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.

A Piece of Me #07, the mixed technique on panel.

A Piece of Me #07, the mixed technique on panel.

The “mixed technique”, as I use it, refers to the development of an egg/oil emulsion that can be used to grind amounts of dry pigment powder into a useable paint OR using that same emulsion to extend already existing manufactured tube oil colour into a faster drying, leaner paint. Some scholars and painters claim that the “oil technique” discovered in the fifteenth century by the Northern Renaissance painters (beginning with Van Eyck) was actually a discovery of this emulsion. While others claim that Van Eyck’s new oil technique (or “mische techniek”) consisted of the judicious use of oil glazes over a well developed egg tempera underpainting. Whether there actually was an in-between phase of a new emulsion (as described above) appears to be a matter of debate. You can find authoritative resources either way. For myself, I have tried creating paintings with both approaches but, like a moth to the flame, continue to be drawn to this new emulsion and the effects it creates. My results have reflected the analogy correspondingly: sometimes scintillating; sometimes trash.

A Piece of Me #37, the mixed technique on panel.

A Piece of Me #37, the mixed technique on panel.

This “new emulsion” then dries more slowly than egg tempera and yet faster than oil. It allows for smoother transitions in blending. It also allows for wet-in-wet brush stroke integrity (which the oil technique, when applied wet-in-wet tends to slur). Relative to the emulsion recipe I use, when created freshly, it looks and handles like mayonnaise. Because it’s created with methyl cellulose glue instead of an egg yolk it lasts a lot longer. An emulsion created with the yolk of an egg should create a well functioning “mayonnaise” too, I just haven’t tried it. 

For this series of panels I applied the few steps with which I have become familiar over the years:

  • the choice of a firm substrate, in this case, a 3 mm HDF panel with a hardwood veneer on both sides
  • sizing the panel with rabbit skin glue
  • coating the panel with approximately 10 layers of traditional chalk gesso
  • another coat of size to reduce absorbency
  • a well developed underdrawing, created with india ink. Depending on the subject matter, sometimes pen and ink, sometimes a series of washes, sometimes both.
  • a well developed underpainting
  • a clear glaze painted on and allowed to dry for approximately 15 minutes before wiping off
  • mixing emulsion into my colors as I painted into this clear glaze
  • doing so made for smooth, easy to blend transitions
  • you can click this link for a full view of the mixed technique series of panels for the A Piece of Me project

 

The Encaustic Palette

October 9, 2020

My collection of dry pigments in the studio

My collection of dry pigments in the studio

I’ve just completed a series of panels executed in encaustic. The palette I used for this work consisted mainly of the same dry pigments that I keep on hand for egg tempera.  (See illustration to the left.) I said “mainly”, because I also began to supplement my palette of home-made colours with the bars of ready made encaustic colours from R&F pigments that I had purchased at my local art supply store. In this way, a few additional colours crept in, most notably Naples Yellow (which I had purchased in search of a Yellow Ochre – which it is not).

Thus, during this process of painting with encaustic I became motivated to pay increased attention to my palette choices. Yes, technically, you can use the same dried pigments that you might use for egg tempera but that doesn’t mean you should. The principle caveat here being toxicity.

I gleaned this information recently from Kraemer Pigmente: “For encaustic, pigments are melted into wax or a wax-resin-mixture. It is very important not to use toxic pigments with this technique. Pigments used for encaustic must not contain lead, arsenic or cadmium. […] The pigments should not be heated over the melting point of the wax and they should not be burnt. The pigments listed here are not safe for use in candle making. We recommend tests prior to the final application. Caution: Heated wax is a fire hazard and should never be left unattended. Wax vapors and fumes are hazardous for the health and should not be inhaled. An exhaust system should be installed to pull out wax vapors.”

My own nota bene: I do not handle lead and arsenic in the form of dried pigments but I DO use the (yellow and red) cadmium colours. In addition, the ready made pigment cakes from R&F paints DO include the cadmium colours as well as the above mentioned Naples Yellow. These are expressly advised against by Kraemer Pigmente. Since I trust Kraemer Pigmente – use these colours with caution (or rather, don’t use them). In any case be sure to install a good ventilation system in your studio and use a vapour mask  I purchased a 3M 4251+ disposable half mask and also wore a set of eye goggles. I highly recommend both! 

