This week’s post features the 5th installment of our ‘Monuments in Watercolor’ series, which depicts the ruin of the Knossos palace located in Crete, Greece. Constructed around ca. 1500 B.C., the palace site spans 10 km2, in which over 1300 rooms are interconnected with intricate stairs and doorways around a giant central courtyard. The civilization that is responsible for such architectural feat, the Minoan civilization, (2600-1100 B.C.) is often regarded as the very first Western civilization. Influenced by Homer’s epic tales, the popular perception of the Minoans is colored with a shade of surrealistic, Poesque (reminiscent of works by Edgar Allan Poe) horror, which imbues peoples’ imagination with giant bull-headed monster, cluster-phobic labyrinth, and fatalistically tragic characters (Icarus.) however, on the contrary to Homer’s grim depictions, the Minoan mural arts and artefacts excavated in Crete are actually vibrant with color, and full of vitality.
Therefore, when we really strip off the mysticism and look at the Minoan culture objectively, what we see is a civilization unprecedentedly developed, with its culture and art output, along with hydraulic engineering way ahead of its contemporary civilizations. Though religion still plays a dominant role in the Minoan civilization, as evidence of human sacrifice had been spotted in several peak sanctuaries, the number of female figures in the art and religious artifacts demonstrate a high degree of gender equality, which is unheard of in other cultures.
In terms of its architecture, the intricacy of the Minoan palatial complexes (especially the Knossos palace) is commonly interpreted as the Minoan designers’ way of protecting their elites from assassinations. In terms of city planning, the idea of letting the city grow organically sprawl around a central amenity (in the case of the Knossos palace, the courtyard) serves as inspiration for the great Rome. Moreover, clay models of miniature Minoan houses demonstrate that the Minoan architects already had been circulating plans for standardized residential buildings in the form of physical models, this along with the evidence of advanced sewer system seen in the city of Thera, attests to the importance of housing and civil engineering to a stable civilization.
As a tradition, after discussing the importance of the civilization our subject belongs to, it’s custom to also discuss the painting techniques. In this particular piece, I identify the most difficult part to be differentiating the major masses (temple, stone wall, ground, etc) with value. In our previous episodes, I never really needed to worry about the value because the subjects have always been front and centered in the compositions. However, in this piece, the view of the palatial ruin is no longer a single mass but composed of several ‘blocks’ of masses. Hence, it is very easy to lose the control of the overall value, resulting in a general loss of focal point. To combat this difficulty, I decided to assign the focal point of the composition — the temple front with the bright red columns, with the lightest value, and color everything else with darker value. To achieve this, I made a point to color the areas that are supposed to have the lightest value in one go, because no matter how light you apply your washes, as the layers of watercolor paint increase, the value of the layered area will inevitably get darker. It’s also worth mentioning that it is possible to color an area with sufficient saturation without resorting to glazing, it’s just a matter of reducing the water loaded in your brush while coloring.
With that said, after I had finished coloring the ‘light valued areas,’ I simply refused to work on them anymore, hence to preserve the ‘lightness.’ As for everything else, I made a point to glaze the areas over and over again, often with complementary colors to really bring down the value. As a result, one can intuitively differentiate among all the blocks of masses, because of their differences in value.
That’s all I have to say about the 5th episode of our ‘Monuments in Watercolor’ series. I’m deeply fascinated with the Minoan civilization, and sincerely hope that one day the Linear A writing system could be deciphered, so we can learn more about their culture. That said, please stay tuned, as next week we begin to look at my favorite civilization — the Roman Empire.