Painting, Backwards

January 3, 2010

Painting (any painting) always involves pigment mixed into a medium and set upon a ground. The ground is usually white (or possibly even translucent), thus any pigment added to its surface subtracts from its luminosity and is a movement towards darkness. Alternatively stated, light is the source and darkness its covering. Painting reveals light and uses darkness to do so. If the ground is white, then the primal source of light in any painting is its substrate. This being the case, using and manipulating that source of luminosity is of utmost importance. I continually ask myself, is there a way to paint which can maximize the quality of transmissive light in its ground while contrasting it to the reflective quality of opaque pigments? Painting backwards could be one approach. I stumbled upon it by accident. Here’s what happened:

Sint Annarei underdrawing

silverpoint with india ink

About a year ago, I began preparing a landscape painting in the usual way. First by gessoing a wooden panel, then by transferring my composition to it using silverpoint. The composition was of the canal in front of my house. I had already created a value study as well as a small oil of the same landscape setting. I was well pleased with both works but felt the composition could benefit from a grander view. So I added buildings to the right and left as well as more sky and water in the foreground. This had the effect of deepening the overall perspective. Nice. Additionally, to enhance the depth from the get go, I highlighted the darker contrasts of the foreground using india ink on top of the already established silverpoint drawing. Nice, again.

Sint Annarei egg tempera

Sint Annarei egg tempera

 In order to minimize the number of layers necessary to create an image in oil, I started the underpainting in egg tempera. Rather than mixing a fully saturated color of the chosen pigment for each element in the image, I added white to each color to avoid oversaturated colors in the final painting. (Oversaturated colors can be lethal to the softly diminishing effects of an ephemerally suggested distance: a lesson I had learned the hard way.) So, all the colors were now set up and were rather pastel in character, complimentary color relationships were established, even if at this point they were still rather subtle.

Sint Annarei imprimatura

Sint Annarei imprimatura

 The next step was unifying all the elements by establishing an overall mood. This is usually done by covering the ground with an imprimatura: a diluted oil color washed over the surface to establish a middle tone. So I painted on a brown imprimatura and then wiped it off. A tonality was established, but it wasn’t quite dark enough. I painted on a second layer of imprimatura just to increase the tonality. But then, rather than painting the highlights back in using white pigment, I decided to erase the imprimatura from the highlight areas using turpentine (I already knew exactly where these areas were as they were well articulated in the underdrawing). This erasing was working well, until I accidentally dipped my brush in distilled water instead of turps. My brush began to delete not only the imprimatura, but also the egg tempera underpainting, the india ink, and then the silverpoint, too. Oops!!! Not what I had intended…

Sint Annarei Final

Sint Annarei Final

Amidst my curses and exclamations, it became clear to me that I needed to continue this treatment to balance out the rest of the composition, a work of about 15 minutes. When I was done, my husband took a look at the painting and said, “I think you’re done.” And it was true.

Comments are welcome…

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2 Responses to “Painting, Backwards”


  1. […] You can read about the work-up of this piece here. […]


  2. […] of my experiments in the recent years have been attempts to preserve this light. Painting backwards is one of my more notable successes. However, reclaiming the white of the original panel through […]


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