Feb 102012

We All Make Mistakes

David and Goliath, with Caravaggio's self portrait as the decapitated Goliath. Caravaggio

| Knight, Pimp & Occasional Painter |

Michelangelo Merisi, known to most as Caravaggio, was hardly a man you would want at the dinner table.  Hot tempered, violent and vain were the nicer ways of describing his temperament.  His career should have lasted another forty years, but was cut short in the prime of his artistic life.  The years leading up to his death were intense.  After establishing a career in Rome under the top patrons of the city, he went south to Naples, then Malta.  He managed to win the favor of Alof de Wignacourt, the Grandmaster of the Knights of Malta.  Caravaggio was made a Knight of Malta, then stripped of that honor and thrown in jail for fighting with another knight.  Within a few months he escaped prison and Malta to make passage to Sicily, where he lived in relative secrecy until Pope Paul V issued a pardon for his death sentence “bando capitale” for killing a rival named Ranuccio Tommasoni on a tennis court in Rome.  The artist could not outrun his problems fast enough.

Portrait of Alof de Wignacourt, the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta. Caravaggio

When he returned to Italy, he stopped in Naples.  The gods of good fortune were sick of Caravaggio’s impetuous behavior and graced him with no favors.  He was attacked by four men leaving a bar in Naples.  It was later discovered that the knight Caravaggio fought with in Malta was behind the attack.  Giovanni Rodomonte Roero and three others gave Caravaggio a sfregio or slash to the face, along with a proper beating.  The newspapers even reported to Rome that Caravaggio was killed.

Though Caravaggio lacked prudence, he had no shortage of resilience.  He survived the attack and boarded a ship bound for Rome.  This would be his last trip at sea.  Upon arrival at Port’ Ercole he was arrested.  This time for mouthing off to the Spanish captain  in charge of the port.  He was put in jail, still ailing from his injuries in Naples.  By the time he was released, the boat sailed back to Naples with Caravaggio’s paintings on board.  Furious as he was, Caravaggio made his best attempts to track down the boat, but died on either July 18th or 19th 1610.  He was thirty nine years old.

FUN FACT: Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564), who was the namesake of Caravaggio, died an old man at age 89.  It was not uncommon for artists to live very long lives, unless they were struck down by misfortune or bad habit.  (Raphael, born April 6th 1483-April 6th 1520) died of complications from syphilis presumably contracted from one of Rome’s many courtesans, which is a code word for high priced hooker.  He was 37.)

This canvas was rejected immediately upon completion and Caravaggio was forced to make another image from scratch. Conversion of St Paul. Caravaggio

| Rejection is tough to swallow |

Caravaggio painted two major commissions which were rejected.  Let us keep rejection in perspective.  The canvas were not simply disliked.  It was not as if the patrons thought “Well I think they could be better…”  The rejection was like an empirical decree from God, since the subject matter was religious.  An impious gesture toward the Catholic Church was liable to get a painter banned from a city or even killed.  Caravaggio spent his early years in Milan, where the puritanical rule of Cardinal Carlo Borromeo saw many artists exiled.

The support of a patron was critical in the 1500’s.  And in spite of Caravaggio’s absurd behavior he was in the good graces of the Colonna and Del Monte families.  These relationships afforded him opportunities to re-do mistakes without loosing commissions.  So what was the cataclysmic screw up that could lead one of the most favored painters in history to shrink in rejection?


The areas of high contrast in the background pull attention away from the main subject. Caravaggio

| Who is the subject? |

I write on this site about Dynamic Symmetry and Design.  Most people don’t know that artists use straight lines to organize complex compositions.  They employ the Golden Section, a term which is SO abused on photography websites it makes me ill.  (The rule of Thirds IS NOT a golden section division)  But even if one uses grids to organize an image the image can still fail.

One of Caravaggio’s major failings (in the rejected canvases) are as follows:

  • He fails to properly establish the subject to a degree that is easy to read.  Remember, just because it is Legible, does not mean it Communicates.
  • He clutters the scene with TOO MANY figures, who are cut and cropped at angles that add confusion instead of clarity.
  • The overlap of figures create formless blobs on the canvas.

There are also problems which were an issue to the 16th century clergy.  We might not notice these details, but are nevertheless very important to understanding the progression of Caravaggio’s work.

