How to paint Netherlandish/Flemish, a la Bosch, Bruegel, or Ryden?
December 4, 2014 5:23 AM   Subscribe

I paint occasionally in my spare time, and over the last couple years I've viewed a lot of early Netherlandish and Pop Surrealist painting that's tightly executed and finely detailed. What steps have you taken or do you advise to learn to paint in something like the style(s) of Bosch, Ryden, Bruegel, etc.?

I've asked about painting here before (thank you, MeFi!); I am an amateur painter. Details in the linked post, but I take occasional classes and will not be painting full time in the near future. I can understand, at least in principle, how to work in a loose/painterly style, a la Freud or Bacon. I can understand, at least in principle, how to work in a traditional/academic style, a la Bouguereau. I have found little to help with the style of Bosch, or what-have-you, even in interviews with Ryden, Christian Rex van Minnen, etc., or works on Flemish technique. Standard books on painting technique just don't focus on it. ("You, too, can paint tightly rendered fantastical scenes with wonky perspective and a limited palette!")

The amount of time in my life for painting, speaking both in terms of day-to-day and how much I expect to devote over the course of it, means that I don't expect to reach great heights. Likewise I don't expect a shortcut, nor to bypass the necessary time to attain mastery. The best help I have gotten thus far has been from Virgil Elliott's book, Traditional Oil Painting. I also have been reading books on art materials history and conservation over the last couple years, and those have given some good clues.

I welcome your advice and wisdom! Book suggestions, documentaries to watch, anything. I read/lurk at wetcanvas regularly, but discussion rarely seems to move in this direction there (that I've seen). I have considered writing to some of the currently living folks I've named, but I'm not a full-time painter, they're busy, and I haven't reached a level of skill where I feel I won't potentially be wasting a master painter's time.
posted by cupcakeninja to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You could start off by making a copy of a work that you like, and that might help you get a feel for it.

(To my surprise, Netherlandish is actually a word!)
posted by Too-Ticky at 5:30 AM on December 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

This may not be exactly the sort of thing you're talking about, but what about Joseph Sheppard's "How to Paint Like the Old Masters"?
posted by mittens at 5:45 AM on December 4, 2014

Response by poster: Too-Ticky: thank you. I have not done this yet and am planning to do so. I sketched bits of the same follower-of-Bosch painting twice at the LUMA over the last year. Might be a good starting place.

mittens: thank you. I remember looking at it a couple years ago and thinking it focused later than was my interest, plus involved lots of lead-based and other maybe-toxic stuff, so set it aside to return to later. Maybe now's the time.
posted by cupcakeninja at 5:57 AM on December 4, 2014

I took a technique class years ago where my teacher referred to this as "fa presto."

The jist:

1. Burnt Sienna wash over the whole canvas.

2. A light and dark underpainting in egg tempera for modelling.

3. Color applied mixed with an oil/varnish medium, making it a kind of spreadable wash that dried more quickly and allows the underpainting to show through.

4. I think there was then a coat of damar varnish over the whole thing to seal it, and the option of going in and putting dabs of white egg tempera highlights for crisp details.

Unfortunatley my notes are in storage somewhere, otherwise I'd give you the recipies for the egg tempera and varnish mixtures. A few minutes of googling didn't turn up anything promising. My teacher was Michael Fuchs, in case you should stumble across this seminar somehow.

And yes, happy little clouds still apply!!
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 8:08 AM on December 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

Ooh! A very interesting documentary came out last year called Tim's Vermeer. I know you're not asking how to paint like Vermeer, but Tim is not a painter and figures out how with mirrors he can duplicate Vermeer's extreme precision. His method would work with any original work you want to copy.
posted by cecic at 10:34 AM on December 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Closer to Van EyckThis Van Eyck website is fantastic for looking at Netherlandish style painting and scholarship in detail. Ron, the director of the site is a Bosch/Van Eyck expert, and I believe he is working on opening a Bosch museum in Hertogenbosch. He lectured at the Getty on Van Eyck and he was fantastic. He also teaches at Queensland and in the Netherlands.

I noted from looking at your history, that you prefer acrylics. The resin painting medium and modern palette of pigments is going to give you some deviation in handling and spectral reflectance. If you are going for Bosch, I would personally suggest egg tempera, as it has a much more precise handling characteristics and surface gloss similar to Bosch. Egg tempera is a form of oil that requires no mineral based solvents, so it would be much better for a small studio environment.

