The Northern Renaissance refers to the Renaissance outside of Italy but within Europe. Typically the main centre's for art included the Netherlands, Germany and France and all of these countries have become known by the collective name of Northern (North of Italy). Northern Renaissance Art evolved simultaneously but independently from it's Italian counterpart. In Italy patrons of the arts tended to be great, and very wealthy families, the Catholic church, or commissions from the many city states who competed with each other for prestige and power.
The house of Burgundy was influential as a patron of the Northern artists (Van Eyke is a good example), the fact is that we do not have as much information about the artists of the North, their work is wider spread and generally less well documented than that of their Italian counterparts. The artists of the North differed from their Italian counterparts in that the influence of Gothic art was much longer lasting than in Italy.
Although the precision of the early Northern works was much admired in Italy, Northern artists only absorbed Italian ideas at the end of the 15th century.
Technical differences between Italy and the North centred on the use of oil paint pioneered by Northern artists such as Jan van Eyck and Robert Campin. Also the climate of the North did not lend itself to the fresco techniques of Italy, the drying times are just too great, as a result the North produced very little great works using fresco. Unlike the renaissance in Italy the artists of the North were less driven by the need to recapture the art of classical antiquity, (they did not share the Italian Mediterranean, Roman and Greek legacy), rather the upheaval in religious reform was the overriding factor in which intellectuals and artists immersed themselves.
The first great master of early Netherlands' painting was Robert Campin, also known as Master of Flémalle. A contemporary of Jan Van Eyke his work owes much to the illuminated manuscripts so painstakingly reproduced in books and paid for by wealthy patrons (this was before the invention of the printing press).