  • In Catholic terms, the dirty bottoms of someone’s feet are not suitable content for a painting.  There are a handful of anatomical parts which the church does not want to see.  I am sure you know what they are because you have never seen them in any religious painting.  But a lesser known example are the dirty bottoms of the feet.  Caravaggio became famous for inserting them, whenever possible, but his patrons were not amused.
  • While we are discussing anatomy, the ASS of a horse should not have a prominent position in a painting of a saint.  He made this mistake twice and it was even accepted in the re-do of the Conversion of St. Paul.
  • Caravaggio should not cover the face of the Saint in the painting.  The patrons want to see the face of the Saint.  If you cover the face, the painting becomes anonymous and the subject is lost. Likewise in our photographs, we do not want someones hand blocking the face of our subjects.  How often I see some intruding hand, umbrella, or sign blocking the main subject.  While this can be done as a joke (see HCB’s in Naples) This is not advisable as a general guideline.

When he is forced to re-think the compositions, he makes considerable strides.  The greatest accomplishment was not on the first re-do of the Conversion of St. Paul, but on the re-do of St. Matthew & the Angel.

| St. Paul’s Problems |

The original painting of St. Paul has a few glaring mistakes.  Now just to be clear, artists all make mistakes.  This is not my attempt to comb through the errors of artists and assert some type of superiority.  Artists make mistakes, which leave clues for us as viewers.  We can learn from these mistakes, see what they changed, and gain a better understanding of their craft and ours.  All in all, the collective body of artists in history make more mistakes than successes.  Its just the way things go.  By highlighting the mistakes we begin in internalize some of their techniques so that we may learn them and move on.  If we were forced to learn everything by trial and error the tradition of art making would not move.  Michelangelo learned from Verrocchio, Raphael learned from Michelangelo, and Caravaggio learned from all of them.  Its a progression.

Back to the mistakes of St. Paul.  Squint your eyes.  What do you see?  A mis-mash of light and dark speckles.  Where are the brightest spots?  One is on St. Paul, this is good, but where is the other?  Its on the backside of the horse.  This bright spot, intended to be a light ground for the dark horse is WAY TOO bright in value.  It is as contrasty as St. Paul himself.  Thus the two compete for visual attention.  In a royal court, the king wears the biggest crown so as to not be confused with the duke.  Paintings are no different.  If you want a figure to be the main subject, be sure they are lit and that there is no other value competing with them.

The second problem is the number of cropped body parts throughout the scheme.  Caravaggio was famous for not making preparatory sketches.  He was a hot shot and liked to paint on the fly.  Sometimes it worked, but there are a large number of early canvases that do not work because they lack a cohesive design.  If he had taken the time to sketch a few schemes, he might have saved himself hours with a brush.  In the worst cases, he painted over sections on the finished piece. The failed under paintings have shown through over the years.  Drawing is not mandatory, but advisable everyone.  It is there to help us.  But there was no convincing Caravaggio.  We will let him sink his own ship.


The problem areas are referred to by the roman numerals listed below. Caravaggio

| Do Not Cut at the Joints |

An old painters secret that photographers pick up on is “Do not crop a figure at the joint.”  While I often read articles stating “There are no rules in photography, blah blah blah…” the truth is THERE ARE RULES.  Whether you call them conventions, rules, guidelines or traditions, artists have collectively been working on solutions to depicting 3D scenes in 2D forms for thousands of years.  If someone tells you “There are no rules in photography…” kindly thank them for their time and back out of the room.  They do not know what they are talking about.

Now, whether you use the rules, bend them or break them is entirely up to you, but you ask any artist who is well trained where to crop a figure and they will rattle off a list that will baffle you.  One place you do not crop is at the joint. WHY? because it looks like they are decapitated.  In the first St. Paul we have a list of bad crops and body part alignments.  They are noted on the picture above so you can see what I mean.

  • ( I )  The horses head grows out of the soldiers shoulder.
  • ( II )  We lose the shoulders on both boys at the top, their arms float in space.
  • ( III)  The boy on the left has his arm cut at the elbow, it hardly seems attached to his body.
  • ( IV )  St. Paul’s head looks like its the ball of the knee in the soldier.
  • ( V )  The soldier’s left foot is cut off.
  • ( VI )  The horses hoof is cut off.
  • ( VII )  The placement of the soldier’s shield creates the illusion that he only has one arm.
  • ( VIII )  And lastly, the quick change of value at St. Paul’s knees make it look as if he has lost his legs.  In short, everything is anatomically correct, but does not read properly.  The figures create a sense of confusion and result in a failure.  Might I add, I wish my failures were as grand as Caravaggio’s, but when he finally gets things right we will see his pictorial power shine through.

The second version still has some problems, but is a vast improvement over the original effort. It was accepted for installation. Caravaggio

In the second version of the Conversion of St. Paul, we are presented with a simplified scheme.  Half of the figures were eliminated.  The ass of the horse is still prominent, but at least the light is on his shoulder and the fallen St. Paul.  Overall its still not one of his most successful images, but it corrects many of the problems in the first painting and was accepted for installation at the church.

This painting was destroyed by fire during World War II. It is the original rejected canvas of St. Matthew and the Angel. Caravaggio

| A Fired Sculptor |

Caravaggio was given the commission to paint the “St. Matthew and the Angel” because a Flemish sculptor, Jacob Cobaert, was on the verge of being fired.  He was taking too long to complete the work and the patrons were fed up with the delay.  When a partially completed sculpture was delivered, it was immediately reject.  As a result the job switched from being a sculpture to a painting.  The patrons of the Contarelli Chapel described the painting of St. Matthew in a contract.

Its easy to envision the entire painting carved from a block of stone. It was not until his second attempt that he liberated himself from the problems which only concern the sculptor. Caravaggio

| Difference of Opinion |

Caravaggio’s first attempt possessed a formal problem and a conceptual problem.


Since the original commission was a sculpture, Caravaggio seemed to have a block of stone fixed in his head.  The Angel and St. Matthew look as if they could be a painting FOR a sculptor to use as a reference.  They rest on a heavy floor, are linked in a confined space, and subscribe to all the laws of gravity that you and I know.  Sculptors do not like huge floating masses suspended in marble for a practical reason.  Marble is soft and will break.


St. Matthew was rejected by the priest because,

“…the figure with its legs crossed and its feet rudely

exposed to the public had neither decorum nor

the appearance of a saint. That was of course precisely

Caravaggio’s point: Christ and his followers looked more

like beggars than cardinals.” 

-Andrew Graham Dixon


Saint Matthew & the Angel. Caravaggio

| Back to the Drawing Board |

When Caravaggio paints a new St. Matthew he makes all the corrections required for a successful work of art and pleased his patrons.

Simplicity:  The picture has been stripped of any element which does not relate to the subject matter.  There are no leaves and branches, in fact there is hardly anything other than a furniture and a book.  Caravaggio succeeds in the pictorial power of this image because he simplifies his the scene.

We no longer see any distracting elements in the background, so the figures read clearly on the canvas. Caravaggio

Figure to Ground:  St. Matthew and the Angel are light figures on a dark ground.  Unlike the earlier St. Paul, there are no bright distracting elements which draw attention away from the subject.  Caravaggio reduces the background in the second versions of both paintings.

There is a dominant vertical which is echoed throughout the image. Caravaggio

This is the dominant horizontal. The painting is designed in a PHI rectangle which means it will subdivide into a square and another PHI Rectangle. Caravaggio

The dominant diagonal is the strongest line in the entire piece. Usually one of the major direction will dominate the other two. This establishes a hierarchy. Caravaggio

Dominant Lines:  The image has a dominant vertical, horizontal and diagonal design.  The strength of the formal elements, particularly that diagonal gives a movement and gravity to those figures.

In order to soften everything up Caravaggio introduces a beautiful arabesque. Caravaggio

The arabesque almost feels like the smoke of an incense burning rising from the floor. He really got this one right. Caravaggio

Arabesque:  The second St. Matthew has the angel perched way above the figure.  There is a beautiful arabesque which cascades down the canvas.  This arabesque loosens the feel of the image.  You can certainly design with lines, but there are no straight lines in nature.  The finish piece needs to be softened with a curvilinear element to give the design a natural look.

Matthew’s Make Over:  St. Matthew went from being a humble beggar, taking dictation from a winged child to an elderly sage bestowed a message from a divine authority.  Last time I checked winged children do not send messages to old men with beards.  FedEX offers a lot of delivery services, but angels are not one of them.  Caravaggio takes advantage of the 2D surface of a canvas and demolishes the everyday sense of gravity.  The entire scene is as majestic as any 16th century priest would love to believe.

