Pieces of Me #36, silverpoint underdrawing on toned ground tightened with acrylic

Pieces of Me #36, silverpoint underdrawing on toned ground tightened with acrylic

After a long hiatus (at least from posting here) I’ve got another batch of silverpoint underdrawings to publish. These were created during our recent trip to California – in my new studio there. The new studio is in our garage, so besides the new working-space, I envision that I will have more room to create larger pieces there (who needs cars anyway?). My current working-space here in Belgium exists in a long rear hallway to the house. It measures about 4 x 10 feet but since Euro-compression-design rules the day I have been able to pack many useful features into it. Still. it’s cramped.

Pieces of Me #58, silverpoint underdrawing over toned ground tightened with acrylic

Pieces of Me #58, silverpoint underdrawing over toned ground tightened with acrylic

When I began this project I knew of course that the silverpoint pencil nib is quite restrictive, so the challenge in these panels was how to render various highly textured, amorphous and abstract shapes with a very fine, low in value line. Mostly impossible. For many of these compositions then, if I were to use just silverpoint, I’d have only very flat uninteresting underdrawings to offer. But since they are executed on a toned ground, the addition of the while highlights (using tubes of titanium white acrylic) allows for greater manipulations. Washes quickly establish the tonality, texture and gesture – things which are otherwise very difficult to achieve in silverpoint alone.

Pieces of Me #38, silverpoint underdrawing over toned ground hightened with white

Pieces of Me #38, silverpoint underdrawing over toned ground hightened with white

The silverpoint then establishes the basics of the design and hints toward the darker values, while the white moves the image forward. I enlisted the help not only of brushes but also sponges, hands and fingers. And since each panel is about the size of a standard book, I could rotate the panel to get my washes to drip in whatever direction I needed. Nice. That’s really hard to do with a big panel or canvas. 😉

Pieces of Me #57, silverpoint underdrawing on toned ground tightened with white

Pieces of Me #57, silverpoint underdrawing on toned ground tightened with white

All in all I created fourteen panels during this recent time. They are still resting in their little beds in California, however I was able to take some photographs of them before leaving. I’m hoping to put the whole series together there during our next trip, where I will have enough space in that garage to throw some paint at the final assemblage. As ever, we’ll see.

Panel #10. Silverpoint underdrawing over tinted gesso, highlighted with white. 13.3 cm x 21 cm, or 5 1/4 x 8 1/4 in.

Panel #10. Silverpoint underdrawing over tinted gesso, highlighted with white. 13.3 cm x 21 cm, or 5 1/4 x 8 1/4 in.

I’ve been doing some underdrawings for a new project. It will be a different approach to the same image/subject matter as the “A Piece of Me” project, completed in December 2020.

Panel #01. Silverpoint underdrawing over tinted gesso, highlighted with white. 13.3 cm x 21 cm, or 5 1/4 x 8 1/4 in.

Panel #01. Silverpoint underdrawing over tinted gesso, highlighted with white. 13.3 cm x 21 cm, or 5 1/4 x 8 1/4 in.

However, instead of being executed in a full textural and chromatic range this one will be untextured,  monochromatic and ghosted back. It will be done in silverpoint on acrylic and overpainted (in acrylic or oil, TBD) on sixty four panels.

Illustrated here is a selection of some of the individual panels I’ve created so far, along with some of my notes. 1) Using silver point means that I can never reach a rich dark value (SP is not india ink!). So that’s fantastic and exactly what I’m looking for. 2) In addition, since I’m creating them on already tinted grounds, the darkest values provide less contrast than if I were starting from a white ground. Again, excellent! 3) The tinted ground itself establishes a middle value and allows me to lay in white washes for the highlights. 4) Inevitably, the value range is compressed and subtlety reigns. Nice. That’s how I like it.

Panel #02. Silverpoint underdrawing over tinted gesso, highlighted with white. 13.3 cm x 21 cm, or 5 1/4 x 8 1/4 in.

Panel #02. Silverpoint underdrawing over tinted gesso, highlighted with white. 13.3 cm x 21 cm, or 5 1/4 x 8 1/4 in.

Also, even though these are intended as underdrawings I can already see that, when the composition warrants it, a few of them are or will be worthy of individual display – though I’m not sure how I’ll handle that. Should I create them (only) for integration into the final piece? Or should I create some for appreciating in isolation (only)? It’s a great problem to have which, for the moment, I don’t have to solve. I can simply create the little panels, fall in love and see where it all goes

The winning test panel. Silverpoint over tinted acrylic gesso, treated with GOLDEN Pastel Ground, highlighted with acrylic titanium white. 13.3 cm x 21 cm, or 5 1/4 x 8 1/4 in.

The winning test panel. Silverpoint over tinted acrylic gesso, treated with GOLDEN Pastel Ground, highlighted with acrylic titanium white. 13.3 cm x 21 cm, or 5 1/4 x 8 1/4 in.

I’ve been doing a number of tests in preparation for an upcoming project. It will consist of a series of uniformly sized HDF panels prepared with a tinted ground upon which I intend to create images executed in silverpoint. These silverpoint images will be touched up with white (probably gouache). Since silverpoint does not create a strong dark line (that’s part of its beauty) I wanted to create tinted grounds that were not too dark, say, between a 10 – 20% grey value. The silverpointed strokes could softly emerge from this but never become stronger than a 40-50% value. Likewise the highlights could softly arise in the opposite direction, creating a nuanced chiaroscuro effect. Further, I imagined the hue of the background to be a terre verte. Since I planned to create a series of these panels whose grounds should be uniform I wanted to create a tint which could be reproducible across the whole series.

Relative to the ground itself, silverpoint requires a drawing surface prepared with a significant amount of “tooth” to catch the silver of the stylus. The substrate for that ground can be flexible or inflexible. The grounds for flexible substrates, such as paper or cloth, then need to create this tooth while also remaining somewhat flexible. Such grounds tend to be acrylic based (though this rule is, in itself, not inflexible). The grounds for inflexible substrates possess more latitude. They can be acrylic or traditional (based on rabbit skin glue), these latter tend to be more brittle. In the case of this project, since I had already chosen HDF, I had a range of media to choose from.

Additionally, contrary to what the word “tooth” might seem to imply, it does not so much refer to the texture of the ground as it does to its hardness. Because the silver (or any metal point) creates its mark by leaving tiny deposits of metal, the hardness of the pigment filler suspended in that ground is what provides this tooth. The carrier might be acrylic or rabbit skin glue while for the filler an array of white pigment particles may be used. These may include mixtures of chalk whiting (calcium carbonate), titanium white and/or zinc white. After it dries, the ground may be polished smooth or left with a bit of texture – artist’s choice. Experience quickly demonstrates that small, meditative motions of the stylus create soft, almost indelible lines whose value intensity increases only with repetition – not pressure.

At the outset of this project then, I had a few questions to answer:

  • Since I already knew I would be using an inflexible substrate, should I use an acrylic based carrier or a traditional rabbit skin glue for my gesso? In theory, both might be appropriate.
  • If acrylic, how should I introduce my tint? Terre verte in dry pigment form is known to be chemically incompatible with acrylics, so mixing up a combination of other pigments in an aqueous dispersion would be my best option.
  • Alternatively, if I choose RSG as my carrier how do I introduce the tint? From a technical point of view, terre verte could be added to the dry pigment filler base of my RSG ground. However because it has such a low tinting index and its hue varies greatly from supplier to supplier, it’s not a good choice. An aqueous dispersion of high tinting dry pigments might be necessary here too.
  • Whatever medium I choose, along with whatever tinting mechanism, its hue should be reproducible.

I began creating a number of test panels using different carriers and differing tinting solutions. After much experimentation I discovered:

  • I experimented with adding a few blobs of tube acrylic “terre verte” to my acrylic gesso. It worked well enough for one panel but would clearly be difficult to calibrate chromatically across a large series. Also, I thought it would be a more expensive.
  • By combining small but precisely measured amounts of cadmium yellow, burnt sienna, mars black and viridian I could grind up a hue that I liked. I added small amounts of distilled water until I had a paste which could be further diluted into a well-dispersed yet concentrated tinting solution.
  • This hue could be reproducible across the series since I had not only maintained records of my dry pigment tints but also how much gesso base I had used (either various GOLDENS acrylic gessoes or various RSG recipes). In this way I knew how to ultimately manage my white component.
  • Finally, the winner was an acrylic combination. See above, left. Though I truly prefer the haptic experience of a traditional RSG gesso for silverpoint, in this case acrylics won out. My reasons were: facility, it’s easy to use, for when you are planning on creating sixty four panels, this matters (RSG recipes can be more finicky); uniformity, the tinted, sanded surface of the acrylic ground was uniform (this was not always the case with my RSG gessoes); value, the silverpoint line was not too dark on the acrylic ground (surprisingly, the RSG/zinc white ground created a darkest line of all); line clarity/or not, a transparent coat of GOLDENS Pastel Ground applied onto the acrylic ground turned the surface texture into a rough sandpaper. In turn this made my silverpoint strokes a whispy sfumato, whereas the baby butt-smoothness of the burnished RSG grounds created fine, strong, clear lines (not what I was looking for in this project). Highlighting, washes of white gouache were well received on the acrylic ground and easily manipulated (because they were in an aqueous solution, this was not the case with the water-permeable RSG grounds). However, ultimately I opted for doing my highlights in (titanium white) acrylic since in the long run it requires less protection. Versatility, since I am beginning to imagine further (semi-translucent) coats of paint over the whole series after they are completed and fully assembled, the robust versatility of the acrylic medium seems to be the best choice.

It can sometimes seem like a lot of extra effort to do your homework like this, but it’s worse to create a whole project only to find that the materials you use don’t let you do whatever it is that you envision.

Besides, I think you have to enjoy creating mud-pies. 😉

 

 

Anna Front after a few small repairs and cleaning.

Anna Front after a few small repairs and cleaning.

Anna, Back, unretouched underpainting.

Anna, Back, unretouched underpainting.

Sometime in mid January I picked up a painting that had languished in storage for almost ten years. It was headed for the dump for three main reasons.

One, both the front and back of the painting had become chipped and damaged – mostly due to poor storage conditions. I began to clean and repair it. The front side (see linked image to the left) had already been varnished so it responded well. The back side however, which had only received an underpainting of egg tempera had been less protected. It required more extensive cleaning but also since it was just an underpainting, subsequent layers of paint might just mask the worst offenders? I hoped for a resuscitation.

Two, because it was a two sided painting (consisting of twenty five individual panels), it lacked a cohesive structure. This made viewing both sides impossible. So I set to work glueing and framing Anna. Which I describe here. Surprisingly, through that glueing I was able to create something that was now a unified substrate, and then through framing, I now had an elegant way to display it in. My hopes rose yet again.

Anna Back, with her first level of grouting.

Anna Back, with her first level of grouting.

Three, because the original collection of panels had lacked that unified substrate, completing the back side (as I had envisioned it) was impossible. Now after glueing the small panels together I had what I needed. However, the grid pattern – which was clearly visible on the front side – and didn’t bother me at all there – was on the backside a technical hindrance. I didn’t want any paint/glaze seeping through the cracks. So I began to fill in the grid-gaps on the back side (with spackle). See image to the left. Then I touched up that spackle with egg tempera to match the existing underpainting. After sealing the ET with shellac, I reapplied some additional spackle and repeated my steps. Clearly, the patient was in intensive care.

Anna Back after two layers of a white lead scumble.

Anna Back after two layers of a white lead scumble.

After everything had dried, I put on a coat of a diluted lead white ground. Its purpose was to ghost back and unify the image. The chalk gesso ground was very thirsty, especially in the grouted places, so I applied a coat of retouch varnish. Subsequently, I applied a second coat of white lead. Slowly my lady of the mirror became a luscious milky white maid, peering through her gridded dream. Now all that was left was the final blue glaze.

Anna Back. Oil on panels. 44.5 63.5 cm or 17.5 x 25 in.

Anna Back. Oil on panels. 44.5 63.5 cm or 17.5 x 25 in.

When I felt the white ground/scumble was thoroughly dry and evenly receptive to further paint manipulations, I mixed up some ultramarine blue with glazing medium, took a deep breath and let loose. It took about 45 minutes to complete the painting. You can read about the final painting of the back via its linked image on the left.

 

Both sides now

February 27, 2021

Interstate 90, Front. New Haven, Connecticut. 1980. Oil on panel. Approx: 12 x 16 in or 30 x 40 cm.

Interstate 90, Front. Somewhere around New Haven, Connecticut. 1980. Oil on panel. Approx: 12 x 16 in or 30 x 40 cm.

Interstate 90, Back. Somewhere around Old Saybrook, Connecticut? 1980. Oil on panel. Approx: 12 x 16 or 30 x 40 cm.

Interstate 90, Back. Somewhere around Old Saybrook, Connecticut. 1980. Oil on panel. Approx: 12 x 16 or 30 x 40 cm.

I’ve been attracted to creating paintings on both sides of a panel for a long time.

The idea to do so first occurred to me back in the late 70’s when I began painting on panels instead of the stretched canvas I had trained on. Illustrated here left and right is a highway scene from Connecticut, 1980. One view was straight on photo-realism (see above, left), while the back side was a playful attempt to break up an alternate yet related highway image by eliminating one section of a photograph, enlarging it and re-inserting (see right).

But this two-sided approach doesn’t occur to you if you paint exclusively on canvas. For, ever since the sixteenth century artists have steadily moved away from panels towards canvas. There are good reasons for this: canvas is lighter and more flexible than wood; it’s much easier to create (and store) large scale works; technically it’s less challenging; plus, the advent of acrylic paints and acrylic gesso in the 1950’s put the hammer in the coffin. So why bother? Well, I can only say that for me it’s always been a certain kind of (stiff-necked) tactile sensibility. I stick with what I can relate to, even as I have chalked up self-inflicted wounds.

View of the Predijkherrenrij, Front, Bruges, Belgium. 2010. Oil on panel 44 x 54 cm.

View of the Predijkherrenrij, Front, Bruges, Belgium. 2010. Oil on panel 44 x 54 cm.

View of the Predijkherrenrij, Back, Bruges, Belgium. 2010. Oil on panel 44 x 59 cm. or 17 1/4 x 23 1/4 in.

View of the Predijkherrenrij, Back, Bruges, Belgium. 2010. Oil on panel 44 x 59 cm. or 17 1/4 x 23 1/4 in.

Thus, soon after I returned to painting in 2003, I began to imagine the resurrection of the double sided painting approach, with an integrated view. At that time I created a view of the Predijkherrenrij in Bruges near to our apartment. I painted one side of a panel fully realistic and the back side fully abstract. However, in the preparation phase I had already created ask a carpenter to give it a rotating inner core. This would allow for four different viewing options. See the two linked views illustrated here, left and right.

Anna Front after a few small repairs and cleaning.

Anna Front after a few small repairs and cleaning.

Anna Back. Oil on panels. 44.5 63.5 cm or 17.5 x 25 in.

Anna Back. Oil on panels. 44.5 63.5 cm or 17.5 x 25 in.

When you paint on a wooden panel, you prime the back side as well. Initially you may do this for archival reasons since preparing both sides seals the panel from moisture. You’ll have less chance of it warping in the future. Then you also quickly realise that it’s equally viable as a painting surface(!). If you visit museums displaying works from a fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, you can see that it was often the case that both sides of the panel were painted then, too. Of course, foldable altar pieces were done that way. It was part of the original concept. You might occasionally find it in portraits, too. For example, an artist might have used the back side to experiment with trompe-l’œil effects. However, since it’s not an option intrinsic to a stretched canvas, as an approach, it’s all but lost.

Now I have recently completed a third front and back piece. The front side was completed in 2011.  See linked image to the left. However, due to many technical reasons which I have documented here and here, the back side was not completed until March of 2021. See linked image on the right. No one in their right mind would conceive of the substrate for a painting – which itself is intended to express an essential unity – to consist of twenty five separate panels. Physically, it’s a contradiction in terms. Yet that is precisely what this project consisted of(!). Despite the fact that it has finally come to a successful fruition I don’t think I’ll try it again (ever). There must be easier ways to do this. 😉

Glueing and Framing Anna

February 16, 2021

Anna, Front, 2011. A multi media project. Newly framed: 50 x 70 cm or 19.6 x 27.5 in

Anna, Front, 2011. A multi media project. Newly framed: 50 x 70 cm or 19.6 x 27.5 in

About ten years ago I created a multi-media painting, consisting of twenty-five identically sized wood panels which, when assembled together, created one image. See linked image to the left.

The whole project was intended as a double-sided painting, so the panel backs were painted at the same time as well. How to display or hang something like that? Well, way back in the day when I had first conceived of such a project, I had a carpenter drill a hole through the length of each panel so that five panels could be assembled vertically on each of five dowels and the dowels could then be embedded into a frame, top and bottom. This would result in a five by five grid which, at least theoretically, would allow each panel to rotate front to back resulting in an ever changing painting. That, at least, was the theory.

In practice that turned out to be almost impossible. The columns created by the dowels swayed with the weight of the panels on them: they were too flexible. Also, creating a strong and stable frame for inserting the dowels at exact but slightly varying intervals (due to the different textures) along the horizontal supports top and bottom was way beyond my carpenter’s pay grade. Still I tried it out and though the result was very coarse, it worked well enough as a beta version. However, by implementing that structure, I discovered that the panels themselves could get damaged by rotating and more importantly, though it had seemed like a good idea, actually, it added little aesthetic value. So, ditch or punt? I was ready to take it all to the dump. I really was. There were so many reasons to bail. 

But then I wondered: would be possible to glue it all together? Would it, could it ever be strong enough? And could I (finally) construct an elegant enough frame that would be able to hold it? I wanted to try even if only to complete the painting on the back side, which, in my vision, had always required the fully assembled group of panels in order to paint them with a unifying scumble (or two). 

Anna, in her popsicle phase.

Anna, in her popsicle phase.

So, after repairing some chips on the fronts I began sanding the sides thinking that wood to wood contact should give the glue adhesive its best chance. I then constructed some U-shaped wooden casings for the sides, top and bottom. Eventually, these would be used to hold the painting in place within a larger, hardwood frame, but could also be used now as braces to insure alignment during the glueing process. I arranged the first five panels along one dowel and starting glueing top to bottom, cross-grain to cross-grain. That went quite well. I placed the wooden casing along both sides of the panels so that they could lay flat above and below one another as they dried. I ended up with five solid columns of five panels each. As they lay side by side the wooden dowels stuck out top and bottom making the columns look like a popsicle sticks. See the photograph above, right. 

Anna, secured with straps during the final glueing phase.

Anna, secured with straps during the final glueing phase.

I drilled holes in the shorter wooden casings to assist in holding the dowels (and therefore the panels) in place during the longitudinal gluing process. Then, after quickly glueing each column side to side and inserting the dowels into their bracings, I placed protective cloths and hardwood boards, above and below, and strapped buckles across the width to create the sideways pressure needed for a good adhesive contact. At this point the patient was completely mummified. See photo to the left. Above the mummy you can see the longitudinal casings sitting on a shelf. They are lined with white foam tape for protection of the painting in its casing. I gave the patient a good 24 hours to dry. 

Anna, Back, the egg tempera underpainting in its new frame.

Anna, Back, the egg tempera underpainting in its new frame.

The next day the final result was one solid piece (!). Hooray! The painting could then be inserted into the wooden channels mentioned above. They in turn were attached to the inner sides of a simple hardwood frame. It screwed together along its length, top and bottom, allowing for easy access when and if need be.

The image at the top of this post shows the front side of the painting in its new frame while the image here to the right displays the back side (with its original underpainting from 2011). Now when all my egg tempera touch-ups to the back side have cured I intend to finally cover the back with those semi-transparent scumbles mentioned above. I’ll update my blogs when that happens.

I just finished writing about the technical issues I had wanted to address before painting began of the individual panels in the “A Piece of Me” multimedia project. You can read that post here. Yet in addition to all those individual panel choices, I also had to make some decisions later about the backing board for the final assembly. That’s the subject of this post.

How the panels looked from the backside.

How the panels looked from the backside.

Just yesterday I placed the last panel in position for the multimedia project “A Piece of Me”. This project consisted of an assemblage of sixty four identically sized panels which, when assembled, created one unified image. Since the original image was a (realistic) photograph, I called it – for want of a better term – Deconstructed Realism. Here on these blog pages I’ve documented various technical issues I’ve had along the way. Also on my companion site I’ve documented the paintings themselves (see link above). Both of these sets of pages were notes on the piecemeal elements. However, a technical overview of the whole project is still needed. That’s the purpose of this post (and the following one).

The back bracing of a panel with its frame glued into place.

The back bracing of a panel with its frame glued into place.

To begin: after I had conceived of this project my first question was was what sort of (hard) board should I use as my substrate? The last time I had created such a project (some forty years ago) I was gifted various hardwood panels and a skill saw to cut them down. At the time it worked out great but the combined weight of sixty four hardwood panels along with the weight of a sturdy, one inch thick plywood backing board made for a very unwieldy piece of art. Additionally, there was the question of creating a frame – on not? Storage, too, was a problem to solve. So there was need for improvement over the pervious precedent.

This time I decided to use 3 mm (1/8″) plywood HDF. I had the hardware store cut it to my exact size. Then because this substrate was so thin, during the prep stage I treated both sides with a number of ground coats of chalk (or acrylic) gesso (to keep it from warping). I also glued some cross bracing on the back side (see image above and to the left). This helped to minimise warping as well as offering me a convenient handhold during the painting process.So far, so good.

Yet I also wanted to visualise how the panels would look when mounted – either as individual panels or in the full assemblage. That took a few more steps.

