The Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo Da Vinci
The Renaissance artist was a master craftsman with a refined understanding of the materials of his art. The need to learn about materials was one of the reasons for the lengthy apprenticeship of the fledgling artist. Each artist had to master a finite range of substances used in his particular specialty.
He dealt with simple materials used in combination, but because of a lack of knowledge of their chemistry, a good deal of his work was empirical in nature. Much guesswork and many mistakes were part of even the most sublime Renaissance paintings and sculptures, just as they are in the best modern works.
The Renaissance artist’s practical, clear understanding of the nature of his materials was complemented by his marvelous sense of their potential. From their earliest training, artists were taught to think of form and material as being totally fused, parts of a single whole. The great frescoes, panel paintings, and sculptures of the Renaissance are as much about material as they are about form or subject.
When he designed a fresco or a free-standing statue, the artist understood, from long years of experience, that its various forms had to be made a certain way to realize the potential of the chosen material. He knew, for instance, that he could extend a marble arm just so far; he knew that groups of figures in a fresco had to be arranged to allow them to be painted on a series of fresh plaster patches; and he knew all the characteristics of a certain blue pigment he wanted.