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.

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.

silverpoint with india ink

silverpoint with india ink

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 yet 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 its tarnishing/darkening factor. And, since I was interested in creating landscapes where describing distance is an intrinsic factor, I began implementing india ink cross-hatching to specific dark value areas of my foreground. This enhanced the contrast. I thought I had developed a pretty cool underdrawing technique for myself. I was happy.

Silverpoint on traditional gesso panel

However, recently when I began a project of 13 panels to be executed exclusively in egg tempera, I discovered otherwise. I had naturally turned to silverpoint for my underdrawings. 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 the silver of the silverpoint would naturally tarnish in the presence of the egg’s sulphur. It would be an organic process over which I would have little control. Banksy might be fine designing his paintings 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 also does drawings in silverpoint. She was very kind and informative though in fact she did 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: washes of ink (or later diluted oil paint). It was fast, easy, cheap and versatile. Using it 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 a fluid medium 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 was questionable). 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. OK, got it.

India ink underdrawing after erasing the silverpoint.

So 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. Thus in the end, the silverpoint drawings that I did served me well: they gave me enough information to create subtle and detailed india ink underdrawings. Now I am confident enough to proceed with my egg tempera.

Bullet dodged.

Self portrait in Casablanca

Self portrait in Casablanca outside of the Hasan II mosque.

Last week I finished the preparation of 64 identically sized panels (21 x 13.3 cm or 8 1/4 x 5 1/4 in.) for a new project. It consists of cutting up a full length photograph (which happens to be a self-portrait, see left) into 64 identically sized pieces and then painting each piece differently, so in a different medium. Since there are not 64 different mediums, in effect, I’ve reduced my approach to five: egg tempera, encaustic, the mixed technique, oils and acrylics. Preparation-wise then, each medium receives the ground appropriate to it: egg tempera receives chalk gesso; encaustic and mixed technique, ditto; while oils receive an oil ground; and acrylics, acrylic gesso. Additionally each panel receives a pre-treatment (or not) thus: plain wood (so, no treatment); linen (glued on, using rabbit-skin glue); collage (glued on, again using rabbit-skin glue); pre-textured sculpting (I used acrylic modeling paste for the acrylic and oil panels while I experimented with pastiglia for the egg tempera, encaustic and mixed technique panels). Needless to say such an approach presents a bit of a logistical nightmare but excel spreadsheets can, indeed, work miracles.

Nils, final full-sized assembled painting. 6‘ 02” x 3‘ 6” or 188 x 107 cm

Nils, 1978, final full-sized assembled painting. 6‘ 02” x 3‘ 6” or 188 x 107 cm

Anyway, instead of this appearing to be a new direction, actually, it’s not. It’s a return to the kind of work I was doing approximately forty years ago, see “Nils” right. You can read more about that painting project here. I also did a few other smaller pieces at that time trying out that same approach and I briefly dabbled with it again (as an approach) in 2011. But after stumbling upon an appropriate photograph earlier this year, I’m drawn to return to it now with a deeper understanding of many things. So, here we go. I love how the compositions you receive with this approach are completely arbitrary and spontaneous. The challenge, as always, is to create a sensorial unity, something beautiful and interesting in its own right individually and of course, in the final assembled result.

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:

Pastiglia – say what?

July 15, 2019

A Piece of Me #10, Source image for acrylic sculpting gel

A Piece of Me #10, Source image for acrylic sculpting gel

A Piece of Me #10, acrylic sculpting gel on panel

A Piece of Me #10, acrylic sculpting gel on panel

I’m currently involved in a project that calls for sixteen panels to be pre-textured before commencing to paint them. All of the paintings are to be executed on hardboard, so I’m starting with a firm, inflexible surface. Six of these panels will be painted with either oils or acrylics so I was able to use acrylic modeling paste for them. Here to the left is a source image while on the right the relief I created with acrylic sculpting gel. Compositionally (almost like a panel in a comic book), this panel serendipitously contains three figures. Provocatively, you sense an untold story.

