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.

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A work in progress…

August 3, 2013

After a long hiatus (precipitated by moving into an old Bruges row house and renovating it, along with creating a little painting studio for myself) I finally had the chance to get back into painting these last few weeks – and the weather has been great!

I decided to do an oil of a watercolor study I had completed in 2011 of the bend along the Damse Vaart canal outside Bruges. It’s a great perspective, particularly around mid-day. There are some interesting middle ground structures on the left, while on the right the receding treeline stretches almost all the way to Damme. The strong mid-day shadows complement the movement and function as an anchor.

watercolor of the bend in the Damse Vaart, 2011

watercolor of the bend in the Damse Vaart, 2011

I transposed the basic composition of the watercolor to a panel, but decided to do the foundational ink drawing and egg tempera levels en plein air. For the ink level, I reverted to the stylus and nib quill-pen style of my youth, instead of the technical drawing pens I’ve been using ever since. I wanted to let the pen nib respond to my hand pressure with a thinner or thicker line, mirroring my response to nature. It worked quite well, except the ink jar fell over spilling most of its contents. Enough remained to complete my work, even if the drawing ended up being a little sketchier than I might have envisioned it.
So I quickly moved onto the egg tempera stage. I brought three pigments with me pre-ground into pastes: cadmium yellow medium, alizarin crimson and thalo blue, in addition of course to the egg yolk. In future, I plan to mix up my paints with egg in the studio before going out – just to minimize the hassle: there are already enough uncontrollable factors to contend with in nature, like the wind, rain, sun and insects, why shoot yourself in the foot? In any case, I mixed up my paints in situ and laid in some washes over my ink drawing to indicate future color developments.

india ink and egg tempera underpainting of the Damse Vaart bend

india ink and egg tempera underpainting of the Damse Vaart bend

Though it may not be very visible in the reproduction image here, I paid special attention to lay in more saturated colors in the foreground and lighter washes in the distance. I’ve learned from experience that it all makes a difference in the long run – any color, no matter how subtle equates to less light.

After a week or so, the egg tempera level was cured enough to paint over. It dries immediately but don’t be deceived, the egg/oil combo also has to cure. Gentle UV light can help. I painted a toned imprimatura of burnt sienna over the piece. My purpose in doing so was to unify the disparate foundational parts and lay in a preliminary value study. Using turpentine, I extracted the imprimatura from the highlights and lighter quarter tones revealing the underpainting beneath, while painting a more saturated layer into the shadows. I did this in the studio and it came out quite well(!). Now it’s starting to get exciting.

imprimatura, bend in the Damse Vaart

imprimatura, bend in the Damse Vaart

I let this level dry for almost a week. That’s not really necessary, at least if you don’t mind a little imprimatura bleeding into the next level of glaze, but since I did, I let it dry. Also, the shadowed areas were painted with a slightly heavier sienna wash, so they needed more time.

Finally, I set my field easel up in situ on a clear sunny day with a mild breeze. My homework was all done, the question was how far would I be able to bring the painting in one working session? I covered the whole panel with medium, wiped it back off leaving a slight tack to the panel surface and started in. Four hours later, I had the following result:

 level 1 Oil, Bend of the Damse Vaart

Level 1 oil, Bend of the Damse Vaart

I consider it an excellent start, though a little too coarse and graphic for my taste. I’d like to reintroduce the atmosphere of the imprimatura by softening a number of transitions and reintroducing the light. We’ll see if that’s possible. Fingers crossed for Bend in the Damse Vaart, part II.

Egg tempera revisited

May 10, 2011

Anna, #17, egg tempera, silverpoint and india ink

Anna, #17, egg tempera, silverpoint and india ink

Although I’m a huge fan of egg tempera, as a medium I generally use it for underpainting.  It’s quick drying and relatively easy to manipulate, establishing firm graphical forms that tend to be light in tonality. But for creating soft, smooth, subtle gradations that’s just not its forte.  So in my book, that makes it great for underpainting, but as a stand alone medium, I’m just not a purist, at least, not yet.

However, in my most recent “puzzle” painting project I planned to do just that.  Each of the 25 squares involved were developed as usual in silverpoint, india ink and egg tempera – as underpainting or underdrawing, respectively.  Then, many of those panels received a further development in oil or wax or a combination thereof.  But, I planned to leave 8 of thsoe panels alone remaining a treatment in pure egg tempera, so for those 8, my skills in manipulating the medium had to suffice.  Would they?

Anna_08

Anna, #8, egg tempera

The trickiest section by far was the face (which I left for the last).  Early on I had decided to underpaint all the flesh tones with green earth, or terra verte pigment, similar to the Siennese painters of the Renaissance. (At that stage the figure looked rather ghoulish and I had to console myself that it would change.)  Darker facial details were also painted with the same green earth.  As I began to overlay with my warmer colors, the face came to life.  Cool!  That particular facial square had also received some pre texturing with sculpting putty so the sculpting contributed in its own way, for example, the hair on the left only required of a few layers of burnt umber as a wash.

Even though it is still a work in progress (because the backside of each panel will also be painted) you can view the final mixed media collage of the front side here.

Egg Tempera

May 25, 2009

Egg tempera portrait by Botticelli

Egg tempera Medici Portrait by Botticelli

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. 

Pigments:
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.

The Egg:
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.

Painting:

Christina's world

Christina's world

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.

Egg Tempera Pallette

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.