Book cover for: Art in the Making, Underdrawings in the Renaissance

Book cover for: Art in the Making, Underdrawings in the Renaissance

I picked up this book about a year ago, upon the recommendation of Koo Schadler, a contemporary artist proficient in the practice of egg tempera. It is produced by the National Gallery in London and consists of four essays. They cover: an informative introduction, the materials that were used for underdrawings back in the day, the underdrawings of the artists of the Northern Renaissance (Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands), and the underdrawings of the artists of the Southern Renaissance (Italy). Suceeding these essays is an in-depth analysis of the role underdrawings played in sixteen well known paintings from the National Gallery’s collection. Scientific methods of detection and the test of time don’t get better than this

I had contacted Koo last year because I had questions about the usefulness of silverpoint as an underdrawing for a painting to be fully realised later in egg tempera. Now one year later I am returning to the book with a different question. What is the best material to use for an underdrawing executed on a panel primed with a lead white oil ground? It’s not a question that arises much since most artists these days paint upon canvases primed with acrylic gesso. That’s the ground of choice for anyone painting on a flexible support. It covers well, provides a good level of absorption for acrylic or oil, is not as thirsty as traditional chalk gesso, yet it’s not as resistant as an oil ground might be. Relative to the underdrawing, acrylic gesso is receptive to either acrylic black ink or traditional waterproof india ink. Both types of inks do not bleed through into successive layers, while also they do not harm the oil’s adhesion to its ground. Thus, they hold their integrity in both directions. I sorted out these underdrawing questions recently for my series of panels executed in acrylic.

However, for my own personal touchy-feely research reasons I wanted to paint on the ground that had been used by artists since the late middle ages up to the mid-twentieth century. After all, that’s what you’re looking at when you go to a museum and view any painting created on canvas before, say, 1950. Now, due to its toxicity, lead white has become almost unavailable. I have been able to secure some though through my local art shop, skull-and-cross-bones warning and all. Of course, I took great precautions with its application. My research informs me that lead white toxicity is virtually nonexistent in its liquid form, though I did wear gloves, goggle and a mask. I did not and certainly would not recommend handling it as a  powder (or sanding it, either).

Toxicity aside, I now had twelve panels primed in lead white: how to proceed from there with my underdrawings? I already knew that for adhesion reasons acrylic black ink could not be used over oil but I thought that traditional india ink might be OK. I quickly discovered that it is not. My drawings beaded up. So what did the Renaissance artists do? How did they move from conception to realization? The short answer is charcoal, but without a binder, charcoal is indeed a very short-lived answer. It’s great for transferring designs or for sketching out big ideas but it lacks permanency. According to this book, it appears that Renaissance artists used a variety of inks or diluted oil paint to render their black and white designs the permanency that charcoal lacked. (The charcoal preliminary lines were then dusted away.) However, when you consider the ground/substrate issue (this book does not distinguish between the traditional chalk gesso ground created for an inflexible substrate and an oil ground created for a flexible substrate) it was clear that a diluted dark oil paint would be the tool of choice. Thus, I had found my answer and proceeded happily along my way. One more technical challenge solved.