Keep in mind that you have a much greater selection of pigments available than Bosch, and I would personally bet that most traditional masters would have very much appreciated having so many fine pigments as are in the contemporary palette. The National Gallery of Art has an excellent series on spectral reflectance of pigments if you want a technical match, which I often go to for information on handling characteristics.

Also, I would also suggest you look at Medieval manuscript marginalia, as the Netherlandish love for rebus style conceptual works is closer to the marginalia genre. Van Eyck is thought to have been a manuscript illustrator by some scholars before he became Philip the Good's court painter.

Mark Ryden, for example, visually quotes VanEyck in his large female DNA style portrait (It's called Germinator, or something like that) but if you look at the Ghent Alterpiece I gave you above, he's taking the gems right off of the Christ figure. Ryden also quotes Bosch to a derivative extent. Many of his early background figures are individual details taken directly from the Bosch "Garden of Delights" (I hate that name for it). painting. So you could follow Ryden and put those type of quotations in your work.

Back to technical: I would also suggest round sable brushes, as they give great line control and smooth blending. Get some egg tempera medium to work with. Egg tempera requires precision and patience, but it's worth it for the surface and detail. Natural hair brushes are not suitable for plastic painting mediums since the scales on the hairs are sealed by the medium.

In terms of working with lead white, they make it in egg tempera, but I don't personally work with it since even very small amount can migrate through skin and cause significant problems to your health and the environment. Try working with zinc white, which is another metallic based white and boosting it with a little titanium white and medium. It won't be an exact match with the handling properties and spectral reflectance of lead white--it's not named "silver white" for nothing--but it would take a pretty discriminating eye to notice the difference.

I hope some of this information is useful and good luck with your pursuit of painting.
posted by effluvia at 2:28 PM on December 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

Juliette Aristedes' books are also excellent resources for learning traditional figurative representational painting, if you don't have an atelier near you.
posted by culfinglin at 3:27 PM on December 4, 2014

You might check out some of Craola's youtube painting demos. He paints in acrylic, definitely in what I consider a tight pop-surrealist style. His website is here. Also, James Gurney of Dinotopia has a great book on light and color -- it's SUPER helpful in learning about limiting your palette and creating realistic lighting effects.

I love this question, and can't wait to see what suggestions everyone else has.
posted by ananci at 4:32 PM on December 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you, all.

Rube. R. Necker -- I looked up "fa pasto" and will give it a try. I have done some things aiming for having the underpainting show, but I haven't incorporated varnish into lower layers.

cecic -- Thank you for the tip! I've heard good things about that, but haven't seen it yet.

culfinglin -- I have read and enjoyed her books! I don't live near an atelier, and, irony of ironies, I'm from Seattle originally, but I took up painting after moving away, so no Gage Academy, alas.

ananci -- Thank you! I love Gurney's books, both that one (I own it) and the Imaginative Realism one. I had not, however, heard of Craola's demos, so I'll check 'em out.

effluvia -- Thank you, thank you. This is exactly the sort of things I was hoping to hear, and very useful. (The iconographic & art historical content is a lovely bonus!) I switched to oil two years ago, for all the reasons you'd imagine, and I invested heavily enough that I will probably be working in that medium for several more years. I remember seeing that Closer to Van Eyck site a while back, but I hadn't looked at it for technique purposes -- I appreciate the reminder.

One sub-question, effluvia (et al.!), if you follow up on this thread... I have a few sables, but I have been using bristles for laying in, or to completion on many pieces, but I have mostly been using Daniel Smith faux mongoose filberts. I took a look at their website, and they've stopped selling them b/c the vendor went out of business. Do you have tips about favorite brands of sable, Kolinsky vs. Russian sable, etc., or thoughts on synthetic brushes for oil or egg tempera?
posted by cupcakeninja at 5:57 PM on December 4, 2014

Best answer: Sables are the very best for brush spring and response and medium retention. Some brush manufacturers are making very good quality synthetics these days, and the synthetic fibers stand up to rough handling much better than natural hair brushes. Winsor & Newton makes a synthetic mongoose called "Monarch" that would be equivalent but most likely more costly due to branding. Synthetics are fine for acrylic, and I very much like to use them for drawing, and for inks. But the synthetics will leave more brush texture than a sable.

Kolinsky sable is Russian sable. The best quality are male tails, but the quality has been declining due to rising environmental climate changes and adaptations the sable fur is making to warmer weather.

