About ten years ago I began to experiment with silverpoint. It’s a beautiful and ancient technique that was used long before lead pencils or even the wide-spread distribution of paper. A metal point (in this case silver, though other metals were also used) is inserted into a stylus and you begin making light scratches on a ground with enough tooth to be receptive to a light deposit of the metal particles. Since silverpoint works extremely well on traditional chalk gesso, and this had already been my ground of choice for decades, there was no learning curve for me in terms of the preparation of the ground. So I began to employ silverpoint to develop underdrawings for landscapes (intended to be created in the studio). This went seamlessly since I had already transitioned to creating my paintings in the studio based on en-plein-air value studies.

As for the silverpoint, I was very pleased with its tactile feel. Yet – in contrast to lead pencil or ink as I quickly learned – the amount of pressure you exert has no influence whatsoever on the value you create (!). It’s only possible to create deeper values through repeated motions. Because such values are developed slowly through repetitive motions silverpoint is a time consuming but meditative activity. Nice! It creates a great deal of fine detail – softly. Deeper values can and do develop over time, especially when the surface is exposed to light for extended periods of time. But I expected my silverpoint underdrawing to become sealed under many coats of paint so I was never too concerned about the tarnishing/darkening factor.

silverpoint with india ink

silverpoint with india ink

And, since I was interested in creating landscapes where describing distance is an intrinsic factor, I began implementing india ink cross-hatching to specific areas of my foreground. I thought I had developed a pretty cool underdrawing technique for myself. I was happy.

Silverpoint on traditional gesso panel

However, recently I began a project of 13 panels to be executed exclusively in egg tempera. I naturally turned to silverpoint for my underdrawing. The work flowed. I was a happy little camper creating beautiful little silverpoint panel underdrawings in my cozy little studio. Until at some point it dawned on me that silver of the silverpoint would naturally tarnish in the presence of the egg’s sulphur. An organic process over which I would have little control. Banksy might be fine designing his painting to self-destruct in a shredder at auction but that really wasn’t my intention here.

I quickly contacted Koo Schadler, a contemporary artist who creates beautiful paintings in egg tempera and who does drawings in silverpoint. She was very kind and informative though she did in fact confirm my suspicions. At the same time she introduced me to the MITRA Forum, a website hosted by the University of Delaware where conservation experts are available to answer such (geeky) questions. They, too confirmed the difficulty.

Well, so what did the Old Masters do? While there does not appear to have been one set solution, because individual studios/guilds and masters all had their own approach, there does appear to have been a convention for underdrawings: washes of india ink. It was fast, easy, cheap and versatile. Through doing so you could quickly achieve a wide range of values and on a large scale, if necessary (neither of which is silverpoint’s forté). Silverpoint may have been used early on in the design/transfer process (if you were working on panel) but even so, why carry it through when india ink is so much quicker and easier?

Returning to my project, the question remained: what to do with my already completed silverpoints? Koo had initially suggested that washes of india ink (which contains shellac) might be able to seal off the silverpoint level from the egg tempera level (though the efficacy of such a maneuver would be unconfirmed). So, I began creating light washes of india ink over my existing silverpoints. I proceeded slowly and gently in order to avoid creating values too darkly, too quickly. This worked out great and seemed to enhance my silverpoint panels! I was happy (again) though nagging doubts remained. Additionally, the MITRA Forum experts had confirmed that there are no sealers on the market able to fully prohibit oxygenation/tarnish – and attempting to create a seal that would be strong enough to do so would compromise the adhesion capacities of the egg tempera. Done.

India ink underdrawing after erasing the silverpoint.

I got up yesterday and took an eraser to my panels. I began to erase all of my beloved silverpoint work. You will hear people say that silverpoint is not erasable. That’s not my experience. With some diligent rubbing the silver came off leaving only the india ink behind. Did I get it all? I don’t know, I think so, but only time will tell. But I’m no longer worried. So in the end, the silverpoint drawings that I did do served me well: they gave me enough information to create subtle and detailed india ink underdrawings. Now I am confident to proceed with my egg tempera.

Bullet dodged.

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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:

Value Study

May 12, 2009

Langerei North value study

Langerei North value study

I spent years dragging my portable easel out to inspiring locations to paint.  Although I managed to create a few interesting paintings, I threw away just as many failures.  The changes of season, weather, and light caused any particular landscape to fluctuate enough so that I ended up with mud more often than not.  Thus, I had to ask myself, how is it possible to capture anything eternal about what I am viewing?

One solution, I knew, was an impressionistic alla prima technique, and although its effects can be strikingly fresh, for better or worse, my own temperament is drawn to painting in layers, often termed “indirect painting”.  Yet attempting to use an indirect technique for sequential forays of painting “en plein air” spelled trouble if I didn’t know fairly precisely where I wanted the painting to go. 

Thus, I began to create fairly detailed studies both in watercolor and in pencil in order to understand what I felt and wanted to finally express in paint.  Of the two approaches, I felt the (pencil, charcoal or ink) value study to be the most effective for describing my essential reaction to a view.  The medium toned paper gives space for imagination to roam, inviting the perceiver in to participate in forms as they arise. 

Alternatively, although it is clearly possible to take a photograph in order to capture “a moment” as preparation for a painting, photographs themselves are a mechanistic interpretation of visual reality, inevitably reducing three dimensional space to two.  If I want to personally interact with the view before me, to dance with it, to make love to it, to merge with it, then the means needs to be an extension of my fingertips, vibrating with the energetic impulses of my own blood.  This is in no way intended as a criticism of the fine art of photography, only a criticism of the use of photography as a means for a study upon which to base a painting.

When I have created a value study that resonates, then I transpose it to a panel and begin preparing for development of the painting.