Glueing and Framing Anna

February 16, 2021

Anna, Front, 2011. A multi media project. Newly framed: 50 x 70 cm or 19.6 x 27.5 in

Anna, Front, 2011. A multi media project. Newly framed: 50 x 70 cm or 19.6 x 27.5 in

About ten years ago I created a multi-media painting, consisting of twenty-five identically sized wood panels which, when assembled together, created one image. See linked image to the left.

The whole project was intended as a double-sided painting, so the panel backs were painted at the same time as well. How to display or hang something like that? Well, way back in the day when I had first conceived of such a project, I had a carpenter drill a hole through the length of each panel so that five panels could be assembled vertically on each of five dowels and the dowels could then be embedded into a frame, top and bottom. This would result in a five by five grid which, at least theoretically, would allow each panel to rotate front to back resulting in an ever changing painting. That, at least, was the theory.

In practice that turned out to be almost impossible. The columns created by the dowels swayed with the weight of the panels on them: they were too flexible. Also, creating a strong and stable frame for inserting the dowels at exact but slightly varying intervals (due to the different textures) along the horizontal supports top and bottom was way beyond my carpenter’s pay grade. Still I tried it out and though the result was very coarse, it worked well enough as a beta version. However, by implementing that structure, I discovered that the panels themselves could get damaged by rotating and more importantly, though it had seemed like a good idea, actually, it added little aesthetic value. So, ditch or punt? I was ready to take it all to the dump. I really was. There were so many reasons to bail. 

But then I wondered: would be possible to glue it all together? Would it, could it ever be strong enough? And could I (finally) construct an elegant enough frame that would be able to hold it? I wanted to try even if only to complete the painting on the back side, which, in my vision, had always required the fully assembled group of panels in order to paint them with a unifying scumble (or two). 

Anna, in her popsicle phase.

Anna, in her popsicle phase.

So, after repairing some chips on the fronts I began sanding the sides thinking that wood to wood contact should give the glue adhesive its best chance. I then constructed some U-shaped wooden casings for the sides, top and bottom. Eventually, these would be used to hold the painting in place within a larger, hardwood frame, but could also be used now as braces to insure alignment during the glueing process. I arranged the first five panels along one dowel and starting glueing top to bottom, cross-grain to cross-grain. That went quite well. I placed the wooden casing along both sides of the panels so that they could lay flat above and below one another as they dried. I ended up with five solid columns of five panels each. As they lay side by side the wooden dowels stuck out top and bottom making the columns look like a popsicle sticks. See the photograph above, right. 

Anna, secured with straps during the final glueing phase.

Anna, secured with straps during the final glueing phase.

I drilled holes in the shorter wooden casings to assist in holding the dowels (and therefore the panels) in place during the longitudinal gluing process. Then, after quickly glueing each column side to side and inserting the dowels into their bracings, I placed protective cloths and hardwood boards, above and below, and strapped buckles across the width to create the sideways pressure needed for a good adhesive contact. At this point the patient was completely mummified. See photo to the left. Above the mummy you can see the longitudinal casings sitting on a shelf. They are lined with white foam tape for protection of the painting in its casing. I gave the patient a good 24 hours to dry. 

Anna, Back, the egg tempera underpainting in its new frame.

Anna, Back, the egg tempera underpainting in its new frame.

The next day the final result was one solid piece (!). Hooray! The painting could then be inserted into the wooden channels mentioned above. They in turn were attached to the inner sides of a simple hardwood frame. It screwed together along its length, top and bottom, allowing for easy access when and if need be.

The image at the top of this post shows the front side of the painting in its new frame while the image here to the right displays the back side (with its original underpainting from 2011). Now when all my egg tempera touch-ups to the back side have cured I intend to finally cover the back with those semi-transparent scumbles mentioned above. I’ll update my blogs when that happens.

I just finished writing about the technical issues I had wanted to address before painting began of the individual panels in the “A Piece of Me” multimedia project. You can read that post here. Yet in addition to all those individual panel choices, I also had to make some decisions later about the backing board for the final assembly. That’s the subject of this post.

How the panels looked from the backside.

How the panels looked from the backside.

Just yesterday I placed the last panel in position for the multimedia project “A Piece of Me”. This project consisted of an assemblage of sixty four identically sized panels which, when assembled, created one unified image. Since the original image was a (realistic) photograph, I called it – for want of a better term – Deconstructed Realism. Here on these blog pages I’ve documented various technical issues I’ve had along the way. Also on my companion site I’ve documented the paintings themselves (see link above). Both of these sets of pages were notes on the piecemeal elements. However, a technical overview of the whole project is still needed. That’s the purpose of this post (and the following one).