But for the other ten panels I planned to be using egg tempera or encaustic so I needed to prepare their surface with traditional (white chalk and hide glue) gesso. And even though the acrylic modeling paste would adhere to the traditional gessoed, the acrylic gel would not be absorbent to the egg tempera or the melted wax. So… what to do?

I’ve seen, of course, that Medieval and/or Renaissance painters would sometimes pre-texture their grounds before painting on them but it took some diligent research to find out more about their technique. My two main resources were Cennini’s “The Craftsman’s Handbook” (translated by Daniel Thompson) and Thompson’s own “The Practice of Tempera Painting”. There I discovered a technique called “pastiglia” which appeared to be what I was looking for. Cennini briefly describes using gesso to model figures and ornaments upon an already gessoed panel (pg. 76). Thompson provides a little more detail (pg. 34-35). Both suggest using gesso and a brush to model low relief forms. In addition, Thompson suggested adding a little color to the gesso so you can actually see what you are doing (!!). Good idea, Daniel, I might take you up on that. But most of the information (and use) seemed to relate to decorative frame elements which was not exactly what I had in mind. No matter. I had found the term and now I could google it.

Strangely enough, there was not much out there in internet land. But there was a wikipedia page. I’m thinking this lack is due to the fact that pastiglia is not a technique practiced by many modern or contemporary painters. Most painters paint on flexible surfaces these days and they use acrylic gesso to do so. Which, while all of that is OK, it just means that these older techniques are not only out of vogue; their internet-memes are out of time. Luckily I was able to watch a three part you tube video of a guy making a frame using pastiglia. It was instructive methodologically and emboldened me to go ahead and just go for it. Two tips I received from the video, transfer your design beforehand and instead of using a brush, pick up a syringe or two of different sizes to better control the flow of the pastiglia over the gessoed panel. So I went to my local pharmacist and got myself supplied. Now I was ready to go.

Yellow ochre transfer of the design in preparation for pastiglia.

Yellow ochre transfer of the design in preparation for pastiglia.

A Piece of Me #38, original photograph.

A Piece of Me #38, original photograph.

Using the “find edges” feature of an image manipulation application I turned the colored photographs I had into black and white designs. I then printed them out to size and got ready to turn the printed image into “carbon-paper”. Note to self, never, ever, forget that photography renders the three dimensional phenomenal world into two, so “finding edges” is helpful but it cannot distinguish between a significant form and a shadow. I had already used this carbon-paper technique for the acrylic panels, so I knew where I was going, but instead of covering the back side of the paper with charcoal, this time I chose yellow ochre pigment. The reason for this was simple, previously, the dark carbon lines were great for setting out the design but afterwards it required a few coats of gesso to reclaim the whiteness I need for an appropriate painting ground. I didn’t think that I would have that flexibility after the pastiglia treatment, so I opted to use a light tonality that would provide hints but also would not be too disruptive to the final painting. Here to the right is one of my yellow ochre transfers before modeling.

Pastiglia of A Piece of Me #38.

Pastiglia of A Piece of Me #38.

Now it was time to set to work. I found it best to work up one area and let it dry (about 24 hours) before working on the area adjacent to it. When there was a shape that was on top of another shape, I modelled the rear form first and then the second on top of it. Relative to my source image, if it was complex, I had to select the large, most important forms. Here to the left is one of the completed pastiglia. The surface is far more delectable than the photos can suggest since it is basically white on white.

NB: the syringes that I got from my local pharmacist were incredibly helpful for manipulating the gesso’s flow to create the forms I wanted however, the action of sucking in the gesso into the syringe created those nasty pinholes that are impossible to get rid of in the final gessoed surface. Something to troubleshoot if I were to do this process again.

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.

Figure Drawing #31

Figure Drawing #31. Conté crayon on warm gray pastel paper.

