In Cape Town in 2013, a major project began with the suggestion to paint a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting “The Annunciation”. The art group of 6 members, enthusiastically took up the project. It took 9 years, but the journey has been fascinating, from inception to completion. A replica of this magnificent painting now hangs on the walls of the School’s refectory. What was the process? Read on. Andrea is on the left, and Annette on the right of the painting above.
In the Steps of Leonardo
Charmaine Kendal, Cape Town
Initial steps on the way
The Art Group enthusiastically took up the “Annunciation Project” initially. But as the project developed the group became smaller, till eventually there were two members left. These two completed the painting: Annette van Zyl and Andrea Duell. Both have art backgrounds, although not directly related to traditional oil painting. Annette had trained as an illustrator and Andrea as a ceramicist. Both Annette and Andrea acknowledge the painting as a group project. “Everyone who helped at any stage of the project, has contributed in some way to its completion.”
Visiting Leonardo, the Master Artist
At a retreat in Cape Town Mr. Donald Lambie learned about the work that the six-member group was doing. Annette speaks of his advice which turned out to be transformational. “He directed the art group to see the original painting. He said, ‘Connect with the spirit of Leonardo da Vinci. Go to Florence, to the beautiful city where Leonardo painted. And to the Uffizi Gallery where the Annunciation is’.”
For a whole year the art group raised funds to travel to Florence and in 2017 Annette and Andrea, the only remaining members, embarked on their Da Vinci voyage of discovery.
“Leonardo would have been 20 years old when he started painting the Annunciation in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio where he was an apprentice. This would have been his first work,” explained Annette.
Andrea was really impressed on seeing the original, especially Leonardo’s sophisticated use of colour.
In Florence, the artists visited the Uffizi Gallery, and took photographs of the original painting. They also visited the Zecchi paint shop. They walked in the steps of Leonardo.
“The visit inspired and transformed our attitudes on so many levels,” says Annette.
“The photographic reference that we had been using for our preliminary studies in Cape Town was a dull reflection of the original painting. Seeing the painting first hand was profoundly moving and informed us of a new way forward.”
Leonardo – only 4 colours!
Annette explains Leonardo’s influence. “Inspired by Leonardo’s scientific approach, and with the freedom to discover, we spent almost a year researching and experimenting with colour. We created a colour swatch reference system by selecting colours from high quality photographs we took of the original painting. This reference system ensured accuracy in colour matching.”
The artists tried to replicate the paints and brushes Leonardo had used. They used the same colour pigments: burnt umber, cadmium red, yellow ochre and ultramarine blue.
“Leonardo had a very limited palette of only four colours,” explains Annette, “so, we had to re-teach ourselves how to mix colours. That was wonderful. He also used lead white, which is highly toxic, so we mainly used a less toxic titanium white. We also used another white sparingly: stack lead white for transparent glazes on faces. An expensive addition to the palette was the coveted lapis lazuli paint for Mary’s robe and real gold pigment paint for the halos and on Gabriel’s robe.”
Research and experiment
Annette describes the process the painters followed. “We spent some time researching and experimenting with the method of oil painting used by Renaissance painters in Florence around 1472.
“The traditional oil paint method used here is built up of several layers of colour, mostly transparent glazes, painted over a detailed underpainting of monochrome burnt umber. The oil solvent, traditionally walnut or linseed, is gradually increased into each subsequent layer. So, the underpainting of burnt umber has no oil and the final layer has the most oil, working the fat into lean. This layering effect helps to create deeply rich, saturated colours and highlights, while light reflects the play of the interaction of the various layers of colour.”
Leonardo worked with other painters too!
Leonardo worked with many other painters. He would have had someone to mix his colours, someone to prepare his brushes etc. For Annette and Andrea, working together was like an imitation of Leonardo’s community, and a wonderful chance for conscious creativity. Annette describes very beautifully the power of this communion.
Annette found that, “Working in a group with a love for Truth was a joy and protected us from following personal missions.”
Andrea echoes these sentiments, “We worked closely at every stage of the painting which deepened our trust and respect for each other. Working on layers, we constantly worked over each other’s work. This helped us not to get identified with any area or claim it as our own. It wasn’t about us and we both held the same intention which made it easy.”
Growing in confidence with Leonardo
Annette describes the process of growing in confidence and trust, “As we became more confident working together, we could respond quite naturally and freely to the work at hand. Without speaking, we knew which colours to add, which brush to use, how much paint to load on the brush. Often, we worked seamlessly on the same detailed area. We took time to look and contemplate at the beginning of each session until we had agreement on the direction for the next step. Which was mostly fresh and unexpected.”
For Annette, “The stillness before beginning played an important role. It allowed peace of mind, to be present and still and to paint wholeheartedly. Often, we were left with a feeling of being united with a power much larger, even divine…”
The “group” however extends beyond the artists. Annette and Andrea express enormous gratitude to the Cape Town Committee who supplied the funds for the painting and who agreed to pay for the best quality materials, and the handcrafted gilt frame which is like the original.
Leonardo – unveiling in Cape Town
The replica of “The Annunciation” now hangs in the refectory of the schoolhouse in Cape Town. It was unveiled in December 2022. This coincided with the announcement of Dr Shannon Kendal’s retirement and the appointment of a new leader of the school, Mr Albert van Zyl. The painting is a fitting representation of the Renaissance way, from the inspiration of the patron to its final manifestation.
The Spirit of Leonardo
The artists imbibed the spirit of Leonardo as Andrea describes, “I came into the project with a healthy dose of confidence. Leonardo’s genius soon put this into perspective. He taught me humility. I realised that Leonardo had tapped into something greater than himself. By following Leonardo’s lead, our own expression had to be surrendered. This was very freeing.”
The artists had begun with a project to paint a replica of a painting by Leonardo da Vinci. In retrospect, they did much more than that. They went to Florence and met the artist. By imitating his methods and work, they crept into his time and his mind. On their journey they discovered his spirit, the spirit which is beyond both space and time. The spirit which is universal.
Now, when the students have their refreshments in the refectory, they too can connect with the spirit of Leonardo as they look in wonder at the exquisite painting on the wall.
Watch a short film of the development of the painting: https://youtu.be/UDk6lOKZv8I
See more images of this painting on Instagram: philosophyartgroup. Why not follow this account for information on future projects!
Enjoyed this article? Read another like this: Conscious Creativity
Find out more about the School of Practical Philosophy Cape Town.