My palette:

  • Ultramarine blue (a cool blue)
  • Thalo blue ( a warm blue)
  • Cadmium yellow medium (a warm yellow)
  • Permanent Lemon Yellow (a cool yellow)
  • Cadmium red medium (a warm red)
  • Alizarine crimson (a cool red)
  • Viridian green
  • Venetian red (red iron oxide)
  • Raw umber (fantastic for shadows)
  • Burnt siena (great for achieving quick grounded warmth)
  • Yellow ochre (I used this for all my imprimatura’s )
  • Mars black
  • Titanium white

Dried pigments suggested from Kraemer Pigmente

Historic pigments

  • Smalt Egyptian Blue
  • Han-Blue
  • Han-Purple
  • Alba Albula
  • Red Jasper
  • Côte d’Azur Violet
  • Brown red slate
  • Jade
  • Rock Crystal
  • Fuchsite
  • Gold Ochre from Saxony
  • Burgundy Ochres
  • Spanish Red Ochre
  • Brown Earth from Otranto
  • Moroccan Ochres
  • Onyx Black
  • Obsidian Black
  • Sodalite
  • Lapis Lazuli
  • Verona Green Earth
  • Bavarian Green Earth
  • Ochres from Andalusia
  • Nero Bernino
  • Russische Green Earth  
  • Aegirine
  • Epidote
  • Green Jasper

Synthetic-organic Pigments

  • Phthalo Green Dark
  • Phthalo Green, yellowish
  • Phthalo Blue, primary
  • Phthalo Blue, Royal Blue
  • Phthalo Blue, reddish
  • Anthraquinone Blue
  • Orange DPP RA
  • Scarlet Red DPP EK
  • Red DPP BO
  • Ruby DPP-TR
  • Scarlet Red
  • CPT Scarlet Red
  • Permanent Red
  • Permanent Red FRLL
  • CPT-Red
  • Permanent Yellow light
  • Permanent Yellow medium
  • Isoindole Yellow
  • Pyramid-Yellow medium
  • Quinacridone Pink D
  • Dioxazine Violet
  • Maroon
  • Quinophthalone Orange
  • Pyranthrone Orange
  • Quinacridone Gold, red-gold
  • Alizarine Crimson Light
  • Alizarine Crimson Dark
  • Brilliant Yellow
  • Isoindolinon Yellow
  • Isoindole Yellow-Orange
  • Quinacridone Violet
  • Isoindol Orange
  • Studio Yellow
  • Studio Red

 

I just finished a series of thirteen identically sized panels executed in the encaustic technique. This was the third time in my artistic life that I have jumped into painting with melted wax.

Nils, #53, encaustic on panel. 23.5 x 13.3 cm or  9 1/4 x 5 1/4 in.

Nils, #53, encaustic on panel. 23.5 x 13.3 cm or 9 1/4 x 5 1/4 in.

Anna, #18, encaustic with collage on panel. 12.7 x 9 cm or 5 x 3.5 in.

Anna, #18, encaustic with collage on panel. 12.7 x 9 cm or 5 x 3.5 in.

The first time was back in 1978, with the Nils project. At that time I created approximately sixteen panels in encaustic, see one example here to the left. Relative to the technique, there was no internet to consult. I only had only my handbook from Reed Kay, The Painter’s Guide to Studio Methods and Materials. It contained useful and reliable information that I and others still consult to this day.

The next time was in 2011 so, post internet. At that time I quickly discovered that there was a vast amount of information and resources on encaustic now available. I located a youtube source which showed me on how to create my own ready-to-use cakes of clear medium (beeswax and melted damar resin). This would save me time during the painting process. Also, due to this general new-found popularity in the arts and crafts world, I discovered an electrified hobby pen for encaustic with ironing, drawing and painting nibs. In this way my use of the technique received a leg up (or two).

And then there is today, 2020, where my own education continues – as well as the proliferation of internet resources. Most of what you will discover with a quick Google is a collection of enthusiastic arts and crafts blog sites. I found them to be very informative but also a little superficial. Very few, if any, address the deeper complexities of using melted wax for realistic rendering. Yet since that has always been my interest I would like to address how I have tried to do that with this most recent series of panels. The subject matter is a given, the rendering of it is the challenge.

Ground

Of course, first and foremost, the main issue is the relationship between the support, the ground and the paint. The support should not bend; the ground should be absorbent to the melted wax. I use traditional chalk gesso ground on a 3 mm hardboard panel. That is standard practice. You can buy fully prepared $$ Ampersand panels in art shops but also you can create your own. I have always preferred the latter.

