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Subject: ‘Famous artists’
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Posted in Art, Artist, Arts and Crafts, Famous artists, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 22 May 2013
This edited article about John Flaxman originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 262 published on 21 January 1967.
Thetis bringing the armour to Achilles, from designs by John Flaxman
Time and the weather have not improved the old brown plaque which tells observant passers-by that John Flaxman once lived at No. 7 Greenwell Street, near Portland Place.
The son of a man who made plaster casts and models for some of the leading sculptors of the day, John Flaxman was in close contact with artists from the start. He lived, and later worked, at his father’s shop ‘at the sign of the golden head’ in New Street, Covent Garden.
At first there seemed little future for him, for he was puny, crippled and could move only on crutches. His parents allowed him to sit at the back of the shop, where he amused himself drawing, modelling and trying to read Latin. It was his only schooling.
John’s activities soon drew the attention and encouragement of the customers, and he received his first commission for a series of drawings at a very early age. His health improved as he grew older, and his talent for drawing brought unusually speedy recognition. At 12, he gained a first prize awarded by the Society of Arts, and repeated the performance three years later. And at the same age, he contributed to the exhibitions of the Free Society of Artists and the Royal Academy. By 1770, he was a Royal Academy student and his work gained him a silver medal.
Through his father’s business, Flaxman made contact with Josiah Wedgwood, who employed him to prepare wax models for the classical friezes and the portrait medallions for which Wedgwood chinaware is now famous.
Increasingly, Flaxman felt the urge to see Rome and meet the artists who worked there. He left England for this purpose in 1787, with a commission from Wedgwood to supervise the sculptors and designers he employed in Italy.
He was so excited by Rome that he stayed there seven years instead of the two he had intended. When he returned, he brought with him illustrations he had prepared for works of the classical poets, and these were engraved for him by his friend William Blake.
While in Italy, he had experimented with sculpture in marble. His work was noticed, and by the time he returned he was virtually a free-lance monumental sculptor. His work is to be found in Westminster Abbey, in the cathedrals of Winchester, Chichester, Gloucester and in many smaller English churches.
Posted in Art, Artist, Famous artists, Historical articles, History, Royalty on Monday, 20 May 2013
This edited article about Spanish painters originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 259 published on 31 December 1966.
In the summer of 1625, a young African boy set out to travel from Seville in Southern Spain to Madrid, the capital.
The boy, Juan de Pareja, was worried and uncertain about the future. He was a slave whose mistress had recently died, and he had been ‘inherited’ by her nephew, a famous painter called Velazquez.
In those days it was the custom for rich Spaniards to have their own personal slaves. Some of the slaves were treated cruelly, but others were often pampered and spoilt by their owners.
The latter had been the case with Juan. His mistress had been a prominent member of Seville society, and it had pleased her to dress him up as if he were a ‘pet monkey’.
Juan, who had been ‘born into slavery’, realised how lucky he was not to be ill-treated. Even so, he resented being dressed in a suit of brilliant blue silk, with an orange-and-silver turban on his head, and one of his mother’s ear-rings dangling from his right ear.
He also felt that his duties were ‘unmanly’, and not at all suitable for a sturdy twelve-year-old.
But there was one thing for which Juan was always grateful to his Mistress – she taught him his alphabet, so that he could write a ‘fair hand’ and copy out her letters for her.
When his mistress died in a plague which struck Seville, Juan was told by a magistrate that he must go to Madrid, together with the rest of his mistress’s belongings. He was now owned by the painter, Don Diego Velazquez, whose portraits of King Philip IV and his family were soon to win him world prestige.
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Posted in Art, Artist, Famous artists, Historical articles, History, London on Saturday, 4 May 2013
This edited article about John Constable originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 241 published on 27 August 1966.
The plaque commemorating John Constable, the painter, can be found on the wall of No 76 Charlotte Street. This old and battered house, although his home from 1822, was far removed from the windmill at East Bergholt, Suffolk, where he was born.
Even though it was clear from his youth that he had a strong artistic bent, his father intended to put him into the Church to follow the career of a priest. After consideration it was decided that he would be better employed as a miller like his father. So, for a time, John Constable was a miller. During this phase that lasted only a year he spent much of his time sketching in the fields near the mill. At this point his father gave up and was persuaded into letting his son go to London to study art. Constable returned only once to his father’s work, this time as a clerk, but he did not stay. He was then fortunate enough to be admitted to the Royal Academy as a student on 4th February, 1799.