There are different styles of brush head manufacture, and preferences for how the brush holds the medium. Miniature "spotter" brushes are all tip and no belly, and made for fine detail. Traditional water color sables have a huge belly for holding water color washes, and not really what an oil painter like you would want in a detail brush. A spotter or a round oil sable would suit your application much more effectively and hopefully be less expensive due to the smaller amount of hair. I love lettering brushes, and prefer to paint with those sables.

Try a few samples, and go by what feels best for your application. Buy for function, not brand identity, as some of the premier brands are all marketing and not really worth their price, if you take my meaning. Take good care to paint correctly and clean correctly; I have brushes that are twenty five years old and still work beautifully.

I love Bosch, and have been looking at his work for a very long time. I would say that he mostly paints with a round and a fan sable or squirrel (soft animal hair). Van Gogh, for example, paints with a filbert. It's a different mark. If you look closely at Van Eyck's brush work in the website, he has a very sophisticated repertoire of marks: scumbling, sgraffito, layering. His mastery of shadowing is unparalleled. He also paints with a round and fan squirrel or sable. Since both Van Eyck and Bosch were wealthy, I would say sables. Good sables. Look at Durer, he's a sable man, and painted his portrait with his sables in hand. Apologies for the ramble. I love these guys.

Ron Spronk is the Bosch authority. I hope to visit his Bosch museum when I can. He's supervising the cleaning and restoration of the Ghent altarpiece.

From observing Ryden's work directly in shows, I'd say Ryden paints with oils, probably very fat, maybe to poppy oils, and sables. His work reflects a lot of light and has very little texture;lots of blending facilitated by a fat medium and slow drying pigments. Bosch is quite matt finish. You might like Sennelier oils since they grind their entire oil range in safflower rather than linseed oil. Safflower is slower drying, lighter in color and more expensive, so typically only reserved for whites in most artist ranges. Yikes. Short novel here, apologies.

I hope some of this is useful information.
posted by effluvia at 7:01 PM on December 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: effluvia, thank you for being so generous with your time and knowledge!! I really appreciate it. I've gotten a smidgen of this kind of information from catalogs, one painting class, books, and videos, but not all of it, coherently, in this context. Most of the painters I have talked with in person are modern in their sensibilities, and heavy into marks.

Interesting to hear your thoughts about Ryden's mediums. I saw his Wondertoonel show in person, but I was not really painting then, and I had no clue at all about any of the technical details of what I was seeing. I currently use a ton of Grumbacher (I lucked into a sale at store that was discontinuing it), and various other Gamblin, W&N, and Utrecht -- I haven't used Sennelier at all, so I'll give them a a try. For medium, I currently use either refined linseed oil or walnut oil, with varying quantities of stand oil or Gamsol for different layers. I've experimented w/ gel painting mediums, but not safflower yet, so I'll give it a try.

Thank you for the pointer to Spronk. In the last year I read Schaefer, Saint-George, and Lewerentz's Painting Light: The Hidden Techniques of the Impressionists and Mayer and Myers' American Painters on Technique: 1860 - 1945, and both were fascinating if you like art materials history, but neither seem to apply too much to this particular question. I got to hear Mayer and Myers at the College Art Association conference this year on a panel about "secrets of the old masters," but the panel was really more about subsequent responses to the idea of "old master secrets," and quests to find the perfect medium, than anything else. I asked if the panel had any advice, and they basically said "oil and paint on a good support," so I can only assume they've had to deal with a lot of the aftermath of 19th and 20th century experimentation...
posted by cupcakeninja at 4:03 AM on December 5, 2014

A lot of art materials information is so specific to the application, it's difficult to find the path. "Chasing secrets" is sort of a wild goose chase as well.

I like to take the reverse engineering approach and look at the work of contemporary conservators who take paint samples and understand the chemistry of pigments. The volume of works published by the National Gallery of Art has paint samples and palettes used by noted artists based on samples for actual works, and is a much more reliable guide. Some "magical masters' mediums" by relative contemporaries have been discredited by chemical analysis.

If you look at the before and after cleaning of Van Eyck's altarpiece, for example, you will see a marked difference in the color before and after removing the varnish. Varnishes and artist mediums like Linseed oil yellow significantly over time. So check Van Eyck's clarity and vibrance in the original; it's a revelation.

I found walnut and poppy oil much too slow and flabby for my personal desired painting effect.

Best of luck getting the perfect effect in your own works.
posted by effluvia at 11:30 AM on December 5, 2014

« Older Cheapest way to stream audio over a wired LAN?   |   How does hypothyroidism feel? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.