An Artist Date with Tintoretto

A photo of Tintoretto's self-portrait

There’s something called a weekly artist’s date. It’s not some I came up with. I got it from a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, a kind of old-school new-age hippie guide that’s supposed to help you unleash the artist inside of you. Anyway, a weekly artist’s date is meant to be something you schedule for yourself to appreciate art with someone else. That is, the date is meant to be between you as an artist, and someone else, presumably another artist.

And so, in finding myself in need of inspiration, I trekked over to the National Gallery of Art this past Friday to go on my first artist date.

His name, my date that is, was Tintoretto. And as he would make clear to me during the hour and a half we spent together, he’s still kind of a big deal despite being dead for over 400 years. In fact, the Smithsonian has three different exhibitions featuring his work in visual art. There’s “Drawing in Tintoretto’s Venice,” “Venetian Prints in the Time of Tintoretto,” and “Tintoretto: Artist of Rennaissance Venice” (the only of which is still on display at the National Gallery of Art. But only until July 7, so if you want to catch him, you’ll need to get there soon).

As I learned from reading the captions accompanying Tintoretto’s paintings throughout the exhibitions, he was widely regarded in 16th century Venice as someone who hated rules so much, he made it a habit to always break them. His painting and drawing style apparently diverged from what was in vogue at the time and was often criticized as appearing unfinished.

Photo of a compositional study by Tintoretto
Tintoretto was known to study his subjects and sketch them at length before painting them. Photo by Will Schick

This was the first of many things I’d learn about Tintoretto that made me feel for him. Not that I’m anywhere near the caliber of his genius, but I can empathize with his having to deal with this type of criticism. When is art ever finished? Finished is a euphemism for death, and looking at Tintoretto’s work, I venture to guess that Tintoretto wanted all his work to appear that way.

Left unfinished, his work appeared to be alive with this mystical glow. And I understand that my saying this will be taken metaphorically. But I assure you, Tintoretto’s figures, literally glow. They jump off the canvas in such a way they seem to come from another world.

Photo of Tintoretto's painting called "The Creation of the Animals"
“The Creation of the Animals,” 1550, by Tintoretto. Photo by Will Schick
A photo of a sculpture Tintoretto studied
A statue like the one pictured was studied by Tintoretto to make the sketch below. Photo by Will Schick
A photo of a Tintoretto sketch
Tintoretto studied sculpture as a means to improve his own craft. Photo by Will Schick

Tintoretto painted portraits, not out of any desire to paint portraits I learned, but to make money. He was a kind of entrepreneur who understood the value of getting his name out there. If all the people of status had their portraits painted by him, the logic supposedly was, that Tintoretto could get more publicity by hiring himself out to paint them. He didn’t just stop at portraits. Tintoretto also often painted other work that he donated to various government offices and public buildings throughout Venice. In the end, Tintoretto became well-known.

And I can’t help but draw lessons from Tintoretto’s life. While I enjoyed gazing at his amazing work, I also enjoyed learning about how he addressed the professional obstacles that were in his way. He approached his art, not just from an artist’s sense (by no means was he a recluse at all), but he also saw how he could make a life out of this. And so now, we have exhibits still filled with visitors from all over the world, who travel to gaze up at his art.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t remark on Tintoretto’s interesting craft philosophy. He liked to do compositional studies of bodies much like other Renaissance painters and artists of his time, but he also enjoyed doing sketches of sculptures. He believed in sketching sculptures so much, he ended up employing this practice in his own workshop, and taught his kids to do the same thing as well.

Seeing his sketch drawings (which are like the painter’s equivalent of an outline draft for writers like me), gave me goosebumps, as I thought about how I approach my own work. Tintoretto was a man who believed in drafts and outlines it seems.


Author: Will Schick

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