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Probate & Property

Jul/Aug 2023

The Last Word: Disegno vs. Colorito

Mark R Parthemer


  • Artists, like lawyers, seek clarity of expression.
  • Expository writing primary purpose is to deliver information about an issue, subject, method, or idea using facts.
  • Opening a Word document and simply write. This writing is akin to the Venetian approach to art.
The Last Word: Disegno vs. Colorito
skynesher via Getty Images

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In school, I was taught that a proper exposition has five paragraphs: an introduction with a thesis, two supporting paragraphs, one refutation paragraph anticipating the main point against the thesis, and a concluding paragraph with a summary. I have come to learn that there is another perspective—in lieu of the refutation paragraph, a third supporting paragraph is used. Either way, these approaches reflect a more scientific glide path to writing, and that brings us to the question: Is writing art or science?

Artists, like lawyers, seek clarity of expression. As it turns out, the “art” versus “science” way of painting engaged in a similar tug of war, dating back to Renaissance Italy. The two camps were concentrated geographically: one in Florence, the other in Venice.

The Florentine style focused on the design of a work called disegno. First, artists would work on separate paper or parchment to perfect their design before moving on to the canvas. The design was fundamental, and drawing was the most important element for perfection. This idea started long before the High Renaissance because “the notion that drawing serves as a foundation for the arts of painting and sculpture had been expressed at least as early as Petrarch.” Robert Williams, Art, Theory, and Culture in Sixteenth-Century Italy 16 (1997). Disegno was more than just for painting. It was the staple for all areas of Renaissance art: painting, sculpture, and architecture.

In Venice, the focus was not solely on design. Color—and the application of color—were important. Colorito is an Italian verb meaning the application of color and the process of painting. The Venetians would draw directly on the canvas and create and change their design while painting, focusing on the brushwork and color that they were applying right onto the canvas. The artist “drew on the canvas with charcoal and paint rather than using the complicated drawing process” of the Florentines. Bruce Cole, Titian and Venetian Paintings: 1450-1590, at 70 (1999). It was not disegno or “the muscular energy or movement of the figure…but the colorito in all its variety and its blending is the source of animation, of the pulse of life and likeness, in Venetian eyes.” Paul Hills, Venetian Colour: Marble, Mosaic, Painting, and Glass 1250-1550, at 216 (1999). This “flowing” process is probably what most think of as art, in contrast to a structured approach deemed as scientific.

Expository writing is one of the four styles of composition. Its primary purpose is to deliver information about an issue, subject, method, or idea using facts. The other three styles are narration, description, and argumentation. Though lawyers may use all four in a day, we focus here on the expositive as many write in this style every day. Good exposition provides essential background information and context. For example, think of the opening crawl of Star Wars: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” Typical readers of lawyers’ writings may be unengaged by a “once upon a time” opening, so the product must be compelling. The question at the moment is how to create such content.

For some of us, we open a blank Word document and simply write. We narrow our focus to the task at hand, seeking to get into a flow and modifying our approach as we go along. This writing is akin to the Venetian approach to art.

For others, the process is Florentine. We contemplate our thesis, perhaps engage in relevant research, prepare an outline, and complete a first draft. The first (and additional) drafts are the analog to the sketches before the masterpiece is transferred to canvas.

Consider the last email you composed, letter crafted, brief written, or presentation delivered in light of whether your nature and approach were more like the artists from Florence or instead the artists from Venice. Do you use a rigid methodology (Florentine) or intuitively create the content in the moment (Venetian)?

I am in no position to suggest that you should use one or the other. I instead submit that one be purposeful and mindful in using the approach that better suits you and the situation. As George Leonard noted in his book Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment 96 (1992), “intentionality fuels the master’s journey.”

Many golfers have a pre-shot routine they follow, a prescribed series of steps they work through before hitting a golf ball. This tends to help consistency and success. So perhaps a good way to start writing would be to borrow the golfer’s approach and adopt a pre-writing routine. The routine would include those steps to prepare you for the task at hand and could include the intentional decision on whether this particular endeavor would be enhanced by an art or science (i.e., colorito or disegno) approach. Implementing such a routine could increase the correlation between what we intended to do and what we did. As Pablo Picasso has been credited with saying: “What one does is what counts. Not what one had the intention of doing.”