A question of balance…

August 22, 2012

Langs de Vaartdijk

Today I created the final glaze on one of my favorite views along the Vaartdijk, a canal on the outskirts of Bruges, Belgium. On a clear day by about 11:00 a.m. the light makes a nice silhouette of a distant church tower with great rooftop variations inbetween: an interesting study of light. Additionally (at least in summer), the green vegetation and red roofs create a wonderful complimentary color juxtaposition, too. I wanted to try to maximize both in a painting.

I began last year with a watercolor study. This was helpful for setting out the general composition but didn’t come close to conveying what I saw (or felt about what I saw). I knew oil was needed to set it right. After working up an underdrawing in india ink followed by an underpainting in egg tempera, I set out attempting to maximize the reds and greens as I felt them through layers of pigment – in the studio. Working en plein air is great for quick studies but it’s almost a contradiction in terms for manipulating layers of oil here in rainy and unpredictable Belgium. Additionally, I knew I needed to concentrate on my own vision and not become distracted by the changeful atmospheric conditions attendant to working in situ. Describing distance with oil paint is a huge challenge, as any hue or value too weak (or too strong) belies the intended effect: it’s a question of balance.

I ended up dancing between cadmium yellow light and cadmium yellow medium for my yellow pigments and ultramarine or thalo for my blues. So my greens would vary from an almost neon green (cadmium YL and thalo) in the foreground, to just slightly dirty in the middle (cadmium YM and ultramarine), to a warmish gray at the back (cadmium Y M and thalo plus burnt sienna). And my reds alternated between two wonderful earth pigments: an opaque mars red and a more translucent burnt sienna.

But these developing color thrusts demanded a regular rebalancing of the whole through reasserting the original statement of light. I often had to reintroduce opaque white pigment in order to reclaim a highlighted area that had become obscured. Of course, it’s always best not to lose light in the first place, but perhaps it’s just a necessary evil of the glazing process? In any case, in addition to the vibration of color, the circulation of light was an equally important factor to integrate in this piece. The image above is the final result. I quite like it.


More Painting Backwards

October 20, 2011

In early July this year I created a watercolor of a view along the Damse Vaart nearby Bruges, just in front of where the steamboat, the Lamme Goedzak, docks.  I really liked the composition created by the canal stretching out into the distance, as well as the light of the evening as it progressed.

Damse Vaart watercolor

By remaining in one location for a few hours, just painting, just watching, I could let the scene tell me precisely which light to try and capture.  The sun was slowly setting in the west (here in midsummer, it doesn’t completely descend until almost 11:00 p.m.), so although the composition in terms of land, trees and water did not change, the light on them certainly did.  I snapped a few photographs of the different transitions as I made my choice.

Back in the studio I transposed the composition to a panel and quickly sketched in the main elements, suggesting the central movements and thrusts as I felt them, the textures and the chiaroscuro.  I used india ink for the stronger value details and silver point for the lighter, softer ones. (sorry, no photo of this stage available) The next time the weather was good, I went back out to do an underpainting using egg tempera (in the field).  Egg tempera is not a technique that easily lends itself to field work but I wanted to experiment.  I worked with a limited palette and preground my colors into a paste using distilled water.  Since I knew the last levels of painting would probably be in the studio, I wanted as much authenticity-of-place as possible.  I decided to use the landscape color convention of stong yellows in the foreground, greens in the middle and blues for the background.  Values were kept fairly light, with everything suggested yet still fairly coarse. (no photo available)

Damse Vaart Oil

Two months later, after a rainy August, one month’s holiday and tons of other stuff inbetween, I had the chance to do the imprimatura. I mixed up a blob of burnt umber tube oil-color with retouch varnish (1 damar to 2 turps).  I painted it on, letting it absorb into the panel for about a minute and then wiped it back off.  It left a thin veil of warm brown over the whole image.  With another small brush dipped in turpentine, I began wiping the brown tint back off from the pre-painted highlighted areas.  Within fifteen minutes the process was complete, the highlights jumped out and the shadows pushed back, both filled with descriptive details and vibrating with life. I was tempted to call it done.

Damse Vaart Oil on panel

Damse Vaart Oil on panel

Nevertheless, the following year I decided to finish the piece – in the studio. I covered it with a tinted glaze of bunrt sienna and painted directly into that, wet-on-wet. This kept the wood areas vibrating with additional warmth and the greens and the blues well grounded. The challenge as always was to mix an array of receding greens to describe the distance. When it was dry I brought some highlights back in using tempera white (zinc white mixed with emulsion). Some of those final highlights required a little glazing just to bring it all back in balance. The resulting painting had a lovely color vibe, the  red warmth of the wood contrasted to the greens (and yellows) of the vegetation.

