Tadeusz Piotrowski’s School

In Olsztyn, I joined a private school that was founded in 1981 by Tadeusz Piotrowski (in the photo). Piotrowski himself graduated from the Faculty of Painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. At his school – named after Cennino Cennini – we mainly studied the technologies of the Old Masters of painting.
Tadeusz kept a regular class register – complete with a foldable attendance list – in which he scheduled the problems to be solved. One of our first tasks was to decatise the canvas before applying the primer. But why would we do that?
The grey linen canvas bought in the store is ironed and smooth; it almost shines when viewed against the light. This is because the individual threads of the fabric have been coated with a finish, which makes the surface even and smooth. This does look impressive; but when priming, it is more of a drawback than an advantage, because with such a surface it is impossible for the primer to be properly anchored in the fibres. It is, therefore, necessary to get rid of the finish, which – in simple terms – can be compared to removing a protective film.
This is not particularly complicated. It is enough to put the canvas into a large pot of water and boil it, then drain it. This process has to be repeated several times. When emptying the pot after the first instance you are in for a big surprise: the water is the colour of strong black coffee… After subsequent instances, the colour gradually loses its intensity, while the texture of the canvas – viewed through a magnifying glass – begins to resemble a potato grater: not a trace of the previous smooth, glassy sheet. It is only such a ‘grater,’ however, that is going to retain the applied primer well, allowing it to be solidly anchored in the fibres devoid of the factory finish.
No differently did the Old Masters cope with the preparation of sculptures for the application of polychromy, or layers of paint. A sculpture or ornament, before priming, looks like a person after a rather harsh weight loss treatment, for no finish is applied to raw wood. Its surface is smoothed by the chiselling itself, which also deprives it of chips and splinters, in short: of any anchoring for the priming. The easiest way to increase the adhesion of wood is to make a grid of incisions with a knife wherever the primer is going to be applied.
When replacing a missing hand to Christ – or a missing wing to an angel – I first looked for such a grid on the edge of the cavity. Then it was enough just to repeat the rhythm of the incisions. I did the same when the shape rendered in the wood was overly slimmed, or ‘slenderized.’ Then the application and finishing of the primer – sometimes even several millimetres thick – on such ‘anorexic’ figures restored the sculpture to its proper form.
But it was the painting or gilding that were the real icing on the cake! Combining my studies at Tadeusz Piotrowski’s school with my practice at the Artworks Conservation Studio gave me the feeling of being transported back in time, traveling through whole centuries in just a couple of hours. What we were learning about at Piotrowski’s school one day, the next day I could observe in artefacts that – with various defects – landed on our ‘operating table.’ Terms such as ‘screen,’ ‘underpainting,’ ‘glaze,’ or ‘varnish’ ceased to have only a bookish meaning. In the morning they appeared to me in the studio, in museum pieces several hundred years old – in sculptures and paintings by the Old Masters.

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