Art & Archives, Education, J. Paul Getty Museum, Paintings

Question of the Week: What Makes a Painting a Masterpiece?

What makes a painting a masterwork?

Take part in this historic debate about the elements of line and color, as personified by a wise, old man and a sensuous young woman in Guercino’s Disegno and Colore.

<em>Disegno and Colore</em>, Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), about 1640. Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Photo © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

Disegno and Colore, Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), about 1640. Oil on canvas, 90 15/16 x 71 5/16 in. Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Photo © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

Italian draftsman and painter Guercino asks us the question in his painting Disegno and Colore. Inside an artist’s studio, the creative process unfolds before our eyes. On the left, a wise old man personifying disegno—design or drawing—holds up a preparatory sketch of a sleeping cherub. On the right, a beautiful young woman, personifying colore—hues, tones, and the application of paint—creates a vivid painting from his sketch.

The relative merits of disegno and colore were hotly debated by Renaissance critics. Defending artists from Florence and Rome who placed great emphasis on drawing, Giorgio Vasari believed that disegno embodied a synthesis of divine inspiration and observation from nature. His rival Lodovico Dolce, who upheld the Venetian preference for color and light over line, countered that colore held the true potential to capture the vibrancy and vitality of nature.

Where did the creator of this painting stand on the issue? Drawing was a key part of Guercino’s artistic process. But he was also known for his mastery of hue and tone.

What might be the conversation shared between disegno and colore in this studio? Could this be a harmonious partnership, or a bitter rivalry?

Are disegno and colore working together here? Are they competing, or is there an instruction taking place?

Are the concepts of disegno and colore relevant today? To you, is composition or color the key to a masterpiece—or is it something else all together?

Question of the Week is a new blog series inspired by our Masterpiece of the Week tours, offered daily at the Getty Center at 4:00 p.m. Featuring an open and upbeat discussion among visitors and gallery teachers, the tours feature a new object and pose a new question each week.

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  1. Anna
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Composition is what draws me to a work of art. Color draws the eye, but the foundation of a masterpiece is its composition.In this painting, I prefer the simplicity of the old man’s sketch. I also prefer its size: small and modest. In fact, the man himself is modest, sitting half-hidden behind a table with muted clothing. Colore’s headdress and plunging neckline are flashy, to say the least. Even her stool is ornate, compared to the one on the left.

    (Of course, the fact that I’m preferring a drawing-within-a-painting complicates matters, I guess!)

  2. Posted March 15, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    What makes a masterpiece? The test of time.

  3. Susan
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    I feel like the disegno and colore concepts are really rarefied. But they do speak to the physicality of art, which can often be mind-blowing. But there is another aspect in the balance, I believe, and that is the conception behind the work of art — the idea, spark, inspiration, whatever you want to call it, is where a ‘real’ work of lies for me.

    • Posted March 16, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      Dear Anna, Kat, and Susan,
      I think that each of your comments has revealed how complex this piece really is. Perhaps the truly timeless quality of this piece is how Guercino is able to breathe life into debate over aesthetics, and the senses that even 21st century viewers (like ourselves) are able to enjoy.

  4. Posted March 18, 2011 at 1:52 am | Permalink

    If there is something i really find unique in the art of Guercino is his incomparable drawing technique and sensitivity. I find his paintings-excelllent in themselves-somewhat predictable and a little bit academic and at times even anaemic in matteres of mood. But his drawings! There is such freshness, such a vervre and such explosivity in the way sometimes lines and brush converge at a critical point of a composition. In matters of intensity og his blacks he is comparable only to no less a genius than Rembrandt himself. I Think that Guercino, by instinct was a master draughtsman and it was the necessity to earn his living that made him a user of colours, which means a painter in the most strict sense of the term. In his paintings there is always a sense of an unfriendly gravity, the sense of a past irrevocably dead but in his drawings all the truth of a sensitive and attentive to the sweet trivia of ordinary life are present with the convincingness of a sincere cofession.

