Painting, Backwards

January 3, 2010

Painting (any painting) always involves pigment mixed into a medium and set upon a ground. The ground is usually white (or possibly even translucent), thus any pigment added to its surface subtracts from its luminosity and is a movement towards darkness. Alternatively stated, light is the source and darkness its covering. Painting reveals light and uses darkness to do so. If the ground is white, then the primal source of light in any painting is its substrate. This being the case, using and manipulating that source of luminosity is of utmost importance. I continually ask myself, is there a way to paint which can maximize the quality of transmissive light in its ground while contrasting it to the reflective quality of opaque pigments? Painting backwards could be one approach. I stumbled upon it by accident. Here’s what happened:

Sint Annarei underdrawing

silverpoint with india ink

About a year ago, I began preparing a landscape painting in the usual way. First by gessoing a wooden panel, then by transferring my composition to it using silverpoint. The composition was of the canal in front of my house. I had already created a value study as well as a small oil of the same landscape setting. I was well pleased with both works but felt the composition could benefit from a grander view. So I added buildings to the right and left as well as more sky and water in the foreground. This had the effect of deepening the overall perspective. Nice. Additionally, to enhance the depth from the get go, I highlighted the darker contrasts of the foreground using india ink on top of the already established silverpoint drawing. Nice, again.

Sint Annarei egg tempera

Sint Annarei egg tempera

 In order to minimize the number of layers necessary to create an image in oil, I started the underpainting in egg tempera. Rather than mixing a fully saturated color of the chosen pigment for each element in the image, I added white to each color to avoid oversaturated colors in the final painting. (Oversaturated colors can be lethal to the softly diminishing effects of an ephemerally suggested distance: a lesson I had learned the hard way.) So, all the colors were now set up and were rather pastel in character, complimentary color relationships were established, even if at this point they were still rather subtle.

Sint Annarei imprimatura

Sint Annarei imprimatura

 The next step was unifying all the elements by establishing an overall mood. This is usually done by covering the ground with an imprimatura: a diluted oil color washed over the surface to establish a middle tone. So I painted on a brown imprimatura and then wiped it off. A tonality was established, but it wasn’t quite dark enough. I painted on a second layer of imprimatura just to increase the tonality. But then, rather than painting the highlights back in using white pigment, I decided to erase the imprimatura from the highlight areas using turpentine (I already knew exactly where these areas were as they were well articulated in the underdrawing). This erasing was working well, until I accidentally dipped my brush in distilled water instead of turps. My brush began to delete not only the imprimatura, but also the egg tempera underpainting, the india ink, and then the silverpoint, too. Oops!!! Not what I had intended…

Sint Annarei Final

Sint Annarei Final

Amidst my curses and exclamations, it became clear to me that I needed to continue this treatment to balance out the rest of the composition, a work of about 15 minutes. When I was done, my husband took a look at the painting and said, “I think you’re done.” And it was true.

Comments are welcome…

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.

Gesso

May 9, 2009

Various recipes exist for gesso. Here’s what I use:

The Glue:
Dissolve 2 3/4 ounces of dry rabbit-skin glue with one quart water in a big glass jar (used pickle jars are great for this). This equates to 75 grams dry glue to approximately one liter of distilled water. The proportions work out to approximately 10/1 water to dried glue by volume. Many professional egg tempera painters suggest a higher percentage of 16/1. (I will try this next time around.)

Let it soak overnight.

Heat the glue in a double boiler, that is, with a second pan surrounding the jar with the glue water. The water should be the same temperature as the glue water, so bring the heat up slowly to melt the gelatine glue. Stir gently. The glue should never boil, only melt. Overheating significantly harms the adhesion of the glue, so do not let the temperature rise above 135 F° (57.3 °C), 127F° (53°C) is optimal.

