Bruegel’s Zig Zag

posted in: Blog | 11

The Renaissance art historian Bernard Berenson claimed that  Lorenzo Lotto’s “St. Nicholas in his Glory” contained his favorite Renaissance landscape (example 1). It occupies only about a quarter of the painting. I found it where Berenson remembers it, in a corner of the Church of the Carmini in Venice.  This work proved to be influential in the history of European landscape painting.

Example 1.  Detail from Lorenzo Lotto’s “St. Nicholas in His Glory”, 1527,

Dutch and German painters, like Durer visited Venice to meet other artists, to examine their designs, their techniques and, to study the art there. Some of these visiting artists saw Lotto’s painting. Perhaps engravings of it had made their way to Nuremberg and Amsterdam as many others did.

Lotto’s landscape design did not begin with him. He borrowed the landscape formula/ design from other contemporary Italians. He adopted and redefined the design to suit his needs. That’s what chefs, poets, filmmakers, architects, gardeners, musicians and artists have always done. We speak the language of our culture; we didn’t invent it but, we can inventively change it.

If you claim to have invented a language all your own it will be incomprehensible to others. We must work from shared models.

If we look at Lotto’s serpentine landscape with its arrangement of hills and small mountains, its distant shoreline, its incoming dark clouds, its meandering waterway we see  how artists like Bruegel would adopt and modify the design (examples 2 and 3).

Example 2. Pieter Bruegel’s “Return of The Herd”, 1565,

Example 3. Pieter Bruegel’s “Harvesters” painting, In New York’s Metropolitan Museum,

This rolling serpentine design, ascending and descending toward an infinite horizon served Bruegel well. It has continued to serve artists through today. Contemporary artists like Wayne Thiebaud use the design with his own radical exaggerations of color contrast and linear perspective (example 4). I too have found this design to be a valuable tool for my own landscapes.

Example 4. Wayne Thiebaud, “Toward 280” from 2000.

Next you see a series of examples of my work using some aspects of this design. In my first example (example 5) the viewer descends then meanders across the rear of  the scene toward an infinite bright and coastal horizon.

To get the viewer to feel as if they were descending I needed to use a three-point perspective system. The descending trail aims toward a vanishing point situated below the horizon or, eye-level. It later resumes its slow wandering ascent into the distance. Notice the textures and surface information are richer and become more blended as they recede into the distance.

Example 5. Descending Trail, oil on aluminum, 24×36 2019,

Example 6 uses a rocky coastline to provide the serpentine zig zag back toward infinity.  This is an oil on Dibond.

Example 7 presents a pair of receding, meandering, marshland ponds. We don’t rise and fall as dramatically as in the preceding examples.  This design illustrates the mutating capabilities of the original compositional structure. Here the design is flattened and,  recomposed to fit into a square vs. the previous rectangles.

On Sunday October 27th at 2:00PM I will present a lecture on “Sources for Creativity: How the Mind Works “at the Ridgefield Connecticut Library on Main Street in Ridgefield. Please join me.




11 Responses

  1. Mary Nees

    This is a wonderful short summary David with your fine examples added. Thank-you! I recently saw a Durer retrospective at the Albertina; to me he was the true champion of landscape, referencing those before him but then taking it forward so masterfully. And on it goes!

    • dd_admin

      Mary, He was one of the earliest European artists to champion landscape along with Altdorfer. Yes, isn’t the Albertina a delight!!! Best, DAvid

  2. Nancy Harris

    David, this is excellent. The nature of our soul responds to paths that lead to infinity; especially those that “zig zag” and no more evident is this than in well-composed paintings, such as you illustrated. This is an inspiring start to a day at the easel. Thank you…Nancy

  3. Fredric Neuwirth

    Great space and depth
    Colors are dynamic
    Grass looks like you resisted the squeegee but I could be wrong
    Lovely p=ainting

  4. don moon

    David, I’m constantly amazed at how much I learn from every one of your posts! Its incredible to see the connections from paintings of 500 yrs ago and yours, as well as other contemporary artists.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *