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Panel painting

The Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck and his brothers, 1432.
A large altarpiece on panel. The outer wings are hinged, and
painted on both sides.

A panel painting is a painting made on a at panel made

of wood, either a single piece, or a number of pieces
joined together. Until canvas became the more popular support medium in the 16th century, it was the normal form of support for a painting not on a wall (fresco)
or vellum, which was used for miniatures in illuminated
manuscripts and paintings for the framing.

Boy from Al-Fayum, 2nd century, Warsaw. Encaustic on wood

- note the cracks


portraits survive. The Severan Tondo, also from Egypt

(about 200AD) is one of the handful of non-funerary
Graeco-Roman specimens to survive. Wood has always
been the normal support for the Icons of Byzantine art and
the later Orthodox traditions, the earliest of which (all
in Saint Catherines Monastery) date from the 5th or 6th
centuries, and are the oldest panel paintings which seem
to be of the highest contemporary quality. Encaustic and
tempera are the two techniques used in antiquity. Encaustic largely ceased to be used after the early Byzantine

Panel painting is very old; it was a very prestigious

medium in Greece and Rome, but only very few examples
of ancient panel paintings have survived. A series of 6th
century BC painted tablets from Pitsa (Greece) represent
the oldest surviving Greek panel paintings. Most classical Greek paintings that were famous in their day seem to
have been of a size comparable to smaller modern works
- perhaps up to a half-length portrait size. However for a
generation in the second quarter of the fth-century BC
there was a movement, called the new painting and led
by Polygnotus, for very large painted friezes, apparently
painted on wood, decorating the interiors of public buildings with very large and complicated subjects containing
numerous gures at at least half life-size, and including
battle scenes. We can only attempt to imagine what these
looked like from some detailed literary descriptions and
vase-paintings that appear to echo their compositions.[1]
The rst century BC to third century AD Fayum mummy
portraits, preserved in the exceptionally dry conditions
of Egypt, provide the bulk of surviving panel painting
from the Imperial Roman period - about 900 face or bust

Although there seem from literary references to have

been some panel paintings produced in Western Europe
through the centuries between Late Antiquity and the
Romanesque period, and Byzantine icons were imported,
there are next to no survivals in an unaltered state. In the
12th century panel painting experienced a revival because
of new liturgical practicesthe priest and congregation
were now on the same side of the altar, leaving the space
behind the altar free for the display of a holy image
and thus altar decorations were in demand. The earliest
forms of panel painting were dossals (altar backs), altar

fronts and crucixes. All were painted with religious images, commonly the Christ or the Virgin, with the saints
appropriate to the dedication of the church, and the local
town or diocese, or to the donor. Donor portraits including members of the donors family are also often shown,
usually kneeling to the side. They were for some time
a cheaper alternative to the far more prestigious equivalents in metalwork, decorated with gems, enamels, and
perhaps ivory gures, most of which have long been broken up for their valuable materials. Painted panels for
altars are most numerous in Spain, especially Catalonia,
which is explained by the poverty of the country at this
time, as well as the lack of Reformation iconoclasm.[2]


of Venice (which made the nest canvas at this point,
for sails). In the Netherlands the change took about a
century longer, and panel paintings remained common,
especially in Northern Europe, even after the cheaper
and more portable canvas had become the main support
medium. The young Rubens and many other painters preferred it for the greater precision that could be achieved
with a totally solid support, and many of his most important works also used it, even for paintings over four metres long in one dimension. His panels are of notoriously
complicated construction, containing as many as seventeen pieces of wood (Het Steen, National Gallery, London). For smaller cabinet paintings, copper sheets (often old printmaking plates) were another rival support,
from the end of the 16th century, used by many artists
including Adam Elsheimer. Many Dutch painters of the
Golden Age used panel for their small works, including
Rembrandt on occasion. By the 18th century it had become unusual to paint on panel, except for small works
to be inset into furniture, and the like. But, for example,
The National Gallery in London has two Goya portraits
on panel.

