Copyright (C) Richard Terpolilli – – 2017

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I have given considerable thought to the title and content for today’s article, ‘What Master Artists  Teach Developing Fine Art Photographers.’  Most articles regarding fine art photography discuss vision, style, emotional response, and technique. However, little mention is given to the master artists from the 15th to 17th centuries and their ability to teach early twentieth century photographers.

Photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lang, and Yousuf Karsh can be seen using techniques in their photographs used by master artists from the past. As part of your development into fine art photography there are lessons to be learned from the master artists.

Rembrandt’s use of Chiaroscuro and his lighting effects used by today’s photographers


Art as we know it has been around for thousands of years. However, in my opinion art was born during the ‘High Renaissance’ extending into the ‘Baroque Era’ specifically ‘Dutch Realism.’ The term Renaissance is derived from the French word meaning ‘rebirth’ experienced between the 14th and 16th centuries.

Renaissance Art form focuses on Christian religious imagery using the classical influences of ancient Greek and Roman art. Masters such as da VinciMichelangelo, Raphael, and Caravaggio are famous for their array of poses with real lifelike expressions. Their use of color ranges are deep and rich to serene and harmonious. Form also ranges from well defined boarders to soft and shadowy undefined boarders. Other classic scenes include landscapes and portraits, as they relate to each other. Their’s is a stroke of genius with the masterful use of ‘chiaroscuro’ and ‘sfumato.’

A new type of fine art, Dutch Realism refers to the style of Dutch Baroque Art that flourished in the Netherlands after the Eighty Years War for Dutch independence (1568–1648) from Spain. There is a significant contrast from Renaissance Art. Theirs were oil painting only, smaller in size, consisting of everyday themes such as still life, genre painting, and portraiture recording daily life. Their palette is warm, rich and deep, with distinct contrasting colors pleasing to gaze upon. Master artists from this era include Rembrandt, and Frans Hals famous for their portraits, Jan Vermeer noted for his genre paintings depicting his subjects practicing their daily skills, and Pieter Claesz showcasing still life art.


As I mentioned I have struggled over the title and content of this article. Why? I’m not sure todays beginning fine art photographers will find interest in 15th – 17th century art. Perhaps I am influenced by the world as I hear it, i.e., immediate gratification and results are a priority towards accomplishment. I mean no offense and I may be totally off base with my perception on this subject, if so, I apologize.

When I mentored under Joel Tjintjelaar he spoke of the master artists from the past and their style as it applies to fine art photography. We discussed Julia Anna Gospodarou’s guide to vision from their book “From Basics to Fine Art……’ Julia states, “Look at the work of others, not only for inspiration, but see what has already been done, so you can do something new.” I confess I always did admire the Renaissance and Dutch artists but never thought to connect great art with contemporary fine art Photography.

Additionally, John Sevigny from his article ‘Study Old Pantings To Breathe New Life Into Your Photography’ points out that photography has a history of roughly 200 years compared to thousands of years for art. He states, “As the infant of the visual arts, photography inevitably draws upon the millennia of picture-making that came before it. The thousands of years of development, thought, research, and hard work that have marked the history of art can provide powerful sources of photographic inspiration.”


Raphael’s use of different expressions in one pose

Raphael (1483-1520) had command over everything that was Renaissance: technique, emotional feeling, Christian belief, and balance. In his painting Pope Leo X is sitting with two eminent cardinals of the time, having a sense of purpose. His use of different expressions within the same painting convey a sense of stillness, sternness, reflection, and tension in one pose. His expressions are realistic each person within the group of three present as a separate portrait with harmonious color and texture. Like Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael uses light to draw the eye of the viewer to the parts of the image that he wishes to be highlighted, the face and hands. This technique is used by todays portrait photographers world wide and precedes the famed Rembrandt lighting technique by nearly 150 years.


