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 on the left) had already been varnished so it responded well. The back side, 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 through framing, I now had an elegant frame 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 I had what I needed. However, the grid pattern – which was clearly visible on the front side – and didn’t bother me there – actually was a technical hindrance on the backside. 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 the spackle with egg tempera to match the existing underpainting. After sealing with shellac, I reapplied some additional spackle and repeated my steps. 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, 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, took a deep breath and let loose. It took about 45 minutes to complete the painting. You can read about it here.

 

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.

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. 🙂