The back bracing of a panel with its frame glued into place.

The back bracing of a panel with its frame glued into place.

To begin: after I had conceived of this project my first question was was what sort of (hard) board should I use as my substrate? The last time I had created such a project (some forty years ago) I was gifted various hardwood panels and a skill saw to cut them down. At the time it worked out great but the combined weight of sixty four hardwood panels along with the weight of a sturdy, one inch thick plywood backing board made for a very unwieldy piece of art. Additionally, there was the question of creating a frame – on not? Storage, too, was a problem to solve. So there was need for improvement over the pervious precedent.

This time I decided to use 3 mm (1/8″) plywood HDF. I had the hardware store cut it to my exact size. Then because this substrate was so thin, during the prep stage I treated both sides with a number of ground coats of chalk (or acrylic) gesso (to keep it from warping). I also glued some cross bracing on the back side (see image above and to the left). This helped to minimise warping as well as offering me a convenient handhold during the painting process.So far, so good.

Yet I also wanted to visualise how the panels would look when mounted – either as individual panels or in the full assemblage. That took a few more steps.

I bought some three dimensional pieces of hardwood (teak?) that measured about 2 1/2 meters in length with a thickness of 9mm x 13 mm. I cut them into 128 pieces (2x) for the panel lengths and 128 pieces (2x) for the panel widths. I glued the long sides first and then the short. This left me with an attractive frame for each panel. I’m no carpenter but for myself and my purposes, this was good enough. See above, right.

The back side of a finished panel with the backing plate screwed into place.

The back side of a finished panel with the backing plate screwed into place.

Bird's eye view of a finished panel from the back side. Note the painted edge.

Bird’s eye view of a finished panel from the back side. Note the painted edge.

The final step entailed screwing a backing plate onto the cross-bracing so that there would be something which was flush with the frame edges but which could be used to tape velcro to. In addition I drilled two holes in these small backing plates, above the velcro, to allow for a thin wire that could accommodate the hanging of each individual panel – as a viewing installation alternative. (See image, below left.) After I had finished my test piece it weighed approximately 200 grams. Nice, much lighter than the hardwood panels of forty years ago. This is going to work.

So about one year and one half later, after completing the painting of the individual panels it took me about a month to frame each one. It then took another few weeks to install the individual backing plates. Because the panels had been gessoed on the edges, I was able to paint the edges, too, as I worked along. This seamlessly created a nice finished edge: a painted edge in contrast to a hardwood frame. (See the bird’s eye view of the backside of a completed panel below, right.) I had to work carefully to avoid damage to the front sides during all these processes and was lucky that only one panel sustained a little damage. I’ll try to renovate that one, but if not, I will have to repaint it. Not a bad batting average for a novice carpenter.

Next up, notes on the final backing board to “A Piece of Me”.



I ended Part I of this little series of posts on gevoelsmatig bewustzijn with the following questions: what is “aesthetic consciousness”?; what does Western philosophy have to say about it?; is it knowledge bearing?; is it comparable to gevoelsmatig bewustzijn (i.e. the feeling aspect of consciousness)?; if so, why or why not?

“Aesthetic consciousness” is a well recognised phenomenon within western philosophy. Besides a deep tradition stretching back to Plato there is a great deal of contemporary thought on the subject. However it’s not my purpose to dive into that current of thought here, other than to acknowledge that it exists philosophically – and in a vibrant way. As a discipline, it seeks to find explanations and theories to describe the experience a human being has in relation to a piece of art. These theories seek to explain: the experience of the artist in the act of creation; the experience of the perceiver in the act of perceiving; and the (self) knowledge bearing capacities inherent to either or both activities. Fundamentally, it concerns itself with art as an intelligent, yet distinctly non-rational mode of human communication.

However, the question I had posed, and that which is driving this particular post is whether aesthetic consciousness is just another way to speak about the feeling dimension of consciousness (i.e. gevoelsmatig bewustzijn). Are they interchangeable? Up front then, I would have to say: no. Since aesthetic consciousness, in the philosophical tradition, concerns itself specifically with art, it examines a very important subset of the feeling aspect of consciousness, while gevoelsmatig bewustzijn spreads its wings to cover a wider ground. Aesthetic consciousness does not seek to explain how a bird (instinctively) knows when it’s time to fly south, neither does it seek to explain how one instantly intuits the sadness of a friend who has suddenly entered the room. Nevertheless, since aesthetic consciousness does point in an important direction it deserves a deeper look. Let’s check out its semantic components.

