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Observation of Nature as a Basis for a Painters Training

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

Over the coming weeks I will explore the strong case for the observation of nature as a basis for a painters training.   From Giotto to Pollock we will explore the implications of the observation of nature, its rendering and distillation.

As a way of defining what nature is we can divide it into two parts

  1. The tactile world of all living and physically observable things together with the elements of their construction.

  2. The intangible emotional, spiritual, intellectual forces which are observable indirectly through gesture and facial expression of humans and animals.

From contemporary sources we know there were painters who used nature as the basis for their art  even before Leonardo de Vinci whose naturalism in detailed drawings and sketches  are considered even today  to have insightful  scientific  and artistic merit.  Leonardo in his literary works describes Giotto and Masaccio as ‘true sons of nature’ Pliny in his “Natural History”, also believes good painting is the direct observation of nature.

Some, however, would argue that the slavish devotion to detailed rendering and imitating of nature is not necessarily good painting.

I am not saying  that good painting is only about imitation of nature but good painting is very much a result of direct observation of nature.   That is, the painter must learn to observe and take from nature that which describes a response to nature.

In other words, good practice in painting is to firstly learn to observe and to render the visual world in all its intricate detail.  And then, when   a proficient level is achieved   the painter can and automatically evolves acquiring the ability to abstract the essence of that which is being painted.   This practice of learning through observe of nature has a long history in Western Art.

My first and very favourite example of observation of nature by a painter is one of the  ‘true sons of nature’,  Giotto di Bondone,1267- 1337 who according to  by the 16th  century commentator, Giorgio Vasari describes Giotto as making a decisive break from the Byzantine style and as initiating and introducing the technique of drawing accurately from life.  Born the son of a peasant farmer,  spent time tending the goats and sheep, drawing them whenever he could. Vasari said ‘painters owe Giotto exactly the same debt they owe to nature.  It is believed Giotto’s teacher, Cimabue, seeing the young Giotto’s drawings of the rocky hilltop pleaded with Giotto’s father Bondone to let him become his apprentice in his workshop.  And under the watchful eye of the ‘master’ Cimabue, Giotto was to revolutionize painting into something more naturalistic with an essence never seen before.

The characteristics of Giotto’s work which are considered only to be possible through the direct observation of nature are;

  1. The three dimensional form in space, on a two dimensional surface, demonstrated in his greatest contribution to spacial realism  in the two chapels of the upper church of St. Francis of Assisi and the Arena Chapel at Padua, where he used a common vanishing point (the frescoes are painted at eye level with a consistent horizon around the chapel walls)

  2. Human sensibilities and emotions through gesture of body, hands and facial expression.

  3. The reduction of detail to emphasize the clarity of the event.

  4. Depiction of the human body with emphasize on weight and volume.

  5. Liveliness. Giving a sense of ease, order and proportion.

Giotto’s The Miracle of the Spring, located in the Upper Church of St. Francis of Assisi, painted between 1297 – 1300. One of the frescoes lining the walls of the Upper Chapel of St Francis of Assisi depicting of the life of St Francis.

The Miracle of Spring, 1299 – Giotto

This very moving and truthful portrayal of a man desperately thirsty (bottom right).  One can almost feel the gravitation of; the thirsty man towards the stone, his hands grasping the ground.  The simplicity of the message through gesture, St. Francis (centre) kneeling with his hands in a folded gesture of prayer but held high, hereby adding an emotional urgency conveying the verdant prayer. ‘Water’ which Christ in his mercy has just made gush from the stone to quench our thirst’.

The use of landscape is minimized, adding emphasis and clarity to the figures in space allowing movement.   The figures of St Francis and the two figures (left corner) reflect the rocky outcrop of the hill side to create a harmony of composition, yet it does not detract from the event.

Having visited the Chapel at Assisi, and the chapel at Padua, I reconfirmed by debt to Giotto and the appreciation for the observation of nature and its benefits for my own work and that of my students.   There in the chapel I was touched by the poignant visual portrayal of the human psychology in its purest form.

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