I recently picked back up on a painting project that I had left behind me a number of years ago. During this interim I had pursued achieving a Masters degree in philosophy at KULeuven in Belgium – which was great fun – but did not leave much time for artistic projects. So now, getting back to the drawing board certainly feels good even as I shake off the rust/dust.
The piece I’m discussing here is based on a watercolor I did back in 2014 of a farm along the Dammsevaart outside Bruges, Begium. The watercolor is high in quarter tones, so, low in contrast, thus it does not reproduce well. Still it gives me what I need.
I had already transcribed it using silverpoint (no image available) and then worked up an egg tempera underpainting before letting go of the ball sometime back in 2015.
So now, before I began to work in layers of oil in the studio I covered it first with a light size and then also laid in a light coat of raw umber-tinted retouch varnish. The size protects the egg tempera while reducing the porosity of the traditional gesso while the retouch varnish also reduces the porosity while providing a unifying middle tone. It seems possible that I could have done either the one or the other (but not both) but I decided to do it anyway – and I’ll assess how the porosity of my oil glazes functions. I ended up with the following image. It may be ugly now but still, I think it will serve my purposes.
The next step was to begin laying in areas of oil paint using the mixed technique. Basically, this requires covering the area on which I intend to work that day with a light glaze of clear medium (my recipe is 1 stand oil:1 damar:1 turpentine). The medium should sit for a few minutes (about 10 – 15) so as to penetrate into the gessoed surface. Then it is wiped off using a clean, lint free rag. When all goes well, this produces a slightly tacky, wet surface into which I can introduce oil paint (tempered with emulsion, recipe here). This tackiness is quite important because the gessoed panel is quite smooth (in contrast to the weave of a linen canvas) so this tackiness give the paint something to hold on to. The “wet” surface is good to paint on for about 8 – max 12 hours max – so it’s important to only glaze an area that I feel I can cover in that time.
Since I already felt a bit rusty for this piece, I decided to tackle the sky first (no picture of just that phase), then followed it up with the line of trees in the background. This produced the following image. I began to think this might just work out.
The next working session was the whole middle-ground area, the farm buildings and the middle-ground greens. The chromatic contrast of complimentary colors was now becoming quite evident and satisfying. After an approximately four hour working session I had the following image. Notice the transition from a blocked-in-dream to a Hopper-esque statement of light, flesh on bones:
After that working session dried (about four days) I glazed up the foreground field and worked for about three-four hours to complete the painting. The brightest highlights were deeply informed by revealing the original gesso by “painting backwards”. This is done by erasing passages of emulsified paint using a small flats brush dipped in medium. Below is the result.
Finally, after a few days I decided to improve, that is add some dynamic energy to, the sky. The day here yesterday was blustery (as the contestants at the French Open can testify). It inspired me to add some clouds. I glazed the entire sky with a unifying burnt umber glaze and then started slashing in blobs of titanium white and dry brushing it into the existing underpainting. Took about a half hour to get the following image:

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All this work might seem like an unnecessarily complicated and esoteric technique to someone interested in achieving a zen-like spontaneity to their paintings. All I can say is, if that’s what you want, then don’t even think about attempting the mixed technique. However, I myself was seduced by it almost 40 years ago and have been a devotee ever since. That’s not to say I have always been successful with it – for the most part I have not – as it is challenging in a variety of ways. But when it does work, the results are, or at least can be, sublime.
But why all the devotion? Because mixing emulsion into the oil paint tempers it, that is, turns it into a firmer, water receptive paint-medium (which bye-the-bye also dries more quickly than straight oil). This means that you are actually painting wet-in-wet (wet emulsion into the wet glaze medium). You can place two strokes of color adjacent to one another – yet each retains its own integrity. You can leave the strokes as is, or you can take a dry, fan-shaped brush (or your own fingertips) to lightly blend them. This allows for the best of egg tempera (with its hard edged chromatic purity) to be conjoined to the soft blending possibilities of oil. Because you paint in layers you can, using clear medium, erase a freshly painted section or modulate an already existing dried passage by applying a new layer of tinted glaze. But the whole point of painting in layers is not to over-paint or over-work the surface but rather to allow the luminous nature of the original gesso ground to “speak” through, at least in places. Thus a luminosity is achievable that is not readily available by other means. The levels of painting possess hidden secrets (and/or directions) while simultaneously creating unexpected surprises. There are many possibilities, the greatest danger of which consists in walking past a perfection that you may not have noticed you have already achieved (!).

