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15th-Century Art of Northern Europe & Spain: Characteristics, Materials & Techniques

15th-Century Art of Northern Europe & Spain: Characteristics, Materials & Techniques
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  • 0:02 Art of the 15th Century
  • 0:48 15th-Century Northern Europe
  • 2:42 15th-Century Spain
  • 4:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the artist innovations in materials and techniques in 15th-century Northern Europe and Spain and discover how they defined the characteristics of art. Then, you can test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Art of the 15th Century

Materials and techniques are very important to art. Well, obviously, but what I mean is that they can greatly influence both the creation and interpretation of a piece of art. Imagine if I wanted to paint a landscape, say a beach somewhere. Well, I might use watercolors to create a blended, airy atmosphere that feels loose and free. But if I was painting something very detailed—perhaps a jungle scene with specific plants—I would want to use a different technique so that I could create more detail. Materials and techniques help define art. This is true now, and it was true in the 15th century, where artists in Northern Europe and Spain used distinct materials and techniques to help them transition into a new era of art.

15th-Century Northern Europe

Like most of Europe, the Northern regions were entering a period of growth in the 15th century, supported by new wealth from international trade markets. Soon, important artistic centers developed in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. While these artists were intellectually and artistically connected to the artists of the Italian Renaissance, they developed their own, unique styles. The basis of this style came from a use of different materials. Most of Europe in the 15th century was painting on plaster walls, but Northern Europeans almost exclusively painted on wood panels. Even more significantly, while the rest of Europe was painting with an egg-based paint called tempera, Northern Europeans began really exploring the potential of oil paint. Both styles of paint involve using a liquid substance to bind pigments together, but oil paint dries much more slowly and evenly and does not bleed, meaning multiple colors could be added to the same image without waiting for it to dry first.

Oil painting defines the art of 15th-century Northern Europe. Northern artists realized that oil paint could be applied in very thick or very thin layers, which meant that artists could create a wide range of intricate details. Northern European art is defined by these details. For one, artists stopped trying to create idealized figures and scenes, like Italian artists, and instead tried to capture figures as realistically as possible. This meant capturing every wrinkle, every fold in the cloth, every shadow. Also, with the ability to create such intricate works, Northern artists became obsessed with symbolism. Nearly every object in Northern European art, no matter how seemingly mundane, represents something else. Generally, these symbols were religious, representing Christ or Mary, reflecting the great importance of religion to the people of Northern Europe.

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