  5. Baylor Barbee
    Posted October 16, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    I did my first painting the other day, and have been wondering this same question for a few days. In my opinion, it’s about touching on a social issue of the time, but letting the reader verify his side with the same painting. The masterpieces all seem to have a bit of mystique about them, which in turn keeps them talked about.

  6. Posted October 17, 2011 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    As a photographer and fine art painter, I take most of my inspiration from art history. The more I learn about art, the more I realize that a masterpiece often takes a lifetime of study and then culminates into something that gets studied for many years after the artists death.

    Many times, I heard people say, that artist must have “the eye”. I think this is somewhat true but not completely. “The artist’s eye” comes from education and study.

  7. Wolfgang Floresca
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    In Guercinos’ painting, both colore and disegno are visible, and they both complement one another. Both are visible. Disegno, “the ‘drawing’ or ‘design’, is very apparent, and colore, “the application of color and the process of painting”, is also very apparent. Not one aspect competes with one another because they both work very well together. The disegno is visible because of the careful detail and the good composition. The clothes flow and fold, and the way they’re drawn gives them intense movement and life. The colore is visible in the careful, lifelike coloring of the painting. Everything is painting the right colors, and there is carefully placed color in the sky, the woman’s gown, and the painting, because they’re all blue. The blue carries the viewer’s eyes around the painting, complimenting the composition very well.
    Today, disegno and colore are still being used. Color, application of color, design, and composition are all basic qualities of a good art piece. To this day they’re used in many pieces of art, and they’re staple qualities of a good art piece. Today, the typical artist pays attention to both disegno and colore when analyzing a piece. A good piece has both complimenting each other. In my opinion, not just one of them is a key to a masterpiece, because both of them are needed.

  8. Levi Archer
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    In Disegno and Colore, Guercino by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, Disegno seems to be a more powerful influence in the panting even though it appears that colore is taken into heavy consideration. Many of the objects and figures in this painting have fairly hard edges, something you wouldn’t see in a colore dominated painting. A large part of disegno was “…the art of using line to define form…” Although it is possible to create sharp lines with a colore style painting, they, have a rather distinct look. Another thing to take into consideration is the composition of the painting. “Design was vital and drawing was the most important element for perfection.” It is looks very planned out and the positioning of everything seems deliberate, something more notable in a disegno creation.

    A conversation going on between Disegno and Colore in the painting would be one of partnership. Facial expressions are a large tip of to this. If the two were in a rivalry, there’s no doubt that Colore would have the fire of competition blazing in here gestures and face. She appears to be looking back and Disegno’s drawing as a reference for the painting that she is making. Disegno is holding up the drawing, allowing her to see it easier and more accurately.

    Disegno and colore are working very well together in this painting. As I stated early, this painting isn’t a straight 50/50 disegno/colore piece. It seems quite dominated by disegno, but areas like the green on the tablecloth allow us to see a little colore shining through. The green adds some much needed color into the area of the painting that would otherwise be rather bland in colors, however accurate it may be. The painting within the painting also looks like a colore influenced piece; rightfully so, it is in fact being painting by Colore! Both figures’ hair looks like it was painted loosely with the buildup of many layers of color, giving it a very soft look. Giovanni does a wonderful job combining the two strategies into one cohesive painting.

    I think the concepts of both disegno and colore is very important today. Modern art is very… well, interesting in comparison to paintings from the Renaissance. A “masterpiece” these days could be just a single random brushstroke; in this instance, colore seems to be a very important concept. Many of the masterpieces of today are about what rules they can break, and how they go about doing it. I think in many cases of this, a disegno approach is needed. Rule breaking often goes a lot better with a detailed plan on how to so. However, disegno approaches seem to be fading out of popularity.

    Work Cited

    “Disegno vs. Colorito”. In 2011 Venice Exhibit. Fredericksburg: University of
    Mary Washington Blogs, 2011. (October 23, 2012).

    Sorabella, Jean. “Venetian Color and Florentine Design”. In Heilbrunn
    Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 23, 2012).

    Valle, Lucena. “Question of the Week: What Makes a Painting a
    Masterpiece?”. In The Iris: Views from the Getty. Los Angeles: The J. Paul
    Getty Museum, 2011. (October 23, 2012).

  9. Katie
    Posted October 30, 2012 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    In Guercinos’s “Disegno and Colore,” the elements of design and color are working together. This is evident in both the personification of each element as well as the composition and color Guercino used in the painting itself. The wise old man and the beautiful young woman are clearly working together; he lays out a precise design, and she brings it to life through the use of color, value and tone. Disegno offers his drawing to her in an inviting gesture, while Colore thoughtfully gazes upon the drawing in order to create her painting. It appears as though Colore is learning from Disegno, as if he is instructing her. This would imply that Guercino believed that both composition and color are important, and that a good design leads to good color choice.
    Composition and color are as relevant today as they were during the Renaissance. Both must be taken into consideration by an artist creating a work (whether it be two dimensional or three dimensional), and both are vital components of a masterpiece. In my opinion, although both are important for any artist or work of art, design must come first. A successful piece needs a successful composition before anything else. It is the “staple” that hold the work together, as pointed out by the author of the “Disegno vs. Colorito” article. You can have an excellent color palette, but if the piece lacks a dynamic composition it will probably not be very aesthetically appealing.

  10. Christian
    Posted October 30, 2012 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    In Guercino’s painting, It seems as though disegno and colore are working together to produce an end result, but with a possible nod to the Florentine process. The linear story, beginning with disegno, suggests a necessary hierarchy of procedure. I believe Guercino may be recommending a usage of both methods to obtain optimal results, but the age of the two individuals seem to play a part in the story as well. Historian Robert Williams suggests, “the notion that drawing serves as a foundation for the arts of painting and sculpture had been expressed at least as early as Petrarch.” This means that Guercino recognizes the time honored tradition of sketch work and drafting out ideas on paper prior to beginning a final work, and in this case, the older “wiser” portrayal of disegno appears to be instructing the younger colore.
    Independent scholar Jean Sorabella writes, “For the Florentines and other Central Italian artists, the act of drawing was not only the art of using line to define form: it was the artistic underpinning of a work whereby an artist could express his inner vision.” I find this statement extremely current of our time as well. Sketch work is an uninhibited process for obtaining a visual understanding of our world around us, and some fear that with technological applications it is becoming a dying practice. To me, what defines a masterpiece is the process. The choreography of technique and process married to create a visceral experience. I believe a masterpiece is when all that one had inside is now on the canvas.

  11. Peter
    Posted October 30, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    Colore and Disegno are working together, though each figure is turned away from each other. Colore looks as though she is looking at disegno’s work for influence, as seen in the figure of the painting she is working on, and the similarity in the figure. It shows Guercino’s seeming appreciation for both. It is as though he is showing that disegno has its place behind colore in order to support it, and that together they can create the greatest final piece. Disegno does not create final pieces, and therefore is often for inspiration or studies such as in Michelangelo’s drawings for the Sistine Chapel.
    Disegno and Colore are still very relevant in concept to modern art and design. Their purpose has not changed in the realm of art. In design, disegno is the sketching process; the understanding of a form comes from the detailed drawing, the value of the form and how it can relate to the world around it. Colore is the rendering of things, the styling of things. How it will look in the environment and how others will view it.
    To me, composition is the key to a masterpiece. It is the overriding element in every piece of art; painting, sculpture, photography, and more. Certain pieces can do without color and still be masterpieces. Some pieces are best without color at all, just the composition mixed with materiality. No masterpiece was ever made without composition. Even abstraction and minimalism have the basest elements of composition in colors and shapes. A Pollock is composed, though it seems so random. Pollock looked at his canvas and added where the composition lacked. It is unfair to compare color to composition, when composition envelops almost all elements of art.

  12. Maddy Straka
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    Disegno and colore are working together here and clearly are not in opposition of each other. Because the interaction between the draftsmen who represents disegno, and the young woman who represents colore, is passive and calm one can clearly see that they are working together. Disegno offers up his drawing to colore, who in return simply looks over her shoulder to view his work, this suggest that the two rather than struggling against the opposing viewpoint are working together, and even learning from each other. The young woman looks as if she could be receiving some influence if not instruction form the draftsman, she looks to him for a better understanding of the cherubs form and composition; using his drawing as a reference point for her painting. In having her paint the cherub directly on the canvas instead of drafting it on the canvas Giovanni Francesco Barbieri suggests a middle ground between the two techniques, securing again that rather than being in competition with each other they work together. This unison could suggest that Giovanni believed that both composition and color were important for a piece to be successful, and this reflects in the painting itself. With a detailed, clear composition and, passionate and pure coloring; the piece seems to take the best quality’s of each style and combine them.

    Like Giovanni, today we combine these ideas to create compositionally sound and aesthetic pieces of art. Though they no longer represent the different in techniques used in Florence and Venice today the concepts of disegno and colore are still relevant. Disegno representing a form of art that is planned, calculated, and edited; colore on the other hand is far more free form, passionate. Essentially making disegno equivalent to todays concepts of design, and colore fine art.

  13. Courtney Hellendrung
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    In the painting, Disengno and Colore, by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (about 1640), two figures are featured. On the left is a older man, glancing down at a drawing he has created of a cherub. On the right, there is a beautiful women, painting form the older man’s sketch. It is obvious, by the name, that Barbieri was commenting on the different ways of working during the Renaissance. The elder man is a Florentine, while the women is a Venetian. This is known because “the Florentines were planning and perfecting their design on paper, [and] the Venetians were instead drawing directing on the canvas” (wewqeqwe). The styles of how the two figures were created are also quite different. The older man, as well as his drawing seem to be created more in a Disengno style. Many Disengno pieces “share ahrd contours and a sculptural quality” (wekaheq). The sketch of the Cherub has a sculptural quality that the Florentines’ drawings were known to have.
    In this piece, Disegno and Colore are working together, and it appears more of an instruction than a competition. This is seen from how they are working in the piece, as well as the facial expressions. It appears they are working together because the elder man is sharing his drawing to the younger women. She is then painting from the sketch that he created. If the two were working separately, or in a competition, the younger women would be painting her own idea of the Cherub and wouldn’t be painting from his sketch. The idea that the older man is instruction the younger women is apparent by Disengo being an older man. Older men are connected with the idea of being wise. Having an older man showing the younger women his sketch symbolizes a wise, more educated man teaching this younger, less experienced woman. Their facial features are also clues that they are working together, and he is teaching her. The older man is looking down at his sketch as if about to talk about it, while the women is carefully studying it. If they were in competition, the two figures wouldn’t be so connected, and the old man wouldn’t be so quick to show his competition his work when she hasn’t finished. By connected, I mean the two figures are connected within the piece. They are sitting fairly close together, with nothing in between them, and Colore is gazing in his direction. If it was a competition, the two figures would be much more separated in the composition.
    The concepts of disegno and colore will always be relevant to art, depending on the artists. Some artists have a more disegno approach, and like to perfect their sketches befor starting a piece. Some artists, on the other hand, take a more colore approach and start working directly on their canvas, using color to execute their ideas. Some artists use neither approaches, and some use a combination of both. This piece, for example, is about something else all together. Both the composition and the color is very important to this piece, but it’s about the combination of the two, to bring out this point. The point of the piece is to learn from these old more traditional ideas of sketching, and perfecting ones piece before creating it, and applying it in a newer, colore way.