For the mixed technique you’ll need to:

  • paint on a hardboard surface prepared with traditional gesso
  • have a relatively clear vision (both in black and white and in color) about where you want to go
  • pay attention to your recipes
  • work in the studio (as en plan air conditions are just too demanding – besides being counterproductive)
  • use a limited palette (for example, for this piece I used: lead white, burnt umber, cadmium yellow medium, ultramarine blue and mars red)
  • realize that the spontaneity you seek already lies in the materials lying at your fingertips
  • trust yourself and let go
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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.

Bend in the Damse Vaart

August 30, 2013

I posted a WIP (work-in-progress) about a month ago. Yesterday I completed the last glaze on that project so here’s the final result. I’m quite happy with it, as there were a number of technical challenges.

Bend in the Damse Vaart

Bend in the Damse Vaart, Oil on panel. August 2013.

The first challenge was the light. I felt that the previous en-plein-air painting session (see WIP) had been quite successful but that I had lost the light statement which had been so apparent in the imprimatura. I decided on major surgery. I extracted the paint from the highlight areas (using medium instead of turpentine because it’s a softer method of extraction of fresh paint and you can paint back into it quickly and easily). Then I reintroduced light via a fast drying tempera white (zinc white mixed with emulsion). The resulting impression was a bit like a coarse blanket of snow(!).

Snow on the Damse Vaart...

Snow on the Damse Vaart…

The second challenge was what’s called a sunken-in painting surface. What’s that, you might ask? Well, as the en-plein-air painting session dried, I noticed that many areas of the painted surface had become dull and gray instead of luminous and light. (Yuk!) This can occur when the chalk gesso ground is too thirsty and absorbs paint too quickly. Luckily this can be remedied by a light coat of retouch varnish, which I did and it was. So now the painting had been resuscitated but it was defo an ugly duckling: functional but with an unpleasant tactile quality.

I decided to complete the project in the studio, since technically there were too many balls to juggle. I kept with the same minimal palette that I had used en-plein-air: cadmium yellow, alizarine crimson and thalo blue – mixing any color I needed from these three with the addition of lead white and warm gray for my tints and shades. I started by glazing and painting the left bank only. I hate working this way since the development isn’t global but there wasn’t a way around it (that I could see). After the first studio session I had the image below:

Rive gauche

Rive gauche

Now the painting was starting come alive and I was in love (really!). When this begins to happen it’s very important to listen to what the painting is saying instead of imposing any extraneous ideas upon it. For example, working en-plein-air at this point would be counter-productive. The hard part was waiting the few days it took for the glaze to dry enough so as to work on the adjacent area. When it was, the challenge was simply in staying true to the developments of the other side. See image here below:

Rive droit

Rive droit

So then again, after the appropriate drying time, the final step was more of a follow through than a creation: mirroring the development of the painting in the water’s reflections while attempting to give it a sense of wind-life. (See the initial image above)

Now, on to the next…

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.

More Painting Backwards

October 20, 2011

In early July this year I created a watercolor of a view along the Damse Vaart nearby Bruges, just in front of where the steamboat, the Lamme Goedzak, docks.  I really liked the composition created by the canal stretching out into the distance, as well as the light of the evening as it progressed.

Damse Vaart watercolor

By remaining in one location for a few hours, just painting, just watching, I could let the scene tell me precisely which light to try and capture.  The sun was slowly setting in the west (here in midsummer, it doesn’t completely descend until almost 11:00 p.m.), so although the composition in terms of land, trees and water did not change, the light on them certainly did.  I snapped a few photographs of the different transitions as I made my choice.

