What is sprezzatura?
As Baldassare Castiglione, who coined the term, defined it in his 1528 "Il Cortegiano", sprezzatura is "a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it."
Like an impromptu in music, something done with sprezzatura seems effortless but is in fact diligently practiced, painstakingly constructed, and entirely premeditated.
So, sprezzatura is a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron in and of itself, and the tension between the seeming effortlessness and the sheer amount of effort that goes into producing the effect of effortlessness is a lovely, delicious tension, and it is where all the best art takes place.
To be clear, true sprezzatura is like the north star, a constant guide, and never attainable by mere mortals. So, don't get your hopes up. I certainly haven't. But it's a worthy goal, and an excellent place to play if you're an artist - or even if you're attempting to perfect the art of the messy bun, the made-unmade bed look, the casual get-together, or the benignly neglected English garden.
I'm a newcomer to art generally, and to oil paints in particular, and so I'm still trying to figure out how to do things properly at the same time that I'm enjoying doing things improperly because I don't know any better.
On ceramic platters, for instance, diluted oils produce the most wonderful textures that could never even be produced by an army of ants with tiny paint brushes. It's like earthy spun cotton. Perfect, in fact, for hair. On its own, however, the effect is sloppy and lazy. My goal, then, is to figure out how to let it do its own thing in some parts, and let the natural textures determine the painted decisions in other parts, and yet in still other parts control the look of things entirely.
The latter, as you might expect, comes the easiest. Control! As someone who has all the bottles lined up along my bathtub in precise order, you can imagine that I love control. The hardest thing is getting out of my own damned way...
Sometimes sprezzatura means controlling things so precisely that it looks like there was no effort involved at all - one thinks of the layers of glazing and scumbling that went into painting the smooth sheen on a casually draping dress, such as the glorious green dress of Van Eyck's Arnolfini portrait.
Sometimes sprezzatura means mastering paint so that each brush stroke captures the impromptu mood precisely - one thinks of the sketched in elements in portraits by Gainsborough, Sargent, and Raeburn.
Sir Henry Raeburn, detail of a portrait of Miss Eleanor Urquhart, 1793
And sometimes sprezzatura means allowing something other than oneself to contribute an effect, whilst still modeling the overall outcome. For me, this is the watercolor element of oils, but it might be natural dyes, the texture of a special paper, the bristles on an imperfect brush, and so on. Or paint splatters! Think of Pollock.
The true master of sprezzatura, of course, knows when to use which form to achieve the right je-ne-sais-quoi. As I mentioned, sprezzatura is a goal of a specific kind of mastery beyond ordinary mastery, and although unobtainable it's a lovely goal to have - especially in an age in which, for whatever reason, seems to value true effortlessness, thoughtlessness, and indolence....