December 14, 2010
The first time I began creating paintings on panels using chalk gesso I had no problems. I read the manuals, ordered the materials from a good supplier in NYC and proceeded to create my panels. No problem. It was summer in Connecticut. 30 years on, the paintings I created from those panels are still alive and well.
Over the years, with other batches both in sunny, dry, warm California and later in Germany (also in the summertime), I had no problem. My batches were done using rabbitskin glue sourced from my American art suppliers (Utrecht in NYC or Bay City in SF) or later Kremer pigmente in Munich. Now, after moving to Bruges, I’m back to creating new batches of gessoed panels. But why am I experiencing such difficulty with my gesso? How strange to find myself returning to square one with what should be a relatively simple process. So, I’ve decided to document my trials and errors – for myself and internet posterity. There may be others out there who have experienced similar problems?
My assembly process would begin normally, but as I proceeded to build up layers, the gesso would no longer flow but rather glom onto the panel. The brush would stick, the gesso would glob. When dry, a little sandpaper would remove far too much pigment. So it was clear: there was a problem with my glue.
I generally create my panels in the wintertime. Nothing to be done about that. The house is radiator heated, that’s got to be better than whatever (winter) conditions Cennini ever experienced. We live next to a canal in an older house that does not contain double glazed windows, so it might be more drafty and moist than many modern environments, still, creating good gesso panels should be possible.
Double boiler? Yes, of course. Did the glue boil? No. Never. But after the gelatine melts, what is the threshhold temperature which spoils the glue? I researched temps on the internet and found 52° Centigrade to be the most generally noted gauge. But is that true? From my experience, it depends on the source, as RS can vary a great deal. At this point, I would not go by numbers but rather my own eyesight.
For example, a few years ago I bought a new batch of glue from my local art dealer, a man who specialized in esoteric artists materials. It seemed OK at the time but then the problem began to recur. Does RS have a shelf life? Or did I let the glue “cook” too long? I had purchased a meat thermometer and kept my temp well below 52°. Still, invasion of the glom.
For my most recent batch I used the last of my old RS from the esoteric art supply store. When I added the pigment, the paint became very granular and unattractive. I guess it does have a shelf life (even though it did not smell)… So I threw it out.
Then used the RS that I had purchased recently from Kraemer Pigmente. Little crystalline pebbles, very nice. When I ran out of the Kraemer RS (silly, I had only purchased a 100 G test amount), I bought a new batch of glue from my local art supply store (brand, Senellier). This stuff comes in pellets similar to the scat of small animals that you might find in a forest. (I prefer the Kraemer) But for both glues, I soaked them overnight (80 G RS to 1 liter of water), melted, cooled and did the finger-pressure-crevice test. So far, so good. (Though the Kraemer RS seemed firmer, clearer, less cloudy, more uniform and refined.)
I bought an electric warming plate at the local Kringwinkel (Salvation Army). It holds food warm but doesn’t cook it. 40° Centigrade or so but not higher. Great, I thought. But still, when I kept the glue-pigment in that double boiler pot for a few hours, the glue lost its strength. Oooops.
- Buy the best grade of RS that you can find from an archival artist’s materials supplier (like Kraemer).
- Do the crevice test, if you want, but be sure to take it off the heat as soon as it fully melts.
- Add your pigment in the center in a stream, allowing it to gently absorb the glue and sink via gravity.
- Stir thoroughly but not vigorously.
- For uniformity, do your gessoing in one session (one day).
- Rabbitskin glue is an organic substance, containing all the resilience and receptivity of living matter, as well as it’s limitations.
May 26, 2009
Most books advise a beginner to begin with oils as it is more forgiving. It is easier to correct a mistake for example, than with watercolor. That may be true – especially if one uses opaque pigments – but oils, by nature of the medium itself, are viscously translucent, thus understanding their innate capacity to transmit light through a clear film is ultimately critical for both succesful manipulations of form without pentimento as well as transmission of light. Eastlake noted, in referring to Jan Van Eyck, “The leading attribute of the material of oil painting, as distinguished from those of tempera and fresco, viz. its power to transmit light of an internal surface through superimposed substances more or less diaphanous…”.
