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How Michaelangelo Scammed the Vatican

We artists pride ourselves on being unique. Like each one of us is a perfect little snowflake in a blizzard. But actually, we are co-dependant little snowflakes! We need each other. Without each other, we could never build a creative brand.

Each artist, whether they are conscious of it or not, stands on the shoulders of those who have went before us. Many artists who consider themselves "self-taught" claim that they don't want to pollute their creative flow with someone else's influence, but you would have to be blind to not be influenced by other visual artists today.

Not only the plethora of current artists on Instagram and Facebook, but also the historical references through time. One of the benefits of taking art classes-especially art history-is that it shows us we are not so unique.

Each artist suffers in anonymity for most of their lives, then gets a few lucky breaks, usually with the help of other artists.

Take Michaelangelo for example.

We all think he's the cat's meow because his works have stood the test of time. Most of us can name at least two famous Michaelangelo works like his sculpture of David and the frescoes on the Sistine Chapel. But did you know he rose to fame after scamming the Vatican?

•Early in his career, Michelangelo carved a now-lost cupid statue in the style of the ancient Greeks. Upon seeing the work, his patron Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici proposed an elaborate con. “If you were to prepare it so that it should appear to have been buried,” Medici said, “I shall send it to Rome and it would pass for an antique, and you would sell it much more profitably.” Michelangelo agreed, and the sham cupid was sold to Cardinal Raffaele Riario under the guise of being a recently recovered archeological wonder. Riario later heard rumors of the scam and got his money back, but he was so impressed by Michelangelo’s skill that he invited him to Rome for a meeting. The young sculptor would linger in the Eternal City for the next several years, eventually winning a commission to carve the “Pieta,” the work that first made his name as an artist.-Wikipedia



He got lucky.

That Cardinal could have just as easily thrown him in jail and hired his nemesis Leonardo DaVinci instead. But he didn't, and Michaelangelo went on to have a very long career at the Vatican spanning several papacies and wars. Did you catch the part about Medici putting him up to it? That's the kind of friend I want!


Michaelangelo didn't stop there, he went on to use a process that I use and teach today on his most epic work, the Sistine Chapel. He painted hundreds of figures on the ceiling of the chapel and each one had to be perfect before it went up.


Contrary to popular belief, he did not "free hand" sketch all those figures then lay on his back on scaffolding and paint them. Instead he labored in his studio making a perfect sketch on vellum. Then using charcoal on the back of the sketch he traced these figures onto the ceiling and started off with a fairly hefty outline on each figure.

These sketches were called "cartoons" and are the predecessors of our modern day comics and under-paintings. While this method may feel like "cheating" for artists like Michaelangelo, it was the only way to get through the onorous task of painting the chapel ceiling.

In my beginning painting class; "Classical Training" we learn his method and apply it to the same task. In this case we are taking his sketch of God's hand giving the spark of life to Adam. This is probably the most famous scene from his Sistine Chapel frescoes.


  1. Now print this image out on plain copy paper, and cover the back with charcoal.


  1. Place the hands coming diagonally across the canvas and trace using the blunt end of a paintbrush (not a pencil! it will leave a mark and ruin your reference photo!)

  2. Trace every detail onto the canvas then remove the paper. You will see a ghost-like sketch of the hands across the canvas.


  1. tone the rest of the canvas by wiping thinned-down raw umber across it with a rag-this gives it the texture of a plaster wall.


  1. Start with your darks and mix skin tones working toward your lights.



Congratulations! You now have your own fraudulent Michaelangelo :)

What's important about this technique is that it can help you with portraits or pet portraits when you don't have time (or skill) to sketch them perfectly from life. Practicing like this will help you build that skill. It gives you muscle memory, and helps you start to see proportion relationships that will improve your ability to paint from life later.


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