Underdrawing

I consulted the University of Delaware MITRA forum experts about my choice of materials for the underdrawing. They affirmed my intuitive choice of india ink but warned me from using egg tempera for the underpainting. So I used charcoal to transfer my designs and then laid them in with india ink. After the india ink was dry I used a kneaded eraser to erase all traces of the charcoal. That left me with thirteen highly graphic panels, resembling the individual panels of a comic book. But what about the underpainting? Because encaustic is such a viscous, opaque technique would an underpainting be of any help? And was it even necessary? Also, beyond the bare function of outlining would the underdrawings I had already done prove useful? I did not know.

Underpainting

A Piece of Me #53, encaustic on panel. 21 x 13.3 cm or 5 1/4 x 8 1/4 in.

A Piece of Me #53, encaustic on panel. 21 x 13.3 cm or 5 1/4 x 8 1/4 in.

So I decided to forego the underpainting. Instead I opted to cover each panel with a beginning layer of yellow ochre imprimatura. This was achieved in two steps, first by melting up some yellow ochre paint and slapping it on, then by warming up the iron covering the panel with some cheesecloth and melting it back off. That produced the effect of burning in a yellow ochre glow into the chalk gesso ground. It provided a middle-value, warm starting position, without much wax. Highlights could go in one direction, shadows in another. As the panels progressed, I learned more and more how to make use of my underdrawing. I allowed it to peep through here and there, adding a level of built-in dimensionality and graphical contrast to the shadows. I also learned how to make use of the imprimatura. In the highlights I allowed it to show through on occasion.

As the panels developed in complexity of subject matter I began to reconsider the underpainting question. This happened quite by accident. I had painted a panel with a variety of hues and values. But it was too coarse for my purposes so I decided to (gently) melt it off. I warmed up the iron and covered the panel with cheesecloth. The paint melted quickly into the cloth. Perhaps too much? Yet as I removed the cloth I saw that in the process I had created an underpainting(!). The main masses had melted into the gesso. It would now take only an additional hour or two of fresh impasto to rebuild significant highlights and shadows, add in the final linear touch ups, then I would be done. And I was – for that panel at least. You can read its full story here.

This then became a way forward for me whenever I wished to create an underpainting for more complex compositions. So, underdrawing, underpainting, not to mention collage or pre-sculpted relief can truly enhance encaustic’s ability to describe form in a visceral yet realistic way. I think it goes without saying that this type of preparatory underwork has little significance if you are interested in using encaustic for purely abstract purposes. But then again, maybe not? Show me, baby, I’m open to it. 🙂

 

 

 

Acrylics and indirect painting

September 13, 2020

I just finished a series of paintings all executed in acrylic. These panels were conceived of so as to be included within a larger project. That project consists of sixty-four panels all executed in different techniques, but which, when assembled, would create one completed image (currently, still yet to be completed). Yet when taken on its own, each panel is/was intended to function independently – aesthetically independent of any overriding visual-conceptual structure. Some might say that is a tall order. And it is, but in my experience, if the original image is well chosen, it can work out.

The subject matter for each individual panel then can be seen as either an abstract “background composition” or a piece of “deconstructed realism” (though in actual fact all sixty four panels are pieces of deconstructed reality). Additionally, depending on the technique used and the preparation of its substrate, each panel lends itself to a coarser or more refined approach. In a sense, there was nothing to be done about either as they were my givens to myself: the rules of the game, so to speak.

The abstract compositions then were relatively easy: lines, shapes, forms, textures, hue and value contrasts. I could riff off any given composition with relative freedom. And I did. The (deconstructed) realism ones were more difficult because there were obvious body parts referring to a reality for which the story was (as yet) unknown. So these details were (potentially) more significant.

With acrylics it was relatively easy to switch back and forth between a coarse, impasto approach (using the painting knife and/or a coarsely textured sponge) and a refined, detailed approach using a brush or maybe a fine-celled sponge. In fact, many panels combined both. Nevertheless, what I want to speak of here is the degree to which the underwork, that is, the underdrawing, underpainting and impasto can prepare the panel for a quick, spontaneous, alla-prima final painting session. This is entirely possible in acrylics – just as it is in oils – though of course it all proceeds more quickly in acrylics. If you do your homework you already know where you are going, so the final session may take an hour or two at the most(!). The preparation work itself might be slow and laborious so that the final session need not.

