What is it to be a “new master” in the visual arts?
Over the past decade, I’ve pursued mastery in figurative, oil painting. I actually had a plan: get a Bachelor of Fine Art (BFA) in Drawing, a Masters of Fine Art (MFA) in painting, and possibly a Ph.D. in something art-related. I wanted to know my subject matter thoroughly, I wanted to master it.
I followed my plan closely. Only after becoming proficient in both painting and drawing would I study the history of beauty. I received my BFA in drawing, attended two MFA programs in painting (though I only finished one), and am currently in a Ph.D. program in aesthetics. I perused through hundreds of historical and contemporary manuals on art techniques throughout this process. I practiced consistently and diligently and yet I still don’t see myself as a master.
I learned proficiency is not mastery.
In order to understand what a Master artist is I found answers looking back to a time when mastery was respected above all else: the Italian Renaissance.
A certain word pops up in the Italian Renaissance: sprezzatura. This beautifully sounding term was used when an artwork seemed so effortlessly done yet all its elements fall perfectly into place. Sprezzatura was first coined by Italian courtier, Baldassare Castiglione. Castiglione was best known for The Book of the Courtier, which discusses the qualities of the ideal courtier.
In The Book of the Courtier, Castiglione suggests that all beautiful things possess a grace that is acquired by making “use in all things a certain sprezzatura, which conceals art and presents everything said and done as something brought about without laboriousness and almost without giving it any thought.” (1).
Castiglione describes the ideal Courtier using sprezzatura by being kind courageous and mannerly, without revealing the effort put into becoming kind, courageous, and mannerly. It’s almost as if ideal courtiers should appear as if the quality of their character springs naturally from within themselves. In other words, sprezzatura means getting so good at something that the execution of it appears effortless.
My Mom used to always say: “You have to crawl before you can walk.” I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing many toddlers learn to walk. They fail repeatedly over and over again. They are not getting frustrated, they just get up and try again. Once toddlers get the hang of walking, as clumsy as they might be, they try running. They fall while running, and though they may cry at the pain that results from the fall, they rarely cry from their inability to run. Later, they just try again.
Fast forward ten years, and we have a young adult who has mastered walking. They’ve become so good at walking that they don’t think about it while doing it. In other words, they don’t ask: “How do I walk today?” We walk with confidence — we add sprezzatura to each step we take — when we master walking. Having sprezzatura allows us to bend what we master to our will; it allows us to add a certain personal flair to what we produce. Through sprezzatura, our mastery of walking becomes dancing, running, sliding, jumping, and each of these comes with its own degree of mastery.
So, how might sprezzatura teach me about mastery in the visual arts, specifically figurative, oil painting?
In 1435, Italian Renaissance artist and author, Leon Battista Alberti wrote On Painting about painting the human figure:
“.. just as for a clothed figure we first have to draw the naked body beneath and cover it with clothes, so in painting a nude the bones and muscles must be arranged first, and then covered with appropriate flesh and skin in such a way that it is not difficult to perceive the position of the muscles. Nature clearly and openly reveals all these proportions, so the zealous painter will find great profit from investigating them in Nature for himself. Therefore, studious painters should apply themselves to this task, and understand that the more care and labor they put into studying the proportions, the more it helps them to fix in their minds the things they have learned.” (2).
According to Alberti, painting the figure well requires an understanding of the proportions of the skeleton in order to sketch the figure in different poses; it requires understanding to design form that occurs when skin covers muscles and bones, and it requires understanding how clothing drapes on these forms.
Alberti suggests that this level of mastery is achieved through the study of nature, but nature never shows us human beings created like this. I can’t remember a day when nature showed me a human being constructed from the inside out. Except for the time I drew from a human cadaver, I’ve only ever seen humans with skin.
Alberti is calling for the ability to accurately construct the human figure from our imaginations by first studying the human figure inside-out. Leonardo da Vinci is one Italian Renaissance artist who took Alberti up on the challenge. He performed dozens of dissections to increase his understanding of the human body (3).
In his notebooks, Leonardo reiterates Alberti’s claims to achieve mastery in painting the human figure:
“That painter who has knowledge of the chords, muscles, and tendons will know well in moving a limb which chord is the cause of its motion, and which muscle in swelling is the cause of the contraction of this chord, and which chord, transformed into thinnest cartilage, surrounds and binds together the said muscle… It is better for you and more useful to be practiced in such variety and to have committed to memory” (4).
Memorization is important for mastery. The practice of accurately representing the skeleton, muscles, morphology, and effects of light to the point that their representations are memorized is the beginning of possessing mastery and expressing sprezzatura. I don’t possess sprezzatura if I need a reference every time I attempt to paint a figure unless, of course, I’m a portrait painter, in which case sprezzatura may be expressed in capturing the essence of the sitter or through the playfulness of brushstroke. In either case, going beyond the reference is necessary to express sprezzatura. We cannot simultaneously be slaves to the reference and masters of our craft.
From Alberti and Leonardo, I take several things for my own pursuit of mastery. I don’t have the means to dissect cadavers, but these extremes are no longer necessary for constructing the human figure from the inside-out. Mastery is achievable if I focus and study the human anatomy to the point that it is memorized and becomes second nature. Like the toddler who masters walking and later moves to dance, I’ll be able to express the full playfulness of my imagination through the mastery of the human figure. Only then will I be able to conceal the efforts I’ve put into learning my craft and express myself with sprezzatura. The real question for all of us pursuing mastery is: are we up to the challenge?
According to New Masters Academy founder Joshua Jacobo, the term New Master has always meant the potential of us as students to achieve mastery just like the great old masters of the past.
New Master Academy courses such as “Constructive Figure Drawing” with Steve Huston and “Build Your Own Anatomy Figure” and “Human Anatomy For Artists” with Rey Bustos help set a groundwork for mastering the human figure.
(1). Castiglione, Baldasare. “Book I.” The Book of the Courtier.
(2). Alberti, Leon. “Book II.” On Painting. Trans. by Cecil Grayson, Penguin Books, 2004, p.72.
(3). Sooke, Alistair. “Leonardo da Vinci’s Groundbreaking Anatomical Sketches.” BBC,
(4). Leonardo. On Painting. Edited by Martin Kemp, Yale University Press, 1989, p. 130.
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