Back in the seventies when I was discovering my wings as a young art student, I fell in love with a book called “The Zen of Seeing/Drawing” by Frederick Franck. It was filled with inspiring text and drawings about the experience of drawing itself. Over the years, though I may have forgotten about the specific contents of that book, the direction it fed has remained, such that I always regard drawing as a meditative experience.

How so?

The way I see it (in life in general, and in drawing specifically) there is one main element to transcend – myself as a separated personality. And if you are into transcendence (as I am) it’s good to know exactly how that restricted sense-of-self functions. So there are two primary aspects to it: one temporal and one spatial. The temporal aspect is especially mind based while the spatial aspect is especially body based and although there are a million and one ways to transcend these limits, participating in timed drawing sessions of a naked human being is surely one of them. It provides a visceral impetus to concentrate temporally, into the moment, while simultaneously expanding spacially, into the other. In a certain way it’s that simple.

Figure Drawing #32. Pencil and white conté pencil on warm gray pastel paper.

Figure Drawing #32. Pencil and white conté pencil on warm gray pastel paper.

Most of the time figure drawing sessions are very open situations. There is a studio space and a model. Everyone chips in to pay the model’s fee. No guru, no teacher. Usually also there is a loose structure for the number and duration of the poses. And that’s it. It’s really about chopping your head off (in order to avoid drawing from some preconceived kind of place) and getting into your tactile body. Feeling the paper, feeling the chalk, feeling the model (as yourself), letting go and staying aware. Sometimes I don’t look at the paper at all, content with just feeling the chalk explore the contours of the model’s body. Sometimes I wait to feel the model’s pose in my own body before I start. Where is the weight? Where is the movement? But then, also, what is happening on the paper? Seeing the model there, watching the figure taking shape. Feeling its life coursing through my fingers.
Additionally, drawing in this way isn’t about achieving some external standard of “likeness”, rather it’s about discovering your own authenticity. It’s about making footprints in the sand: remnants of a journey whose importance far outweighs it’s trace.

Bend in the Damse Vaart

August 30, 2013

I posted a WIP (work-in-progress) about a month ago. Yesterday I completed the last glaze on that project so here’s the final result. I’m quite happy with it, as there were a number of technical challenges.

Bend in the Damse Vaart

Bend in the Damse Vaart, Oil on panel. August 2013.

The first challenge was the light. I felt that the previous en-plein-air painting session (see WIP) had been quite successful but that I had lost the light statement which had been so apparent in the imprimatura. I decided on major surgery. I extracted the paint from the highlight areas (using medium instead of turpentine because it’s a softer method of extraction of fresh paint and you can paint back into it quickly and easily). Then I reintroduced light via a fast drying tempera white (zinc white mixed with emulsion). The resulting impression was a bit like a coarse blanket of snow(!).

Snow on the Damse Vaart...

Snow on the Damse Vaart…

The second challenge was what’s called a sunken-in painting surface. What’s that, you might ask? Well, as the en-plein-air painting session dried, I noticed that many areas of the painted surface had become dull and gray instead of luminous and light. (Yuk!) This can occur when the chalk gesso ground is too thirsty and absorbs paint too quickly. Luckily this can be remedied by a light coat of retouch varnish, which I did and it was. So now the painting had been resuscitated but it was defo an ugly duckling: functional but with an unpleasant tactile quality.

I decided to complete the project in the studio, since technically there were too many balls to juggle. I kept with the same minimal palette that I had used en-plein-air: cadmium yellow, alizarine crimson and thalo blue – mixing any color I needed from these three with the addition of lead white and warm gray for my tints and shades. I started by glazing and painting the left bank only. I hate working this way since the development isn’t global but there wasn’t a way around it (that I could see). After the first studio session I had the image below:

Rive gauche

Rive gauche

Now the painting was starting come alive and I was in love (really!). When this begins to happen it’s very important to listen to what the painting is saying instead of imposing any extraneous ideas upon it. For example, working en-plein-air at this point would be counter-productive. The hard part was waiting the few days it took for the glaze to dry enough so as to work on the adjacent area. When it was, the challenge was simply in staying true to the developments of the other side. See image here below:

Rive droit

Rive droit

So then again, after the appropriate drying time, the final step was more of a follow through than a creation: mirroring the development of the painting in the water’s reflections while attempting to give it a sense of wind-life. (See the initial image above)

Now, on to the next…

A work in progress…

August 3, 2013

After a long hiatus (precipitated by moving into an old Bruges row house and renovating it, along with creating a little painting studio for myself) I finally had the chance to get back into painting these last few weeks – and the weather has been great!

I decided to do an oil of a watercolor study I had completed in 2011 of the bend along the Damse Vaart canal outside Bruges. It’s a great perspective, particularly around mid-day. There are some interesting middle ground structures on the left, while on the right the receding treeline stretches almost all the way to Damme. The strong mid-day shadows complement the movement and function as an anchor.

watercolor of the bend in the Damse Vaart, 2011

watercolor of the bend in the Damse Vaart, 2011

I transposed the basic composition of the watercolor to a panel, but decided to do the foundational ink drawing and egg tempera levels en plein air. For the ink level, I reverted to the stylus and nib quill-pen style of my youth, instead of the technical drawing pens I’ve been using ever since. I wanted to let the pen nib respond to my hand pressure with a thinner or thicker line, mirroring my response to nature. It worked quite well, except the ink jar fell over spilling most of its contents. Enough remained to complete my work, even if the drawing ended up being a little sketchier than I might have envisioned it.
So I quickly moved onto the egg tempera stage. I brought three pigments with me pre-ground into pastes: cadmium yellow medium, alizarin crimson and thalo blue, in addition of course to the egg yolk. In future, I plan to mix up my paints with egg in the studio before going out – just to minimize the hassle: there are already enough uncontrollable factors to contend with in nature, like the wind, rain, sun and insects, why shoot yourself in the foot? In any case, I mixed up my paints in situ and laid in some washes over my ink drawing to indicate future color developments.

india ink and egg tempera underpainting of the Damse Vaart bend

india ink and egg tempera underpainting of the Damse Vaart bend

Though it may not be very visible in the reproduction image here, I paid special attention to lay in more saturated colors in the foreground and lighter washes in the distance. I’ve learned from experience that it all makes a difference in the long run – any color, no matter how subtle equates to less light.

After a week or so, the egg tempera level was cured enough to paint over. It dries immediately but don’t be deceived, the egg/oil combo also has to cure. Gentle UV light can help. I painted a toned imprimatura of burnt sienna over the piece. My purpose in doing so was to unify the disparate foundational parts and lay in a preliminary value study. Using turpentine, I extracted the imprimatura from the highlights and lighter quarter tones revealing the underpainting beneath, while painting a more saturated layer into the shadows. I did this in the studio and it came out quite well(!). Now it’s starting to get exciting.

imprimatura, bend in the Damse Vaart

imprimatura, bend in the Damse Vaart

I let this level dry for almost a week. That’s not really necessary, at least if you don’t mind a little imprimatura bleeding into the next level of glaze, but since I did, I let it dry. Also, the shadowed areas were painted with a slightly heavier sienna wash, so they needed more time.

Finally, I set my field easel up in situ on a clear sunny day with a mild breeze. My homework was all done, the question was how far would I be able to bring the painting in one working session? I covered the whole panel with medium, wiped it back off leaving a slight tack to the panel surface and started in. Four hours later, I had the following result:

 level 1 Oil, Bend of the Damse Vaart

Level 1 oil, Bend of the Damse Vaart

I consider it an excellent start, though a little too coarse and graphic for my taste. I’d like to reintroduce the atmosphere of the imprimatura by softening a number of transitions and reintroducing the light. We’ll see if that’s possible. Fingers crossed for Bend in the Damse Vaart, part II.