Back in the studio I transposed the composition to a panel and quickly sketched in the main elements, suggesting the central movements and thrusts as I felt them, the textures and the chiaroscuro.  I used india ink for the stronger value details and silver point for the lighter, softer ones. (sorry, no photo of this stage available) The next time the weather was good, I went back out to do an underpainting using egg tempera (in the field).  Egg tempera is not a technique that easily lends itself to field work but I wanted to experiment.  I worked with a limited palette and preground my colors into a paste using distilled water.  Since I knew the last levels of painting would probably be in the studio, I wanted as much authenticity-of-place as possible.  I decided to use the landscape color convention of stong yellows in the foreground, greens in the middle and blues for the background.  Values were kept fairly light, with everything suggested yet still fairly coarse. (no photo available)

Damse Vaart Oil

Two months later, after a rainy August, one month’s holiday and tons of other stuff inbetween, I had the chance to do the imprimatura. I mixed up a blob of burnt umber tube oil-color with retouch varnish (1 damar to 2 turps).  I painted it on, letting it absorb into the panel for about a minute and then wiped it back off.  It left a thin veil of warm brown over the whole image.  With another small brush dipped in turpentine, I began wiping the brown tint back off from the pre-painted highlighted areas.  Within fifteen minutes the process was complete, the highlights jumped out and the shadows pushed back, both filled with descriptive details and vibrating with life. I was tempted to call it done.

Damse Vaart Oil on panel

Damse Vaart Oil on panel

Nevertheless, the following year I decided to finish the piece – in the studio. I covered it with a tinted glaze of bunrt sienna and painted directly into that, wet-on-wet. This kept the wood areas vibrating with additional warmth and the greens and the blues well grounded. The challenge as always was to mix an array of receding greens to describe the distance. When it was dry I brought some highlights back in using tempera white (zinc white mixed with emulsion). Some of those final highlights required a little glazing just to bring it all back in balance. The resulting painting had a lovely color vibe, the  red warmth of the wood contrasted to the greens (and yellows) of the vegetation.

Kruispoorte version #1, 2009, a lovely painting but perhaps the development of the greens was a little flat.

Anyone who attempts to paint landscape has to deal sooner or later with the problem of green. Of course, some might not even consider it to be a difficulty – but I do. So what’s the problem? In a nutshell: #1) the profusion of greens in the natural world contrasted to #2) the difficulty of rendering them to any degree of accuracy on the pallete/canvas/panel.

Kruispoorte version #2, 2010, blue level, I'm struggling with my differentiations here.

From a pigment point of view, there are relatively few tube greens out there in contrast to the wide arrary of tube choices for other colors. Viridian, the strongest green pigment, is widely used, otherwise if you need something different, you just mix it up from some combo of yellow and blue, or even yellow and black. However, if you attempt (as I do) to arrive at a beautiful green through color layering (for example, a blue glaze over a yellow substrate) then you might indeed create a wonderful green, but find yourself unable to modulate it very much to it’s other (very green) surroundings. Hence an indirect technique for color development is a bit too inflexible.

Kuuispoorte #2, 2010, brown glaze level, a solution of sorts.

Thus, my current approach, to painting in general, but also to green in particular, is to minimize my pigment choice, decide on an approach and then modulate my color relations to it. For painting greens, this can mean using or mixing a master green, modulating a master chartreuse, blue green and/or gray green from that. Then tints and shades from each of those. If I am painting wet into wet, then the color of my glaze will certainly have a direct (color) effect. If it is an earth glaze (umber or sienna), the effect is quite grounding (no pun intended). Nevertheless, color is absolutely relational (a la Josef Albers) and nowhere is this more true than in the attempt to render the multitudinous greens of the natural world.

