Medieval Painting

Types of Painting


Panel Paintings

Duccio - Madonna and Child Triptych (London - National Gallery)

Panel paintings are works painted on a (usually) wooden panel or panels with the size ranging from that of a small book up to several metres in dimension. Larger panels were made of several boards joined together edge to edge. Each resulting panel was covered with a thin linen cloth glued to the front which concealed the joins between each board. This cloth was then coated with multiple layers of Gesso (a fine Plaster of Paris) which was rubbed smooth between each coat to provide a flat and stable surface on which to paint. Framing elements, both surrounding the artwork and within, when there were multiple and separated images, were added. It seems likely that many of these panels were made by specialist joiners working to a plan provided by the painter.

More complex works, were made of several panels joined in some way (see panel types). Some multi-panel works, especially the smaller ones were hinged so that the images could be arranged in different forms or so that part of the work could be concealed and only shown on special occasions or so that a work could be folded into a compact package to travel with its owner (see image top of page.)

All paints are made from a pigment, or colouring material, which at this time would usually be a ground rock, a mud or clay or some vegetable matter mixed with a medium, a liquid component that would allow the pigment to be applied with a brush and retain the pigment in place when the medium dried. Pre-mixed paints were not generally available until the early part of the nineteenth century and painters before that time, or their assistants, would make paints by grinding pigments and mixing these with their chosen medium. During this period most panel painters would mix their paints with egg white to produce paint we call Egg Tempera. Areas left unpainted, framing elements and specific parts of the panel, were gilded – a process is which thin leaf gold is applied, burnished, polished to a fine sheen, and often worked with punches to produce a decorative effect.

It is only towards the end of this period, and probably primarily in northern Europe, that vegetable oils were used as a medium. These new Oil Paints allowed painters much more flexibility in creating new effects as they could add multiple layers of paint in various degrees of a translucency and rework these on the panel, something impossible with the quick drying egg tempera. It was also in this later period that painters started to paint upon stretched cloth, something which became popular as this was both considerably quicker to prepare and easier to transport.