Caravaggio strong use of contrast between light areas and shadows are used by cinematographers today

Caravaggio’s (1564-1616) work is characterized by strong contrast between the light areas and shadows. His creations are realistic and contain dramatic lighting which unpopularized the Renaissance Mannerist style and paved the way for the age of Italian Baroque painting. His subjects disappear into darkness while the faces and hands are highlighted and the remaining areas blend into shadows. Famed cinematographers , Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, used Caravaggio’s influence to cast scenes creating amazing affects to evoke a range of emotions. Photographers in the early 20th century such as Brassai (Gyula Halasz), Edward Steichen, and Edward Weston used chiaroscuro as a foundation to their acclaimed work in photography and is still used by todays photographers.

Today’s acclaimed portrait photographers emulate Rembrandt’s warms soothing images from the 17th century

Rembrandt (1606-1669) is considered to be the greatest Dutch artist and the world’s foremost portrait artist. His masterpieces are cherished in galleries worldwide. The masters ability to gracefully massage light and dark reveal warm soothing creations. Rembrandt’s use of Chiaroscuro and his lighting effects on subjects are still used by acclaimed photographers to this day. Rembrandt’s careful attention is given to the areas surrounding the eye and nose which are bathed in subtle light, while the remainder of the face is hidden in shadows. His subject’s hands and body evoke a sense of emotional presence and depth. Rembrandt’s color palette is uniquely distinctive, rich and warm containing earth tones and shades of black.


Vermeer was a leader using 17th century technology, the camera obscure

Jan Vermeer 1632-1675) during his lifetime he was unrecognized and remained forgotten. During the 19th century Vermeer was rediscovered and is considered as one of the finest Dutch Genre Artists. His creations are rather enigmatic allowing his paintings to reveal their secrets to the viewer. His ability to manipulate dimension and space as well as applying shadow and light enable his paintings to come to life. Vermeer’s sophisticated work with Camera Obscure allowed him to capture the finest details on canvas. With his peculiar gadget, his shadow lines tend to appear much bolder making them appear as though they were very real. As a result his paintings had a three-dimensional view allowing his revolutionary style to live on until the present day.


Pieter Claesz (1597-1660) was one of the foremost still-life painters of the 17th century. Until Claesz, still life paintings were not very significant. Since his arrival his still life creations have reestablished standards that have withstood the test of time. He was the first artist to embody everyday objects such as simple tableware pewter, pottery and plain food such as fish, shellfish, apples, cheese, a peeled lemon with a glass of beer or a rummer of wine. His ability to paint a burning candle highlighting his creations were lifelike and natural. Claesz had the skill to place them on a perfectly painted white tablecloth using light and texture to his advantage. To this day all artists consider this to be the most difficult of materials to paint and appear naturally real. His ability to incorporate pleasing complimentary backgrounds into his still life images largely remains ambiguous but is nonetheless an integral part of his style.  Still life food photographers studying Claesz’s mouthwatering paintings from the 17th century would boost attention to today’s published cook books by world class chefs.

Claesz established standards in the 17th century for still life that still exist today

Claesz’s, Stoneware, Berkmeyer, Smoking Utensils c, 1640


◦ In fine art, the term Sfumato derived from the Italian word fumo, meaning smoke refers to a blending of colors without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke to produce a soft, imperceptible transition between the differing tones as described by Leonardo Da Vinci.

◦ Chiaroscuro was a powerful technique in Renaissance Art and continued into the Baroque Era and Age of Dutch Realism and beyond. It continues as an important tool for present day photographers. Studying Mannerist, Baroque, and Dutch Realism painting is one way to help master the technique.

◦ Get Inspired, developing fine art photographers often look to contemporary fine art photographers for inspiration and that’s ok. Studying the masters and their creations will show dimensional presence and tonal gradations in a way that contemporary photographs cannot.

Jackson Pollock moving forward from the masters stated, “It doesn’t make much difference how the paint is put on as long as something has been said. Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement.” John Savigny indicates, “Painting is not photography — but it contains lessons that can make us better at what we do.”