Sandro Botticelli's Painting Techniques

By Laura Scott
For many, Botticelli's painting, 'The Birth of Venus,' is a symbol of the Renaissance.

Sandro Botticelli's paintings are among the most well-known and well-loved works of the Italian Renaissance. Botticelli lived and worked during the latter half of the 15th century and he embraced the artistic traditions of his teachers and his time. His painting techniques were shaped by his generation's understanding of composition and perspective, and by the tools and materials available to artists in Florence.

Lines and Shapes

Botticelli used lines, contours and contrasts to define his subjects and spaces. He painted with egg tempera, a type of paint made by mixing natural pigments with egg yolks. Because it dries almost instantly, egg tempera cannot be blended into shapes of graded color that define volume and delineate forms. Botticelli relied instead on dark outlines and dramatic color contrasts to distinguish shapes.

Layering Glazes

Most of Botticelli's works were painted on wooden panels coated with a layer of gesso, a chalky surface preparation or primer. He would often, but not always, apply a traditional imprimatura, or a light-tinted wash, before beginning to paint. Botticelli used the traditional technique of applying egg tempera in thin layer after thin layer. Each thin coat of paint, or glaze, changes the effect light has on the color. Some of Botticelli's paintings show delicate traces of crosshatching, or changing the direction of brush strokes with different layers of paint. Crosshatching creates a molded, three-dimensional effect.

Oil and Water

Botticelli was able to create different effects by adding oil or water to his paint. He used tempera mixed with oil, known as tempera grassa, for fuller, stronger more opaque colors. Tempera diluted with water allowed him to create translucent, glass-like glazes of colors. The transparent drapery and veils worn by many of his subjects were painted with layers of diluted white glaze. As tempera dries, colors soften and fade. Botticelli often returned them to their original hues by applying a generous coat of varnish.

Gold Details

Botticelli was apprenticed to a goldsmith before joining the studio of Filippo Lippi and gold is used as a decorative element in many of Botticelli's paintings. Shell gold, or ground, powered gold mixed with egg whites, is used as a dramatic accent on the clam shell in "The Birth of Venus." Botticelli also used brushstrokes of shell gold to highlight the deep-green foliage found in some of his work. He used a technique called sgrafitto to give a delicate gold ornamentation to veils and drapery. With sgraffito, a layer of gold leaf is applied to the primed canvas or panel and covered with paint. A thin wooden stick is used to scratch out a design that appears as a decorative gold pattern on the cloth.

About the Author

Laura Scott has been reporting for Gatehouse Media New England, Essex County Newspapers and other regional publishers since 1997. She won several New England Press Association awards for her coverage of the fishing industry and coastal communities. Scott is a graduate of Vassar College and has a master's degree in American studies from Boston College. She also attended art school in Italy.