Encaustic revisited

May 10, 2011

Nils-26 encaustic
Nils #26, encaustic on collage, summer 1978

About 30 years ago I did some mixed media “puzzle” paintings using, among others, a melted wax technique called encaustic.  Although I liked the final result, the cumbersome nature of the materials that the technique required has just not suited my somewhat nomadic lifestyle since that earlier time.  It’s only recently that I decided to give it a re-try.  In the intervening years, encaustic has become quite a hobby craft, so there is a lot of information and materials available for it on the internet.

One main element needed for encaustic painting is a metal pallette whose heating temperature can be adjusted.  30 years ago, for 5$, I had a welder create a pallette for me from scrap metal, found a few hotplates to insert under it and voila, I could mix my pigments, varnish and melted beeswax, no problem.  However, one piece of equipment I never did get was a hot lamp to “fuse” the final painting. Back then, I just left some of the finished paintings out in the sun (it was summertime) to heat up and “fuse”. It seemed to work just fine, and the paintings I created at that time are still alive and well. The memory I retained from this experiment was that this was a coarse technique full of wonderful textural surprises but hard to control for realistic detail.

Anna #18

Anna, #18, encaustic with collage, April 2011

This time around, I found a raclette warming tray at my local thrift store.  For about 10$ I got my pallette, adjustable hot plate and fusing element all in one.  Nice coup!  Main equipment hurdle, check: done.

Next step: making the medium.   I ordered some bleached beeswax and pulled out my pulverized damar varnish crystals.  I melted the beeswax and then added the damar crystals to it at a portion of 4 to 1 (wax to varnish) by weight.  The varnish requires a higher temperature than the wax to melt, so I had to adjust and stir constantly.  When the liquid was clear I poured it into small molds. Both toxicity and flammability are factors in this process, so if you do it yourself, be sure to research it well first and be attentive all the way through.  Don’t use your favorite souffle pan; any pan or wooden spoon called to arms will be ruined (at least for cooking).

Once the medium is created you can go two different ways: one way is to remelt the medium and add dry pigment directly to it or add oil colors from the tube. Having now experimented with both, I would heartily recommend adding dry pigments directly. Although it’s more effort up front, there is no question of shelf life due to the oxidation of the oil. Thus now I have a few cakes of different colors ready to go. Hurdle #2, paint: done.

Anna #09

Anna, #09, encaustic on panel over egg tempera, April 2011

I began slowy, carefully, selecting the first squares of open abstract patterns, knowing that I had already determined to do half of the face in this technique, so I needed to get up to speed. If the Fayum mummy portrait painters could paint such beautiful portraits, there must be a way. Due to the quick hardening time of the wax, my first strokes reaffirmed the clumsiness I had expected. How to render facial detail?  After more research and surfing, I located a hobby source for an electric hot-pen or brush. Yes! This tool made all the difference. I could load up my hot-brush and render a long gentle stroke without the wax hardening in transit. Fine lines became possible, softer transitions, too. Hooray for hobby-craft!

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

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, #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.

OK, OK, I admit it.  I am in love with glazing.  Like non-duality, it has the capacity of unifying many disparate elements, without negating them.  (And isn’t that  wonderful???)  As ever, translucency is the key.  But the tricky thing is the application.  Too much glazing and the painting has a tendency to float off the panel; too little and the thick opaque paint just stays stuck in the mud, reflecting little or no light.  Of course, you can see the same principle reflected in people’s lives. Too little inspiration and we have the tendency to stay stuck in our comfortable grooves; too much inspiration – without a transparent application to the mundane activities of living – and that wonderful poetry, lacking substance, falls short of its mark.

Korte Sint Annastraat

Korte Sint Annastraat value study

I have admired this very colorful alley view of the Sint Anna Kerk in midday light for a number of years now.  Over time, I have made watercolor and value studies of it,  photographs, too (here is the all important value study). The light at midday creates a strikingly vertical composition. The color relationships of the tile roofs are quite exciting along with the added bonus of it being the only street in Bruges whose street is lined with bricks glazed in blue ceramic. Over time, I collected enough material for a winter studio production this year.