Etymologically, the word “aesthetic” arises from the Greek term aisthesis (αἴσθησις), for the Greeks were the first philosophers to pose essential questions about human cognition. As such they theorised that sense perception (aisthesis) offered knowledge of external objects while mental cognition (noēsis) offered knowledge of mental objects (thoughts). Some philosophers theorised that aisthesis (αἴσθησις) existed alongside – or in contrast to – noēsis (νόησις). Noēsis (νόησις) and its cognates to noein (νοεῖν) and nous (νοῦς) referred to the thinking/mind capacity of the human being. Thus from the start Ancient Greek philosophers made a more-or-less firm distinction between these two methods-of-knowing. And due to the fact that the objects of sense perception were fleeting and unreliable the emphasis in philosophy rested increasingly upon the latter. The mind-body split noted here in the first post is testament to the enduring nature of this dualistic enterprise.

Aisthesis (αἴσθησις) then referred to the kind of perception that we experience through the (five) bodily senses. They were viewed as channels through which input flowed to inform the inner man about things and events in the outer world. This aisthesis could refer to the object of sensual perception as well as the ability to discern it. It could, on a subtler level, also refer to moral cognition or discernment. I do not know (from primary source readings) if internal bodily sensibilities, like an upset stomach, which lacked an exterior sensing mechanism (eyes or ears) were included under this umbrella term, but given that aisthesis included the moral dimension noted above, I presume they were. If so, the mechanism by which this operated lacked a precise accounting, for apparently, the Ancient Greek language did not possess a word for “consciousness”. How then were these sensations communicated? That is, if the two communication channels were conceived of as separate, how exactly did internal events of a sensory (or emotional) nature come to the attention of the thinking mind? 

This question brings us back (once again) to the hoary history of “consciousness”. From what I have been able to determine, besides its linguistic lack in Ancient Greek, the word (consciousness) did not exist in the English language until it was introduced in the seventeenth century by the philosopher, John Locke. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, philosophy during that time period was written in the French or Latin languages primarily by continental philosophers. Following the impetus of Rene Descartes, these philosophers began to create a distinction between conscience, as a moral kind of knowing (which had been well covered by the philosophical tradition for centuries), and consciousness, which was a “new” psychological shift to an aware knowing of internal, individual events. Since it was a slow semantic shift which occurred over the course of the century these philosophers had used the same word for both senses: the Latin word conscientia (or in French, conscience) could mean either “moral conscience” or “consciousness”. In English, the etymology for both meanings then follows from these semantic roots.

The modern psychological meaning of consciousness (“consciousness of”) began from philosophers such as these, Rene Descartes (Meditations), Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan) and John Locke (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding). They started their epistemic theorising from what they supposed was a skeptically clean slate (“I am aware of my thoughts”, “I am aware of my sensations”, “I am aware of my feelings”, etc…), however they did not question the basic “I-am-the-body-idea” from which these judgments arose. They were experiencing consciousness from within their own bodily perspective, and proceeded to make judgments on that basis. The edges of the skin determined the “I” and the “other”. In this way, a tradition stretching back to the Ancient Greeks which had already distinguished between sensory events and mental events now received a new-comer to the block, conscious self-awareness: the Cartesian Ego had arrived.

This is a rough sketch of some of the shifts which have occurred over time within western philosophy in relation to the root words employed for “aesthetic consciousness”. I have tried to illustrate how a dualism developed early on for sense perception within Greek epistemology and then later how the introduction of consciousness entailed a further psychological dualism. Strangely enough though, the phenomenological impulse which drives the current philosophical investigations into aesthetic consciousness takes us in the opposite direction(!).

Aesthetic consciousness explores a more refined, ethereal sensibility, something between mind and matter and also something between “I” and “other”. It’s a space where an embodied, intelligent communication vibrates. Actually, it’s a practical, experiential doorway for diminishing the tyranny of the “I-am-the-body-idea”. However, even after an invigorating aesthetic experience, that ol’ Cartesian ego tends to bring one crashing back to the ground. Gevoelsmatig betustzijn takes this aesthetic opening one step further by pointing out that the feeling aspect of consciousness is always, already there – as our birthright. There is nowhere to go, nothing to do and no state to whip ourselves up into. Rather it’s about stepping back and noticing the blissful (ananda) intelligence (chit) of being (sat). Advaita Vedanta states that these three qualities (sat-chit-ananda) are immanent as the first qualities of embodied creation, ourselves as consciousness having a bodily experience instead of the other way around. We encounter it every moment of every day: ourselves and each other as living, blissful, aware intelligence(s); the children running in the street; the spider tending its web; the pigeons on the roost; the barking dogs; and the sirens howling (yes, even the sirens howling).

