About ten years ago I began to experiment with silverpoint. It’s a beautiful and ancient technique that was used long before lead pencils or even the wide-spread distribution of paper. A metal point (in this case silver, though other metals were also used) is inserted into a stylus and you begin making light scratches on a ground with enough tooth to be receptive to a light deposit of the metal particles. Since silverpoint works extremely well on traditional chalk gesso, and this had already been my ground of choice for decades, there was no learning curve for me in terms of the preparation of the ground. So I began to employ silverpoint to develop underdrawings for landscapes (intended to be created in the studio). This went seamlessly since I had already transitioned to creating my paintings in the studio based on en-plein-air value studies.

As for the silverpoint, I was very pleased with its tactile feel. Yet – in contrast to lead pencil or ink as I quickly learned – the amount of pressure you exert has no influence whatsoever on the value you create (!). It’s only possible to create deeper values through repeated motions. Because such values are developed slowly through repetitive motions silverpoint is a time consuming yet meditative activity. Nice! It creates a great deal of fine detail – softly. Deeper values can and do develop over time, especially when the surface is exposed to light for extended periods of time. But I expected my silverpoint underdrawing to become sealed under many coats of paint so I was never too concerned about its tarnishing/darkening factor.

silverpoint with india ink

silverpoint with india ink

And, since I was interested in creating landscapes where describing distance is an intrinsic factor, I began implementing india ink cross-hatching to specific areas of my foreground. This enhanced the contrast of the foreground. I thought I had developed a pretty cool underdrawing technique for myself. I was happy.

Silverpoint on traditional gesso panel

However, recently when I began a project of 13 panels to be executed exclusively in egg tempera, I discovered otherwise. I had naturally turned to silverpoint for my underdrawings. The work flowed. I was a happy little camper creating beautiful little silverpoint panel underdrawings in my cozy little studio. Until at some point it dawned on me that the silver of the silverpoint would naturally tarnish in the presence of the egg’s sulphur. It would be an organic process over which I would have little control. Banksy might be fine designing his paintings to self-destruct in a shredder at auction but that really wasn’t my intention here.

I quickly contacted Koo Schadler, a contemporary artist who creates beautiful paintings in egg tempera and who also does drawings in silverpoint. She was very kind and informative though in fact she did confirm my suspicions. At the same time she introduced me to the MITRA Forum, a website hosted by the University of Delaware where conservation experts are available to answer such (geeky) questions. They, too confirmed the difficulty.

Well, so what did the Old Masters do? While there does not appear to have been one set solution, because individual studios/guilds and masters all had their own approach, there does appear to have been a convention: washes of india ink. It was fast, easy, cheap and versatile. Using you could quickly achieve a wide range of values and on a large scale, if necessary (neither of which is silverpoint’s forté). Silverpoint may have been used early on in the design/transfer process (if you were working on panel) but even so, why carry it through when india ink is so much quicker and easier?

Returning to my project, the question remained: what to do with my already completed silverpoints? Koo had initially suggested that washes of india ink (which contains shellac) might be able to seal off the silverpoint level from the egg tempera level (though the efficacy of such a maneuver was questionable). So, I began creating light washes of india ink over my existing silverpoints. I proceeded slowly and gently in order to avoid creating values too darkly, too quickly. This worked out great and seemed to enhance my silverpoint panels! I was happy (again) though nagging doubts remained. Additionally, the MITRA Forum experts had confirmed that there are no sealers on the market able to fully prohibit oxygenation/tarnish – and attempting to create a seal that would be strong enough to do so would compromise the adhesion capacities of the egg tempera. Done.

India ink underdrawing after erasing the silverpoint.

I got up yesterday and took an eraser to my panels. I began to erase all of my beloved silverpoint work. You will hear people say that silverpoint is not erasable. That’s not my experience. With some diligent rubbing the silver came off leaving only the india ink behind. Did I get it all? I don’t know, I think so, but only time will tell. But I’m no longer worried. So in the end, the silverpoint drawings that I did do served me well: they gave me enough information to create subtle and detailed india ink underdrawings. Now I am confident enough to proceed with my egg tempera.

Bullet dodged.

After years of experimenting with the mixed technique I have confirmed two things. I love glazing; and too much glaze absolutely kills oil’s refracting light. Thus I have often, even repeatedly, found myself at cross-purposes.

Most 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 painting backwards doesn’t really work tactically speaking if the neighboring areas of paint have been worked-up. And adding it back at the finish line (like I did here) is OK but you can’t always guarantee that the surface will accept it by then or that the light so added will be integrated in the way you want it to be. I needed light within the painted surface, a reintroduced light, applied within and over the developing image. And of course it needed to be lean enough to bear a layer or two of glaze. How did the old masters accomplish this? Tempera white.

What is tempera white? Basically, white pigment (I use zinc white but the old masters most probably used lead) ground up in a very lean egg/oil emulsion. The emulsion I use comes from the mixed technique but one could just as easily substitute an egg yolk for the methyl-cellulose glue component. I have used this tempera white before for reintroducing light values within each layer of colored glaze when developing an image chromatically. For examples see: I am curious yellow, Seeing red, and I’d rather be blue. But in all previous attempts, I did not introduce tempera white directly over the egg tempera/imprimatura underpainting, from the get-go, so to speak. That’s what I wanted to do this time, as doing so can free me from any pre-conceived plan of chromatic image development via glazing.