I bought some three dimensional pieces of hardwood (teak?) that measured about 2 1/2 meters in length with a thickness of 9mm x 13 mm. I cut them into 128 pieces (2x) for the panel lengths and 128 pieces (2x) for the panel widths. I glued the long sides first and then the short. This left me with an attractive frame for each panel. I’m no carpenter but for myself and my purposes, this was good enough. See above, right.

The back side of a finished panel with the backing plate screwed into place.

The back side of a finished panel with the backing plate screwed into place.

Bird's eye view of a finished panel from the back side. Note the painted edge.

Bird’s eye view of a finished panel from the back side. Note the painted edge.

The final step entailed screwing a backing plate onto the cross-bracing so that there would be something which was flush with the frame edges but which could be used to tape velcro to. In addition I drilled two holes in these small backing plates, above the velcro, to allow for a thin wire that could accommodate the hanging of each individual panel – as a viewing installation alternative. (See image, below left.) After I had finished my test piece it weighed approximately 200 grams. Nice, much lighter than the hardwood panels of forty years ago. This is going to work.

So about one year and one half later, after completing the painting of the individual panels it took me about a month to frame each one. It then took another few weeks to install the individual backing plates. Because the panels had been gessoed on the edges, I was able to paint the edges, too, as I worked along. This seamlessly created a nice finished edge: a painted edge in contrast to a hardwood frame. (See the bird’s eye view of the backside of a completed panel below, right.) I had to work carefully to avoid damage to the front sides during all these processes and was lucky that only one panel sustained a little damage. I’ll try to renovate that one, but if not, I will have to repaint it. Not a bad batting average for a novice carpenter.

Next up, notes on the final backing board to “A Piece of Me”.

 

 

Underdrawing, why bother?

October 27, 2020

Many years ago, when I lived in California and spent my time roving the landscape, I loved creating en plein air paintings, out there in the field, hugely ignorant about the role the underdrawing could play – but always curious. Out I would go, usually with a little thalo blue tempered with an egg yolk, to sketch in the forms I hoped to capture onto my chalk gessoed panel (never painted on canvas, as panels had irretrievably won me over early on). Thus even that starting sketch would take some time to dry, but worked well enough, since I lived in close proximity to my subject matter and California summers were hot and dry.

Fast forward some forty years and I still find myself refining the role the underdrawing plays. All this research has been self-taught, supplemented of course by the masters (the museums and the manuals). And since I no longer live in California, I no longer have the luxury of painting en plain air. Here in Northern Europe the summers can be divine – but fleeting. So I quickly reverted to drawing value studies on site that could later be used to create paintings on in the studio. This value study then, as potential underdrawing, became foundational for the future painting. During this phase I used silverpoint for the most part, sometimes enhanced with india ink. Here is a recent example of this approach.

A Piece of Me #08, encaustic on panel, notice how the underdrawing comes through, especially in the fine filigree architectural detail.

A Piece of Me #08, encaustic on panel, notice how the underdrawing comes through, especially in the fine filigree architectural detail.

The india ink underdrawing for A Piece of Me #08, rendered in pen and wash.

The india ink underdrawing for A Piece of Me #08, rendered in pen and wash.

All this brings me to my current project of creating 64 paintings (in different media) based on cut up sections of one original photograph. For lack of a better term, I call it “deconstructed realism”. Each section of this photograph then possesses an arbitrary layout, which when rendered in black and white, serves for my underdrawing.

But wait.

Do I use this black and white design in a mechanical way – to transfer the image – so it can then be rendered later in color? That is, do I transpose only the linear elements? Or do I render the value changes, too? Do I use silverpoint or india ink or a diluted black oil paint? Do I use a pen nib (to create strong harsh lines) or a brush (for subtler washes)? And, depending on the intended medium for painting, how do I want to make use of this underdrawing? Do I want it to completely disappear? Or do I want it to tantalisingly play through the levels of paint to come?

As the project has progressed I find myself continually opting for the latter. Thus at first the egg tempera and mixed technique underdrawings were subtle studies in fifty shades of grey (brushwork washes rendered in india ink), while the later encaustic, acrylic and oil panels became stronger underdrawing statements (rendered for the most part with india ink and a pen nib). Illustrated here is an example from one encaustic panel. The main point, always for myself as a painter, do I want to be identified with rendering, in this case, some (completely arbitrary) subject matter? Or do I want to create a painting? The answer of course is obvious.

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.