The Filler:
Use calcium carbonate or precipitated chalk or whiting for filler with 10% titanium white or zinc white to insure a bright whiteness to your gesso.  The chalk whiting part can vary in both purity and whiteness, depending upon the grade. Industrial grade chalk whiting can be found in most hardware stores or paint shops. Dry pigments can be found at art supply shops or online suppliers. 

The proportions are 1 lb filler (or 450 grams) to one quart (liter) of glue water.  Or 1 1/2 filler to 1 glue water by volume. The melted glue is gently poured into the chalk stirring all the while.  Lumps should be stirred or strained out (cheesecloth).  The final result should be about the consistency of light cream.  Return the mixture to the double boiler, to keep it warm but again, be careful not to let it boil.

Applying the Gesso:
Sand the panel lightly to remove any rough texture, clean the dust off with a moist cloth.  Cover the board with a light coating of size (1 1/2 oz rabbit skin glue dissolved in one quart water or 45 grams glue to one liter).  After the size has dried, begin applying thin coats of gesso.  The first coast is loosly brushed or scumbled in. I prefer to apply the gesso to both sides and ends of the panel to avoid the uneven absorption of moisture that can cause warping. I use a wide flat bristle brush, applying thin layers in alternating horizontal and vertical layers.  The layers dry quickly, especially in warm weather.  Generally a well prepared panel can take about 10 thin coats of Gesso. I wait until 3 or 4 levels have accumulated and begin lightly sanding it down between layers, and then using a moist cloth to remove all dust.

Finishing:
After the final coat, the sanding moves from coarse to fine.  As a last step, it’s possible to take a slightly damp cloth and rub it gently over the entire surface in circular motions in order to obtain a final smooth, egg shell-like finish.  If, however, the intended underdrawing will be in silver point, it is best to leave that last step out in order to retain a slight tooth to the panel.

Mixed Technique

May 7, 2009

Jan van Eyck mixed technique

Jan van Eyck mixed technique

The term mixed method or mische technique is generally used to refer to the painting technique of Jan Van Eyck, and the Flemish Masters.  The mixed part quite literally refers to the method of intermixing  the usage of both water based and oil based mediums to create a pictorial image.  It requires both patience and sufficient knowledge in order to achieve an attractive result.  Traditionally the resulting image was super realistic, but it certainly does not have to be.  The mixed method contains the possibility of multiple superimposed layers of paint which in themselves create beautiful effects of both light and color: the essence of abstraction.  My own “mische technique” is a bit of a hybrid using the traditional recipes with elements of both alla prima and indirect painting.

Nicolas Wacker
The originator of the modern adaptation of the so called mische technique, is a Russian man named Nicholas Wacker, who taught at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris in the early 80’s.  I’ve received it from a friend who studied there at that time, thus here below are her class notes:

  It is useful for brushability, quickness of drying and glaze layering.  Using this technique one can maximize the use of glaze while simultaneously painting opaque areas into the fresh medium.  The dry brush can be used to blend and unify the surface.  Strong areas can sink into the background while lighter tones can be emphasized.  It seems possible that the yolk of an egg could be substituted for the alcasit, though I have never tried it.

Emulsion:

  • 1- volume alcasit (methyl cellulose glue)
  • 1- volume half of which is pure linseed oil with 1/5 eburit dryer (or sun thickened linseed) and half damar varnish 2:1
  • 1- volume water
  • Put liquids in a jar in the order written ( alcasit first) and with each addition cover the jar and shake it in well. I heard water could be as much as 3 volumes but never tried it. The result looks like mayonaise.

Medium:

  • 1 part damar varnish
  • 1 part turpentine
  • 1 part stand oil (sun thickened is also fine)

Coat panel or canvas with a light coat of glue size.  For canvas, use a recipe for good lean priming (commercial lead white in oil, 1 pound thick paint, diluted with 3 fluid ounces of turpentine).  Add at least 3 coats brushed on in opposite directions, lightly sanded in between.  For gesso grounds on panels it is best to apply at least 10 thin coats painted in alternating directions, always sanding in between coats.

