This blog post is based on the writings and analysis of Xavier de Langlais on the Italian oil painting process and Titian’s approach, originally published in French, titled: “La technique de la peinture a l’huile“. (Main reference Pages 69-77)

Discover the groundbreaking characteristics that defined Titian’s pioneering “new way” of oil painting, from his innovative use of materials to his revolutionary techniques for execution. (Skip to section 5)
While Flanders, the birthplace of the oil painting process, maintained the strict tradition of the primitives for an extended period, Italy experienced a particularly rapid evolution in this art form. The time lag between the two regions is so pronounced that Titian, who preceded Rubens by a century (born in 1477, while Rubens was born in 1577), seems much closer to our modern sensibilities in terms of pure technique. Titian, the innovator, reaches out to us over Rubens’ shoulder, serving as the key figure in understanding the extraordinary evolution of Jan Van Eyck’s process beyond the Alps.

1 The Italian Departure from Flemish Tradition

When the Italians brought back Van Eyck’s secret (or what they thought was his secret) from Flanders, they initially conformed to the Flemish tradition, as evidenced by Antonello da Messina’s striking “Condottiere” at the Louvre. However, driven by their love for monumentality and trompe-l’oeil effects, they quickly realized that the Flemish technique derived from panel painting was ill-suited for large-scale decorative works. Their paste lost fluidity and transparency, becoming more opaque and thicker, deprived of much of its resin.

The Condottiere, housed at the Louvre Museum, Paris.

2 The Birth of the Modern Way

The light underpainting no longer served its purpose and was soon replaced by darker bistre preparations using glue or lead white. Reworking in full paste became the norm, and the cautionary rules about drying times and final varnishing were abandoned. Thus, the modern way of oil painting was born.

3 Titian’s Influence and Impact

Titian, a remarkable practitioner experienced in all the resources of his art, played a pivotal role in this evolution. However, his influence proved detrimental to pure technique. His method, imitated as the “absence of method,” inevitably compromised the material solidity of the painted work. Only Rubens, strongly imbued with Flemish traditions despite his superficial Italianism, could take advantage of the Venetian school’s innovations without taking too many risks.

It would be unfair to blame the rapid decline of the primitive technique solely on Titian’s influence. Nevertheless, the example of his success must have weighed heavily on the destinies of oil painting.

Man with a glove, c. 1520

The “Man with a Glove”, housed at the Louvre Museum, Paris.

4 Titian’s Mastery and Legacy

Let it be understood: Titian will remain one of the most prestigious creators of illusions of all time. His sense of composition, his grasp of essentials, and the richness of his means of expression, which allowed him to draw more from the oil process than any painter before, rank him among the greatest masters.

5 The New Way Inaugurated by Titian

The characteristics of the new way inaugurated by Titian can be defined as follows:

  1. Supports: Usually canvas stretched on a frame.
  2. Paste: More oily than resinous, foreshadowing our current way.
  3. Underpainting: Opaque with oil, in a brown range (which inevitably repelled and influenced the upper layers).
  4. Diluent: A mixture of equal parts turpentine (or Gamsol) and oil, with a little more resin. In the glazes: an oil and copal varnish with the addition of turpentine or even, sometimes, used pure.
  5. Execution: With a brush and finger, according to a personal technique that eliminates details and gives full value to the canvas’s texture. The thumb smear was mainly used to connect shadow to light with a very fine gradient obtained with minimal means.

6 Titian’s Working Process

As for the different stages of work, the succession of paint layers (very numerous) did not prevent the painter from adhering to strict drying times between color layers. Having a large number of canvases in the underpainting state, he only resumed work on them after several months. Titian considered these reworkings a normal means of expression, a perfectly authorized path to reach the fullness of plastic expression.

7 The Disciples’ Deviation

His disciples, however, forgot the master’s restrictions, retaining only the most questionable innovations from a technical point of view: the use of brownish underpainting, the use of a very oil-rich binder, and, above all, the resumption of work on thick paste layers over insufficiently dried under-layers.