Is matter truly as dead as we imagine? Are we truly as separate from each other and the world as we imagine? Perhaps not.

I want to talk about something that Western Philosophy, for all its wisdom and logical acumen, has difficulty recognising. Yet for all that it’s an essential part of human being-existence. I’m using the Dutch phrase for it in the title above so that the English language speaker has the chance to recognise that they are not entirely sure what I am talking about. Imagine then, that this is something new, though in fact, it is something very old or rather, deeply innate to us all. “Gevoelsmatig”, refers to the feeling-sense capacity of a human being. And “bewustzijn” refers to consciousness. Joined together, as a phrase, it suggests that there is feeling-sense dimension to consciousness itself. How can that be so? It seems like a contradiction in terms.

For myself, as a native English speaker, it has taken me years to wrap my head around this phrase, to understand it, to relax into it and see examples of it in my own experience. At first it required a certain kind of linguistic de-programming. That is, language was a deterrent and then later an aid. There were a number of reasons for this, so I’ll try to explain. My difficulties may be helpful others?

Firstly, “gevoelsmatig” as a stand alone term does not have a one-to-one translation from Dutch to English. It requires a few words to define it. I currently use “feeling-sense”. A Dutch friend of mine (who is also fluent in English) suggested “feeling-wise”. Google translate uses “instinctively” or “emotionally” while VanDale (one of the main Dutch-English dictionaries) suggests “instinct” or “instinctively”.  Thus, gevoelsmatig can refer to the kind of knowing that a bird experiences when it “knows” it’s time to fly south. In the world of nature there are a multitude of examples. Animals “know” all kinds of things and this kind of knowing is not based on language. It is not rational, neither is it irrational; it’s a certain kind of embodied intelligence.

But what about humans? How does this instinctive feeling-knowing manifest in human beings? As instinct? As intuition? As insight? A mixture of all three? Notice, in any case, that all three suggestions contain the prefix “in”. This refers to the internal, subject dimension of knowing. The objectifications of language are not its medium, nor its method of cognition, though the knowledge it acquires can later be expressed that way. Just as noted above in the animal world, it is not rational, neither is it irrational; for us too, it’s a certain kind of embodied intelligence. For example, a friend walks into the room and you immediately know they are sad. From one point of view, it’s very simple. Over thinking it (which philosophers love to do) just makes it more complicated. This explanation then is not a logical proof, basically, it’s about recognition.

Secondly, what about “consciousness”? As a stand alone term Merriam Webster defines it as “sentience or awareness of internal or external existence”. Problems quickly multiply when we try to define it any further. Thus, Western philosophy speaks of “consciousness” in terms of “consciousness of”. Consciousness then refers to that aspect of ourselves which knows internal events (which are often but not always objectifications of external objects) and because of that, this consciousness is inextricably tied to its object. Instead of the simple statement: “I am thinking” the modern philosopher states: “I am conscious of my thoughts”. Due to this division, it is not possible to speak of the subject dimension (the “I” part) of consciousness without reference to its internal mental object (the thought).

Additionally, in a world where the objective scientific method-of-knowing reigns supreme, western philosophers tend to contemplate the “hard problem of consciousness”. This involves the problem of explaining why any physical state is conscious rather than not. Thus, it begins from the assumption that matter itself is not conscious, is not intelligent in/or to some degree. To step outside of that problem would require a different method-of-knowing. Something other than the object oriented, language based scientific-method. Is there such a thing?

In some western languages the word consciousness translates to the compound word “bewustzijn” (such as in the Dutch or the German “bewustsein”): “bewust”, meaning aware, and “zijn” (or sein), meaning being. That is, being-awareness. If one were willing to take the meaning of the compound elements full stop, there might be a recognition of pure, objectless being-awareness. Being without fixing, fixating, on an object – any object, even ourselves. We rest in this sphere every night in deep sleep. We revert to it (absently or not) in-between thoughts. It forms the basis and goal of every meditative technique or inquiry. It is infinitely expansive, like space itself and provides a substrate for all our perceptions and mentations. Just as before with the term “gevoelsmatig”, this explanation is not a logical proof, it’s about a being-recognition.