Significantly, his first picture shown at a Royal Academy exhibition in 1802 was a landscape. This drew the attention of West, the president of the Academy, and led him to tell Constable that ‘light and shade never stand still’, and it was this advice that Constable later said was the best he had ever received. Simple advice, but it made a great change in Constable.
His painting became well outside traditional methods and styles acceptable in his day and his experiments were also too original, and his way of seeing and his manner of expressing himself were also entirely new. Moreover, he had followed the styles of none of the fashionable artists, and it was not until 1814, when he was 38, did he sell a picture to a stranger. He had to wait a long time, too, before he could marry the girl of his choice, as she was the daughter of a prosperous solicitor and he just a miller’s son and an unsuccessful artist, the match was considered unsuitable. He won her eventually despite the opposition and carried her off to London.
His house was by that time full of unsold paintings and he held public exhibitions there but with little effect. One day a Frenchman bought the picture now known as The Hay Wain and another showing a reach of the Thames near Waterloo Bridge. This was a lucky sale, for the Frenchman took the pictures to Paris and exhibited them there. At last his painting achieved the recognition it deserved. The vivacity and freshness of his work caused great excitement among the French. The French king, Charles X, awarded Constable the first of several gold medals and the path to wider recognition seemed to be open.
However, in England nothing had changed and it was not until 1829 that he was elected a member of the Royal Academy. Still people would not buy his work and he died a bitterly disappointed man only eight years later. Afterwards some of his friends, determined that his countrymen should see that which they had rejected, bought The Cornfields and presented it to the National Gallery, where it may still be seen.
Posted in Art, Art competition, Artist, Arts and Crafts, Famous artists, Historical articles, History on Friday, 12 April 2013
This edited article about the Royal Academy of Arts originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 224 published on 30 April 1966.
Private View Day at the Royal Academy
On April 26, 1769, scores of ladies and gentlemen of fashion crowded into a small room in Pall Mall, London. They were there to see the first exhibition of painting and sculpture to be held by the Royal Academy of Arts.
It all began on December 10, 1768, when King George III granted a charter establishing a society for promoting the Arts of Design and authorizing an annual exhibition of works by contemporary artists. It was decreed that there should be forty members called “Academicians,” and the king appointed Sir Joshua Reynolds as the Academy’s first president. Ever since then the reigning sovereign has had the right of approving the president, who is elected by his fellow Academicians.
Over ten thousand works of art are sent to the Academy each year. From these a body of Academicians called the “selection and hanging committee” choose about 1,500 entries to form the Summer Exhibition, which, since the end of the eighteenth century, has been held from the first Monday in May until after August Bank Holiday.
Every artist elected a member of the Royal Academy is presented with a diploma and has the right to put R.A. after his name. Before receiving the diploma the new Academician must present to the Academy a specimen of his or her art. In this way a valuable collection has been built up for exhibition in the Academy’s Diploma Gallery.
The Academy moved into its present home in Burlington House in 1869. Besides holding exhibitions, the Royal Academy maintains a school of art.
Posted in Art, Artist, Arts and Crafts, Famous artists, Historical articles, History on Thursday, 14 March 2013
This edited article about the woodcut print originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 196 published on 16 October 1965.
The art of printing from a wood-cut was one of the earliest known methods of reproducing a drawing other than by hand. In Britain it dates back to the Middle Ages, when pictures were carved in relief on a wooden block, covered with ink, and applied under pressure to illustrate hand-written religious manuscripts.
Such blocks were also used for printing playing-cards, which were coloured by hand afterwards. Later, with the development of printing, wood became the medium for reproducing whole books in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. Craftsmen cut out the pictures and text on wooden blocks, which were then inked by roller and applied to paper under pressure.
The first movable letters were also made of wood, and spaces were often left in the typescript for wooden picture-blocks to be printed in later. This accounts for many of the wood-cut illustrations of medieval books being slightly out of register.
One of the first great masters to use the method of wood-cutting to reproduce his works was the German artist Albrecht Durer (1492-1526), whose drawings were carefully copied on to wood by skilled craftsmen. His example was followed by other artists, including the portrait painter Hans Holbein.