  14. Ofelia Gonzalez
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Guercino’s stance on this subject of disegno vs. colorito seems to be a truly mutual one. This painting has obvious features of both that represent each disegno and colorito very well. Much detail is included in the figures like those of the Florentine; the draping effect of clothing is classic in paintings with a focus of disegno. However, while this is going on all within the figures of the piece, the coloring is taking over the background and setting of the painting. Colorito is used beautifully to accentuate nature’s colors and their flow. Shadows in the wall, floor, and tablecloth, all create so much depth which might not be as clear without the Venitian’s use of color.
    Although it is clear that both techniques have been used and where they have been used, neither disegno or colorito are more prominent that the other. To one who has no idea what those terms mean, what they do, or even how they oppose each other, this is just an incredible painting with vivid color and great attention to detail. Having seen this, what makes a true masterpiece is having such distinct elements that work together harmoniously in such a way that isn’t even notable.

  15. Sahana Mahadevan
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 9:48 am | Permalink


    Italian Renaissance: Colorito vs. Disegno

    I would say both Disegno and Colorito have a good harmony in the painting by Guercino. The reason being both the aspects that contribute to “a masterpiece” have been put forward in almost a silent manner. The old man holding up his draft that comes under the Florentian ideals of disegno clearly shows how important it is to go from there to work towards making a real masterpiece. The young woman on the side looks as though she has worked directly with color, thus celebrating the ideals of colorito by the venetians. But by placing both colorito and disegno on the same canvas, Guercino has softly pronounced how important it is to have both these elements to actually make a work of art that one can be proud of.
    Both these aspects play a vital role in art and design of today. Without a good plan beforehand or designo it is impossible to be sure of what one may produce. One must start with a solid idea before jumping onto canvas but the role that color or colorito can have in the aspects of shadows and light as well as fixing “unintentional” or “intentional” errors is truly magnanimous. Thus I would say these two factors go together, one cannot survive without the other, they are stages of a process that work towards becoming a treasured art piece.
    Giorgio Vasari, a Florentine artist and writer, described disegno as the father and foundation of all the visual arts, “the animating principle of all creative processes.” I agree with him in the sense that it is foundational to have a good starting point after putting the idea on paper roughly before carrying it out, but I would say that the life of the painting or creative process is colorito because with color the “animational quality” will be missing no matter how well the strategy has been.

  16. Dominique Whitney
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    The painting Disegno and Colore by Guercino is a perfect example of how the disegno and colorito techniques of Italy’s Renaissance period can be used in a symbiotic relationship to create a painting. I do not understand why art critics of that time period were so at ends with the two styles, as with disegno is simply the planning process of an art piece, while colorito is simply the concept of adjusting the concept of the painting to the changes in nature and the artist’s reworking of the design. In Guercino’s Disegno and Colore we see the two (supposedly) conflicting styles working together, the man (disegno) shows a sketch of what the design for the painting is meant to be, as well as where the shadows are meant to be placed, while the woman (colorito) paints the figure with vivid color in layers instead of the typical disegno outline technique. According to Jean Sorabella of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, For the Florentines and other Central Italian artists, the act of drawing was not only the art of using line to define form: it was the artistic underpinning of a work whereby an artist could express his inner vision. Sorabella continues by commenting that Venetian painters often worked out compositions directly on the canvas, using layered patches of colored brushstrokes rather than line to define form. According to the 2011 Venice Exhibit it was color and the application of color that was important when creating nature on canvas, the goal for Renaissance artists. This implies that the only true difference between the two techniques is whether the artist wished to create a painting that was conceptual (disegno) or true to nature (colorito). These techniques are still important and used in a wide array of artistic occupations, and when used together, they give the artist room to place the objects and figures on a canvas conceptually while leaving opportunity to make changes. I find myself more intrigued by masterpieces that harness both vivid color and design concepts, as opposed to just design or color based paintings. This is mostly due to how much I enjoy seeing the artists in their own artwork. With colorito, you see more of the artist’s personality and feelings, while with disegno you get a sense of what the artist felt was most important to convey.

