The Art of Contouring as Demonstrated by the Artists of the Renaissance Period

The artists of the Renaissance adopted an Aristotelean stance, with guidance from Cennino Cennini’s (c.1370- c. 1440) and Leon Battista Alberti’s (1404-1472) treatise on the techniques involved in creating representational art, which suggests that imbuing realism is not merely an observation of nature but also a clear understanding of science, the human anatomy and mathematics; an accurate depiction of the complex geometries of forms and the precise proportions of objects and beings.

It is fascinating how Cennini’s advice for modelling the face relies greatly on dark and light tones superimposed on the flesh to represent both skin tone and texture, while drawing attention to the bone structure. His suggestions in Il libro dell’arte (c. 1400, The Craftsman’s Handbook) are to use a dark colour to give relief to the face; that artists should apply green, which lies under the flesh colours and must show through a little. Artists should also use a pink colour on the apples of the cheeks, closer to the ear than the nose, as well as a dark colour to the sides of the face and both around and at the tip of the nose. Furthermore, his instructions on how to project parts of the face are to use a white colour over ‘the eyebrows, the relief of the nose, the top of the chin and the eyelid’, guidance which Masaccio must have used to depict Mary’s face in The Virgin and Child with St. Anne (1424, The Uffizi Gallery, fig. 1).


the Virgin and Child with St Anne Masaccio
Massacio, The Virgin and Child with St. Anne (1424, The Uffizi Gallery, fig. 1)

Interestingly, Cennini’s guidance has been transubstantiated from the art world into reality and the modern day; it has developed into the highlighting and contouring techniques used in the application of facial cosmetics in the twenty-first century (Fig.2). That’s probably why Cennini’s advice sounds familiar to you. Beauticians recommend using a green concealer to cover redness of the skin. A Makeup Artist’s basic contouring and highlighting instruction (Fig. 2) involves applying a dark tone on: the cheekbones to the ears; the side of the face; the crease of the eyes; lastly on the tip and the side of the nose. To highlight, one must use a lighter colour above and under the arch of the brow, the highpoint of the cheekbones, the bridge of the nose and the tip of the chin.

Makeup Chart
Fig. 2

Now let’s look at contouring in depth by the Renaissance Master himself, Leonardo da Vinci. He uses the sfumato effect to create a smoky eye look on the Mona Lisa (1503, Figure. 2). The highlighting and contouring technique of the sitter’s face is identical to the Natural Contouring Face Chart. The Mona Lisa is the perfect example of a MAC Cosmetics girl. No wonder she’s smiling. If Da Vinci was still alive, I bet he’d be working at the MAC counter in Selfridges, especially with the funding cuts to the arts and all.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Mona Lisa, 1503, The Louvre, Fig.3

It is quite mystifying, the way in which a technique used by artists to evince reality in the 15th and 16th century is now a technique used by men/women to escape the restrictions of reality, as it is an artificial means of enhancing features that cannot be naturally altered. This suggests that, rather than portraying reality, artists are always searching for an ideal representation of reality, perfect beauty, which is disconnected from the natural world and therefore unfeasible.

So is trying to transcend reality a problem? Or is it merely a petty first world problem that does not need looking into? Well, I can tell you it is a major catastrophic problem, especially when MAC Cosmetics is making an annual turnover of over $1 billion but millions of people are still starving in East Africa.  Join me next time when I will be addressing this issue further to you, my fellow First World Inhabitants. Keep it superficial guys!


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