From wood-cutting evolved the much finer art of wood engraving. For this more delicate process, a wider, sharper range of cutting tools was necessary, and the hard endgrain of wood was used instead of the softer broad surface. The result provided a better-wearing block giving much finer detail.
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Posted in Art, Artist, Famous artists, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 13 March 2013
This edited article about painting originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 191 published on 11 September 1965.
One of the biggest difficulties you have to learn to overcome in painting is how to arrive at the exact colours you require. You know that red and blue make purple and that yellow and red make orange, but how much of each colour should you use to get the tone you want?
The easiest way to find out about colours is to learn to paint in watercolours before you try oils. It is wiser, cleaner, less fussy and much less expensive. And what you learn in this way will serve in principle for later experiments in oils.
When painting in watercolours, you should have a spare piece of paper beside you to try out combinations on it before putting them to work. By this trial-and-error method with “splodges” of transparent colour, you will arrive much more quickly at what you want than by haphazard choice.
Oddly enough, early watercolourists did exactly the opposite. In achieving their pictures they applied their knowledge of traditional oils techniques, which after all came first. They drew out their subjects very carefully in pencil and one-colour (monochrome) wash in the same manner as the oil technique of grey under-painting called “grisaille.” Then they painted their colour over this.
Some artists did a two-stage “grisaille,” one for the foreground and one for the distance, while others went even further and made three under-paintings. These were usually executed in brown (sepia) for the foreground, blue (Antwerp blue, rather like Prussian blue) for the distance, and the two mixed for the middle distance. In this way they established the tone values of their distances before their final colour renderings.
Cozens, Cotman, Prout and many others all got beautiful results in this way, though in less masterly hands this over-disciplined manner resulted in dull, stilted paintings with no indication of “life.”
Gradually it was found, however, that by using a light drawing and faint washes, and by leaving the paper white for final colour stages, a freer, happier, brighter effect was obtained.
Nowadays some artists work straight away in colour without any drawing, achieving a marvellous clarity in their pictures. But it all depends upon the subject, and “grisailles” in weak colours are still used in most cases. Try painting direct, and see how far you get without making a mess!
Paper of various thicknesses and surfaces made up into “blocks,” can be bought, but apart from their convenience they are expensive. Many artists prefer to buy their chosen paper loose – and they are very particular what they buy. They then stretch or “drum” the paper on to a drawing board.
These boards are very convenient when work has to be handled frequently, as in commercial work, but there is little or no advantage beyond this. The rollers used in mounting the paper on to the board may destroy quite a lot of the surface texture.
Posted in Art, Artist, Famous artists, Historical articles, History on Monday, 11 March 2013
This edited article about art originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 185 published on 31 July 1965.
John Constable priming his canvas by Frank Lea
Painting in oils had an additional advantage over earlier methods, for which walls or ceilings had to be used, of permitting such surfaces as canvas to be employed. Canvas which is light in weight, can be stretched on a wooden frame, and when properly prepared is a delightful surface to work on.
Canvas can be expensive, however, and there are many cheaper alternatives, such as hardboard, which is widely used by studios.
Whatever surface you choose to paint on, the method of preparation will in general be the same.
The colour of the preparatory or “ground” coats can be white or any tone or colour desired. A dark or tinted ground can be painted with solid colour or “scumbled” to allow the ground colour to show through. A white ground can be worked on gradually by building up layers of solid, opaque paint, or by glazing with thin, rich colour, or by mixtures of both techniques.
Variations of the standard methods have been invented by ingenious painters through the centuries. To obtain a strong texture on the painted surface, some painters mix chalk, sand, or cement on the canvas or board and even mix these things with the pigments.
The permanence of these experiments cannot be known until some years have passed. Even famous artists have made disastrous mistakes. Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first President of the Royal Academy, used a paint containing bitumen because it gave a rich brown colour, but unfortunately it never properly dried and has ruined parts of some of his paintings.
But still the search for new methods goes on. In some present-day painting exhibitions by modern artists you can see even more extreme practices. Embedded in the paint you will sometimes see all sorts of strange objects – spanners, bits of clothing, pieces of card or paper, coloured pebbles – anything which comes to mind may be used.