Korte Sint Anna black and white

Korte Sint Anna black and white

I began the piece by transposing my black and white drawing to a 30 x 60 cm. gessoed panel. I like to use silverpoint for the first level of drawing. It is very soft and can render lots of intimate details. It tends to create an ambience that invites image development. Silverpoint catches well on the toothy gesso, so the mark lands and does not require too much repetitive movement. Then using india ink, I add touches of higher contrast that push forward the gesture of the composition – but only in the foreground. The idea is to build up the visual effects of distance from the get go. Every layer will play a role. So the black and white level sets up the basics. I’ve decided to add “I Am” to the sky. (the decision occurred after I made the photograph, so Photoshop has come to my display rescue)

Korte Sint Anna Egg tempera

Korte Sint Anna Egg tempera

I use egg tempera to set out the basic color relationships. In contrast to the methods of the old masters, who used their underpainting primarily for value work, I bring color in early in order to test out the vibrations – particularly of complimentary colors. I use a limited palette and usually avoid any color mixing on the palette – with the exception of white since I add zinc white to all my colors in order to avoid an oversaturated final painting. At this stage, the colors are light and somewhat pastel-like. With this method of painting, by the time you reach the oil level, you cannot really paint white over a color to lighten it very much as each successive layer adds a layer of darkness, so to speak. You have to to rely as much as possible on the original white of the panel (that’s why I call it painting backwards). When I’m finished with egg tempera, I seal the surface with a light coat of (rabbitskin) glue size.

Korte Sint Annastraat

Korte Sint Annastraat mixed technique #1

Oil painting with the mixed technique essentially involves alternating transparent glazes with opaque pigments mixed into a painting emulsion. I start with a yellow glaze and then set out bringing the highlights back in. Yellow paint mixed in a series of tints up to white goes back into areas that will contain differing degrees of that color. Warm Gray mixed up in an array of tints is worked back in to shadow blocks, or alternatively into areas of color that will not contain much yellow. At this point, using a large brush, I try to cover most of the panel with emulsion mixed paint. The work goes quickly. In a few hours, I have set the groundwork for both hue and value development. The overall effect is harmonious and low contrast. Because emulsion has been mixed into the paint, the areas of paint blend smoothly into adjacent areas and will dry to the touch within a few days.

Korte Sint Annastraat

Korte Sint Annastraat mixed technique #2

Between the yellow and the red layer, I decided that the “I Am” text in the sky needed to be more luminous, so using turpentine and a stiff brush, I took the earlier levels of paint away (painting backwards). The text may now seem rather stark but I know that it will be softly blended by the time I am done. On the palette I mix up a series of tints in yellow, red and warm gray. There are about 15 little blobs of paint. I cover the panel with a thin glaze of Crimson Lake and begin working the colors back into the surface. Reclaiming the highlights is best done by removing the red glaze rather than painting emulsified white paint back into it (more painting backwards). Shadows and other colors receive their appropriate tint (the normal approach of painting forwards). Every area should receive some work; if glaze is not painted into, it can become unreceptive to further manipulations in successive layers.

Korte Sint Annastraat

Korte Sint Annastraat mixed technique #3

The final level is the blue level. I mix up a series of tints of yellow, red, blue and Payne’s Gray (at this stage I switch from Warm Gray to Payne’s as it is more neutral). Now I have about 20 little blobs of paint. I cover the panel with a light glaze of Cyan. This pigment is quite saturated so I am careful to dilute it well and begin painting. I “erase” the glaze from all the strongly highlighted areas. The warm colors of the underpainted tile roofs pop out and glow (very nice!). I reclaim all the neutrals by painting a gray tint back in, beginning from the background and moving forward. Additional colors arise as needed with a brushstroke of the appropriate color. For example, the strong greens of the foreground shadow, left, are aided by its underlying yellow color structure. Soon I have covered most of the panel and am working details back into the foreground. This is the last session: it takes the longest time since it combines the blue color adjustments along with the final gray balance work. I finally step back, satisfied and ready for dinner.

Comments, as usual are welcome…

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…

After years of experimentation and study, I have come to a technique that at least allows for the possibility of fine painting, in my case landscapes. I’ll try to describe it briefly here below using illustrations from a current project, the Sint Anna Kerk here in Brughes. The value study is completed “en plen air”; the studio work is done in the atelier in successive stages, each oil session is completed “alla prima” (within a few hours). The intent is to capture as much spontneity as possible, within the long time frame that defines an indirect technique.

