Cranfield friend and gifted Columbian artist Laura Arango Baier talks to us from her current home in Norway about her gargantuan project ‘Alla Prima Master Copy Campaign’

This self-imposed labour of love and discovery required Laura to paint perfect copies of 60 portraits painted by the old masters to recreate as alla prima master copies.

We started by asking the obvious question, why?!

I chose this strange and intimidating project for two reasons: to improve my portraiture skills as well as my decision making when painting alla prima. I am confident in stating that both of those skills improved to a massive degree with only having done 20 of the master copies so far. Some were beyond challenging, taking over 8-10 hours and others were simple enough to complete within 3-4 hours.  Some days I would complete two master copies, while other days I spent the entire day on only one.

 You describe setting rules to govern the project. What are these rules?

All works are done in one sitting which can take anywhere from 3-12 hours. Breaks are allowed, but the paint isn’t allowed to sit for longer than a couple of hours. Secondly, all works are done with the Apelles palette also known as the Zorn palette comprised of only 4 pigments: white, yellow, red, and black. Next I make sure all works are done on a 9×12 inch loose oil primed canvas. Finally all works are done a slightly different size than the original. The reason for this is because it helps train the eye to better measure things with only the eyes and with comparative measurement. This forces you to gain a deeper intimate understanding of the thing you’re attempting to copy.

So why not paint real people in alla prima?

I have painted a few self-portraits that way. However, when you look at a painting by the Old Masters, you’ll see a whole lot more than just a masterful piece. You’ll see knowledge of anatomy, of the use of oil paint, of description, interpretation, the list goes on. The Old Masters also referenced paintings by the people they admired who existed before them. They looked at their work and copied it as well. Copying and imitation is something we do from the moment we are born. It is our primary function in learning about the world around us and how to interact with it. Copying these portraits is in itself a fundamental lesson. By imitating the old masters, you are then learning how to transfer those skills to painting from life.

What was your first alla prima master copy?

I chose ‘A Mermaid’ by J.W. Waterhouse because I’ve always loved Waterhouse’s work and it’s good to begin with a painting that is easy enough and gets one excited to start with, but not so challenging that one will be hesitant. This portrait is great because there is a clear enough distinction between light and shadow and she seems to be in indirect light. To briefly explain, direct light (imagine sunlight) creates a very stark difference between light and shadow and has high contrast.

This means that the light areas are washed out and have a limited range of mid-tones in the general area of light on the surface. When you have indirect light, or light that is soft (imagine a cloudy day), this then increases the range of mid-tones which are so subtle that you can barely tell the difference between two tones sitting next to each other. The difference is there, however, and the key is to fall back on knowledge of form/anatomy rather than the literal copying of “values”. I put values in quotations because the typical “values” we pick from black to white are not wholly representative of the true range that exists in reality. Our range in the real world is much further expanded than that which exists in our pigment range. Since we have a limited range, we must know how to use it in such a way that it can describe the illusion of a three-dimensional form upon a two-dimensional surface. Therefore, rather than attempt to copy reality (which is impossible), it is important to describe from using what you’ve got.

Were you happy with the result?

I believe, for my first master copy, it wasn’t too shabby of a result!

What did this first edition teach you about human anatomy?

The face is separated into thirds from top to bottom. The top third (forehead) tends to be more yellow than the rest of the face. The middle third (nose, cheeks) is usually “ruddy” (as MJA would say) which means that there are more pinks and reds to denote more blood vessels. Notice that when we blush, it’s usually our cheeks and nose that light up on the face for this reason. And the lower third (jaw) tends to be blue/grey/green.

And what is the project teaching you about colour?

Painting alla prima, and all painting in general, is a game of comparison. You need something there to help you discern the surroundings. If you have two things down on your canvas, then you can discern which way it needs to change. Shift hue, shift value, or shift chroma? Maybe all three? The trick to figuring out how to decide is to ask yourself: is it more (insert hue)? Let’s say for example that the stroke needs to be more red. What kind of red? Is it a darker “value” or a lighter “value”? Is it a deeper red, or a more pale red? This way you’re asking yourself: in which hue does it exist? In which “value” of this hue does it exist? And finally, in which chroma (saturation) of this “value” of hue does it exist?

If you felt you had perfected the technique and alla prima attitude before completing the full set…. Would you retire from the undertaking or is completion an important part of the overall aim?

I don’t think it’s possible to ever truly perfect a technique. There is always something new to learn, some new goal to achieve, a new perspective on how to make things better and seem more alive. The path of the creator isn’t one of exact formulas that produce the same results again and again, if it were so, then it would be a boring path to be on and no different from a 9-5 job in which there is nothing new to learn. Yes, you can reach a high level of understanding of the craft, but even Michelangelo in his old age (87 in fact) said “I am still learning.”

In the case of this alla prima campaign, it isn’t truly about completion since my ultimate goal goes beyond just this project. The images I selected are certainly stepping stones that I wish to reach because I believe they have something to offer and something to teach. So, I would say, yes, the completion of the campaign is something I want to accomplish, though the journey of technique is a far longer one than this.