All this is a long way from the careful craftsmanship of the early masters of oil painting such as the Van Eyck brothers, and the final judgement on the “moderns” will have to await the passing of time. At present we can only grumble or applaud according to the way we feel about the new ideas.
Posted in Art, Artist, Famous artists, Historical articles, History on Sunday, 10 March 2013
This edited article about painting originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 183 published on 17 July 1965.
The search for a reliable and convenient medium to mix with coloured powder for painting was going on centuries before the birth of Christ. The Ancient Greeks, and the Romans too, tried to solve the problem. Although famous for their sculptures, which can be seen today, they failed to produce equally durable paintings to anything like the same extent. Many materials were tried – vinegar, white of eggs, etc., but the discovery of painting in oils was still centuries away.
Up to, and during, the early Italian Renaissance period, the “fresco” method of wall painting on a large scale, and the mixing of powdered pigment with egg for smaller paintings, proved effective and lasting. However, at the beginning of the fifteenth century, a method of grinding the coloured pigment in linseed oil was discovered, and a new approach to painting was possible.
Tradition credits the Van Eyck brothers, Hubert and Jan, with the invention of painting in oils. Certainly it originated in Flanders. The brothers not only made use of the new method, but brought it to a very high degree of perfection. Their paintings have withstood the ravages of time and climate better than some works painted centuries later.
In contrast with castor oil and olive oil which never “set,” linseed oil, poppy oil, and nut oil are known as “drying” oils and can be used for painting. In the course of time, they develop, chemically, a hard, durable skin. Yet they dry slowly enough to allow the painter to manipulate the paint in many different ways at his convenience. The quick drying “fresco” and egg tempera methods and other earlier techniques lacked this facility. Blending tones and colours together was easier with oil as a medium. The Italian painters adopted the new painting technique which then spread throughout the Western world.
Varnishes and resins can also be used, mixed with a drying oil as a painting vehicle. For instance, a popular mixture is one part each of linseed oil, copal varnish and turpentine. Copal is a hard resin varnish, but a soft resin like dammar or mastic may be used instead.
A varnish can be used to give a final protective coating to a picture, but only when the paint has dried thoroughly – certainly not before six months have elapsed after completion of the picture. To give a temporary gloss to an oil painting before that time, a thin, soft resin varnish may be applied – usually called a “re-touching” varnish.
In earlier times the paint powder was ground with the oil as the painter required it. His assistants in his studio or workshop did this for him. With the decline of the apprenticeship system there arose a number of commercial firms with the equipment to provide ready mixed paint and store it in tubes such as you can buy in an artist’s colourman’s shop today.
This is very convenient but you must remember that there is already a certain quantity of oil mixed with the paint in the tube and to use too much additional oil on the palette is bad practice and will make your painting go gradually more and more yellow as it ages.
Posted in Architecture, Art, Artist, Famous artists, Historical articles, History, Religion on Saturday, 9 March 2013
This edited article about painting originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 181 published on 3 July 1965.
An artist and his assistants painting a fresco in a church using a cartoon, by Frank Lea
The art patron’s order was for a huge wall painting. Common sense dictated that the method of painting chosen had to be reasonably easy and economical to execute; and a sense of history dictated that it had to be permanent.
This was the problem that faced the early painters and the way they solved it was by a method called Fresco painting.
The first known method of painting, called Tempera, was delicate, highly finished, very slow to execute, expensive, and once applied, could not be erased.
Such a method was quite unsuitable for the huge scale wall paintings demanded by the wealthy nobles and the Church in medieval and Renaissance times. But although Tempera painting came first, it was not superseded by Fresco. This style of painting was contemporary with Tempera – it was used only for wall pictures and, indeed, made the picture part of the wall.
This is how the great artists painted Frescos.
Firstly, the chosen stone or brick wall had a normal plaster coat applied – a coat that was roughened slightly in order to provide a “key” for the final surface.
While this was being done the artist was busy on his working drawing, called a cartoon. When this was completed it was traced on to the rough plaster, or, if the area to be covered was really large, it was enlarged from the drawing by covering it with squares.
You may have done some of this “squared” drawing yourself. All that happened was that the cartoon that had to be copied, or enlarged, was covered with squares and then an identical number of larger squares were placed upon the wall, and the drawing repeated a square at a time.