Sint Anna Kerk value study The start is a value study describing mid-afternoon light. It’s usually a simplified version of where I hope to finally go. I consider it invaluable for setting up both the composition and tonality of the final piece. This study here is done with pencil, white chalk and ink on standard charcoal paper. Highlights and shadows are developed to render a simple direct statement. Any addition information needed can be augmented from photographs and direct observation, since I live around the corner, though I try more and more to rely on my own pictorial memory.

Sint AnnaKerk silverpoint with india inkThe main elements of the composition are transposed to a panel using line, texture, shading and form. Traditionally, fine drawing pens loaded with india ink are used for transferring the linear, graphical part of the drawing but I have recently been experimenting with using a silverpoint stylus for my underdrawing. The final result is softer, warmer and subtler than india ink (see the grey tones). However, that descriptive subtlety is often lost in the intervening layers of paint, thus, I have begun augmenting the silver point with india ink in order to accentuate the contrasts of the foreground. Thus, distance is described from the beginning in a few ways. The decisions made now guide many aspects of the final result, so it is important to be sure and thus avoid pentimento.

Sint Anna Kerk Egg Tempera In order to minimize the amount of oil needed to achieve layers of color, I use a traditional egg tempera technique to begin the painting. Oil can be painted over egg (fat over lean), however egg cannot be painted over oil. In addition, egg tempera must be painted on a hard, firm surface, otherwise it will crack, thus the panel is prepared with a traditional gesso surface.

I use the egg tempera technique to indicate basic broad areas of local color. All objects at this point are better stated as pastel suggestions rather than full strong colors. In this version of the Sint Anna Kerk, I have been careful to keep my colors light in order to avoid an oversaturated painting in the middle and background areas. I have learned (the hard way) that control of hue, saturation and value are critical for describing distance. The vibrations of complimentary colors are hinted at but not yet fully explored. Also, I try to use single pigments only for spectral purity; no color mixing is done on the pallette. Colors (like certain greens and oranges) that might require mixing are indicated through separate layers of translucent paint. This layer will be dry to the touch almost immediately, but it should dry at least one week before attempting to work in oil.

SintAnnaKerk_IMP_web_aa Although it may seem like a sin to cover the fine egg tempera painting with a blanket of brown, the imprimatura quickly helps to establish the overall key of the piece as well as to unify any disparate elements. The previous egg tempera layer must be not only completely dried but sealed with a layer of glue size to protect it from the succeeding layers of oil based paints. The lines and colors of the previous layers continue to shine through, adding texture and interest, particularly in the mid tones and shadows. The imprimatura is a mixture of damar varnish, turpentine, and brown pigment (in this case, burnt umber). I brush it on, wait a minute or so and then wipe it off with a dry, lint free, soft clean cloth.

Since I was very interested to retain the purity of the whites in the highlight areas of the picture, I went back into the fresh imprimatura with a brush dipped in fresh turpentine to remove the brown tint from the highlight areas. My theory/concept is that even though I will be painting over these areas in white oil paint to create mass and to soften edges, whatever is underneath ultimately does matter. If I want to somehow simulate the intensity of pure light – even if it is reflective and not transmissive – then the purity of the original gessoed board is important. I let the imprimatura then dry a day or so, and begin painting in the Mixed Technique.

SintAnnaKerk_MT1_web_aa I squeeze a quantity of cadmium yellow onto the pallette and dip a thin, wide bristle brush into the clear medium (1 part Damar, 1 part Stand Oil, 1 part Turps), then scumble in a very thin coat of yellow over the whole surfce. It sets for a minute or so and then I wipe it back off with a soft, lint free cloth. The idea is to leave some translucent color tint with some tack and work the first levels of oil back into it. Because it’s a panel and not canvas, the tackiness of the oil/varnish medium catches the brush stroke well, functioning like the weave of a canvas in attracting the brushstroke yet leaving no trace of a fabric-like texture.

At this stage, I work with two basic colors, yellow and gray. I mix up a gray to match the same value of the pure cadmium yellow medium, in order to set the overall darkest value. I then mix up a series of tints (5 or 6 steps) from both the gray and the yellow to white. I begin painting in large areas trying to quickly cover the whole painting with one of these tints, using a thick bristle brush and an emulsion for the pigments (1 methyl cellulose glue, .5 oil/.5 varnish, 1 water) which hastens the drying time. The drawing and egg tempera levels have already set the stage, so to speak, and function not only as guides but also as mirror like reflections. It takes only a few strokes to bring out a form. I use a fan shaped dry brush to merge forms together.

