Egg tempera revisited

May 10, 2011

Anna, #17, egg tempera, silverpoint and india ink

Anna, #17, egg tempera, silverpoint and india ink

Although I’m a huge fan of egg tempera, as a medium I generally use it for underpainting.  It’s quick drying and relatively easy to manipulate, establishing firm graphical forms that tend to be light in tonality. But for creating soft, smooth, subtle gradations that’s just not its forte.  So in my book, that makes it great for underpainting, but as a stand alone medium, I’m just not a purist, at least, not yet.

However, in my most recent “puzzle” painting project I planned to do just that.  Each of the 25 squares involved were developed as usual in silverpoint, india ink and egg tempera – as underpainting or underdrawing, respectively.  Then, many of those panels received a further development in oil or wax or a combination thereof.  But, I planned to leave 8 of thsoe panels alone remaining a treatment in pure egg tempera, so for those 8, my skills in manipulating the medium had to suffice.  Would they?

Anna_08

Anna, #8, egg tempera

The trickiest section by far was the face (which I left for the last).  Early on I had decided to underpaint all the flesh tones with green earth, or terra verte pigment, similar to the Siennese painters of the Renaissance. (At that stage the figure looked rather ghoulish and I had to console myself that it would change.)  Darker facial details were also painted with the same green earth.  As I began to overlay with my warmer colors, the face came to life.  Cool!  That particular facial square had also received some pre texturing with sculpting putty so the sculpting contributed in its own way, for example, the hair on the left only required of a few layers of burnt umber as a wash.

Even though it is still a work in progress (because the backside of each panel will also be painted) you can view the final mixed media collage of the front side here.

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I’m in!

March 20, 2011

Yes, it’s true, it’s official.  I am now a published author!  Sure, writing to your own blog can be a form of self-mandated soap boxing, but now two different and independent online publications have each published one of my essays.

The first (chronologically) is PSYART, on online journal dedicated to a psychological study of the arts.  You can find the journal here.  I’m currently listed in the top left place on the home page, next to a short abstract on the right describing the contents of the essay.  You can click on the title, “The non-duality of self-expression” to read the full article.

The second publication is Non Duality Magazine, a non-profit online journal dedicated to an ongoing investigation into self-realization, awakening and consciousness itself.  My article has been included in the Art section of volume 4.  I find Non-Duality Magazine to be a very clean and clear representative of the the depth and breadth possibilities available within the realm of self-investigation.  I highly recommend surfing through the current issue as well as all three previous volumes.

My essay occurred in its original form as a blog post about a year ago, arising from a combination of at least two elements that I’m aware of: my translation activities on a  book about Non-Duality (we’re currently looking for a publisher for the completed manuscript so – hopefully – more to come on that soon) and a painting I was working on at that time.  That original post has now been updated to reflect the most recently revised version so that those who wish to comment on the article can easily do so.  All comments are welcome!

The Big Ooops

February 10, 2011

original photo of Nils Johan Miena

I’m taking a course right now in “Business Issues for Artists”. All the stuff they never teach you in Art School, but things you definitely stumble upon as you make your way in the world. We are just finishing the “Legal” module. Last night for the final exam we had to describe an artistic-legal situation (problem and solution) of our choosing. My choice was easy enough to select from my own experience. Here’s the recap:

In 1978, fresh from university and ready to become a famous artist, I fell in love with a photograph from National Geographic. It was an image of a beautiful young Lapp boy leaning against a shed, wearing the traditional costume of the Saami people: pictured here top, right. Very colorful image. Lovely portrait. Nice light.

Nils, #21, egg tempera

I decided to paint the photograph by breaking up the image into 64 equally sized squares. My idea was to treat each square differently, with a different ground, texture and painting technique. It was a fantastic way to become acquainted with many different techniques simultaneously; to discover how each one reflects light and renders color – differently. You can view the final result here. This early experiment showed me very clearly which surfaces I liked and which I didn’t (acrylic gesso got a big “ugh”) in a purely tactile way, introducing me to my own temperament. I highly recommend the experiment. However, I was totally oblivious to copyright laws!

Nils, #15, Oil

Soon after creating this project I experienced an abrupt personal and stylistic change. “Nils” went into storage and I moved out west. 25 years later, I pulled “Nils” out of storage to see if I could finally sell this little experiment of mine. He had weathered the storage time beautifully so I set him up on my website and in an exhibition space with the intention to sell. However, I was still totally oblivious to copyright laws, until one day it dawned upon me……ooooops! Big oops.  Copyright.

