One painting I recently came across on a trip to Rome was 'La Fornarina' by Raphael. I was surprised by my reaction to it, but standing in front of it, it was beautiful. In reproductions the features look generalized, or doll like. But I felt I was in the presence of someone alive, I was sharing the room with her. It was obviously painted in the presence of the model, with her full involvement in the process. The painting also seemed fresh, like it was just painted, although it actually was more than 500 years ago!
I had the thought that we as painters haven't really made much progress, oil painting was still pretty new when Raphael painted this. What were they doing so differently than us.
I see 2 big differences between then and now;
Over the last 150 years, we as artists have more and more access to anything we could want. We have lost the connection to the true process of painting. True, the studio system of the past meant that the artist did not do everything himself, but he oversaw everything, had the knowledge of how everything was made, formula's, materials, etc.
The second difference is how we look. Paintings of course weren't all painted from life, but looking at life, is what informs the understanding of the world. Again, about 150 years ago the way humans looked at the world changed forever. Photography, and later digital images have created the image such a mass produced commodity, that it's easy to capture what we see. This is also true when we begin to draw from life, your eye wants to make images that 'look' like photographs. Slowing down, and taking time to really look, and you can begin to know your subject in a way that a photograph probably wont tell you.
I've begun making paints from scratch. Grinding flax seeds into oil, and refining it by hand. Taking sheets of lead and trapping them in containers with vinegar to create lead white the way it's been made since antiquity. Taking samples of local earths that catch my eye, and making paint from them. All have given me more insight into the extraordinary effort it took to create paintings in times past, but also how much I've yet to learn. Without modern extenders each pigment truly behaves in unique ways. Learning how to best use each color has taken much trial and error.
Formally, my paintings seem somewhat simple. A portrait or some items collected into a still life, I tend to avoid symbolism, but ideas sneak in. Still lifes tend to talk of the idea of things being put on display, the flatness of the picture plane, maybe a decorative piece of fabric making reference to the painting as object.
Capturing a likeness is the bigger goal. So illusive. To create a likeness, and to make that into a painting which has a life of its own. To transform abstract brush marks, pushing oils around into something larger, has great appeal for me.