It’s fine to be working with a limited palette now, thinking ahead by laying in a more saturated yellow for both the greens and the oranges. I use the gray for neutral tonalities, shadow and to suggest distance. The overall contrast is quite low.

SintAnnaKerk_MT2_web_aa I squeeze a small amount of a cool, translucent red pigment out onto a pallette board. In this case I use crimson lake, in the past I have used alizarin crimson. Dipping a wide, flat bristle brush into clear medium (1T,1D,1SO) and then into the pigment, I proceed to scumble a thin layer of translucent red over the entire piece. After a minute or so, I wipe this off with a clean soft cloth, taking off as much pigmented medium as possible. The remaining surface has a slight tack to the touch.

I mix up three colors this time. Red, in a series of tints up to white. Warm gray mixed in a series of tints up to white and yellow, mixed in the same way. (The value of the pure red is the same value as the pure warm gray, both being close to a pure medium gray value.) Using a big bristle brush and emulsion, I work quickly to re-establish all the values and colors of the intended piece. Occassionally I need to mix a color that requires a combination of two of the premixed tints.

But look, some strong greens are emerging although I haven’t used any green or blue pigment yet! It’s only yellow refracting back through levels of drawing, egg tempera, imprimatura and glaze. Because I use an emulsion (1 methyl cellulose glue, .5 oil/.5 varnish, 1 water) as my painting medium, the work dries quickly, the colors maintain a level of transparency, and the layers of paint are rather lean.

SintAnnaKerk_MT3_web_aa This is the blue level. I premix my intended colors: yellow in a series of 5-6 tints up to white, red, blue and Payne’s gray all mixed in the same way. There are about 20 little blobs of paint, which I may or may not use but I want to be able to work quickly and precisely in my choices.

I squeeze out a small amount of pure cyan (Thalo Blue) and dip my brush in clear medium (1T, 1V, 1 SO). Cyan is a highly saturated pigment with strong tinting power so a little goes a long way. I scumble it on and after a few moments wipe it back off, leaving a slightly tacky surface that has still more blue in it than I would actually prefer. I remind myself to use Ultramarine Blue next time…

I begin to reclaim the highlights and quarter tones, working with a big brush for starters. Any color I paint now picks up a bit of blue from the glaze. Hmmm…that’s good and it unifies the painting, but is there too much blue? A lot of unexpected colors start to happen. OK, let them emerge. I need to reintroduce the main color contrasts, like the orange for the clay tile roof, the brown bricks and the green vegetation. After the main value and hue statements are set, a few details are reintroduced with a smaller brush to help refine those shapes: window and trim, shadows and highlights. After a few hours, I’ve covered the panel. But is it done?

SintAnnaKerk_final_aaAfter the blue session, all the color statements have been made and I’m happy, sort of, but there remains a bluish tint to the whole piece. I could leave it that way, but the intended gray of the church steeple and road pavement encourage me to attempt some gray balance adjustment. So, I cover the entire piece with a clear glaze of medium and wipe it back off (as usual). I mix up a series of tints using Payne’s gray this time as it is both darker and more neutral than the lighter warm gray pigment I have been using. I squeeze out lead white but mix it 50/50 with titanium white; since the painting is moving into it’s oilier stages. I strengthen the pure whites, the gray steeple and pavement, even scumble some body back into the buildings on the shadow side of the street. I put a glaze of yellow on the buildings on the left for local color, and add the final highlights to the tree. There is not much to do, but what is done crisps up value contrasts and defines gray balance.

Eh, voila. C’est fini! The cherries on top are the final touches of gold to the church steeple.


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.


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.

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.

The Panel

May 7, 2009

The Panel:
A firm non flexible ground is necessary for painting with egg tempera.  On good linen canvas, the oil medium can sustain flexing and shrinking, but egg tempera cannot.  If one chooses to work exclusively in oil, canvas may be the ground of choice.  As I prefer to use a mixed technique, painting on panel is my preference.  Additionally, I find the smoothness of the surface very sensuous.

Of the choices readily and economically available to painters these days, my personal preference is good quality, plywood panels.  They are heavier than Masonite but in the long run, more absorbent.  They do not warp, and the fine crackles that can occur in the gesso from slight wood expansion can be avoided either by obtaining a high quality piece of plywood from a cabinet maker or by gluing a thin layer of fine linen fabric to the board before the first coat of gesso.