Nils, #53, encaustic

The long and short of it is that I contacted National Geographic who gave me the information I needed to contact the original photographer of the image, Eric Borg. Which I did. I explained the situation and we agreed upon a shared percentage of the sales price and that was that. I did finally sell the piece, so now the laws have been honored, my closet got cleaned and an old friend of mine is the happy owner of this early experiment of mine. The moral of the story is don’t assume printed material belongs to you, just because you buy the magazine or book. If you use a “found” image, either research its copyright, change it so that it is thoroughly (and I mean thoroughly) unrecognizable, or be ready to pay the piper.

Troubleshooting Chalk Gesso

December 14, 2010

The first time I began creating paintings on panels using chalk gesso I had no problems. I read the manuals, ordered the materials from a good supplier in NYC and proceeded to create my panels.  No problem. It was summer in Connecticut.  30 years on, the paintings I created from those panels are still alive and well.

Over the years, with other batches both in sunny, dry, warm California and later in Germany (also in the summertime), I had no problem. My batches were done using rabbitskin glue sourced from my American art suppliers (Utrecht in NYC or Bay City in SF) or later Kremer pigmente in Munich. Now, after moving to Bruges, I’m back to creating new batches of gessoed panels.  But why am I experiencing such difficulty with my gesso? How strange to find myself returning to square one with what should be a relatively simple process. So, I’ve decided to document my trials and errors – for myself and internet posterity.  There may be others out there who have experienced similar problems?

The problem:

My assembly process would begin normally, but as I proceeded to build up layers, the gesso would no longer flow but rather glom onto the panel. The brush would stick, the gesso would glob.  When dry, a little sandpaper would remove far too much pigment. So it was clear: there was a problem with my glue.

Troubleshooting:

I generally create my panels in the wintertime.  Nothing to be done about that.  The house is radiator heated, that’s got to be better than whatever (winter) conditions Cennini ever experienced. We live next to a canal in an older house that does not contain double glazed windows, so it might be more drafty and moist than many modern environments, still, creating good gesso panels should be possible.

Double boiler?  Yes, of course. Did the glue boil?  No.  Never.  But after the gelatine melts, what is the threshhold temperature which spoils the glue?  I researched temps on the internet and found 52° Centigrade to be the most generally noted gauge.  But is that true?  From my experience, it depends on the source, as RS can vary a great deal.  At this point, I would not go by numbers but rather my own eyesight.

For example, a few years ago I bought a new batch of glue from my local art dealer, a man who specialized in esoteric artists materials.  It seemed OK at the time but then the problem began to recur.  Does RS have a shelf life?  Or did I let the glue “cook” too long?  I had purchased a meat thermometer and kept my temp well below 52°.  Still, invasion of the glom. 

For my most recent batch I used the last of my old RS from the esoteric art supply store.  When I added the pigment, the paint became very granular and unattractive.  I guess it does have a shelf life (even though it did not smell)…  So I threw it out.

Then used the RS that I had purchased recently from Kraemer Pigmente.  Little crystalline pebbles, very nice.  When I ran out of the Kraemer RS (silly, I had only purchased a 100 G test amount), I bought a new batch of glue from my local art supply store (brand, Senellier). This stuff comes in pellets similar to the scat of small animals that you might find in a forest. (I prefer the Kraemer)  But for both glues, I soaked them overnight (80 G RS to 1 liter of water), melted, cooled and did the finger-pressure-crevice test. So far, so good. (Though the Kraemer RS seemed firmer, clearer, less cloudy, more uniform and refined.)

I bought an electric warming plate at the local Kringwinkel (Salvation Army).  It holds food warm but doesn’t  cook it.  40° Centigrade or so but not higher.  Great, I thought.  But still, when I kept the glue-pigment in that double boiler pot for a few hours, the glue lost its strength.  Oooops.

Bottom line: 

  • Buy the best grade of RS that you can find from an archival artist’s materials supplier (like Kraemer). 
  • Do the crevice test, if you want, but be sure to take it off the heat as soon as it fully melts.  
  • Add your pigment in the center in a stream, allowing it to gently absorb the glue and sink via gravity.  
  • Stir thoroughly but not vigorously.  
  • For uniformity, do your gessoing in one session (one day). 
  • Rabbitskin glue is an organic substance, containing all the resilience and receptivity of living matter, as well as it’s limitations.

A few years ago I located a couple of carpenters who spoke enough English (and were pretty good at sign-language) to readily understand what I wanted them to create. A few weeks later they contacted me, “het is klaar” (it’s ready). My concept: I wanted to create a two sided painting (on a wooden panel) with a rotating inner core. The core needed to be extractable duing my creation process but afterwards could be fixed (permanently) in place.