A third reason for my difficulty in grasping the meaning behind the term “gevoulsmatig bewustzijn” is the strong mind-body dualism present within Western culture (and philosophy). For people (like myself) who have embraced religion and/or a spiritual path, there may be a strong impetus to encounter the more refined aspects of our subject-consciousness through meditation and prayer, free from the unrefined impulses of our material nature. This can lead to their suppression and/or repression (spiritual bypassing). The instinctive impulses of the body then might be placed in various shadowed categories. To suggest philosophically that the gevoelsmatig impulses of our nature are vitally important in order to progress spiritually might at first appear blasphemous or simply difficult to accept. Further, even though this (apparently) shadowed side of human nature cannot be denied, still, in the expanded sphere of social interaction it might sit outside the norms of accepted cultural behaviour, making its recognition difficult. In this, as in many things, we carry within us the catechisms and taboos of our elders – until one day we don’t.

Now at this point you might counter and say that this expanded feeling-sense capacity of consciousness is not at all unrecognised or absent from western philosophy. Of course not. Philosophers recognise that as human beings we joyfully expand in many non-rational and still deeply intelligent ways. One primary example is aesthetically in the world of art: the visual arts like painting (the subject-matter of this web blog), but also music, dance, film, literature, poetry etc…  Another is the overwhelming love we experience from allowing ourselves to fully open up to the beauty of the natural world, in all of its micro and macrocosmic majesty. But are these venues considered to be knowledge bearing? Are they included within a standard approach to Western Epistemology? Well, no, not really. Any self-respecting Epistemology 101 in any department of philosophy around the world concerns itself (primarily) with the truth bearing possibilities of propositional statements. (Young epistemologists there might hope to be clever enough so as to one day be the next Gettier.) Yet to be fair, there may be some toe dipping into radical skepticism, but if so, this is done without a recognition of the life enhancing properties of non-conceptual methods-of-knowing.

Nevertheless, to continue the conversation, we might think of gevoelsmatig bewustzijn as “aesthetic consciousness”? Is it comparable? And what does Western philosophy have to say about that? Is it knowledge bearing? And if so, what kind of knowledge?

See Gevoelsmatig Bewustzijn Part II.

On Photography

November 14, 2020

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with photography my whole artistic life.

OK. Confession over.

Here’s why.

A Pice of Me #41, egg tempera on panel.

A Pice of Me #41, egg tempera on panel, 21 x 13.3 cm or 8 1/4 x 5 1/4 in.

I grew up with copies of Life Magazine on our family coffee table. Their black and white photographs were stellar. Later I became entranced by other coffee table discoveries: Matthew Brady’s (high contrast) photographs of the Civil War; Edward Steichen’s 1955 exposition called The Family of Man; Diane Arbus’s haunting, disturbing photographs, the list could go on, but I’ll stop. In short, I loved photographs.

A Piece of Me #38, encaustic on panel. 21 x 13.3 cm or 5 1/4 x 8 1/4 in.

A Piece of Me #38, encaustic on panel. 21 x 13.3 cm or 5 1/4 x 8 1/4 in.

Later as a young artist I had no problem riffing off of photographs and commercial material. This is the the world; this is my reaction to it. It was a lot of fun. I loved playing with found images, basing my art upon them (not paying attention to those nasty copyright issues, but that is indeed another story). I was inspired by Photorealism and the work of Chuck Close. Over time, as I visited museums and my own artistic interests and capacities grew, I wondered how artists had been able to render external reality so precisely – in those pre-photographic days. And I realized the depth of my inexperience. Sure, I could draw. Sure, I could paint. Sure, I could play off of a photograph or some printed object. But so what? How in the world did those artists construct huge, I mean huge, canvases filled with evocative swirling figures? And all out of their own imagination? As an American raised in the era of television (where my visual imagination was continually fed by external commercial sources) I felt my poverty.

So I embarked on an internal and external exploration. I vowed to base my work only on renderings from life, from the external world around me. In this, my realistic temperament reigned. Such old school realism may now be considered anachronistic or reactionary (which it is): we already know that; you are not saying anything new. So be it. Nevertheless in this way and on this path I wanted to eschew photography, at least as a basis for image creation. Whenever I did consult a photograph (as a secondary visual resource) I realized a very important thing: a photograph is a two dimensional rendering of a three dimensional reality. Period. It can never, ever give you information that you yourself do not already possess. So I began to hate photographs, well not really, what I really hated was my own lack of formal training. Because in a traditional sense, much of what an artist does, in basing their image from life, is formal, it’s about perceiving with your own gevoelsmatig bewustzijn (aesthetic consciousness) a three dimensional form and rendering that onto a two dimensional surface. While a photograph is actually the reverse: it’s a two dimensional piece of paper that has mechanically captured a moment of life in space and time. Form doesn’t enter into it.

