Big Studios, Big Art

Grote Markt, Antwerp

Great Market Square (Grote Markt), Antwerp

While I was in Antwerp, Belgium, a few weeks ago, I became inevitably immersed in the world of Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640), the city’s most celebrated citizen. Although his art takes me beyond the boundaries of the early Renaissance and into the Baroque, Rubens was formed by the guild and workshop system of artists which powered the early Northern Renaissance.

Rubens apprenticed with a number of leading artists in Antwerp before qualifying as an independent master in 1598 with the Guild of St Luke. See Jan de Beer: Antwerp Mannerist showing at the National Gallery, London until June 05th 2011 for a good look at the style Rubens was trained in. Rubens was a man of big ambitions and it wasn’t long before his studio began producing very big art, both in scale and in subject matter.

Visiting his palatial house, which he designed himself, I was really struck by the scale of his adjoining studio – double height ceilings and more than enough space for a small army of artists to spread out in.  This makes Rembrandt’s house and studio in Amsterdam feel almost cramped in comparison.

It was in this context that Rubens, like his predecessors, fulfilled demanding commissions using ‘assembly line’ processes.  A typical process may have included oil sketches, under drawings, figure blocking, scenic blocking and detailed finishing which I imagine may have required client approval along the way. Individual stages would have been delegated wholly or partially to assistants, many of whom would have been specialists or completing specific training in figures, architecture, landscape or animals.  It seems that Rubens often created a small oil sketch for client approval which his assistants would then draw to scale and finish, or scale up and await Ruben’s expert finishing touches. Frequently, when Rubens required quality input beyond the skill set of himself or his studio, he collaborated with other artists – a practice that echoes the employment of specialist contractors in modern digital studio terms.  One of the best examples of this is Adam and Eve in Worthy Paradise at the Mauritshuis, The Hague, where Rubens painted in the figures, and his friend Jan Brueghel the Elder painted in the animals and flowers.1

Adam and Eve in Worthy Paradise

Adam and Eve in Worthy Paradise, Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder, about 1610-1615, Mauritshuis, The Hague

How familiar this system feels to the digital agency context, where a creative director wins clients and sprinkles their creative magic dust onto their clutch of projects and protogées, across an assembly line of developers, designers and content visionaries.  And while Rubens had his eye on trend-setting Italy to guide his innovations, we’re mining Twitter and the crevasses of cyberspace for signs of the next big thing.

I was particularly amused by a book cover page that Rubens was commissioned to produce for his friend Balthasar I Moretus (1574 – 1641), who was the third generation owner of the top publishing house in the Low Countries, now the Plantin Moretus Museum and UNESCO World Heritage site, also in Antwerp.   This museum alone is worth a trip to Antwerp for an insight into the world of Renaissance book publishing, humanism and the Counter-Reformation in the Low Countries.

Balthasar produced sketches of a title page for Breviarium Romanum – the traditional prayerbook for the divine office, to guide Rubens on his design.  Here is my snapshot of his sketch, and beside it, Rubens’  final artwork.

Breviarium Romanum

Publisher's sketch and Rubens' design for the title page of Breviarium Romanum, published 1613

I couldn’t help but think of my current role as interaction designer providing sketches for visual designers to realise.

Apparently Rubens was given up to six months ‘to reflect upon a title page and execute it at his leisure, and only on holidays, as he did not do this kind of work on regular workdays’2.  It’s interesting to note that this style of title page became the stylistic norm for quality European books and was imitated for a few centuries to come.

This type of work seemed to be a form of relaxation for Rubens, a diversion from the serious earners for him, the epic paintings.   What Rubens’ studio had in common with the modern equivalents – the digital agencies, the game studios, and the big animation houses – is not only a dedication to quality and innovation – constantly trying to wow the clients with never seen before innovations such as Chiaroscuro from Italy – but crucially the ability to make the studio owners very wealthy.   This implies an efficient operation.  But great art won’t be rushed.  Sketches by Rubens for an altarpiece for the church of St Bavo, Ghent, for example weren’t finished as paintings for 15 years.3

Oil Sketch for High Altarpiece, St Bavo, Ghent

Oil Sketch for High Altarpiece, St Bavo, Ghent 1611-12, Peter Paul Rubens, The National Gallery, London

Pixar inevitably springs to my mind when I think of a digital studio devoted to quality, technical innovation, and even apprenticeships. Each movie takes around five years from conception to release. Pete Docter, the co-director of Up and Monsters, Inc., says “That’s the great thing about Pixar. They allow the time to invest in something, and you’re expected to make mistakes.”  They, like successful Renaissance studios, made enough profit on release to invest the time in artistic quality.4

In the world of games, there is perhaps less room to relax, and the industry is known for long hours and exhausting production schedules.  A blog post by Kevin Seiter criticises corporate game production as a cynical process where core assets are re-textured by exhausted part time artists, bolted onto an existing game engine and released with great hype.

He quotes The Shadow of the Colossus as an exceptional example of game artistry, in both a visual and narrative sense.  Three years in the making, this game has been praised for its natural 3D movement and richly lit environment.  Reading through The Making of SOTC (PDF) I’m in no doubt the developers are as committed to the visual and narrative experience as the designers are.  It’s this synergy that drives big contemporary digital art, if there is the time and the visionary, yet still profitable, studio environment to foster it.

Shadow of the Colossus

Shadow of the Colossus, published by Sony Computer Entertainment


1. Rubens & Brueghel, A Working Friendship, Mauritshuis Museum, The Hague, Oct 21 2006 – Jan 28 2007

2. Peter Paul Rubens: Drawings for Prints
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Special Exhibitions

3. Oil Sketch for High Altarpiece, St Bavo, Ghent
The National Gallery

4. Back to the future: Think of Pixar as an up-to-the-minute studio throwback


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