Quality and the Professional Artist’s Process

What is an example of quality?  Is quality based on aesthetics, style, or materials?  These are some questions to ponder when thinking about quality and the professional artist’s process.

Purpose and Quality

In John Canaday’s, “ The Lives of the Painters”, chapter one includes a description of an event that happened on June 9th, 1311 in Siena, Itlay. A devout and celebratory crowd gathered at the door of Duccio, the master artisan’s studio.  From the doors of the studio a large panel of a Madonna and child was extracted with much fanfare.  The panel was in the center of a jumping and boisterous crowd.  The crowd began to move and parade the panel down the unpaved street lined with cobblestone buildings toward the town church.  It was a day of celebration, for the church will soon have an altar piece as soon as the crowd reaches the holy structure. 

This story struck me when I read it many years ago and the idea of it still means a lot to me. The idea is that during the middle-ages, when altar pieces were created by township artisans, the panels would represent so much to the community it would serve, that the whole town would enthusiastically celebrate its installation.

Cimabue, Maestà or Santa Trinita Madonna and Child Enthroned, 1280-90, tempera on panel, 385 x 223 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Early panel pieces were just that, typically made on a wood panel depicting crude symbolic portraits of religious figures.  Usually, the Virgin Mary and the Christ child were outlined. Then it was painted with a tempera and sometimes gold leaf would be applied.  If you see examples of these at a museum, it is obvious that some survive better than others.  The reasons may be exposure, or the craftsmanship and quality of materials were either lacking or superior, depending.

Traditional Process as Quality

Much later, particularly in oil painting during the renaissance, an entire tradition of processes developed.  These processes were passed on through the workshops of the “masters” that employed apprentices and workers.  Many of the processes were known for centuries as to be the way to “build” a painting properly.   Included were those skilled in making the wafts and weaves of linen or cotton into a canvas.  Those who knew how to cultivate the earth for materials to become ground pigment powders.  These powders would be mulled by those who knew how to turn the powders into paint. Various skills and disciplines were required to produce the quality of paintings for the court or the churches that they mirrored.

La Bottega del Pittore Giovanni Stradano

Subjectivity as Quality

Quality, these days especially, is a wide term.  As it pertains to art, we may derive quality based on style, or an aesthetic preference.  Quality in this sense is subjective to taste.  One may consider their style preference as “good art”.  Personally, I know of a lot of bad art that some consider, “good” because it simply suits them. though I cannot figure how or why.  Some equate expensive with quality. I generally consider this to be a false equivalency.  

Ideas and Process

The standard traditional methods of oil painting have been nearly abandoned in recent decades.  There may be many reasons for this.  Modern nineteenth century advents like the portable paint tube allowed artists to buy paint ready made from colorists and art supply shops.  Gone were the studios full of apprentices.  The artist could abandon the studio and work outdoors. The Impressionists spearheaded this practice as their movement’s primary purpose.  The burgeoning question of what could be considered art led to an abandonment of traditional practice altogether.  Artists were free to express themselves however they wished by experimentation of materials.  Think of Jackson Pollock and his cans of house paint for example. 

Artist Jackson Pollock dribbling sand on painting while working in his studio. (Photo by Martha Holmes//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images) Former fn: 50336384_10

Process as Primary

What occurred in the schools of art was a primary focus on the motivation or “the why” of making anything.   Artwork moved further and further from painting as it is classically understood.  Art was moving into the conceptual realm. Linguistics, light, the sun and earth, physical interaction, found objects, pop-culture, etc., became the materials for the artists to use.  The result produced “de-skilling” in the areas of primary drawing and painting. Nearly lost was the knowledge of the classic, traditional processes of building a painting for the purpose of longevity and permanence.  Some, as do I, would regard the latter as the earmark requirement of quality as equal to the subjective qualities of the image itself.


Next month, I would like to continue this topic and describe the processes that I employ to create the best product I know how, as an object of art.

In the meantime, I would like to say thank you to all of you who read, follow, or engage with this blog or my other platforms. 

Please take a moment to peruse my new public profile which has new artwork added to it often. 

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