I’d rather be blue…

July 14, 2010

My theory of painting is simply this: travelling has to be at least as interesting as finally arriving. It helps to have a numinal idea of what arriving should actually look like, but it wouldn’t be “art” if I already knew, would it? Thus, I always experience a certain kind of hesitancy as I approach the final levels in a painting. Do I really want the journey to end? Will this level “do” it? Or will it need more? And if so: what, where, how? Will the final image end up looking like a bored adult in comparison to its earlier youthful promise? Should I have stopped at some earlier vantage point along the way and just grabbed the ‘chute?

Additionally, imposing a chromatic structure on image development allows for lots of lateral exploration at each level of additional color. Or to put it in even simpler terms, it helps me to control chaos. Chaos of my own emotions and my emotional reactions either to the subject matter or the developing image in front of my nose. But too much control results in lifelessness, too little, and it’s just chaos.

Riding the surge of that inbetween space, of that wave, is richly rewarding: both exhilirating and terrifying. Committing myself to it involves a kind of surrender and also a kind of trust. If I imagine that the landscape I paint is essentially external to me, if I imagine that the paints I use are essentially “other”, if I imagine that the world itself is not a part of me and myself a part of it, then there is fear.

So, instead of experiencing distance to it all like some alien stranger, I’d rather be blue (thalo or ultramarine, to be exact)…

Seeing red

July 9, 2010

Well, OK. Since I started documenting this current production series with the yellow level, I thought I’d continue with the red. Usually, when I trace the development of a painting through its different stages, the thread is the image. But this time the common denominator is color. So, its a different focus, a different challenge. Comparing chromatic qualities instead of developmental ones.

The Sint AnnaKerk piece is shifting towards purple now. This seems to be due to the combination received through the massive amounts of warm gray tints that I worked into the crimson lake (red) tint. The church was a lovely yellow but I decided it needed a darker more massive tonality in order to provide enough contrast and mass for the strong highlights on its right side. I used clear glaze to eliminate the red tint from most of the green areas. The composition does not have a lot of strong color statements, so it’s interesting to attempt to pull out whatever is possible.

The Predijkherenrij Grande has a strong value composition containing a lot of colors. The red level was a marathon session of 14 hours, working the paints in before the medium dried. Applying the tint, erasing the same from the highlights and some greens and then building up the masses with (mostly) semi-opague tints of warm gray and lead white. Strong reds, yellows and oranges were restated with emulsified pigment. It feels quite hot now, doesn’t it?

The concept for the Kruispoorte Grande was simple. Could I take the process-color studio painting technique out into plen air? The yellow level had worked out great. But the red level presented challenges because the composition itself doesn’t have a lot of strong reds in it. I found myself making choices between value (warm gray tints) or hue (yellow) statements: always keeping the overall composition in mind. Still, I’m not at all sure this will be a successful approach. Time will tell.

Stay tuned for the next episode…

I am curious, yellow?

June 17, 2010

It isn’t often that I have numerous paintings completed to the same level at the same time. However, since I am preparing for an exposition and have entered into production mode on a number of pieces, right now I have four paintings drying in their yellow stage. There is something particular and special to be seen in these “monochromatic” stages which soon will be integrated into full blown colorful images.

It is a curious level, one of overall hue reduction, of lowered value contrast too, of subtle nuances and above YELLOW, contrasted against gray (which of course becomes pushed towards its complement, purple). The underpainted hues that have been developed in the egg tempera stage shine through subtly, as gentle reminders of potential futures, still yet to be heeded or ignored. Who can tell?

Even an abstract background that I know is intended to become a “blue” sky will have elements of the sun’s yellow light within it. If I state it now, it will always be there, ready to rise to the occassion by the brush’s trumpet call.

Thus, succcessive stages build back upon the basic statements made in the yellow layer. Warm reds and vibrant greens depend upon a good solid yellow. Yet sometimes, I find myself satisfied with the yellow layer just as it is. Fini. Perhaps it’s only my insatiable curiosity which keeps me wondering about what’s round the next bend, keeping me from lingering with the yellow level and just calling it “done”. So, I document it here: an interesting level, worthy of note, even if today it’s only electronic.