Barocci: Charcoal as Basis, Structure, and Life Force

This gorgeous preliminary study by Federico Barocci (1526-1612), Studies for the Hands of the Virgin Mary for the Annunciation, allows the viewer a rare glimpse inside the creative process of a renowned master who lived and worked centuries ago. The piece offers an incredible array of techniques, outcomes, and possibilities equally relevant to artists of our time; we can easily follow Barocci’s train of thought as he creates broad marks and outlines in charcoal, bringing them to vivid life through the hyper-realistic use of pastel.

Drei Studien fr eine erhobene Hand und eine Hand, die ein Buch h„lt

Remarkably, even when rendered only in charcoal lines, the hands already resonate with life, vibration, and movement. Nothing has been embellished or filled in, and yet everything is stated, energized, and recorded. With the addition of pastel, Barocci brings light and texture into play. The Virgin’s hands appear absolutely real, and exude a warm, relaxed quality. One feels the textural immediacy of the flesh, as if one could reach out and hold her hand. This becomes an incredible accomplishment when we remember that we are only looking at a quick trial, a series of thoughts and gestures experimentally set down upon the unique, blue-tinted paper.

How many elements do you notice in this study that could potentially be applied to your own work? Barocci is obviously experimenting with hand shape, as two fully-described possibilities rest before us within the realm of the composition; a third, off to the right, is left uncompleted. The artist uses rough gestures in white to indicate the play of light, and darker, blurred ones to indicate shadow and quality of movement. Mary’s hands seem to flutter and dance across the page, and one can almost hear the pages of the book rustling as a result. Warmth and life are imparted through judicious use of color and contrast.

The Renaissance masters continue to fascinate, hundreds of years later, for their ability to impel life, fully realized, to spring from the two-dimensional page. Barocci, an esthetic and technical pioneer, was widely celebrated in his own time and received an enormous degree of respect from his contemporaries. The charcoal foundations exemplified here represent the starting point for his kaleidoscopic paintings filled with emotion, vivid color, and deep historical and religious significance. Rubens studied his work, and Barocci’s vital influence upon the artist remains clear to this day.

Have you experimented with charcoal in combination with other media? Take a cue from the old masters, and make it a goal to see for yourself how color, texture, and choice of paper can enliven your own compositions.

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