The artist traced his drawing on to the rough plaster using charcoal, or a substance called sanguine earth. Bold, simple outlines were used and brushed in with umber and pure water – just enough to stain the rough plaster.
Usually this part of the job was done by pupils and studio apprentices under the watchful eye of the master.
The final plastered surface, upon which the picture was to be painted, was prepared from finely sifted river sand mixed with lime. This mixture was laid on the rough wall in one of the shapes made by the cartoon and the artist then set to work upon that section, finishing it while the plaster was still wet. Then the next section would be plastered, and so on.
While the artist worked the plasterer stood by him in case he made a mistake. The error was promptly scraped off and replaced by a fresh layer of plaster – no doubt to the accompaniment of a display of bad temper and some choice medieval Italian!
The Fresco paints were powdered colours – mostly earths mixed with a solution of lime and water. Blues and bright greens were avoided as much as possible because of their tendency to fade.
As soon as they were applied these colours soaked into the wet plaster completely and at once, and coat upon coat was administered until the desired hue was achieved.
The art of Fresco painting was brought to perfection in the fourteenth century. Among the great painters who used the method were Pietro Della Francesco, Fillipo Lippi, and his pupil, the great Botticelli; and later Leonardo da Vinci painted his masterpiece The Last Supper, in Fresco.
Posted in Art, Artist, Famous artists, Historical articles, History on Friday, 8 March 2013
This edited article about paintiing originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 179 published on 19 June 1965.
If you could have looked in on a famous artist at work on a painting at the height of the Renaissance you might have thought that some of the materials around him were more suited to a kitchen than an artist’s studio.
You might, for instance, have seen him rolling an egg yolk in the palms of his hands and mixing his paints with wine or vinegar.
What the artist was doing was commonplace among the artists of his day – he was simply preparing his paints for the Tempera method of creating a picture.
Tempera is the very earliest known method of painting. The ancient Chinese, Greeks, Egyptians and Romans all used basically similar Tempera methods to the one in use in Western Europe until the time of the Renaissance.
The artist began by preparing a board of rigid wood panels, or fabrics glued to wood panels. To this base many thin coatings of plaster of paris and size were applied until the surface became pure white and as smooth as ivory.
These coatings, or washes, of plaster of paris and size were called Gesso washes and some of the great Renaissance painters, like Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, used to apply them to sheets of thick paper which they then used for their ordinary framed paintings.
Next the artist drew the outline of his picture on a piece of paper. This paper was then placed upon the Gesso-coated panel and the outline, or cartoon as it is properly called, traced on to it by punching small holes through the cartoon and forcing black charcoal powder through the holes.
When the paper was taken away, what the artist had was his cartoon traced by a series of charcoal dots. The dots were then outlined with a thin brush dipped in water mixed with umber – a neutral colour which simply stained the plaster coating.
Why this complicated ritual of planning the drawing separately and then putting it on the panel afterwards? The principal reason is that erasure, overpainting, scratching out – all the techniques used by modern artists to rub out their errors – are impossible on a Gesso panel: the picture has to be right first time and any mistakes cannot be erased.
The next job was to prepare the colours. They were finely ground, first with a pestle and mortar and then with a palette knife, on a marble slab and mixed with egg yolk plus a little wine, beer or vinegar.
These may seem strange ingredients for a painter to be using, but the egg and wine, beer or vinegar were simply added because they preserved the paint applied to the picture.
It is from this technique that the name Tempera evolved: the colours were “tempered” or mixed with and diluted by another medium.
Tempera colours dried very quickly so that each time the artist began a new session on his painting he had to grind and mix his colours afresh. Today’s Tempera artist can add a drop of Formalin or oil of cloves to prevent the egg going rotten.
One of the problems with the Tempera method was that because the paint dried so quickly it was impossible to fuse the colours together. So the artist had to paint areas of flat colour on to the panel and merge them into each other by “hatching” or “stippling” methods.
You can imagine that Tempera painting was very slow and tedious, but the finished effect had a beautiful luminous quality and the painting appeared even more transparent than a picture painted with watercolours.
Painters found that there were, however, certain disadvantages in using Tempera over large areas, so that in time the technique was gradually superseded by the Fresco method of painting.
Tempera is still used by some painters today, but of course new formulas have made the method easier and quicker to apply.