There are two main approaches to painting in oils, alla prima and indirect. Although much art is created as a mixture of the two approaches, in themselves they are distinct. The contemporary art world itself relies quite heavily upon directly percieved and expressed imagery, thus an “alla prima” approach tends to be emphasized. Information on the more indirect methods of painting is less available than it was hundreds of years ago, although more and more of it is cropping up on the internet. Here is one site I have found that is a fine, yet relatively dis-interested treasure trove.
Alla prima essentially means executed in one session as exemplified by Jackson Pollock in his drip paintings. There can be no argument against this method of approach as both its demands and results can be superlative. After all, if a painting has any chance of reflecting the evanescent truth of the moment, it needs to be created in the same spirit, with a Zen-like flair.
What then are the values or possibilities of a more indirect technique? Does a laborious technique ultimately result in a tedious and heavy painting (it often does!)? Can a painting developed indirectly still retain the freshness of the moment? If so, then how? Thus, for those who feel themselves drawn to an indirect method, the knowledge of ancient techniques is extremely helpful. Indirect painting simply means developing an image through a series of manipulations over time and calculated to achieve a particular result. A further refinement of the indirect painting technique is the mixed method. Both indirect and mixed method techniques allow for a methodological layering which in itself creates optical effects of great beauty and luminescence. Subject matter aside – what can be more eternal than that?
May 26, 2009
Interestingly, encaustic or hot wax painting, was known as one of the major creative techniques used by the Greeks. The Egyptian tomb portraits, which are some of the finest examples of encaustic portrait painting available today, were done by Greeks (not Egyptians) – according to Ralph Mayer. In recent times Jasper Johns used the technique with a great deal of success in his series of images of the American flag. It is a technique that traditionally requires alot of cumbersome tools. Today the process has been streamlined with simpler tools but for purity, simplicity, and honesty’s sake I will try to describe the technique that I have used.
The Greeks reportedly used encaustic on walls and panels. A revival of the technique in the 18th/19th century concentrated mostly on mural painting – with reportedly insubstantial results, now 200 years later. My own experience has been entirely on wooden panels, prepared with chalk gesso as for egg tempera.
As the medium is melted beeswax, the first tool one needs is a pallette for mixing the colors in a molten state. Years ago, I went to my local metal junk yard and commissioned a pallette measuring 18″ x 28″ of 1/4″ steel plate welded on four sides by legs 5″ high (also of 1/4″ steel plate). This allowed for the pallette to sit on top of a hot plate with an air space of approximately 2″. At the time, I remember it cost me about $10. The second tool one needs is a hotplate. The best are the kind that allow for variable temperature adjustments. Look around at your local flea markets and you should be able to find what you need.
The same dry pigments that can be used for egg tempera can be used in encaustic. Purchase a few blocks of fine beesawax. Melt some wax and mix it with approximately 20% damar varnish by volume. Mix this molten fluid together with a similar amount of dry pigment and keep it in a metal cup on the warmed pallette. Mix up a few colours as needed for the project at hand and keep them warm on the pallette. [I hear these days that encaustic sticks can be purchased with the resin/oil component already mixed in.]
Molten colors can be applied using bristle brushes or even the pallette knife. As the paint hardens almost immediately upon contact with the panel, expect a highly textured, immovable result. [My original experiments were done outside in the hot humid summertime, so setting time was slightly delayed anyway.]
Further manipulations can be obtained by heating the panel surface with a heat lamp. Be careful to keep the surface horizontal to avoid runs. The final “burning in” is also done with a heat lamp close and evenly rotated over the surface to achieve a final fused result. In this way heavy impasto effects can melt into thin, veil like veneers. [I have never done this phase, I look forward to trying it.]
May 25, 2009
Egg tempera is an time tested technique, especially well loved by panel and icon painters. It renders flat graphical shapes and fine precise detail quite well. Softer gradual modulations are possible but take practice and patience. Unvarnished final work has an almost chalky finish to it. This technique formed the backbone-skill to any medieval or renaissance painter’s tool chest. The twentieth century has witnessed its revival with Andrew Wyeth being perhaps its most famous spokesman.