But why create two paintings on one panel? It’s a ton of work. And what would be the reward? That’s very hard to say, except this: it’s a clear and definite way to demonstrate relation. Relation of what to what? You choose, but of course it offered the fundamental and very pregnant possibility of contrasting realism with abstraction in a direct and visceral way. For one side, I chose a landscape. A realistic, almost academic landscape based upon a value study of one of my favorite views of the Predijkherrenrij here in Bruges, Belgium.

And for the other side? Initially, and for a long time, I planned on an open blue field containing a text from Nisargadatta Maharaj, “I am, I am aware, I like it.” My thinking was simply this: if you have to use words to convery your intent, then these words from Maharaj summarize just about all that you ever really need to know. So, that’s what I created.

The Inside-Out

The Outside-In

When the inner core was rotated, it offered views as seen here left and right:

Thus, so far so good, kinda, but the text really bugged me. It took up way too much mental activity – thus creating a tendency to negate not only the unique mental-activity-bypass possibilities of the visual arts, but also the inner intent of the quotation itself! So last week, I painted over the text, to render a pure open field of blue. Ahhhhhh…

The Inside-Out revised

The Outside-In

When the inner core was rotated into “reality” I got this revised version as seen here left and right. Double ahhhhhhh……. Mucho bueno.

The main room, active with visitors

My 8 day solo exhibition at the Congresscentrum in Bruges ended Sunday evening. Many family and friends have asked how it went. Besides the months of prep, it took us two full days to set up and three hours to break back down. Since I was there every day, I had lots of chance to speak with the various visitors in English, French, Dutch or German (one of the four usually worked). Overall the feedback was very positive and encouraging. Here’s the skinny in stats:

  • Almost 1,000 visitors in the eight day time period (and I only counted the people who stayed long enough to actually look, not the heel-turners), so the location is great for exposure.
  • A few painting sales, enough to cover our expenses, but otherwise no great windfall.
  • The greeting cards were, of course, more popular, but still not enough interest (yet) to justify an offset print run.
  • Lots of positive feedback. My visitor’s book is loaded with compliments.
  • Many visitors left with my contact info so exposition related sales are still quite possible. I won’t say likely ’cause I really don’t know.

the slide show on technique on the right at the entrance

What to make of it? The economy here in Europe is in a greater slump than it was even one year ago – and of course the art market is, as ever, one of the most sensitive areas (this collaborated by a Dutch gallery owner). The Belgian contemporary art market principally respects/honors only abstract art. There is not one gallery in the whole country that specializes in offering contemporary realism (!), while I have already located three high end contemporary realism galleries in the Netherlands. In the UK, too, anything goes. Thus, I intend to include marketing my work to a wider audience.

During the exhibition, there was a city wide Lace-Festival. So, many visitors during the latter part of the week were people who had been practicing that craft for a number of years. Such humble visitors invariably preferred the monochromatic, detailed drawing/value studies. They could appreciate the time involved to achieve a beautiful, colorless simplicity.

Final conclusions? Taste is absolutely subjective, but if your own subjectivity contains enough of the Absolute, in the end, you might just touch another human being – whatever your field of endeavor. So, onwards and upwards! (or inwards as the case may be …)

Kruispoorte version #1, 2009, a lovely painting but perhaps the development of the greens was a little flat.

Anyone who attempts to paint landscape has to deal sooner or later with the problem of green. Of course, some might not even consider it to be a difficulty – but I do. So what’s the problem? In a nutshell: #1) the profusion of greens in the natural world contrasted to #2) the difficulty of rendering them to any degree of accuracy on the pallete/canvas/panel.

Kruispoorte version #2, 2010, blue level, I'm struggling with my differentiations here.

From a pigment point of view, there are relatively few tube greens out there in contrast to the wide arrary of tube choices for other colors. Viridian, the strongest green pigment, is widely used, otherwise if you need something different, you just mix it up from some combo of yellow and blue, or even yellow and black. However, if you attempt (as I do) to arrive at a beautiful green through color layering (for example, a blue glaze over a yellow substrate) then you might indeed create a wonderful green, but find yourself unable to modulate it very much to it’s other (very green) surroundings. Hence an indirect technique for color development is a bit too inflexible.

Kuuispoorte #2, 2010, brown glaze level, a solution of sorts.

