Backing board mounted on the wall with grid and numbers.

Backing board mounted on the wall with grid and numbers.

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.

I needed something strong enough to bear the weight of approximately thirty kilos. It needed to be receptive to a staple gun for fixing the velcro pieces into place (128 times). Also, I wanted something that I could draw a grid on easily and assign number placements. 8 mm Plywood should be fine. See photo above, right of the installed backing board.

Placing the first four panels in the centre of the backing board.

Placing the first four panels in the centre of the backing board.

After calculating the cumulative dimensions of the panels, I asked my contractor to cut a piece that was 1 cm shorter in both the height and width. This was because, though I wanted it to function as a backing board flush against the wall, I didn’t want its edges to be visible, if possible. Since I had already intended to create finished frames on the individual panels, I hoped to avoid creating a frame for the final piece. In addition, I knew that for disassembly, it would be necessary to have enough space to get a finger in to gently wedge a panel back off the backing board. .5 cm around the edges should suffice. My contractor drilled two holes and installed it on the wall. It lay flush, ready for the next stage.I drew in the grid, numbered the spaces and created a template for the velcro pieces. I stapled the velcro in on the wall mounted board as well as the backing plates of the individual panels. I began placing the panels, working from the centre out, placing the first four. My husband commented, stop here, and this could be contemporary art. I smiled. See image, above left.

Sixty four panels mounted in the final assembly.

Sixty four panels mounted in the final assembly.

Soon the four became sixteen, then thirty six, then forty two, then sixty four. Finally the painting was fully assembled, see right. The velcro appeared to be strong enough to hold each piece in place but not too strong so as to disallow easy removal. Luckily enough it also allowed for some flexibility in the fit. (There had been some small variation in the panel sizes, but nothing to worry about.) Finally now I could step back and appreciate the view. The dissonance of the digital assembly appeared to be a little bit greater than in real life. This dissonance will lessen even more after I varnish some of the more sensitive panels.

Fully mounted painting of A Piece of Me viewed from the side.

Fully mounted painting of “A Piece of Me” viewed from the side.

I then took a look at the side view and could see that my framing of the individual panels was working fine: no additional frame would be needed. Simple. Effective. Clean. See the photo to the left.

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.

Book cover for: Art in the Making, Underdrawings in the Renaissance

Book cover for: Art in the Making, Underdrawings in the Renaissance

I picked up this book about a year ago, upon the recommendation of Koo Schadler, a contemporary artist proficient in the practice of egg tempera. It is produced by the National Gallery in London and consists of four essays. They cover: an informative introduction, the materials that were used for underdrawings back in the day, the underdrawings of the artists of the Northern Renaissance (Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands), and the underdrawings of the artists of the Southern Renaissance (Italy). Suceeding these essays is an in-depth analysis of the role underdrawings played in sixteen well known paintings from the National Gallery’s collection. Scientific methods of detection and the test of time don’t get better than this

I had contacted Koo last year because I had questions about the usefulness of silverpoint as an underdrawing for a painting to be fully realised later in egg tempera. Now one year later I am returning to the book with a different question. What is the best material to use for an underdrawing executed on a panel primed with a lead white oil ground? It’s not a question that arises much since most artists these days paint upon canvases primed with acrylic gesso. That’s the ground of choice for anyone painting on a flexible support. It covers well, provides a good level of absorption for acrylic or oil, is not as thirsty as traditional chalk gesso, yet it’s not as resistant as an oil ground might be. Relative to the underdrawing, acrylic gesso is receptive to either acrylic black ink or traditional waterproof india ink. Both types of inks do not bleed through into successive layers, while also they do not harm the oil’s adhesion to its ground. Thus, they hold their integrity in both directions. I sorted out these underdrawing questions recently for my series of panels executed in acrylic.

However, for my own personal touchy-feely research reasons I wanted to paint on the ground that had been used by artists since the late middle ages up to the mid-twentieth century. After all, that’s what you’re looking at when you go to a museum and view any painting created on canvas before, say, 1950. Now, due to its toxicity, lead white has become almost unavailable. I have been able to secure some though through my local art shop, skull-and-cross-bones warning and all. Of course, I took great precautions with its application. My research informs me that lead white toxicity is virtually nonexistent in its liquid form, though I did wear gloves, goggle and a mask. I did not and certainly would not recommend handling it as a  powder (or sanding it, either).

Toxicity aside, I now had twelve panels primed in lead white: how to proceed from there with my underdrawings? I already knew that for adhesion reasons acrylic black ink could not be used over oil but I thought that traditional india ink might be OK. I quickly discovered that it is not. My drawings beaded up. So what did the Renaissance artists do? How did they move from conception to realization? The short answer is charcoal, but without a binder, charcoal is indeed a very short-lived answer. It’s great for transferring designs or for sketching out big ideas but it lacks permanency. According to this book, it appears that Renaissance artists used a variety of inks or diluted oil paint to render their black and white designs the permanency that charcoal lacked. (The charcoal preliminary lines were then dusted away.) However, when you consider the ground/substrate issue (this book does not distinguish between the traditional chalk gesso ground created for an inflexible substrate and an oil ground created for a flexible substrate) it was clear that a diluted dark oil paint would be the tool of choice. Thus, I had found my answer and proceeded happily along my way. One more technical challenge solved.

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

 

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.