Research highlight

Art: The evolution of painting styles

Scientific Reports

December 11, 2014

Paintings have been getting more colourful and more complex in terms of brightness and contrast since the Medieval period, a study in Scientific Reports demonstrates. Digital analysis of nearly 9,000 paintings spanning 10 historical periods (over 800 years) depicts changes in artists’ pallets and identifies signatures that correspond with the development of new painting techniques.

Using digital imaging techniques, Hawoong Jeong and colleagues investigate the use of individual colours, the variety of colours, and the variation in brightness of 8,798 western paintings dating from the 11th century to the mid-19th century. The paintings are classified into 10 historical periods: Medieval, Early Renaissance, Northern Renaissance, High Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassicism, Romanticism, and Realism.

The analyses quantify the colour palette expansion in the European painting art history after the Medieval period, which was caused by the introduction of oil paints and new kinds of color pigments. Increasing brightness contrast picked up by the analyses reflect the development of painting techniques during the Renaissance, such as sfumato (expressing gradual fade-out between object and background, used by Leonardo da Vinci, 1452-1519) and chiaroscuro (strong contrasts between light and dark, used by Rembrandt van Rijin, 1606-1669).

The authors propose that their use of scientific techniques to analyse paintings provides a bridge between the worlds of art and science.

doi: 10.1038/srep07370

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