The absolute best recommendation I can think of for anyone wishing to experiment with egg tempera is to check out the Society of Tempera Painters. They have a well established site and forum, documenting many aspects of the process as well as related techniques. Otherwise, pick up a good book and start in. The online version of Daniel Thompson’s, The Practice of Tempera Painting being one of the most extensive sources around. Cennini is interesting even if a bit antiquated in his terminology. If you are looking for something more general in order to get started, try Ralph Mayer’s “The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques”, Reed Kay’s “The Painter’s Guide to Studio Methods and Materials”, or “The Materials of the Artist and Their Use in Painting” by Max Doerner. All are tried and true comprehensive source books for the craft of painting.
Egg tempera is a paint made from an emulsion of oil and water. The final paint film is not as flexible as oil. Thus, to avoid cracking, the painting is executed on a panel and not a stretched canvas. At the moment, I use it primarily as an underpainting. The links here on the right offer some info – by no means extensive – about how I prepare my gesso and panels.
Be sure to supply yourself with a good collection of dry pigments – avoiding poisonous materials whenever possible. By grinding your own paints you get to know the specific characteristics of each pigment – opacity/translucency, absorbency, chroma nuance. Online suppliers are very helpful if you do not live in a big city with a big art supply store. If you can afford it, get a thick piece of frosted plate glass and a glass muller. Otherwise a pallette knife and wooden painter’s pallette can suffice. Grind up a small amount of each pigment you want to use in distilled water, making a smooth paste. The pastes can be stored in plastic film containers for short periods without drying out.
Locate as fresh an organic an egg as you can. Crack the shell carefully in half without breaking the yolk. Carefully move the yolk between shell halves to isolate the yolk from the white (all the while protecting the egg yolk membrane from puncture). Let the white albumen drip away. Pass the yolk back and forth between the palms of the hands in order to dry it off. Roll it across a piece of absorbent paper towel for further drying. Eventually you should be able to pick up the yolk by it’s sac. Hold it over a small clean jar (empty jelly jars from hotels are great for this) and pinch the bottom. The pure yolk will drip out. Add about a teaspoon of distillled water, cap, and shake it. Store in the refridgerator.
Making the Paint:
Add equal amounts of pigment paste and yolk to a mixing board. Grind until smooth. If you have already ground up you pigments in distilled water, then adding the egg binder is easier and requires less grinding. Some pigments will require more yolk, others less. Experience will guide you. The paint is then rather thick, too think for painting, but I transfer this mixture to my painting cup. I usually add a few brushfulls of distilled water to this small amount of paint in order to arrive at the right mixture of pigment/yolk. It is important to experiment with binder and pigment in order to find a brushable consistency that also dried to a permanently stable film.
Sable brushes then dipped in this watered down paint are still too saturated for painting. Using the thumb and forefinger press the excess liquid out until the brush renders a clean full stroke without leaving behind a blob of paint at the end of the motion.
Egg tempera does well with light thin strokes. Do not immediately rebrush a stroke. Let it dry, then add another level, if desired. In this way soft transitions can be achieved. Egg tempera is great for creating an underpainting for oils. It also is very beautiful on it’s own. Each artist decides how to use it for his/her own ends.
May 12, 2009
I spent years dragging my portable easel out to inspiring locations to paint. Although I managed to create a few interesting paintings, I threw away just as many failures. The changes of season, weather, and light caused any particular landscape to fluctuate enough so that I ended up with mud more often than not. Thus, I had to ask myself, how is it possible to capture anything eternal about what I am viewing?
One solution, I knew, was an impressionistic alla prima technique, and although its effects can be strikingly fresh, for better or worse, my own temperament is drawn to painting in layers, often termed “indirect painting”. Yet attempting to use an indirect technique for sequential forays of painting “en plein air” spelled trouble if I didn’t know fairly precisely where I wanted the painting to go.
Thus, I began to create fairly detailed studies both in watercolor and in pencil in order to understand what I felt and wanted to finally express in paint. Of the two approaches, I felt the (pencil, charcoal or ink) value study to be the most effective for describing my essential reaction to a view. The medium toned paper gives space for imagination to roam, inviting the perceiver in to participate in forms as they arise.