Here we can see the progression of mistakes and adjustments. Caravaggio

| Translation for a Photographer |

What can we gain from looking at painting?  We are not the first people to make a likeness of another human.  It is a practice that goes back tens of thousands of years.  As a result we can learn great deal from those who came before us.  The early artists noticed the challenge of depicting a scene from life on a 2D surface.  Over centuries they experimented, documented and passed along lessons to future generations.  Presumably to save them the headaches they encountered in learning their craft.

Caravaggio shows us that if we want to strengthen our pictures we might try to:

  • Simplify the composition.
  • Be sure the subject (whatever it may be) reads and is well lit.
  • Eliminate extra details, even if they simply fall into shadow.
  • Take advantage of the 2D form.  We have more luxuries than the sculptor who is tortured by gravity.
  • And remember, everyone, even the Masters made mistakes.  The good ones learned from their mistakes and kept moving.

Caravaggio The Sacred and Profane Life by Andrew Graham-Dixon

If you are interested in Caravaggio I highly recommend Andrew Graham-Dixon’s Caravaggio A Life Sacred and Profane.  It is an outstanding read about his life, work, criminal activity and will explain the myth of Caravaggio killing a man over a game of tennis.  He did indeed kill a man on a tennis court, but there were no racquets in sight.

Enjoy the read.

Best-Adam Marelli 


  27 Responses to “Caravaggio”

  1. Great analysis as usual. Boy, I wish I had received this kind of education in my Art History classes.

    • Hey Kyle,

      haha, I wish I had this kind of education in my art history classes. I think the reason art history teachers dont teach this stuff it because they dont know how to draw. The simple exercise of a Myron Barnstone style drawing class naturally illuminates many of these design issues. I am very happy to share these ideas with photographers, because no one translates artistic problems directly for photography.


  2. Many thanks for this! A wonderful compositional overview of Caravaggio. I too am very fond of Mr Graham-Dixon’s book, and was lucky enough to interview him about it – if you are interested in a text that examines Caravaggio’s technque in greater detail – I would thoroughly recommend Clovis Whitfield’s recent superlative volume “Caravaggio’s Eye”.

    Kind Regards
    H Niyazi

    • Hey Hasan,

      Thats great that you were able to interview Andrew about the book. I just saw your site and plan on reading through it today. Thanks for the recommendation of Whitfield. When I was in Rome last month, I had a chance to see most of these pieces in their natural resting spots. For anyone who has not had a chance to see these works in person, it is well worth the effort.

      Will be in touch soon.


  3. You, sir, need to start thinking about publishing your blog posts as a book. This blog is a lot more helpful than any photography book I have seen (which admittedly does not say a lot, as I do not have the patience to read a lot of formal literature about photography).

    Thanks for your insights.

    • Hey Enno,

      It is great to know that these articles are beginning to open up the design games that master artists play throughout their careers. At the moment there are no books scheduled, but if I do Pax Rock will be my go to proofreaders. : )


    • I agree. I have benefited greatly from your website and always think your approach would make for an incredible book. (The only obstacle, which may be formidable, would be getting rights to reproduce the sample paintings and photographs …)

      • Hey Ramosa,

        There have been a few options for books that people are running past me. Nothing has hit quite right yet. But you are correct, any of the living photographers would be tough in terms of copyright. For now, the articles will have to do. : )

        I am considering making some short videos, so people can get a better sense of how I see things. How does that sound?


  4. Writers make mistake too! For example, using “loose” when they mean to use “lose”. As in ” ( II ) We loose the shoulders on both boys at the top,”

  5. Hey Adam,

    You said there are alot of places an artist should and should not crop. Would you mind giving a few more examples or maybe telling where I can learn about cropping?


    • Hi Milan,

      When we want to learn where to crop a figure, one of the best places to start is Antiquity. Greek and Roman sculptures, including coinage, hold almost all the secrets to cropping.

      Maybe later this week I can write an entry on what I consider to be the most common mistake for all photographers. It is so simple, but overlooked constantly.

      If you have a Facebook profile, send me a request. I will look at your pictures and see how you are doing.