So I’ve been working on a landscape of a farm on the Dammevaart just outside of Bruges. I created a watercolor study of it a few years ago. This functions for the basic composition, color relations and light study.IMG_4414 (1)

Based on this watercolor then, I transposed the design to a gessoed panel and worked it up in silverpoint, which tends to be very light valued.IMG_4334 I then laid in light areas of color via egg tempera, anticipating the colors to come. Sorry, no picture of this stage is available (but just imagine the watercolor laid in over the silverpoint drawing and you won’t be far off). My interest for the ET level was stating color relations but keeping them as just hints – not fully developed and certainly not saturated. I let the ET fully dry and oxidize for a few weeks before laying in a toned (burnt sienna) imprimatura. Sorry, no image is available of this stage either. The imprimatura acts like a very lean glaze, bringing everything into relation through its hue and tonality. But additionally it also places an inevitable veil over all design elements. The already lightly developed composition got flatter and the ET colors were only slightly visible, as though through a tinted filter.

What to do? White tempera to the rescue. IMG_4411It helped to reintroduce the forms by stating the highlight and quarter tone values. All my seeming tedious homework from the earlier layers played through. My aim now is to complete the painting with just one session of painting into a glaze. The aforementioned homework should allow me to work quickly, spontaneously and yet accurately. And despite all the detail of the under layers, I don’t aim to create a fully detailed realistic painting, rather my goal is a painting that gives the viewer’s imagination space to wander – even if just a little bit. So stay tuned.

Figure Drawing #31

Figure Drawing #31. Conté crayon on warm gray pastel paper.

Back in the seventies when I was discovering my wings as a young art student, I fell in love with a book called “The Zen of Seeing/Drawing” by Frederick Franck. It was filled with inspiring text and drawings about the experience of drawing itself. Over the years, though I may have forgotten about the specific contents of that book, the direction it fed has remained, such that I always regard drawing as a meditative experience.

How so?

The way I see it (in life in general, and in drawing specifically) there is one main element to transcend – myself as a separated personality. And if you are into transcendence (as I am) it’s good to know exactly how that restricted sense-of-self functions. So there are two primary aspects to it: one temporal and one spatial. The temporal aspect is especially mind based while the spatial aspect is especially body based and although there are a million and one ways to transcend these limits, participating in timed drawing sessions of a naked human being is surely one of them. It provides a visceral impetus to concentrate temporally, into the moment, while simultaneously expanding spacially, into the other. In a certain way it’s that simple.

Figure Drawing #32. Pencil and white conté pencil on warm gray  pastel paper.

Figure Drawing #32. Pencil and white conté pencil on warm gray pastel paper.

Most of the time figure drawing sessions are very open situations. There is a studio space and a model. Everyone chips in to pay the model’s fee. No guru, no teacher. Usually also there is a loose structure for the number and duration of the poses. And that’s it. It’s really about chopping your head off (in order to avoid drawing from some preconceived kind of place) and getting into your tactile body. Feeling the paper, feeling the chalk, feeling the model (as yourself), letting go and staying aware. Sometimes I don’t look at the paper at all, content with just feeling the chalk explore the contours of the model’s body. Sometimes I wait to feel the model’s pose in my own body before I start. Where is the weight? Where is the movement? But then, also, what is happening on the paper? Seeing the model there, watching the figure taking shape. Feeling its life coursing through my fingers.
Additionally, drawing in this way isn’t about achieving some external standard of “likeness”, rather it’s about discovering your own authenticity. It’s about making footprints in the sand: remnants of a journey whose importance far outweighs it’s trace.

Notes on figure drawing

June 28, 2012

Figure drawing, March 2012

I’ve been attending a weekly figure drawing session for over a year now.  A local artist loves to draw from the live model so he throws open his studio on Monday nights and invites any and all like-minded others to join in. There’s usually jazz blowing through his sound system and a small fire in the wood burning stove. We chip in for the model’s fee and that’s that, no teacher, no guru: one naked body in motion and rest.

When I began coming to these sessions I hadn’t drawn from the figure in almost 25 years so I felt pretty rusty. For these last decades I’ve been concentrating on rendering landscape, which doesn’t move even though the light and atmospheric effects on it certainly do. So from my terrestrial work I knew about my penchant for motion, for tracing the land’s skeleton, for shapes and the contrasts of light and dark, but how to get the essence of model’s pose down quickly and with some sense of accuracy?

I began with medium toned gray paper, slashing out indistinct highlights and blocking in coarse shadows. Most days the figure floated somewhere in space, sometimes a bit amputated, or just distorted from forcing a three dimensional entity onto a two dimensional space. I experimented with different grades of pencil, conté crayon, oil pastels and sticks of black carbon. I tried white sketching paper, cheap recycled toned drawing paper, charcoal paper and Canson Mi-Tientes, each medium possessing a different tactile quality for recording sensation. I felt myself like a caterpillar with legs and antennae outstretched, sensing these forward vibrations with my own febrile tentacles.

Figure drawing, May 2012

Ingrained in my little head are the words of a friend’s former teacher, Nicholas Wacker, of the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.

  • Mise en page (placement on the page)
  • Circulation de la lumière (circulation of light)
  • Grisaille (gray/shading)

Thankfully, these principles guide me like a mantra in each sucessive attempt. Over time I developed an approach. For longer poses I sketch in the outline of the figure using a 6B or 8B lead pencil on a heavy weight Canson pastel paper. When I am satisfied, I block in the essential highlights with white chalk or pastel. If I have time, I return for the shadow accents.

Figure drawing, June 2012

For the shorter poses, 8B pencil, red conté crayon or black chalk on toned paper suffices. I remember that no line is superfluous so I try to erase as little as possible. John Ruskin in The Elements of Drawing advises, if you begin gently enough, any inaccuracies can be corrected with a new and heavier line. All lines are forays into the unknown, honor them as such. But if it at some point it all turns into an illegible chaos then it’s simply time to start over. And no harm done.