Painting on Copper—Origins

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By George O’Hanlon, Technical Director, Natural Pigments

Jan Brueghel the Elder, Singerie: Monkeys Feasting, 1621, oil on copper, 27 x 36 cm, Private collection

The practice of painting in oil on copper had its origins in the sixteenth-century. What is not well understood is where in Europe the practice began. In Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (Italian: Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori) Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) reported that Sebastiano del Piombo (1485–1547) made paintings on silver, lead and copper, likely in the first half of the fifteenth century. Among the first Italian painters to paint on copper was Antonio Correggio (1489–1534) who painted a ‘Penitent Magdalene’ on copper formerly in Dresden Gemäldegalerie but now lost. It wasn’t until the 1560s, however, that copper supports gained wider usage in Italy when Vasari, Agnolo Bronzino and Alessandro Allori painted works on copper for Francesco I de’ Medici in Florence.

That Northern European artists working in Italy adopted this practice and returned home with this new support is corroborated by biographer Karel van Mander (1548–1606). Van Mander writes in ‘Life of Bartholomeus Spranger, painting artist from Antwerp’ in his Book of Painters (Dutch: Schilder-Boeck) while in Rome Spranger (1546–1625) executed a ‘Last Judgement’ on copper, dated about 1570. In the ‘Life’ of Pieter Vlerick (1539–1581) Van Mander mentions that there was a painter named Michel Gioncquoy, who came from Rome and had painted many pictures on copper. In the ‘Life’ of Hans Rottenhammer (1564–1623) Van Mander mentions, that when Rottenhammer came to Rome he started painting on copper, ‘as is the working-method of the Netherlandish painters’.

Joachim Wtewael, Self-Portrait, 1601, oil on panel, 38 1/2 x 29 in. (98 x 73.6 cm), Centraal Museum Utrecht

What is clear from literature is that painting on copper got its start in the sixteenth century and became widespread in Europe in the latter half of the century. What is not established is where the practice of painting on metal supports got its start. Whether it began in Italy, and especially in Rome, as Vasari reports in the biography of Sebastiano del Piombo, or in the Netherlands as Van Mander mentions was ‘the working-method of the Netherlandish painters’ is not certain.

Joachim Wtewael, The Golden Age, 1605, oil on copper, 8 7/8 x 12 in. (22.5 x 30.5 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Joachim Anthonisz Wtewael, Dutch, c. 1566–1638

Surviving works on copper perhaps give us a clue because they indicate that copper was mostly used in the north, especially by Netherlandish and German painters. One of the most prolific and talented painters to have used a copper support is Joachim Wtewael (1566–1638). Wtewael’s work typifies the advantages of copper’s hard smooth surface to create highly illusionistic, brilliantly colored images, filled with minute detail, where brushstrokes could be made nearly invisible.

The new support found a new outlet for its expansion in Antwerp. Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625) returned to his native Antwerp in 1595 to practice painting techniques that he had learned in Rome. What is remarkable is that between 1593 and his death in 1625, Brueghel made approximately 400 paintings, of which some 165 were on copper.

Jan Brueghel the Elder, River Landscape with bathers, 1595–1600, oil on copper, 6 5/8 x 8 5/8 in. (17 x 22 cm), Private collection, Switzerland
Jan Brueghel the Elder, Flemish, 1568–1625

During his time in Rome, Jan Brueghel became acquainted with Paul Bril (1554–1626) and Hans Rottenhammer (1564–1625). Paul Bril was a landscape painter from Antwerp who had moved to Rome. Rottenhammer was a German painter of small highly finished cabinet paintings on copper. Brueghel collaborated with both Bril and Rottenhammer and was influenced not only by their aesthetic work but also the practice of painting on copper.

Brueghel’s collaborations with Rottenhammer began in Rome around 1595 and ended in 1610. Initially when the artists both lived in Venice, their collaborative works were executed on canvas, but in their later collaborations after Brueghel had returned to Antwerp they typically used copper. After Brueghel’s return to Antwerp, their procedure was for Brueghel to send the copper plates with the landscape to Rottenhammer in Venice, who painted in the figures and then returned the plates. In a few instances, the process was the other way around.

