How Caravaggio Painted: A Re-Creation of the Great Master’s Process

His dark, dra­mat­ic works incor­po­rate the kind of light­ing we asso­ciate with hor­ror films. Fig­ures, twist­ed and con­tort­ed in tor­tu­ous pos­es, emerge from deep, black shad­ows. Instead of beatif­ic smiles, his saints wear gri­maces and fur­rowed frowns, as in The Denial of St. Peter, one of the few Car­avag­gios in the U.S., and a can­vas depict­ing the weak­est moment in the life of the Gospel char­ac­ter whose name means “the rock.” Caravaggio’s work came to be called tene­brism after the Latin for “dark or obscure,” for both its style and its sub­stance.

There’s lit­tle evi­dence that Car­avag­gio (1571–1610) was a prac­ti­tion­er of the occult arts, but he was unafraid to look into the dark­est realms of the human psy­che, and to depict them on can­vas. He was also drawn to artist’s mod­els who looked weath­ered and worn down by life, and his hyper-real­is­tic Bib­li­cal scenes scan­dal­ized many peo­ple and thrilled more, and made him the most famous painter in Rome, for a time.

Car­avag­gio him­self was a scan­dalous char­ac­ter who brawled and for­ni­cat­ed his way through Rome, then in exile in Naples, where he died an ear­ly death at age 38, from either an unspec­i­fied fever or lead poi­son­ing. (A new film by Ital­ian actor and direc­tor Michele Placido imag­ines Car­avag­gio in 1600, “a bril­liant and sub­ver­sive artist who lives with the bur­den of a death sen­tence. The shad­ow of a mer­ci­less, occult pow­er is about to loom over him.”)

He left no writ­ing behind, the details of his life are sketchy at best, and he fell into obscu­ri­ty for many years after his death, but not before his paint­ings showed the way for­ward for Baroque painters who fol­lowed him as Car­avaggisti or tene­brosi (“shad­ow­ists”), includ­ing such great mas­ters as Peter Paul Rubins and Rem­brandt. So, how did he do it? How did Car­avag­gio invent mod­ern paint­ing, as some crit­ics have claimed?

“The tes­ti­monies of his con­tem­po­raries are scarce and impre­cise regard­ing the pro­ce­dure he adopt­ed to com­plete his work,” notes the Artenet video above, an explo­ration of Caravaggio’s tech­nique. We do know a few details: he worked from mod­els, who held the acro­bat­ic pos­es in his paint­ings while he worked; he had a stu­dio in which light streamed in from above; and he worked quick­ly — “He could paint up to three heads in a sin­gle day.”

The lack of unfin­ished work by Car­avag­gio has made it dif­fi­cult to trace his process back­ward, but some evi­dence remains. See Caravaggio’s “entire pic­to­r­i­al process” recre­at­ed, and learn how a painter called “the mas­ter of light” made his lumi­nous fig­ures by sur­round­ing them with dark­ness.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Short Intro­duc­tion to Car­avag­gio, the Mas­ter Of Light

Liv­ing Paint­ings: 13 Car­avag­gio Works of Art Per­formed by Real-Life Actors

The Largest & Most Detailed Pho­to­graph of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch Is Now Online: Zoom In & See Every Brush Stroke

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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