Then one day, to my surprise, I found myself basing a new painting project on a photograph(!). Relative to the aesthetic world that I had assigned to myself for these last decades, it was a kind of blasphemy. Because rule number one for artists seeking to do representational art is that the image should be based on a figural sitting or a study from real life (not a photograph). Well, apparently, my self-assigned apprenticeship was now over.

I cut up this photograph and started making panel paintings from the individual pieces. (I’ve included a few samples here, left and right) Compositionally, many, if not most, were abstractions or quasi-abstractions. Thus, rule number one for artists creating abstract art is that the image does not attempt to represent an accurate depiction of a visual reality but instead uses shapes, colours, forms and gestural marks to achieve its effect. Most of the panels were abstract paintings first and foremost and (contributions to) a visual reality second. This whole project then would be something in-between. For want of a better term I began to call it Deconstructed Realism.

The only thing I have to say about it all now, as I near completion, is that my self-imposed formal training in drawing from life, as well as my self-imposed training in exploring an indirect painting technique during this time served me well. By paying a lot of attention to form I was (for the most part) able to avoid that lack-of-form-information-problem from my base photographic image. I happily strove to insure that the shapes, colours, forms and gestural marks in each panel would carry its own weight. And that the final assemblage (which really is half-painting and half-sculpture) would ultimately speak for itself. I hope to be able to post images of that final assemblage soon.



Underdrawing, why bother?

October 27, 2020

Many years ago, when I lived in California and spent my time roving the landscape, I loved creating en plein air paintings, out there in the field, hugely ignorant about the role the underdrawing could play – but always curious. Out I would go, usually with a little thalo blue tempered with an egg yolk, to sketch in the forms I hoped to capture onto my chalk gessoed panel (never painted on canvas, as panels had irretrievably won me over early on). Thus even that starting sketch would take some time to dry, but worked well enough, since I lived in close proximity to my subject matter and California summers were hot and dry.

Fast forward some forty years and I still find myself refining the role the underdrawing plays. All this research has been self-taught, supplemented of course by the masters (the museums and the manuals). And since I no longer live in California, I no longer have the luxury of painting en plain air. Here in Northern Europe the summers can be divine – but fleeting. So I quickly reverted to drawing value studies on site that could later be used to create paintings on in the studio. This value study then, as potential underdrawing, became foundational for the future painting. During this phase I used silverpoint for the most part, sometimes enhanced with india ink. Here is a recent example of this approach.

A Piece of Me #08, encaustic on panel, notice how the underdrawing comes through, especially in the fine filigree architectural detail.

A Piece of Me #08, encaustic on panel, notice how the underdrawing comes through, especially in the fine filigree architectural detail.

The india ink underdrawing for A Piece of Me #08, rendered in pen and wash.

The india ink underdrawing for A Piece of Me #08, rendered in pen and wash.

All this brings me to my current project of creating 64 paintings (in different media) based on cut up sections of one original photograph. For lack of a better term, I call it “deconstructed realism”. Each section of this photograph then possesses an arbitrary layout, which when rendered in black and white, serves for my underdrawing.

But wait.

Do I use this black and white design in a mechanical way – to transfer the image – so it can then be rendered later in color? That is, do I transpose only the linear elements? Or do I render the value changes, too? Do I use silverpoint or india ink or a diluted black oil paint? Do I use a pen nib (to create strong harsh lines) or a brush (for subtler washes)? And, depending on the intended medium for painting, how do I want to make use of this underdrawing? Do I want it to completely disappear? Or do I want it to tantalisingly play through the levels of paint to come?

As the project has progressed I find myself continually opting for the latter. Thus at first the egg tempera and mixed technique underdrawings were subtle studies in fifty shades of grey (brushwork washes rendered in india ink), while the later encaustic, acrylic and oil panels became stronger underdrawing statements (rendered for the most part with india ink and a pen nib). Illustrated here is an example from one encaustic panel. The main point, always for myself as a painter, do I want to be identified with rendering, in this case, some (completely arbitrary) subject matter? Or do I want to create a painting? The answer of course is obvious.

Underdrawing for oils

October 24, 2020

I hesitate to say something about a topic that may (or should) already be well covered in artist manuals and/or the blog-o-sphere but since I have had a steep learning curve myself these past few weeks, I thought it might be helpful to document these lessons for others. I’m thinking that the main reason there is less information out there is because most painters these days prefer to paint on an acrylic gesso ground. It’s cheaper, easier, faster and less toxic. I also think that most painters are interested in using an alla prima approach to painting, it’s the fashion and one which generally does not make use of an underdrawing. ‘Nuff said.