  17. Asieh Amiri
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    The old man represents the thought of Disegno, According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Disegno was viewed as the essential beginning of artistic endeavor, the primary means for making art approximate nature. Usually in paintings an old man represents wisdom or something that has been tested. Using that theory in the painting of Disengo and Colore the old man represents a thought of art that has been tested. On the other side of the painting is a young woman. She is supposed to represent Colore. She represents a new fresher thought of how art should be composed. According to University of May Washington, Colore or colorito believed that coloring was the closest aspect of painting to nature. The question whether the two thoughts are competing against each other, working together, or that one is instruction the other is answered by the way the two figures are positioned. If they were competing, the two figures most likely would not be facing each other. They would most likely be ignoring one another. If they were working together perhaps one figure would be standing by another one and both would have a utensil in their hands. I believe the latter to be the answer. The young woman is the only figure that is doing artwork. She is looking back towards the old man as if she was wondering what to do next. The old man is looking at his drawing as if he is analyzing it and is about to answer her questions. The symbolism in the painting is the young woman is looking back to a time tested thought for instructions while the old man is facing forward to answer the questions.
    These two concepts are still relevant today. They are the core foundations that one should learn in order to have a fundamental understanding of how art is created. If a person has a strong foundation and an understanding of composition and color, a masterpiece will come naturally.

  18. Posted November 3, 2012 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    In the age of Renaissance art, everything in painting was dormant waiting for new methods of paint application and studies were waiting to break new ground. Disigno was claimed to come first as the more mathematical way to go about proportions, as well as intense study of the subject of the painting before it is painted. “Disegno was more than just for the perfection in painting but it was the staple for all areas of art in the Renaissance: painting, sculpture, and architecture. In Venice, however, design was not the area of style that focused on the most. It was color and the application of color that was important when creating nature on canvas, the goal for Renaissance artists.” (Robert Williams) The other niche of Renaissance painting was the method developed in the northern part of Italy; Venice. The Venetian painting style is Colorito, an application of paint that revolutionized color theory, and unification through color and forms made an equally precise approach to painting. “Venetian drawings show an interest in how light will affect a body and how color will describe it in a painting.”( Sorabella)
    In studying Gucerino’s painting Disegno and Colore, There is an obvious pun against the two styles of painting, by unifying them together in a manor that blends together the Disengo and Colore. The elements in the painting are working together with each other, by the color comparisons in the old man’s clothing and in the young woman’s. The composition is working for the directional glances of the figures, immediately tells the story, yet it is not overly obvious. To understand this work many decades after it has been created may be particularly difficult if the viewer has no knowledge of the Italian Renaissance ideals of painting. So it is not completely timeless, but the period it was created definitely influenced the painting.
    Is either of these modes of painting applicable to todays practice of painting? One might assume yes, because this is a style of painting that has been formulated into a process to get a certain result of realism in a work. Yet today most artists do not concern themselves with realism, or classism because the modern thing to do does not include anything it seems of traditional painting. Today most artists are becoming more involved with the material used in the painting. Some may utilize the layered technique used in Disegno and study the subject matter through sketches before they start the painting. Other painters work directly to the canvas without sketching or even thinking it seems. So yes these concepts in painting are most relevant to our culture today. Since this is still a very effective way to depict figures, and give a volumetric feel by using an underpainting. It makes sense with were are world of art and painting is going that artists have completely forgotten the traditional painting, but the few who understand how to utilize the old fashion painting achieve a much more effective blend and subtly to their work, rather than working so directly on the surface with the paint.
    The Painting by Gucerino Disegno and Colore is more of a clever painting than a complete masterpiece, it could be argued otherwise but from the amount of paintings in the world, not everyone that utilizes a coherent color scheme and two different types of painterly language is a masterpiece.

  19. peter hobday
    Posted August 18, 2015 at 1:37 am | Permalink

    The question is attempting to identify the process by which a painting is widely accepted as a masterpiece, so ‘subjectivity’ – a personal view – won’t count unless it is widespread. If those who understand painting agree that the originator has an unusual talent, then ‘Where there is talent, there’s likely to be good work.’ (Melvyn Bragg). The masterpiece arrives when that rare talent is displayed at its best. That is true, not just of painting, but of all art.

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