The 13th and 14th centuries in Italy were a great period of panel painting, mostly altarpieces or other religious works. However, it is estimated that of all the panel
paintings produced there, 99.9 percent have been lost.
The vast majority of Early Netherlandish paintings are
on panel, and these include most of the earliest portraits,
such as those by Jan van Eyck, and some other secular
scenes. However, one of the earliest surviving oils on
canvas is a French Madonna with angels of about 1410
in the Gemldegalerie, Berlin, which is very early indeed Many other painting traditions also painted, and still
for oil painting also. In these works the frame and panel paint, on wood, but the term is usually only used to reare sometimes a single piece of wood, as with Portrait of fer to the Western tradition described above.
a Man (Self Portrait?) by van Eyck (National Gallery,
London), where the frame was also painted, including an
inscription done illusionistically to resemble carving.[3]

2 Panel construction and preparation

The Frankfurt Paradiesgrtlein, a German panel painting from

circa 1410

By the 15th century with the increased wealth of Europe,

and later the appearance of humanism, and a changing
attitude about the function of art and patronage, panel
painting went in new directions. Secular art opened the
way to the creation of chests, painted beds, birth trays and
other furniture. Many such works are now detached and
hung framed on walls in museums. Many double-sided
wings of altarpieces (see picture at top) have also been
sawn into two one-sided panels.

Russian icon by Andrey Rublev, early 15th century, on a three

Canvas took over from panel in Italy by the rst half of piece panel. The raised edges are probably gesso rather than
the 16th century, a change led by Mantegna and the artists wood

The technique is known to us through Cennino Cennini's
The Craftsmans Handbook (Il libro dell' arte) published
in 1390, and other sources. It changed little over the centuries. It was a laborious and painstaking process:
A carpenter would construct a solid wood piece the
size of the panel needed. Usually a radial cut piece
was preferred (across rather than along the length of
the tree; the opposite of most timber cuts), with the
outer sapwood excluded. In Italy it was usually seasoned poplar, willow or linden. It would be planed
and sanded and if needed, joined with other pieces
to obtain the desired size and shape.
The wood would be coated with a mixture of Landscape with rainbow 94 x 123 cm, 1636-8. A large Rubens
animal-skin glues and resin and covered with linen panel painting, with a panel made out of many pieces
(the mixture and linen combination was known as a
size); this might be done by a specialist, or in the
artists studio.
have been transferred to canvas or modern board sup Once the size had dried, layer upon layer of gesso ports.
would be applied, each layer sanded down before
the next applied, sometimes as many as 15 layers,
before a smooth hard surface emerged, not unlike
ivory. This stage was not necessarily done after the
16th century, or darker grounds were used.

Painting techniques

Once the panel construction was complete, the design was

laid out, usually in charcoal.
The usual ancient painting technique was encaustic, used
at Al-Fayum and in the earliest surviving Byzantine icons,
which are at the Saint Catherines Monastery. This uses
heated wax as the medium for the pigments.

Wood panel is now rather more useful to art historians than canvas, and in recent decades there has been
great progress in extracting this information - and many
fakes discovered and mistaken datings corrected. Specialists can identify the tree species used, which varied according to the area where the painting was made.
Carbon-dating techniques can give an approximate daterange (typically to about a range of about 20 years),
and dendrochronology sequences have been developed
for the main source areas of timber for panels. Italian
paintings used local or sometimes Dalmatian wood, most
often poplar, but including chestnut, walnut, oak and
other woods. The Netherlands ran short of local timber
early in the 15th century, and most Early Netherlandish
masterpieces are Baltic oak, often Polish, cut north of
Warsaw and shipped down the Vistula, across the Baltic
to the Netherlands.[4] Southern German painters often
used pine, and mahogany imported into Europe was used
by later painters, including examples by Rembrandt and

This was replaced before the end of rst millennium by

tempera, which uses an egg-yolk medium. Using small
brushes dipped in a mixture of pigment and egg-yolk,
the paint was applied in very small, almost transparent,
brushstrokes. Thin layers of paint would be used to cre- In theory, dendro-chronology gives an exact felling date,
ate volumetric forms.
but in practice allowances have to be made for a seaBy the beginning of the 15th century, oil painting was de- soning period of several years, and a small panel may
veloped. This was more tolerant, and allowed the excep- be from the centre of the tree, with no way of knowing
tional detail of Early Netherlandish art. This used a very how many rings outside the panel there were. So dendropainstaking multi-layered technique, where the painting, chronological conclusions tend to be expressed as a teror a particular part of it, had to be left for a couple of days minus post quem or an earliest possible date, with a tentative estimate of an actual date, that may be twenty or
for one layer to dry before the next was applied.
more years later.
The so-called Panel Paintings Initiative is a multi-year
4 Conservation and scientic anal- project in collaboration between the Getty Conservation
Institute, the Getty Foundation, and the J. Paul Getty Muysis
seum. The Panel Paintings Initiative is a response to the
growing recognition that signicant collections of paintWood panels, especially if kept with too little humid- ings on wood panels may be at risk in coming decades
ity, often warp and crack with age, and from the 19th due to the waning numbers of conservators and craftscentury, when reliable techniques were developed, many people with the highly specialized skills required for the

conservation of these complex works of art.[5]


6 See also
Gothic art

Types of wood

Artists would typically use wood native to the region.

Albrecht Drer (14711528), for example, painted on
poplar when he was in Venice and on oak when in
the Netherlands and southern Germany. Leonardo da
Vinci (14521519) used oak for his paintings in France;
Hans Baldung Grien (1484/51545) and Hans Holbein
(1497/81543) used oak while working in southern Germany and England. In the Middle Ages, spruce and
lime were used in the Upper Rhine and often in Bavaria.
Outside of the Rhineland, softwood (such as pinewood)
was mainly used. Of a group of twenty Norwegian altar frontals from the Gothic period (12501350) fourteen were made of r, two of oak, and four of pine (Kaland 1982). Large altars made in Denmark during the
fteenth century used oak for the gures as well as for
the painted wings. Lime was popular with Albrecht Altdorfer (ca. 14801538), Baldung Grien, Christoph Amberger (d. 1562), Drer, and Lucas Cranach the Elder
(14721553). Cranach often used beech woodan unusual choice. In Northern Europe, poplar is very rarely
found, but walnut and chestnut are not uncommon. In the
northeast and south, coniferous trees such as spruce, and
various types of r, and pine have been used. Fir wood is
shown to have been used in the Upper and Middle Rhine,
Augsburg, Nuremberg, and Saxony. Pinewood was used
mainly in Tirol and beech wood only in Saxony. However, in general, oak was the most common substrate used
for panel making in the Low Countries, northern Germany, and the Rhineland around Cologne. In France, until the seventeenth century, most panels were made from
oak, although a few made of walnut and poplar have been
The oak favored as a support by the painters of the northern school was, however, not always of local origin. In
the seventeenth century about four thousand full-grown
oak trees were needed to build a medium-sized merchant
ship; thus, imported wood was necessary. Oak coming
from Knigsberg as well as Gdask is often found among
works by Flemish and Dutch artists from the 15th through
the 17th centuries - the origin can be established by the
patterns of growth rings. In the last decade of the seventeenth century, Wilhelmus Beurs, a Dutch writer on
painting techniques, considered oak to be the most useful
wooden substrate on which to paint. However, exceptions
are seen rather early in the seventeenth century: sometimes walnut, pearwood, cedarwood, or Indian woods
were used. Mahogany was already in use by a number of
painters during the rst decades of the seventeenth century and was used often in the Netherlands in the nineteenth century. Even so, when canvas or copper was not
used, the main oeuvre of the northern school was painted
on oak panels.[6]

Medieval art
Cradling (art restoration)

7 Notes
[1] Boardman, 103-104 (illus. 105)
[2] Dodwell, 263
[3] Campbell, 216
[4] Campbell, 29
[5] More information on the objectives of the project can be
found on The Getty website
[6] Wadum pp.149-177

8 References
Boardman, John ed., The Oxford History of Classical Art, 1993, OUP, ISBN 0-19-814386-9
Campbell, Lorne. National Gallery Catalogues (new
series): The Fifteenth Century Netherlandish Paintings, 1998, ISBN 1-85709-171-X
Gunnar Heydenreich, Lucas Cranach the Elder:
Painting materials, techniques and workshop practice, Amsterdam University Press 2007, ISBN 97890-5356-745-6
Dodwell, C.R.; The Pictorial arts of the West, 8001200, 1993, Yale UP, ISBN 0-300-06493-4
Jrgen Wadum, 'Historical Overview of PanelMaking Techniques in the Northern Countries, in
The Structural Conservation of Panel Paintings - Proceedings of a Symposium at the J. Paul Getty Museum, April 1995, Edited by Kathleen Dardes and
Andrea Rothe, pp. 149177. ISBN 978-0-89236384-1
The Structural Conservation of Panel Paintings - Proceedings of a Symposium at the J. Paul Getty Museum, April 1995, Edited by Kathleen Dardes and
Andrea Rothe, ISBN 978-0-89236-384-1
Dendrochronology (Tree-Ring Dating) of Panel
Paintings, Cornell
Adelheid M. Gealt (1989). Panel Painting.
Dictionary of the Middle Ages. vol-9. ISBN 0-68418275-0

External links
Panel Painting. In Encyclopdia Britannica Online.
National Gallery Glossary
Online demonstration from the Fitzwilliam Museum




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Panel painting Source: Contributors: William Avery, Olivier, Michael

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