To set the stage for my problem: I had a series of 3mm HDF panels (note, not canvases) which were sized with rabbit skin glue and then primed with a lead white primer. I had used Old Holland Lead White, in a 120 ml can: lead carbonate ground with cold-pressed linseed oil which was diluted with five parts turpentine (to one part stand oil, my mistake, NEVER do that again. The stand oil introduces an unnecessary element of fat into a ground that should always be as lean as possible). These panels were primed over one year ago. They were fully cured.

I now wanted to transfer my designs onto these panels – and from that design, create an indelible underdrawing which could serve as a foundation upon which to build an image. The problem/challenge was to find a medium that would be absorbed by this lean oil ground and yet (after an adequate amount of drying time) would not dissolve into the successive layers of fatter oil paint on top. (This business of painting is always a two way street.)

I set about transferring my first set of designs by printing a black and white version of the image to size onto a piece of paper, covering the back side of the paper with vine charcoal, and then tracing the design by pressing the tip of a dull stylus into the main lines. The resulting charcoal design on the panel could be erased or modified, but now I had something upon which to base a more permanent underdrawing.

Acrylic Ink?

Due to my recent experience in developing underdrawings for acrylic, I already knew that black acrylic ink (which is perfect for drawing on an acrylic gesso ground and then painting in acrylics over that) would not be appropriate for drawing on an oil ground. The practical and simple logic is such: oil can be superimposed upon acrylic but not vice versa.

India ink?

I set about drawing in my designs with a pen nib using permanent india ink. They appeared to bead up. The ground was not receptive to india ink. No amount of drying time would change that. It was an oil and water thing. My ground was too fat for the india ink, so I cleaned it off and started over.

Underdrawing in light black oil wash over collaged panel primed with lead oil ground.

Underdrawing in light black oil wash over collaged panel primed with lead oil ground.

Mars black oil paint heavily diluted with turpentine and painted in with thin washes?

What did painters, painting on oil based grounds for centuries, do? Well, first, surely they did not add stand oil to their ground(!) (my bad.) But still, since the oil ground is oil, they must have used a medium to which it was receptive. My first series of underdrawings then were done with mars black oil paint heavily diluted with turpentine. They looked great and appeared to be well received by the oil ground. Hooray #1. See image above, left. However after three or four days of drying time, they began to lift off the ground when lightly touched with a kneaded eraser to lift off that original charcoal tracing design. Not good. I began to think I would have to start over by priming a whole new set of panels without the addition of that nasty stand oil.

Underdrawing created with a mars black oi paint diluted 50:50 or so with turpentine, drawn on an oil based ground using a pen stylus.

Underdrawing created with a mars black oi paint diluted 25:75 or so with turpentine, drawn on an oil based ground using a pen stylus.

Mars black oil paint less heavily diluted and drawn in with a pen nib?

Then I also realised that I could try creating a black oil drawing medium which was less diluted (that is, contained more oil). So I mixed up a small jar with a blob of oil paint and an amount of turpentine, roughly 25:75. Test strokes. Trial and error. I wanted to create something fluid and siccative, which would work with a pen nib but which was thicker than my previous dilutions. I reasoned that this new batch would fare better with firm, linear lines rather than the fugitive, heavily diluted brush strokes. The paint/ink could be thicker than before and also this form of thick strokes could take up less “space” on the ground. I completed a few yesterday and will let them fully dry but I think and hope I have solved my problem. Time will tell. I hope to update this page as the project progresses.


October 18, 2020

These days there is no lack of self-proclaimed experts out there on just about any subject: painting is no exception. Thus if technology is great at proliferation, the user needs to be equally great at discrimination. I am listing here some on the more reliable resources I have come across. It is by no means exclusive. I intend to update this page as conditions change.

Internet Forums

MITRA – A highly recommended objective and informative website run by the University of Delaware. It’s monitored by professional conservators and is for artists practicing in all media. It inherited its mantle from AMIEN (2006 – 2013) which ended when it’s founder, Mark Gottsegen, passed away in 2013. In addition, check out their Resources link.  See also their list of informative websites. You’ll need to create a user account to ask a question.

The Society of Egg Tempera Painters – a good resource forum, when it was actively functioning. It was managed by current professional practitioners of the craft. Available now in archive format only. Still, with a good search, you might find your question answered there.

