Monday, July 17, 2017

Antonio Mancini's Graticola

Antonio Mancini (1852-1930), whom Sargent called “the best living painter,” used a unique grid system for sight-size painting.



Mancini's system has been called the "graticola" or the "raster." It involved a network of strings stretched across a frame between the artist and the model, and a corresponding set of strings, exactly the same size, stretched directly on top of the painting itself.

The system was adapted from processes described by old masters such as Dürer and Leonardo.


By looking through the grid of strings, and then painting what he saw in each of the spaces between the strings, he could match painted reality to observed reality. 

The system required that the sitter remain exactly in the same position, and that Mancini always observe the model through one eye from a specific point in three-dimensional space. 

According to a witness in 1893, "He always works at a distance from his canvas, always returning to sit at precisely the same little spot that he carefully marked on the floor." 

He observed the painting and the model together, then advanced quickly and attacked the canvas to correct a small spot and make it match the values of subject. 



Many of the paintings bear the imprint of the grid. Presumably there would be a point in the process where you would lift the frame off the painting and blend together the patches to get rid of the lines. 

But reportedly Mancini liked leaving a hint of the squares because it endowed the paintings with a sense of objectivity and scientific accuracy.


Even though Mancini's paint technique can often be loose and gestural, there's a sense of objective realism hovering behind it. 

Mancini was a proponent of the Verismo movement, an Italian response to the striving for Realism in France.


Mancini was passionate about his use of the tool, saying “the advantages I derive from it are unlimited.” 


I've selected samples that show the influence of the grid, but to be fair, many of his other paintings don't show the evidence of the process.


In addition to the horizontal and vertical strings, he also used diagonal grid lines. Sitters reported that he added strings to the grid during the painting process. 

Presumably the diagonal strings helped him locate individual squares and they also gave additional bounding lines to compare to the form.

For all the precision and objectivity of his method, Mancini was in extreme emotional states during the process of painting: "at one moment he is grieved to his soul, then he is singing happily- then livid and wild- every square of tone shows what you get out of him- every little square he paints is another little piece of his sanity lost- it won’t be long before he runs out. I hope that I’m mistaken in this, but… the great genius that leads to madness tosses and turns in his head incessantly."
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Online Resources
Mancini's Graticola by Matthew Innis (more on sources of quotes)
Juan Ramirez did a Kickstarter project to reconstruct the graticola
Carolyn Anderson's blog "Fractals, Chaos, and Mancini's Graticola"
Antonio Mancini on Lines and Colors
Wikipedia article on Mancini
Thanks to Darren Rousar for telling me about the graticola.
Exhibition Catalog: Antonio Mancini: Nineteenth-Century Italian Master (Philadelphia Museum of Art)


6 comments:

dragonladych said...

Interesting. The method was adapted by Betty Edwards in her book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I hope to make a "proper" working easel and adapt a grid at the top to help with getting proportions right, and teach this to my students.

A Colonel of Truth said...

Essentially 3-D tracing, so it seems. Less precision more interesting, to me. But fascinating indeed - for there's many a way to skin that darn pesky cat!

Ava Jarvis said...

This is a tangent, but I've been thinking on and off about what I think of as "more direct drawing aids" when it comes to things like angles and proportions. It's a spectrum—there's eyeing everything, there's doing comparative measurements with your brush or pen, there's ever so many variants of projection and gridding, and then there's various levels of tracing. And in theory these measures are helpful—how can they not be?

But if that is the case, then why is it that when I look at works where the artist traced a photograph directly, which seems like it should be the most helpful method, that something is very often... missing? The human face in particular is strongly affected in a creepy uncanny valley sense, but even a vase of flowers can have issues.

It's perplexing, and I looked through older blog posts on your blog, and the most I can figure is that tracing invokes the uncanny valley strongly if you aren't skilled enough to draw on your own. But I don't know why this is so.

If tracing can have this uncanny valley effect when the drawing fundamentals are lacking, do grids also have a similar effect in similar circumstances? Why is this?

James Gurney said...

Ava, I like the way you posed that question, and it's something I've been thinking about too. I've also made a list of the continuum of drawing aids. It includes all sorts of things like knitting needles for measuring, calipers, plumb bobs, viewfinders, grids, mirrors, reducing glasses, along with various and camera lucidas and obscuras, all the way to photo projectors and even painting directly over a photo or combining photo elements digitally.

I agree with what (I think) you're saying: all of these can potentially be useful tools as long as they don't lead to that uncanny valley feeling you're talking about, or what I sometimes call "photodependency" and as long as they don't provide a substitute for direct observation and careful drawing.

How to avoid that problem? I believe every picture—even a very realistic one—has to begin with a purely imaginative idea, a kind of archetype or ideal, a mental image. Perhaps the key is that the artist has to keep that ideal image in mind and allow it to shape all the artistic decisions, even if they're working in a photo-real mode. That might mean eliminating or downplaying some unimportant things, emphasizing focal points, manipulating and grouping values and finessing colors, and perhaps exaggerating or caricaturing some elements if necessary. Rockwell generally did that, even in his later, more Photo-derived work. It takes a strong artistic spirit to override the random information, the "compelling force of reality" that these optical aids offer.

Dragonlady, I'll have to check Betty Edwards. I forgot she talked about it.

Colonel, yes, many ways, and artists have always been experimenting with it.

Ava Jarvis said...

That was what I was saying, and you phrased it much better.

And what you say about every picture needing to begin with a sort of ideal mental image, I agree with.

I feel like perhaps this covers an aspect of direct observation that I'd never thought about much, which is that even with very direct methods of measurement, an artist still has to make crucial decisions. I always feel like those decisions are the hardest to deal with when I'm drawing, even if proportion and angles on a particular subject can be challenging to eye, and I often wished that someone could have pointed out which ones mattered beyond "get the single point perspective right."

I eventually learned more about composition separately from observational drawing, and I often feel like had I known more about composition—and other subjects—I could have made better observations somehow, but I couldn't exactly explain why.

James Gurney said...

You said it, Ava. Composition involves every aspect of picturemaking, not just placement in the rectangle. When you think of all the artistic decisions a photographer must make (such as depth of field, exposure, color, etc, etc.), there is artistry throughout the whole process, and that's why I think every traditional painter should know about photography and digital methods, even if it's just to inform what they do with their eyes and hands alone. But of course compared to what the photographer can do, we artists can distort and manipulate every aspect of the picture. And it's often the aspects of reality that we eliminate, distort, or degrade that makes an image seem "artistic."