The Design
Find an image from which you wish to work. It can be a reproduction of a painting you admire, or a drawing of your own. You should be able to render it in black and white value studies as well as forsee the addition of color. Transfer the drawing to the primed canvas or prepared panel.  Render it in waterproof india ink. Be sure to erase all pencil lines after the drawing is transposed into ink.  A final glue size is applied on all surfaces after the preliminary drawing but before the imprimatura.

Paints
It is best to mix fresh white for every session.  Use white powdered pigments and emulsion.  Take a glass muller or spatula, pressing, dragging and blending the two together until a consistent texture is achieved.  This helps considerably with quick drying. Pour a small amount of emulsion into a small cup or bowl. Use this to increase the brushability of your oil colors. Remember to always honor the fat over lean principle. If you are able grind up your own colors, you will be able to avoid buttery, oily colors from the manufacturer. In additon, you will learn first hand which pigments require more oil to achieve a workable consistency or in contrast which grind up easily and are therefore ‘lean’.

Imprimatura
The white ground is covered with a translucent middle tone.  I usually use damar varnish diluted with turpentine 3(T):1(D) mixed with Burnt Umber.  Using a wide bristle brush apply over the whole panel to achieve a common medium value for the beginning of the image. Take a clean, dry cotton lint free cloth to wipe off the excess. The surface should be tacky and glistening.  To test for correct dryness, lightly touch the surface with the ball of the palm of your hand . When it is dried enough, it should pull a little on the skin when you lift the hand.  

The imprimatura can also function as the first level of glaze.  Work into this slightly tacky surface white mixed with emulsion for strong light areas and drag them into the background with a dry brush. This produces a soft way to suggest future values. After that come in with the darkest tones, to establish the shadows.  This quickly establishes the values of the painting and you can step back and assess how your idea is working and correct where necessary at an early stage.

Session 1
It is best to to let the imprimatura dry.  A few days to a week.  Touch will tell.  Now cover the entire painting with a fresh coat of clear medium.  Take a clean, dust free cloth and wipe the surface of excess medium.  The surface should be tacky and receptive.  One can begin to work in large blocks of color, alternating glaze or emulsion for transparent or opaque effects.  Values can slowly be adjusted. One proceedes from coarse to fine detail.  Highlights and shadows can be further refined by moving away from the midtones of the imprimatura while still remaining ‘unfocussed’. Later sessions can define fine highlights and precise shadows. Let the image slowly emerge. Don’t fall into the details – yet. 
One lovely advantage of the mixed technique is brushability. You can paint one color next to another area of color, then using a dry brush gently blend one area into the other. The colors softly merge without contaminating each other. Good sable brushes are invaluable for manipulating paint; fine bristle brushes can be used for painting larger areas and dry merging. Each painter needs to find his/her own taste. Remember to keep your colors pure. Unintentional mud is – mud.

The painting needs to dry thoroughly in between sessions. By using the Mixed Technique and one’s own ground up lean colors, drying time can be greatly reduced.  A week is usually enough. In the beginning stage when the painting is less saturated, the drying time can be even a few days. Techniques to insure a lean and thirsty ground are useful to know. For example, using lead white in one’s ground can help, but remember it is poisinous so use it with caution. I prefer 10 to 20 thin coats of chalk gesso on a plywood panel (Masonite, for example, is not as thirsty).

Session 2
Cover the whole painting (or the section on which you intend to work that day) with Medium. Take a clean dry cotton rag and wipe it back off. The surface should remain tacky and glistening. The surface is now ready for fresh paint manipulations. Finer details can begin to be applied using paint mixed with Emulsion for brushability. Remember the dry brush can be used to blend one area into the next. You will quickly see when an area can receive no more paint.

How many sessions does it take to complete an image?  This is best answered by experience. In general, don’t be impatient. This is not a fast results technique. However, it can create lovely possibilites for translucent color effects enhanced in layers of glaze, yet contrasted by areas of solid color. Try it out for yourself.