Activity - Modelling and plasticity

Compare Masaccio, The Virgin and Child of 1426; click here (external link; Web Gallery of Art), with the Madonna degli occhi grossi (click here (external link)). First of all, can you identify a light source depicted in either of them? Secondly, compare the ways in which differences in light source affect the modelling in either painting.

In the Madonna degli occhi grossi, it is difficult to determine a light source: the whole subject matter seems bathed in a general light. (In some ways, this is in keeping with the setting of a religious painting like this in a candle-lit church.) This means that, whilst there are some effects of modelling  for instance, beneath the Madonna's lips the effects are much less strong than in Massaccio's painting. In Masaccio's work, a single source of light is depicted, which is cast from left to right. This means that the plasticity of the figures depicted is clearly established by the modelling: for instance, the right side of the child's face is struck by the light, whereas the left side is cast in shadow. Moreover, because all of the figures depicted are also lit from the same direction, there is consistency across the whole painting, which further increases the illusion of naturalism and the impression of plasticity.


Look at these three paintings: Giotto's Deposition of Christ (1305-06) (click here (external link; Web Gallery of Art)); Piero di Cosimo's Visitation (c. 1487) (click here (external link; Web Gallery of Art)); and Michelangelo's Echim-Aliud (1508-12) (click here (external link; Web Gallery of Art)). In each case, modelling is used to convey the plasticity of the figures, especially their clothing. But can you notice differences between the ways in which modelling appears?

Giotto's Deposition

This painting makes use of a technique called 'up-modelling'.

Up-modelling is sometimes called 'Cennini-style modelling', since it was recommended by Cennini. This involves making the brightest part of an object appear lighter by adding white; the darkest part of an object, where shadows are cast, are unmixed. Up-modelling can be seen in Giotto's frescoes for the Scrovegni chapel, say in the clothing of the figures here, for example.

Piero di Cosimo's Visitation 

This painting makes use of a technique called 'down-modelling'.

Down-modelling, by contrast, uses black to create shadows, and the lightest parts of an object are painted in the highest intensity of colour. This can be seen in the example of Piero di Cosimo's The Visitation with St Nicholas and St Anthony Abbot (c. 1490). The figure at the bottom left of the painting (St Nicholas) is wearing bright red - and the lightest parts are depicted with the red at its most intense, with black being added for the shadows.

Michelangelo's Echim-Aliud 

Michelangelo makes use of 'cangiantismo'. Cangiantismo is a very striking technique used in modelling. Here instead of using tone to portray three-dimensionality, the artist uses different colours to depict the raised, lit areas of a body. Some striking examples appear in Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel ceiling, such as in this case.


Look at this painting by Oskar Kokoschka, Dresden, Neustadt V (1918-22): click here (external link). In what ways does this painting seem to resist or avoid modeling techniques?

This is a very rich and interesting painting. It uses blocks of colour, painted in broad brushstrokes, but mostly devoid of modeling. The blocks of colour are sometimes mixed together with black , so that they are not pure, but this is emphatically not to achieve effects of down-modelling: rather, it draws attention to the material of the paint itself.

The eye finds itself caught between two instincts. It wants to interpret the painting as a cityscape - and the title and general of the painting invite us to do this. But at the same time, the painting does not recede into the background, as we might expect a cityscape to do. Our interpretation of the buildings as three-dimensional objects is resisted by the fact that they are not modeled at all: the painting appears almost more like a two-dimensional pattern of shapes, than as a three-dimensional. Notice, too, that aerial perspective is almost inverted here, so that the background colours are dominated by warm red and orange, and complementaries (red and green), rather than the cooler colours we find in aerial perspective.


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This resource was created with the help of a University of Leeds Faculty of Arts Enterprise Knowledge Transfer Grant.

© Matthew Treherne, School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT.