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.


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.


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.


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

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

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

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

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




Acrylics and indirect painting

September 13, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Piece of Me #39, acrylic on panel.

A Piece of Me #39, acrylic on panel.

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

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


Underdrawing for acrylic

August 24, 2020

Pen and ink Underdrawing for A Piece of Me #59

Pen and ink Underdrawing for A Piece of Me #59

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

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

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

Underdrawing for A Piece of Me #14 in pencil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • A Pice of Me #41, egg tempera on panel.

    A Pice of Me #41, egg tempera on panel, 21 x 13.3 cm or 8 1/4 x 5 1/4 in.

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

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

Haunted by Hopper

September 9, 2019

Sometime in 2012, I think, I was struck by the morning light as I crossed the bridge connecting the Langestraat to the Hoogstraat here in Bruges (where I live). So I did a value study of it, imagining that I would soon create a painting of it in the studio. Well, “soon” turns out to have been a bit longer. In the interim we renovated an outbuilding of our house so that I actually had a functional place to paint, but also, I returned to the university in order to attain a Masters degree in Western Philosophy @ KULeuven. That latter project turned out to be a five year hiatus from the studio(!). So now I’m returning now, clearing out old projects and beginning new ones.
Here below is the value study that I had completed before dropping the ball.

Also, I had already transposed the drawing to a gessoed panel and sketched it in using silverpoint touched up with black ink for the deepest shadows. See below.

To restart I mixed up some egg tempera pigment pastes and began blocking in the main areas of color for the underpainting, sticking with light tonalities even of areas that I know will become deeply shadowed. I can always take light away but, using this technique, it’s hard to add it back. See below.

After letting the egg tempera to dry for about a week I applied some retouch varnish (mixed up with a small blob of burnt-umber oil color) in order to unify the imagery but also to minimize the absorbency of oils on traditional chalk gesso. Then I began using oils, tempered with emulsion. My first working session was the sky. See below.

The second was the foreground both right and left. Again, see below.

The third, the middle ground buildings, right. See below.

Then the reflections in the water.

In all cases, I paint some clear glaze medium on the area I plan to paint on that day. Let it dry about 15 minutes and then wipe it off. The surface then is tacky to the touch and receptive to emulsified paint.

At this point, the image is developing nicely; what remains is a question of balance, adjusting the value range, pointing up the highlights and deepening the shadows. Here below is the final result:

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


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

For the mixed technique you’ll need to:

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

After years of experimenting with the mixed technique I have confirmed two things. I love glazing; and too much glaze absolutely kills oil’s refracting light. Thus I have often, even repeatedly, found myself at cross-purposes.

Most of my experiments in the recent years have been attempts to preserve this light. Painting backwards is one of my more notable successes. However, reclaiming the white of the original panel through painting backwards doesn’t really work tactically speaking if the neighboring areas of paint have already been worked-up. And adding it back at the finish line (like I did here) is OK but you can’t always guarantee that the surface will accept it by then or that the light so added will be integrated in the way you want it to be. I needed light within the painted surface, a reintroduced light, applied within and over the developing image. And of course it needed to be lean enough to bear a layer or two of glaze. How did the old masters accomplish this? Tempera white.

What is tempera white? Basically, white pigment (I use zinc white but the old masters most probably used lead) ground up in a very lean egg/oil emulsion. The emulsion I use comes from the mixed technique (one could just as easily substitute an egg yolk for the methyl-cellulose glue component of the recipe I list here). I have used white (lead ground in oil from the tube) before for reintroducing light values within each layer of colored glaze while developing an image chromatically. For examples see: I am curious yellow, Seeing red, and I’d rather be blue. But in all previous attempts, I did not introduce tempera white directly over the egg tempera/imprimatura underpainting, from the get-go, so to speak. That’s what I wanted to do this time, as doing so can free me from any pre-conceived plan of chromatic image development via glazing.

So I’ve been working on a landscape of a farm on the Dammevaart just outside of Bruges. I created a watercolor study of it a few years ago. This functions for the basic composition, color relations and light study.IMG_4414 (1)

Based on this watercolor then, I transposed the design to a gessoed panel and worked it up in silverpoint, which tends to be very light valued.IMG_4334 I then laid in light areas of color via egg tempera, anticipating the colors to come. Sorry, no picture of this stage is available (but just imagine the watercolor laid in over the silverpoint drawing and you won’t be far off). My interest for the ET level was stating color relations but keeping them as just hints – not fully developed and certainly not saturated. I let the ET fully dry and oxidize for a few weeks before laying in a toned (burnt sienna) imprimatura. Sorry, no image is available of this stage either. The imprimatura acts like a very lean glaze, bringing everything into relation through its hue and tonality. But additionally it also places an inevitable veil over all design elements. The already lightly developed composition got flatter and the ET colors were only slightly visible, as though through a tinted filter.

What to do? White tempera to the rescue. IMG_4411It helped to reintroduce the forms by stating the highlight and quarter tone values. All my seeming tedious homework from the earlier layers played through. My aim now is to complete the painting with just one session of painting into a glaze. The aforementioned homework should allow me to work quickly, spontaneously and yet accurately. And despite all the detail of the under layers, I don’t aim to create a fully detailed realistic painting, rather my goal is a painting that gives the viewer’s imagination space to wander – even if just a little bit. So stay tuned.

NB: When I returned later to do the first glaze my white paint dissolved. I’m thinking that my emulsion was no longer fresh so it’s binding properties broke down. Rather than delete this post, I’m leaving it up just to show and document my mistakes which can be just as teachable as any success.