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. Took about a half hour to get the following image:

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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. 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
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Silverpoint

May 15, 2009

Hans Holbein silverpoint

Hans Holbein silverpoint

Silverpoint is another ancient technique that is receiving renewed attention these days.  Jan van Eyck and the Flemish masters are reputed to have regularly used it as a drawing tool. Artists like Picasso and Joseph Stella brought it into the 20th century art world.  The final design stands softly but well on its own or can be incorporated as an underdrawing into a painting. 

There is an informative site at silverpointweb.com which offers a lot of practical information as well as sales of silver tips and a ground for the drawing support.  I bought some of my pure silver tips from him a few years ago. The silver renders a soft, warm gray line that can darken upon exposure to light – just like the silver content of a photograph. The line itself is indelible so it cannot be erased.  Another experiential resource is international silverpoint archives.

Drawing with silver is a very simple but time consuming technique.  A thin piece of silver is inserted into a drawing stylus instead of a piece of lead.  The silver can be obtained from a local silversmith. I have used both pure silver and sterling. The pure silver is reputed to create a slightly darker line, but I have not yet noticed the difference (which could be due to my gessoed surface not having enough tooth, so take my experience with a grain of salt). Points can be chiselled fine or beveled. Darker tones are achieved by repeated gestures and not by an increase in pressure. 

silverpoint Joseph Stella

silverpoint Joseph Stella

The drawing surface seems to make a great difference in results. The surface should have a slight “tooth” to it, to draw out the silver particles. I have used both white gessoed panels and toned paper. The toned watercolor paper clearly had the tooth to pull out the silver, but the value of the silver was so close to that of the paper that I finally opted for the white panels.  Thus far the panels have given fine results which I have then used as underdrawings for some of my paintings.