On the good painter and good table painting

Easel paintings

Del buon pittore e della buona tavola (ITA)

"Sappi che non vorrebbe essere men tempo a imparare: come, prima studiare da piccino un anno a usare il disegno della tavoletta, poi stare con maestro a bottega, che sapesse lavorare di tutti i membri che appartiene di nostra arte; e stare e incominciare a triare de’ colori; e imparare a cuocere delle colle, e triar de’ gessi; e pigliare la pratica dell’ingessare le ancone, e rilevarle, e raderle; mettere d’oro; granare bene, per tempo di sei anni. E poi, in praticare a colorire […] non abbandonando mai né in dì di festa, né in dì di lavorare. E così la natura per grande uso si convertisce in buona pratica [1]."

You couldn’t act as a painter, in Cennini’s Age: you had to be a painter!

Cennino Cennini tell us in details about the long path of the artist in his treatise “The book of the Art” (1398 c.a.). The six years required for the apprenticeship prove the importance of the workshop in the artistic production, for each step and single executive technique. From his words we can learn how difficult it is to prepare a panel painting, following rules applied for all the time span of its production – XIII to XVI century – both in Italy and Mediterranean countries.

Each of these steps is important: to easily apply pigments, but also to better preserve the painting. In particular, it should be necessary to apply:

1.    a first layer of animal glue;

2.    a canvas (the so-called “intelaggio”);

3.    different ground layers with chalk and glue.

The glue doesn’t stand for a ground layer but links the latter and the table. Usually, kid glue is preferred. It is first immersed in water overnight and then warmed to be applied gently on the table. The application is repeated several times. The previous layer should be completely dry before applying the next one.

Now the surface is ready for the “intelaggio”. This step is necessary to avoid that natural movements of the wood – i.e. absorption/desorption of water – may damage the ground layer. This step is optional and the rules change from atelier to atelier. It can be restricted to wood joints or its defects. Rarely, it is extended to the entire support. The raw material is in common among the different recipes: old linen. This textile has to be immersed in glue to be applied on the table with perfect adhesion. 

Then the painter can go on with the “ingessatura” (from “gesso” = chalk), the most important step. He can choose two kinds of chalk, coarse or fine, to be mixed with glue. The coarse one makes the surface rough and it is the first to be applied, even if not always present between the support and the final preparation. The latter, fine chalk, is better grinded and requires a smaller amount of glue. It is a final preparation for both preparatory drawing and colors. That step avoids the absorption of the binder from the support, especially if the binder is oil. It can also give a preliminary hue to the all pictorial surface.



[1]Cennini, C., Il libro dell’Arte, a cura di F. Brunello, Vicenza, Neri Pozza, 1971, cap. CIV.

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