Alternatively, although it is clearly possible to take a photograph in order to capture “a moment” as preparation for a painting, photographs themselves are a mechanistic interpretation of visual reality, inevitably reducing three dimensional space to two. If I want to personally interact with the view before me, to dance with it, to make love to it, to merge with it, then the means needs to be an extension of my fingertips, vibrating with the energetic impulses of my own blood. This is in no way intended as a criticism of the fine art of photography, only a criticism of the use of photography as a means for a study upon which to base a painting.
When I have created a value study that resonates, then I transpose it to a panel and begin preparing for development of the painting.
May 9, 2009
Various recipes exist for gesso. Here’s what I use:
Dissolve 2 3/4 ounces of dry rabbit-skin glue with one quart water in a big glass jar (used pickle jars are great for this). This equates to 75 grams dry glue to approximately one liter of distilled water. The proportions work out to approximately 10/1 water to dried glue by volume. Many professional egg tempera painters suggest a higher percentage of 16/1. (I will try this next time around.)
Let it soak overnight.
Heat the glue in a double boiler, that is, with a second pan surrounding the jar with the glue water. The water should be the same temperature as the glue water, so bring the heat up slowly to melt the gelatine glue. Stir gently. The glue should never boil, only melt. Overheating significantly harms the adhesion of the glue, so do not let the temperature rise above 135 F° (57.3 °C), 127F° (53°C) is optimal.
Use calcium carbonate or precipitated chalk or whiting for filler with 10% titanium white or zinc white to insure a bright whiteness to your gesso. The chalk whiting part can vary in both purity and whiteness, depending upon the grade. Industrial grade chalk whiting can be found in most hardware stores or paint shops. Dry pigments can be found at art supply shops or online suppliers.
The proportions are 1 lb filler (or 450 grams) to one quart (liter) of glue water. Or 1 1/2 filler to 1 glue water by volume. The melted glue is gently poured into the chalk stirring all the while. Lumps should be stirred or strained out (cheesecloth). The final result should be about the consistency of light cream. Return the mixture to the double boiler, to keep it warm but again, be careful not to let it boil.
Applying the Gesso:
Sand the panel lightly to remove any rough texture, clean the dust off with a moist cloth. Cover the board with a light coating of size (1 1/2 oz rabbit skin glue dissolved in one quart water or 45 grams glue to one liter). After the size has dried, begin applying thin coats of gesso. The first coast is loosly brushed or scumbled in. I prefer to apply the gesso to both sides and ends of the panel to avoid the uneven absorption of moisture that can cause warping. I use a wide flat bristle brush, applying thin layers in alternating horizontal and vertical layers. The layers dry quickly, especially in warm weather. Generally a well prepared panel can take about 10 thin coats of Gesso. I wait until 3 or 4 levels have accumulated and begin lightly sanding it down between layers, and then using a moist cloth to remove all dust.
After the final coat, the sanding moves from coarse to fine. As a last step, it’s possible to take a slightly damp cloth and rub it gently over the entire surface in circular motions in order to obtain a final smooth, egg shell-like finish. If, however, the intended underdrawing will be in silver point, it is best to leave that last step out in order to retain a slight tooth to the panel.
May 9, 2009
The list of pigments available for use in egg tempera is essentially the same as that of oil with the exception of the lead based pigments of naples yellow and flake (lead) white which are highly poisonous, anyway. The lead based pigments discolor upon exposure to sulphur fumes; their discoloration can then be avoided by varnishing the final picture but why bother when so many other safer pigments are available today?
Powdered pigments can be quite exciting to see and to use – especially for the first time. In egg tempera you must always work with powders to grind up the paint for the daily session. It is possible to pregrind up a number of common colors in distilled water and keep the paste in a small airtight jar ready for the egg yolk medium. This avoids the short time shelf life of egg spoilage.
In either case, I use a glass muller and a piece of frosted glass for grinding. Though it may sound like alot of work, in actual practice, I only use a few pigments each day so a daily session does not take alot of extra time or effort. I try to be sure to clean off the muller and glass plate directly after each grinding session.
Because you will have direct skin contact with the pigment, it is critical to inform yourself regarding its characteristics. Poisonous pigments should naturally be avoided. The Society of Tempera Painters has extensive experiential information relating to individual pigments and their various characteristics. So, take my own thoughts here with a grain of salt.
