerable luminosity to the painting and can add presence and depth that solid colour just doesn’t manage.

It sounds simple, but there’s a lot more to it. Some colours or pigments are more transparent than others, the effect has to be carefully judged as it can’t simply be mixed on the palette and previewed and the thickness of each layer has to be just right.

Although artists generally judge everything by eye, there’s a lot of science behind what actually happens between the brush, the palette and the surface. Michael has spent a lifetime unravelling that and presenting it in a way that’s comprehensible to the modern practitioner who has perhaps less inclination, or indeed need, to spend the time that their forbears did on preparation and application. Modern colours come ready-mixed, or at least ready to use, surfaces can be painted on straight away and lightfast results are pretty much guaranteed. As Michael says, “[the] painstaking methods of the Old Masters were accompanied by an in-depth knowledge of the craft of painting”. Because they had to prepare their materials so carefully, they developed an understanding of, if not the science, at least the properties of what they were working with and they had to spend time thinking about how to achieve the results they wanted. This, of course, is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, it engenders an intimacy with the material, on the other it gets in the way of the simple process of painting. Today’s artists don’t have to do it, which allows them to get on with the matter in hand, but at the same time divorces them from the process itself.

Speaking of why glazing has becoming a historic technique (if, that is, it has), Michael says, “the Impressionists … favoured either pre-mixed colours or those produced by the wet-into-wet technique. [They were] seeking to capture ‘the moment’ and working mainly outdoors.” In other words, the less formal approach to painting, which produces more spontaneous results, doesn’t really lend itself to painstaking and time-consuming studio-based work. The still-felt influence of the Impressionists has perpetuated that today.

This book is a labour of love and meticulously researched, as you’d expect from Michael. His views don’t always chime with the establishment, and he’s not part of what you might called the charmed circle, but his arguments are persuasive and the extensive material he brings to back them up mean they can’t easily be dismissed out of hand. There’s a lot of historical analysis here, a great deal about the properties of light (Michael has always been particularly sound on this) and pages and pages of examples of how colours can be built up from multiple layers. These are necessarily reproduced within the limitations of colour printing, an issue that has dogged Michael before, by still provide an excellent guide to the sort of results you can expect to produce and a point to aim for.

If you just want to understand the basic processes of glazing, I’d like to say there are other guides available. The truth is that there’s the odd chapter here and there and Keith Fenwick is particularly sound. However, you should be able to find a great deal of useful information here, though it’s also fair to say that you may also find yourself getting bogged down in a huge amount of historical detail. That may be no bad thing, and you may also find yourself fascinated and engrossed. It’s not a quick read, though, so be prepared!

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