      • Dear Adam, voraciously reading your blogs. Photography introduces its own problem to cropping: whether or not to crop in camera or leave room for potential canvas wrapping which can distort an image completely. I guess I still prefer in camera cropping. Looking forward to reading what you have to say about the subject. Thank you again for a fantastic learning site.

        • Hey Vera,

          Happy to hear you are devouring the articles. I like the enthusiasm. The rectangle of our negative turns out to be more mysterious than expected. Not a single one of my photo teachers in school (not mentioning any names) never taught us how a rectangle has a subterranean geometry.

          Even before we take a photo, there is a dynamic inherent in its shape. Fortunately I had classically trained drawing teachers who sorted me out.

          Its best to learn the techniques in person, but the blog is a healthy alternative.


  6. Adam, ditto on the blog teaching me so much. Thank you for this, you teach well and I for one learned to look at “everything” differently.
    Please keep it up. We love it!


    • Hi Danni,

      Happy to hear that the entries are helping your images. I appreciate the kind words. Hope to see you at some of the workshops this year. The lessons will have a greater impact in person.


  7. I hope my daughter receives this kind of instruction in her art classes. If not I am sending her to school with your website.. Just saying :)

    • Hi Isoterica,

      Not sure where you guys are located, but if you want to check up on her art school, watch the Barnstone DVDs. If the teacher is not using the material on the discs, its time for a new school.

      I am touched that you would send her here. I feel as if so many children are deprived of a proper art education due to deficient teaching. They deserve to learn the lessons of the great masters and decide for themselves whether they would like to continue on as artists, photographers, or the like.

      Best of luck to the both of you and thank you for the kind words. She must be a lucky girl.


      • She won’t be going exclusively to an art school, she’ll be double majoring, teaching [early childhood education, K-3] and art, using art to help teach the young where methods of learning and creativity begin to form. Not an art teacher though. Also she may be tailoring her art major to reflect multiple medias rather than just choosing one, just for that purpose. The way you have demonstrated your understanding of composition, the weight of an image etc.. is very geometric, mathematical in nature and yet natural and creative. My daughter seems to have a generous sprinkling of both right and left brained thinking, having taken music theory and aced the class without a musical background based on the math and pattern to it. There were kids in that class that had been playing some kind of instrument since first grade and still couldn’t master it. She wants to be able to teach even those that are analytically brained how to utilize that type of thought creatively as well as those that are creative, how to use that gift to learn in other areas. Because of deficient teaching I think she will make a wonderful contribution in this field and help to develop dynamic individuals, like herself. Maybe I will get her the DVDs to compliment if Barnstone isn’t a part of their curriculum. Thanks for the heads up on that!


        • Kristen,

          The gift of any great teacher is to play both sides of the brain. Everyone is a little different and at once they are the same. Someone like Myron has a masterful command over his material and over teaching too. She will surely enjoy the DVDs.

          I love that she used her mathematical skills to ace the musical composition class. Knowledge goes a long way and if she can understand the material on her own terms it would certainly give her an advantage. Sadly, many students are given superficial information about their subjects. As a result, they never develop any mastery. And not because they are not capable, rather their teachers failed them. Myron is one of those people who says that students do not fail, teachers fail. That being said, he would give us grief for not working hard, but come hell or high water…he sees you through to the end.

          As the site continues, I trust you will enjoy more of the articles to test both sides of the brain. The analogy of the right and left brain are no different than balancing design and emotion. Both elements temper each other to form an alloy stronger than either one alone.

          I wish the very best to your daughter in her studies and to you for encouraging her work. : )


  8. I love this site. As an art history major (back in the day) who is now dabbling in photography, it’s wonderful to revisit the old masters and apply this knowledge to photographic composition…seeing the arrows and markings really helps…

  9. Fantastic breakdown. Thank you.

  10. What a wonderful article to learn from master painters and how they relate to photography. Thank you very much!

  11. Hey Adam,

    I saw you on youtube teaching your class on B&H photo. I have watched it a handful of times. I have been on your website a lot since then. You are a good teacher, poor grammar and all :-) . Sincerely, thank you. If I ever take a great picture, it will be because you helped open my eyes. I am 32 yrs old and I am excited to practice the lessons you are passing on.

    • Hi Amosk,

      Glad you enjoyed the video and can make your way through the website, in spite of the typos : )

      Best of luck with your growing practice. The video and the site will serve as a good base for you.


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