While in his collaborations with Rottenhammer, the landscapes were made by Brueghel, the roles were reversed when he worked with Joos de Momper (1564–1635) . There are about 59 known collaborations between Brueghel and de Momper making de Momper his most frequent collaborator. Hendrick van Balen the Elder (c. 1573 to 1575–1632) was another regular collaborator with Brueghel.

Antwerp was a burgeoning printing and publishing center in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so it is not surprising that copper plates were not only readily available but affordable. Jørgen Wadum’s study of Antwerp coppersmiths, and the relative costs of panels, artists’ materials and paintings on copper revealed that prices for copper plates were roughly similar to those for wooden panels.

Comparatively few copper printing plates were used as a support for oil painting. In an examination of 325 paintings on copper from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries by Isabel Horovitz, 50 had qualities required for printmaking.

Largest painting on copper from the seventeenth century by David Teniers the Younger.
David Teniers the Younger, The Archduke Leopold William in his Picture Gallery in Brussels, 1647–1651, oil on copper, 41 3/4 x 50 3/4 inches (104.8 x 130.4 cm), Prado, Madrid
David Teniers the Younger, Flemish, 1610–1690

Most paintings on copper were small when compared to other supports, the majority no larger than 15 3/4 by 23 5/8 inches (40 x 60 cm). There were notable exceptions, such as the painting on copper ‘Archduke Leopold Willem in his Painting Gallery in Brussels’, which measures 41 3/4 x 50 3/4 inches (104.8 x 130.4 cm), by Brueghel’s son-in-law, David Teniers the Younger (1610–1690).

The practice of painting on copper was widespread in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Northern European artists, especially in Netherlands and Germany produced the bulk of these paintings. By 1650 the popularity of copper supports for oil painting began to wane, until the eighteenth century copper plates were seldom used for painting.

A Game Changer

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Copper Panel Painting by Ann Moeller Steverson

Painting on Copper by Ann Moeller Steverson

Painting on copper is a different experience. Anyone who has seen a work on copper in person knows there is a different quality and vibrancy to the intensity of the pigment. But compared to painting on canvas, painting on copper is a new and wild adventure and has an entirely different feel.
The usual smooth surface of copper is very slick so unless you have the mad wizard mastery of an artist like Steven Assael, the natural surface is best addressed with patience and a plan. Otherwise, you are just sliding around in your socks and underwear risky business style. I suggest starting by working in a block in of a thin translucent glowing first layer and then planning to build up by paint by adhering to thinner layers of pigment below. Think of sticking a stack of sticky notes together.Copper Panel Painting by Ann Moeller Steverson

I love the freedom of painting on the textured copper panels offered by Artefex. With these finely abraded panels, I can go as thin or as thick on the first layer as I want and it holds the brush stroke perfectly. There are no big canvas bumps to flight, so my paint goes much farther. The resulting brush strokes become more a reflection of the character of the brush used and the wielder rather than the texture of the surface. The amount of detail possible is incredible when there is little to no surface interference. The first layer can feel slightly thirsty, so if you want extra movement, just oil in the copper first or add a quick thin wash of solvent. The goal is to have the paint grip without interference.

The traditional method of working dark to light with very thin darks works exceptionally well when painting on copper panels. I have found that translucent shadows can be created with a beautiful transparent oxide color (brown, red, or yellow) or any mixed dark oil paint, and is a lovely way to start that keeps a warm glow. If I want to soften the marks to keep the shadow areas simple, I lightly brush over the shadow shapes with a gentle mongoose or badger hair paint brush. Lead white makes a particularly appealing stand on the copper panel where I want to develop all the subtle value shifts, fine details and lively brushstrokes in the lights of the painting. I usually shift the lights cooler to play against the warm shadows. I like to leave peak of exposed copper color in the mid tones and transitions, which adds harmony to the piece. The overall effect of warm shadows, with the exposed copper transitions, serve to unify the painting beautifully and contrast vibrantly to the cool lights. In short, the result is “zazzle.”

The effect of the painting support on the overall look of my work is transformative. After all, when it comes to painting supports, it’s literally what’s underneath that counts.