1992, I went on a study trip to Italy, accompanied by a number
of students from the AKI Academy of Fine Arts and Design
where I was teaching at the time. We visited the Caravaggio
exhibition in Florence. This exhibition impressed me so much
that as soon as I was back home, I started adopting Caravaggio's
style of painting. Not that I started painting naked Jesus
figures, but whilst painting, I tried to find out what methods
he used, i.e. the way he used paint to achieve the best effect.
None of Caravaggio's paintings show traces of him having
struggled with the material; it is as if the paintings were
completed in one go. A truly wonderful painter. As I understood
it, the theme of the exhibition was a study of the 'incisions'
Caravaggio was said to have made in the still-wet undercoat.
You could actually see these incisions during the exhibition.
Every now and again the lights were switched off and the
paintings were illuminated from the side so that the observer
was given a good view of what were, in fact, small slits
in the paint, surrounding a head or around a hand or a finger.
They were like outlines really, quickly done and not very
accurate. Then again, sometimes they were effective and precise,
as in St. John's knee in the painting 'San Giovanni Batista'.
A catalogue was published to accompany the exhibition a very
special one, in my view. It contains X-ray photos, floodlight photos
and infrared photos of nearly all the paintings displayed in the exhibition
and gives you a good idea of the way Caravaggio painted them. All the
paintings were studied thoroughly and a
chapter is devoted to each painting. According to Longhi, the art critic,
the incisions were made "to indicate certain relationships in
distance between the most important volumes, so that in each session,
in a particular light, the painter could recapture the correct posture
of the models."
Be that as it may, you cannot find the correct posture of
the model in the painting but in the model his or herself,
for instance in the form of chalk lines on the ground or
a mark on the table on which the model might have placed
his or her hand. These are useful marks in that every time
they allow you to place the model in the same spot and in
the same position. Outlines are of no use on the canvas,
you could then just as easily paint what you see. In my opinion,
no painter can create perfect proportions in one go, and
in such a way that the whole picture fits in like a photo
by using just a few outlines. Take the painting 'Incoronazione
di spine', for example. If you start painting from the line
around Jesus' right index finger, it would be impossible
to paint a perfect line that ends up exactly at the spot
where the eyebrow is supposed to be.
You use these kind of lines if you want to put a photo in exactly the
same place under a transparency. Painters use these lines for attaching
a projected image onto a canvas. As I see it, what Longhi writes can
only be true if we assume that Caravaggio made use of projections.
And although I have never read anything anywhere that suggests that,
to me this does not seem to be a strange line of thought. The X-ray
photos in the catalogue show us that arms, legs, heads and ears were
all painted straight away in the correct place, and no corrections
were made. Exactly as you would do if you used a projector to project
the picture you intend to paint onto the canvas. That would also explain
why Caravaggio did not need drawings; the correct
proportions required to work realistically were already there in the
In my opinion, Caravaggio used the camera obscura. So I constructed
a man-sized camera obscura, using two strong halogen lamps to replace
the Italian daylight. All you need to do is illuminate a room with
group of people from above with this light and through a small hole
of about 3 mm in diameter you have a complete picture of this group.
Pictures in exactly the same atmospheric light as most of Caravaggio's
paintings then appear on the canvas. Caravaggio worked in two rooms.
In one room, fully illuminated by the Italian sun, he positioned his
models in a certain setting, after which he went into another room,
obscura, to look at and improve his composition. Where necessary, the
people in daylight were given
instructions and he moved the canvas about to obtain the ideal perspective.
Once the picture was perfected, he inscribed the essential outlines
in the soft dark undercoat and any models who were not immediately
needed could relax. Then, he painted the model who was still standing
with white paint. Using the incisions, he fitted the various figures
into the composition one by one and subsequently completed the painting.
Ramon van de Werken
Dokkum july 1992