Generally, I like to use earth pigments. They grind up easily and absorb medium well, too. Grinding your own colors allows you to get to know the pigment’s characteristics in an intimate way. Translucency, tinting power and handling then become first hand knowledge. Because I use egg tempera as an underpainting, I usually temper each color with zinc white to create a tint of the hue that I want. Zinc white is somewhat transparent so I can achieve a pastel hue without adding too much water or egg to dilute the pigment. (If I add too much water, then there is not enough binder left to hold the pigment. If I add extra egg in order to dilute the paint, the binding mechanism works fine but it is harder for me to visibly control the dilution.)
For the color pallette itself, I use ultramarine blue, viridian green, mars red, burnt umber, burnt siena, yellow ochre, cadmium yellow, vine black and zinc white. I tend to honor spectral purity so I don’t mix up colors on the pallette but instead paint thin layers of a yellow and red for example to achieve an orange.
May 9, 2009
It is a matter of (pretty) common knowledge that one cannot paint on a finished fresco – and hope that it will last. There are many examples of old frescos, now sadly peeling. Therefore, if you must paint secco, take my information, as word of mouth – from a professional. A professor from the Royal Academy of Art in Antwerp gave me this recipe. After five years, the secco painting still looks fine.
Pour 80 ml of methyl ethyl alcohol into a chemist’s beaker. Fill it up to 100 ml with 20 ml of Artist’s grade Shellac. Stir a bit. The size is now ready to use. Paint a coat of it over the surface of the fresco on which you wish to work. It is dry and ready for paint in one half hour.
The sealed surface is now ready for paint. Pigments mixed in water can no longer merge with the plaster for permanency, therefore, a medium is necessary. Casein, oil or egg tempera? I have read that Casein has been traditionally used, also oil, however I preferred to use egg tempera. This worked just fine.
May 7, 2009
A firm non flexible ground is necessary for painting with egg tempera. On good linen canvas, the oil medium can sustain flexing and shrinking, but egg tempera cannot. If one chooses to work exclusively in oil, canvas may be the ground of choice. As I prefer to use a mixed technique, painting on panel is my preference. Additionally, I find the smoothness of the surface very sensuous.
Of the choices readily and economically available to painters these days, my personal preference is good quality, plywood panels. They are heavier than Masonite but in the long run, more absorbent. They do not warp, and the fine crackles that can occur in the gesso from slight wood expansion can be avoided either by obtaining a high quality piece of plywood from a cabinet maker or by gluing a thin layer of fine linen fabric to the board before the first coat of gesso.
May 7, 2009
The term mixed method or mische technique is generally used to refer to the painting technique of Jan Van Eyck, and the Flemish Masters. The mixed part quite literally refers to the method of intermixing the usage of both water based and oil based mediums to create a pictorial image. It requires both patience and sufficient knowledge in order to achieve an attractive result. Traditionally the resulting image was super realistic, but it certainly does not have to be. The mixed method contains the possibility of multiple superimposed layers of paint which in themselves create beautiful effects of both light and color: the essence of abstraction. My own “mische technique” is a bit of a hybrid using the traditional recipes with elements of both alla prima and indirect painting.
The originator of the modern adaptation of the so called mische technique, is a Russian man named Nicholas Wacker, who taught at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris in the early 80′s. I’ve received it from a friend who studied there at that time, thus here below are her class notes:
It is useful for brushability, quickness of drying and glaze layering. Using this technique one can maximize the use of glaze while simultaneously painting opaque areas into the fresh medium. The dry brush can be used to blend and unify the surface. Strong areas can sink into the background while lighter tones can be emphasized. It seems possible that the yolk of an egg could be substituted for the alcasit, though I have never tried it.
- 1- volume alcasit (methyl cellulose glue)
- 1- volume half of which is pure linseed oil with 1/5 eburit dryer (or sun thickened linseed) and half damar varnish 2:1
- 1- volume water
- Put liquids in a jar in the order written ( alcasit first) and with each addition cover the jar and shake it in well. I heard water could be as much as 3 volumes but never tried it. The result looks like mayonaise.