Artist Manuals [books in my possession]

Cennini, Cennino. Cennino d’Andrea Cennini’s The Craftsman’s Handbook: Il Libro dell’ Arte. Translated by Daniel V. Thompson, Jr. New York: Dover Publications, 1954 [1960]

Doerner, Max. The Materials of the Artist and Their Use in Painting: With Notes on the Techniques of the Old Masters, Revised Edition. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984.

Eastlake, Charles Lock. Methods and Materials of Painting of the Great Schools and Masters, vols. I & II (1847). New York: Dover Publications, 2001.

Gottsegen, Mark David. The Painter’s Handbook: Revised and Expanded. New York: Watson-Guptill, 2006

Kay, Reed. The Painter’s Guide to Studio Methods and Materials. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1983.

Mayer, Ralph. The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques: Fifth Edition, Revised and Updated. New York: Viking Press, 1991.

National Gallery, edited by David Bomford. Art in the Making, Underdrawing in Renaissance Paintings. Nationally Gallery Limited, 2002.

Schadler, Koo. Egg Tempera Painting: A Comprehensive Guide to Egg Tempera Painting. Koo Schadler, 2009.

Thompson, Daniel V. The Practice of Tempera Painting: Materials and Methods. New York: Dover Publications, 1962.

Vasari, Giorgio. Vasari on Technique. Translated by Louise S. Maclehose (1907). New York: Dover Publications, 1960.

Vasari, Giorgio. The Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, edited by William Gaunt. London & New York: Everyman’s Library, J. M. Dent and E. P. Dutton, 1963.

Full list available here from MITRA.

Book cover for: Art in the Making, Underdrawings in the Renaissance

Book cover for: Art in the Making, Underdrawings in the Renaissance

I picked up this book about a year ago, upon the recommendation of Koo Schadler, a contemporary artist proficient in the practice of egg tempera. It is produced by the National Gallery in London and consists of four essays. They cover: an informative introduction, the materials that were used for underdrawings back in the day, the underdrawings of the artists of the Northern Renaissance (Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands), and the underdrawings of the artists of the Southern Renaissance (Italy). Suceeding these essays is an in-depth analysis of the role underdrawings played in sixteen well known paintings from the National Gallery’s collection. Scientific methods of detection and the test of time don’t get better than this

I had contacted Koo last year because I had questions about the usefulness of silverpoint as an underdrawing for a painting to be fully realised later in egg tempera. Now one year later I am returning to the book with a different question. What is the best material to use for an underdrawing executed on a panel primed with a lead white oil ground? It’s not a question that arises much since most artists these days paint upon canvases primed with acrylic gesso. That’s the ground of choice for anyone painting on a flexible support. It covers well, provides a good level of absorption for acrylic or oil, is not as thirsty as traditional chalk gesso, yet it’s not as resistant as an oil ground might be. Relative to the underdrawing, acrylic gesso is receptive to either acrylic black ink or traditional waterproof india ink. Both types of inks do not bleed through into successive layers, while also they do not harm the oil’s adhesion to its ground. Thus, they hold their integrity in both directions. I sorted out these underdrawing questions recently for my series of panels executed in acrylic.

However, for my own personal touchy-feely research reasons I wanted to paint on the ground that had been used by artists since the late middle ages up to the mid-twentieth century. After all, that’s what you’re looking at when you go to a museum and view any painting created on canvas before, say, 1950. Now, due to its toxicity, lead white has become almost unavailable. I have been able to secure some though through my local art shop, skull-and-cross-bones warning and all. Of course, I took great precautions with its application. My research informs me that lead white toxicity is virtually nonexistent in its liquid form, though I did wear gloves, goggle and a mask. I did not and certainly would not recommend handling it as a  powder (or sanding it, either).

Toxicity aside, I now had twelve panels primed in lead white: how to proceed from there with my underdrawings? I already knew that for adhesion reasons acrylic black ink could not be used over oil but I thought that traditional india ink might be OK. I quickly discovered that it is not. My drawings beaded up. So what did the Renaissance artists do? How did they move from conception to realization? The short answer is charcoal, but without a binder, charcoal is indeed a very short-lived answer. It’s great for transferring designs or for sketching out big ideas but it lacks permanency. According to this book, it appears that Renaissance artists used a variety of inks or diluted oil paint to render their black and white designs the permanency that charcoal lacked. (The charcoal preliminary lines were then dusted away.) However, when you consider the ground/substrate issue (this book does not distinguish between the traditional chalk gesso ground created for an inflexible substrate and an oil ground created for a flexible substrate) it was clear that a diluted dark oil paint would be the tool of choice. Thus, I had found my answer and proceeded happily along my way. One more technical challenge solved.