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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Anna Front after a few small repairs and cleaning.

Anna Front after a few small repairs and cleaning.

Anna, Back, unretouched underpainting.

Anna, Back, unretouched underpainting.

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

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

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

Anna Back, with her first level of grouting.

Anna Back, with her first level of grouting.

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

Anna Back after two layers of a white lead scumble.

Anna Back after two layers of a white lead scumble.

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

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

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

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

 

Both sides now

February 27, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anna Front after a few small repairs and cleaning.

Anna Front after a few small repairs and cleaning.

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

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

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

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

Glueing and Framing Anna

February 16, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anna, in her popsicle phase.

Anna, in her popsicle phase.

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

Anna, secured with straps during the final glueing phase.

Anna, secured with straps during the final glueing phase.

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the panels looked from the backside.

How the panels looked from the backside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Panel

May 7, 2009

The Panel:
A firm non flexible ground is necessary for painting with egg tempera.  On good linen canvas, the oil medium can sustain flexing and shrinking, but egg tempera cannot.  If one chooses to work exclusively in oil, canvas may be the ground of choice.  As I prefer to use a mixed technique, painting on panel is my preference.  Additionally, I find the smoothness of the surface very sensuous.

Of the choices readily and economically available to painters these days, my personal preference is good quality, plywood panels.  They are heavier than Masonite but in the long run, more absorbent.  They do not warp, and the fine crackles that can occur in the gesso from slight wood expansion can be avoided either by obtaining a high quality piece of plywood from a cabinet maker or by gluing a thin layer of fine linen fabric to the board before the first coat of gesso.