- 1 part damar varnish
- 1 part turpentine
- 1 part stand oil (sun thickened is also fine)
Coat panel or canvas with a light coat of glue size. For canvas, use a recipe for good lean priming (commercial lead white in oil, 1 pound thick paint, diluted with 3 fluid ounces of turpentine). Add at least 3 coats brushed on in opposite directions, lightly sanded in between. For gesso grounds on panels it is best to apply at least 10 thin coats painted in alternating directions, always sanding in between coats.
Find an image from which you wish to work. It can be a reproduction of a painting you admire, or a drawing of your own. You should be able to render it in black and white value studies as well as forsee the addition of color. Transfer the drawing to the primed canvas or prepared panel. Render it in waterproof india ink. Be sure to erase all pencil lines after the drawing is transposed into ink. A final glue size is applied on all surfaces after the preliminary drawing but before the imprimatura.
It is best to mix fresh white for every session. Use white powdered pigments and emulsion. Take a glass muller or spatula, pressing, dragging and blending the two together until a consistent texture is achieved. This helps considerably with quick drying. Pour a small amount of emulsion into a small cup or bowl. Use this to increase the brushability of your oil colors. Remember to always honor the fat over lean principle. If you are able grind up your own colors, you will be able to avoid buttery, oily colors from the manufacturer. In additon, you will learn first hand which pigments require more oil to achieve a workable consistency or in contrast which grind up easily and are therefore ‘lean’.
The white ground is covered with a translucent middle tone. I usually use damar varnish diluted with turpentine 3(T):1(D) mixed with Burnt Umber. Using a wide bristle brush apply over the whole panel to achieve a common medium value for the beginning of the image. Take a clean, dry cotton lint free cloth to wipe off the excess. The surface should be tacky and glistening. To test for correct dryness, lightly touch the surface with the ball of the palm of your hand . When it is dried enough, it should pull a little on the skin when you lift the hand.
The imprimatura can also function as the first level of glaze. Work into this slightly tacky surface white mixed with emulsion for strong light areas and drag them into the background with a dry brush. This produces a soft way to suggest future values. After that come in with the darkest tones, to establish the shadows. This quickly establishes the values of the painting and you can step back and assess how your idea is working and correct where necessary at an early stage.
It is best to to let the imprimatura dry. A few days to a week. Touch will tell. Now cover the entire painting with a fresh coat of clear medium. Take a clean, dust free cloth and wipe the surface of excess medium. The surface should be tacky and receptive. One can begin to work in large blocks of color, alternating glaze or emulsion for transparent or opaque effects. Values can slowly be adjusted. One proceedes from coarse to fine detail. Highlights and shadows can be further refined by moving away from the midtones of the imprimatura while still remaining ‘unfocussed’. Later sessions can define fine highlights and precise shadows. Let the image slowly emerge. Don’t fall into the details – yet.
One lovely advantage of the mixed technique is brushability. You can paint one color next to another area of color, then using a dry brush gently blend one area into the other. The colors softly merge without contaminating each other. Good sable brushes are invaluable for manipulating paint; fine bristle brushes can be used for painting larger areas and dry merging. Each painter needs to find his/her own taste. Remember to keep your colors pure. Unintentional mud is – mud.
The painting needs to dry thoroughly in between sessions. By using the Mixed Technique and one’s own ground up lean colors, drying time can be greatly reduced. A week is usually enough. In the beginning stage when the painting is less saturated, the drying time can be even a few days. Techniques to insure a lean and thirsty ground are useful to know. For example, using lead white in one’s ground can help, but remember it is poisinous so use it with caution. I prefer 10 to 20 thin coats of chalk gesso on a plywood panel (Masonite, for example, is not as thirsty).
Cover the whole painting (or the section on which you intend to work that day) with Medium. Take a clean dry cotton rag and wipe it back off. The surface should remain tacky and glistening. The surface is now ready for fresh paint manipulations. Finer details can begin to be applied using paint mixed with Emulsion for brushability. Remember the dry brush can be used to blend one area into the next. You will quickly see when an area can receive no more paint.
How many sessions does it take to complete an image? This is best answered by experience. In general, don’t be impatient. This is not a fast results technique. However, it can create lovely possibilites for translucent color effects enhanced in layers of glaze, yet contrasted by areas of solid color. Try it out for yourself.