A Piece of Me #44, acrylic over collage on panel.

A Piece of Me #44, acrylic over collage on panel.

There were panels where the painting proceeded quickly and spontaneously in a forward developing motion. I could build upon my structure and leave many elements exposed in the process, creating more visual and structural depth. The shading in the floor tiles on panel #24 is a case in point. The shadows on my face and hair in panel #04 is another. The collage,  underdrawing and imprimatura in panel #44 illustrated here to the left (with link) is yet another example of how much the underwork can contribute to a final painting – again, when you know where you are going.

A Piece of Me #39, acrylic on panel.

A Piece of Me #39, acrylic on panel.

There were times however, during the process of over painting when I needed to reclaim that preparational understructure. I have come to call this process “painting backwards”. This means, reclaiming your underwork particularly in the quarter tones and highlight areas. There are a few panels where I used this extensively. Normally I use a small bright bristle brush to reclaim some detail or highlight that has become obfuscated by a larger, wider brush stroke. For example, I used my small bright bristle brush to reclaim the grouting lines in panel #39, see image with link to the left. I used the same technique on the tile work in panel #54. When I paint with oil I have used turpentine as my solvent, but in this acrylic series I used water and, because acrylic dries so fast, I had to work quickly.

All this work and paint manipulation applies to the recognition that painting is essentially about creating an illusion. An illusory world to which you are inviting the viewer to participate in. It may be realistic, it may not, but mostly you are creating a sensory space/place for the viewer to wander in with their own gevoeslmatig (feeling-sense) consciousness, disconnected from the world of concepts. When you can create this illusion with a minimum of means, a sense of freshness arises. In addition, when you operate through layers, the original luminosity of the substrate is able to show through delightfully in places – even in the shadows(!). That luminosity is so much more pleasing that any amount of opaque white you can ever slap back on. For this reason, I have become an advocate for an indirect technique and I’m pleased to see how well acrylics can adapt itself to it.

 

Underdrawing for acrylic

August 24, 2020

Pen and ink Underdrawing for A Piece of Me #59

Pen and ink Underdrawing for A Piece of Me #59

I am currently involved in a project which calls for thirteen panels to be executed in acrylic according to a pre conceived design. Thus for starters I wanted to transfer the basic elements of the design to each panel. Since I haven’t used the medium for about forty years I had to search around a bit to see how best to do that.

To my surprise I did not find a lot of information online about creating an underdrawing for painting in acrylic. Most information I found concerned transfer of the design and then getting rid of the drawing as soon as possible. That’s not what I wanted. I want the underdrawing itself to play a role in the final painting – and not just in a paint-by-number, outline kind of way. What I sense (but don’t know) is that painting indirectly, which makes use of underdrawings in a foundational and yet implicit way, has gone somewhat out of vogue. Thus the information I found only partially addressed my interest.

Anyway, the first important thing I did find was to avoid traditional shellac based india ink. This is because the subsequent acrylic paint would act as a solvent to the shellac and (at least partially) dissolve any careful design. Solving that problem was relatively easy as there were acrylic based black inks readily available at my local art supply store. I dipped a pen nib into the ink and proceeded to lay in basic elements of the designs. The pen and ink approach proved to be especially useful for the abstract composition parts of the series. There is an illustration of one of these above, left.

Underdrawing for A Piece of Me #14 in pencil.

Underdrawing for A Piece of Me #14 in pencil. (before the smear campaign)

However I also had some more complex designs that required more detail and subtle changes of gradation than the pen and ink method allows for so I switched to pencil drawings – mostly because I was most comfortable with that medium. Not a good idea. There had been information online warning about the use of a graphite pencil, but a few artists recommended spraying the completed underdrawing with an intervening level of fixative before beginning to paint. So I tried that. But it didn’t work. My softly detailed underdrawing quickly smeared into my first coat of imprimatur. Thus I definitely do not recommend using pencil for your underdrawings in acrylic (or oils).

Reclaimed underdrawing in acrylic ink wash with pen and ink touch ups for A Piece of Me #14

Reclaimed underdrawing in acrylic ink wash (with pen and ink touch ups) for A Piece of Me #14

What I do recommend is transferring your design using vine charcoal, then drawing it in either with a pen nib or painting it in with a brush, or a combination of the both. Then, after the basics of the design have been created and the acrylic ink has dried, go over the entire surface with a kneaded eraser to get rid of all traces of charcoal. At that point you will have an indelible black and white underdrawing that can be used in whatever way you choose for further levels of acrylic paint.

I just finished creating a series of panels using the mixed technique. It’s an indirect method of painting that works best when you already have a clear design in mind: you know where the lights and the darks will be; and you have a pretty good idea about your placement of chromatic masses. Depicting something realistic, or surrealistic, then is usually its best application.

Speaking very, very generally, because realism or representational art (in terms of subject matter) has been out of fashion for a century or so, so has interest in the techniques best suited to it. That is, an indirect technique has not been valued as highly as an alla prima one. Artistic expression then has been seen (again for the most part) as the process of allowing the artist’s unconscious mind to freely roam, expressing itself spontaneously through lines, shapes and colours – with as little conscious-mind interference as possible. Certainly, it may bounce off externals of self and other, but abstraction is the aim. The artist then functions as a midwife, through which process one hopes to create something universal and beautiful. If not beautiful, then at least shocking in an insightful way. That’s modern/contemporary art.

But because of the valuation for this alla prima, zen-like spontaniety, the mixed technique as an indirect method of painting has been out of vogue. In a world of deconstructed subject matter, artistic expression too has become deracinated. Techniques developed over centuries for building up layers of beauty have either been largely forgotten, thrown onto the trash heap, or preserved by conservators and reactionary geeks like myself. In that sense, it’s been difficult for me to learn about them, though internet forums these days have been very helpful. All in all, I have had more failures than successes as I’ve gone back to the drawing board again and again, reinventing the wheel. One success though, has been what I call “painting backwards”. It’s a process whereby the underlying layers of substrate or underpainting are used to reclaim the highlights and quarter tones – instead of slapping white pigment back in on top.

Final layer of paint on the Vaardijk. Note the highlights of the green tree in the foreground, right and the building roofs on the right side of the canal. They are highlights reclaimed through painting backwards and/or light glazes.The highlights of the white building foreground, left, are a more impasto lead white.

Final layer of paint on the Vaardijk. Note the highlights of the green tree in the foreground, right and the building roofs on the right side of the canal. They are highlights reclaimed through painting backwards and/or light glazes.The highlights of the white building foreground, left, are a more impasto lead white.

So to return to my recent experiments in indirect painting. The subject matter of the panel on the left was based on a (realistic) black and white study of my own, while the panel on the right, below, was based on cut up pieces of a photograph for the A Piece of Me project. In both cases, because I already knew where I was going, I could develop the image: first in black and white (using india ink); then through a chromatic underpainting (in egg tempera). These under layers served as guides for later levels but they also assisted in reclaiming the highlights during the painting process.

This is one of the more delicious panels created through the mixed technique. The luminosity of the linen jacket was a pure delight to discover. This was possible by rediscovering the forms I had already supplied as suggestions. The oil level created mass.

This is one of the more delicious panels created through the mixed technique. The luminosity of the linen jacket was a pure delight to discover. This was possible by rediscovering the forms I had already supplied as suggestions. The oil level created mass.

I consistently asked myself: What is the difference between a white or yellowish highlight created with a full-on coarse impasto applied alla prima and a highlight rediscovered through layers of nuanced translucence? Huge! Both have their roles to play in the grand scheme of things although I frankly admit my passion for the latter. The A Piece of Me mixed media project mentioned above then is envisioned not only as a mixture of different media but also a mixture of approach, that is, some will be executed all prima and others indirect. The proof, I expect, will be in the visual pudding.

A Piece of Me #1, egg tempera on panel.

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

Most of the information on egg tempera that I’ve posted on this blog thus far has referred to my use of egg tempera as an underpainting for oils. However in my most recent multi media project I’ve created a series of images painted exclusively in egg tempera, as a stand alone painting technique. This is the first time in about forty years that I have done this. So I have been both in and out of my comfort zone: there was familiarity but not mastery.

Thus I tried to create fully saturated, full value-range paintings, which in this medium can be challenging. Due to the pre-established nature of my subject matter (see link above for an explanation of the overall project), composition played less of a role: my challenge was simply to create a unified field of paint that was aesthetically pleasing. Here below are a few of the things I learned in the process:

  • 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 began each panel with a well established black and white underdrawing. Often this meant creating a detailed value study, beautiful in itself, but which also contained enough meaningful information for the three dimensional, coloured forms to come. I began by executing these studies in silverpoint but for technical reasons, which you can read about here, I had to shift washes of india ink. For this I used the brush – not the pen nib – since I felt the pen nib would create too harsh a graphical line for this incredibly subtle medium.

  • I applied my egg tempera in many very light, successive washes. I especially wish to thank the contemporary egg tempera artist, Koo Schadler, for her painting insights. They helped me to improve my use of the technique in many different ways.
  • Of especial help was her suggestion to use fine celled cosmetic sponges for my glazes. They helped me to achieve unified fields of wash which are otherwise difficult to achieve in this fast drying medium.
  • I avoided mixing colors. All hues in the paintings (well, almost all) were achieved by superimposing layers of wash in order to achieve any particular colour. This honors the chromatic purity of each pigment as well as allows light to interpenetrate any nuanced mix of color. Strange as it might seem, even though it’s time consuming, in another way it’s also simpler, as this kind of “glazing” helped to create chromatically unified paintings.
  • Additionally, and as a related point, I tried to paint with as limited a palette as possible. I kept a list of the pigments I had used on the back of each panel. I expect this to be helpful information as I move into other panels with other media to describe similar subject matter.
  • Perhaps the most important understanding came in my own understanding about “light” and “white”. While many artists may advocate the mixture of white pigment (either zinc or titanium) with tempered paints – and I did experiment with that on some of these panels – I ultimately had to follow my own intuition and avoid the addition of white pigment whenever possible. This meant working up my mid tones slowly, yet fully, through a series of washes, many of which were partially translucent. As the painting gained in hue and saturation, I always tried to kept my brightest highlights clear of paint. When you paint with an indirect method like this, this is possible. It is also possible (another hat tip to Koo Schadler) because you can add significant amounts of water to your egg tempera paint without harming its internal integrity. This meant that the white of the gesso ground always served as my source of light. The difference between the intrinsically emanating light-beauty of the gesso ground to the dead weight of adding white pigment back in at some later stage is huge. So I avoid it whenever possible.
  • A full view of all thirteen panels is available here.

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.

silverpoint with india ink

silverpoint with india ink

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. And, since I was interested in creating landscapes where describing distance is an intrinsic factor, I began implementing india ink cross-hatching to specific dark value areas of my foreground. This enhanced the contrast. 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 ink (or later diluted oil paint). It was fast, easy, cheap and versatile. Using it 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 a fluid medium 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. OK, got it.

India ink underdrawing after erasing the silverpoint.

So 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. Thus in the end, the silverpoint drawings that I did 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.

Self portrait in Casablanca

Self portrait in Casablanca outside of the Hasan II mosque.

Last week I finished the preparation of 64 identically sized panels (21 x 13.3 cm or 8 1/4 x 5 1/4 in.) for a new project. It consists of cutting up a full length photograph (which happens to be a self-portrait, see left) into 64 identically sized pieces and then painting each piece differently, so in a different medium. Since there are not 64 different mediums, in effect, I’ve reduced my approach to five: egg tempera, encaustic, the mixed technique, oils and acrylics. Preparation-wise then, each medium receives the ground appropriate to it: egg tempera receives chalk gesso; encaustic and mixed technique, ditto; while oils receive an oil ground; and acrylics, acrylic gesso. Additionally each panel receives a pre-treatment (or not) thus: plain wood (so, no treatment); linen (glued on, using rabbit-skin glue); collage (glued on, again using rabbit-skin glue); pre-textured sculpting (I used acrylic modeling paste for the acrylic and oil panels while I experimented with pastiglia for the egg tempera, encaustic and mixed technique panels). Needless to say such an approach presents a bit of a logistical nightmare but excel spreadsheets can, indeed, work miracles.

Nils, final full-sized assembled painting. 6‘ 02” x 3‘ 6” or 188 x 107 cm

Nils, 1978, final full-sized assembled painting. 6‘ 02” x 3‘ 6” or 188 x 107 cm

Anyway, instead of this appearing to be a new direction, actually, it’s not. It’s a return to the kind of work I was doing approximately forty years ago, see “Nils” right. You can read more about that painting project here. I also did a few other smaller pieces at that time trying out that same approach and I briefly dabbled with it again (as an approach) in 2011. But after stumbling upon an appropriate photograph earlier this year, I’m drawn to return to it now with a deeper understanding of many things. So, here we go. I love how the compositions you receive with this approach are completely arbitrary and spontaneous. The challenge, as always, is to create a sensorial unity, something beautiful and interesting in its own right individually and of course, in the final assembled result.