Thus, my current approach, to painting in general, but also to green in particular, is to minimize my pigment choice, decide on an approach and then modulate my color relations to it. For painting greens, this can mean using or mixing a master green, modulating a master chartreuse, blue green and/or gray green from that. Then tints and shades from each of those. If I am painting wet into wet, then the color of my glaze will certainly have a direct (color) effect. If it is an earth glaze (umber or sienna), the effect is quite grounding (no pun intended). Nevertheless, color is absolutely relational (a la Josef Albers) and nowhere is this more true than in the attempt to render the multitudinous greens of the natural world.

I’d rather be blue…

July 14, 2010

My theory of painting is simply this: travelling has to be at least as interesting as finally arriving. It helps to have a numinal idea of what arriving should actually look like, but it wouldn’t be “art” if I already knew, would it? Thus, I always experience a certain kind of hesitancy as I approach the final levels in a painting. Do I really want the journey to end? Will this level “do” it? Or will it need more? And if so: what, where, how? Will the final image end up looking like a bored adult in comparison to its earlier youthful promise? Should I have stopped at some earlier vantage point along the way and just grabbed the ‘chute?

Additionally, imposing a chromatic structure on image development allows for lots of lateral exploration at each level of additional color. Or to put it in even simpler terms, it helps me to control chaos. Chaos of my own emotions and my emotional reactions either to the subject matter or the developing image in front of my nose. But too much control results in lifelessness, too little, and it’s just chaos.

Riding the surge of that inbetween space, of that wave, is richly rewarding: both exhilirating and terrifying. Committing myself to it involves a kind of surrender and also a kind of trust. If I imagine that the landscape I paint is essentially external to me, if I imagine that the paints I use are essentially “other”, if I imagine that the world itself is not a part of me and myself a part of it, then there is fear.

So, instead of experiencing distance to it all like some alien stranger, I’d rather be blue (thalo or ultramarine, to be exact)…

Seeing red

July 9, 2010

Well, OK. Since I started documenting this current production series with the yellow level, I thought I’d continue with the red. Usually, when I trace the development of a painting through its different stages, the thread is the image. But this time the common denominator is color. So, its a different focus, a different challenge. Comparing chromatic qualities instead of developmental ones.

The Sint AnnaKerk piece is shifting towards purple now. This seems to be due to the combination received through the massive amounts of warm gray tints that I worked into the crimson lake (red) tint. The church was a lovely yellow but I decided it needed a darker more massive tonality in order to provide enough contrast and mass for the strong highlights on its right side. I used clear glaze to eliminate the red tint from most of the green areas. The composition does not have a lot of strong color statements, so it’s interesting to attempt to pull out whatever is possible.

The Predijkherenrij Grande has a strong value composition containing a lot of colors. The red level was a marathon session of 14 hours, working the paints in before the medium dried. Applying the tint, erasing the same from the highlights and some greens and then building up the masses with (mostly) semi-opague tints of warm gray and lead white. Strong reds, yellows and oranges were restated with emulsified pigment. It feels quite hot now, doesn’t it?

The concept for the Kruispoorte Grande was simple. Could I take the process-color studio painting technique out into plen air? The yellow level had worked out great. But the red level presented challenges because the composition itself doesn’t have a lot of strong reds in it. I found myself making choices between value (warm gray tints) or hue (yellow) statements: always keeping the overall composition in mind. Still, I’m not at all sure this will be a successful approach. Time will tell.

Stay tuned for the next episode…

I am curious, yellow?

June 17, 2010

It isn’t often that I have numerous paintings completed to the same level at the same time. However, since I am preparing for an exposition and have entered into production mode on a number of pieces, right now I have four paintings drying in their yellow stage. There is something particular and special to be seen in these “monochromatic” stages which soon will be integrated into full blown colorful images.

It is a curious level, one of overall hue reduction, of lowered value contrast too, of subtle nuances and above YELLOW, contrasted against gray (which of course becomes pushed towards its complement, purple). The underpainted hues that have been developed in the egg tempera stage shine through subtly, as gentle reminders of potential futures, still yet to be heeded or ignored. Who can tell?

Even an abstract background that I know is intended to become a “blue” sky will have elements of the sun’s yellow light within it. If I state it now, it will always be there, ready to rise to the occassion by the brush’s trumpet call.

Thus, succcessive stages build back upon the basic statements made in the yellow layer. Warm reds and vibrant greens depend upon a good solid yellow. Yet sometimes, I find myself satisfied with the yellow layer just as it is. Fini. Perhaps it’s only my insatiable curiosity which keeps me wondering about what’s round the next bend, keeping me from lingering with the yellow level and just calling it “done”. So, I document it here: an interesting level, worthy of note, even if today it’s only electronic.