Archive for March, 2010

Madder harvest – continued

March 29, 2010
Madder roots

Digging for madder roots

For the past week or two, as I’ve had time, I’ve been cleaning out my garden plot – or trying to. Mostly this has consisted of digging for madder roots. I know I did this a couple of months ago, as described in my post My first madder harvest. But… the stuff grows back. With a vengeance. Every little root scrap and fragment I left in the ground seemed like it was springing back to life again, so I needed to get back in there and dig up the dregs before it could get away from me again.

The truth wound up being a bit different. It wasn’t just dregs in the ground; I had actually missed quite a bit of the bulky roots by simply not digging deep enough the first time around. The roots went very deep, and I mean the big ones along with the speedy orange runners. Which was good along with the bad: I got some more high-quality roots that certainly have some good dye in them. But it’s been some solid labor to unearth them all, and I’m not finished yet. In the pic above, I’m just getting started with the hole; and you can see the growing pile of madder roots in the lower left corner. This is after cleaning out another, similar area to the left of the pic.

Madder - January & March

Madder - January & March

Remember how the madder plants had died back in the winter? In case not, here is the pic I posted back in January of one of the plants in its little raised bed – compared with one of the madder beds two and half months later, at the end of March.

They are going quite crazy without any help from me. Let me reiterate from my previous post, perhaps more strongly: these plants are aggressive, and quite difficult to contain. If you plan on growing madder yourself, do put it into containers (or very raised beds), or it will get out of control. In a way, beginning with too many madder plants has defined my entire garden experience ever since – and will continue to do so until most of these are harvested and completely cleaned out of the ground. After this continuing fiasco, I’m certain I will never grow another madder plant that is not in a container. If it weren’t for the happy fact that birds are completely uninterested in the berries, making it extremely unlikely that the plants will spread without my knowledge, I would rip them all out now and be done. I won’t be responsible for an invasive species getting loose in my area. But for now they’re okay – just taking up a lot of my time. The pic below: Overrun by madder plants (horror monster music here)!

Madder - rubia tinctoria

Aggressive madder plants

On a positive note, I collected a large number of seed pods from last year’s indigo plants. (And we got a nice fava bean harvest from the other plot!) I’ll be starting some indigo seedlings soon – a little late, but then that’s how I do many things. Especially this year. Wedding is in three weeks!

Colors “straight from the tube”

March 21, 2010

Attitudes have certainly changed over the centuries regarding how we treat our colors when painting a picture, and much of the changing approaches are directly related to the questions of what pigments are available, and how expensive and difficult to procure they are. Much of what one reads and hears currently concerning color theory and ways of approaching a painting, other than color relationships, is concerned with mixtures of paint colors: Which colors will mix to produce a warm shadow, what mixture of colors will most accurately represent what I’m seeing here, and can I really get a good skin tone by mixing all these colors on my palette? This approach seems obvious to us – after all, one cannot accurately describe most real-world objects or scenes using paints straight from the tube, they are simply too bright and saturated. Most of the real world that we as artists are trying to depict falls into a much less saturated range. Concentrating on mixtures of colors generally seems to be the only reasonable approach, and so obvious it barely merits attention.

However, this approach was not always quite so obvious or accepted as it is to us today. There was a time when pigments were used much more often in pure, unmixed form in paintings – and this had much to do with a regard for pigments that was born of their scarcity and percieved inherent value. During the Middle Ages, when bright and purely intense colors delighted the eye to an extent not seen again until the twentieth century, mixtures of colors were used when necessary but were not considered ideal. Writes Daniel V. Thompson concerning mixed greens in medieval painting:

We are justified in believing that mixed greens were common in medieval painting; but we could easily allow ourselves to overstress their importance. In general, medieval painters did not much like to sink the individuality of their hard-gotten colours in complicated mixtures. Mixtures of more than two or three pigments were not popular, and there was a decided preference for achieving effects with single pigments, displaying their characters to the best advantage. (The materials and techniques of medieval painting, Daniel V. Thompson)

Mixing a color was sometimes even referred to as its “deflowering.” Some of this approach had to do, certainly, with a lesser necessity for complex mixtures, since medieval painting (to probably grossly oversimplify) had less to do with achieving realism than did painting in later periods. Complex mixtures are required in order to accurately describe natural light falling over the more or less desaturated forms of nature – but not to create an icon whose purpose is to inspire feelings of worship.

Much of this approach by medieval artists, however, had to do not only with the comparative de-emphasis of realism in their art, but also with the high regard in which pure, bright pigments were held in their time. Bright, permanent colors were scarce and generally expensive. If an artist has spent all day making a lake pigment himself, or purchased costly materials from over the sea, finally to attain a precious lovely color brighter than any to be found in readily available local materials, would it then make sense for that artist to be eager to quickly dull that color down in mixtures? As someone who has labored to manufacture a few lake pigments myself, I wouldn’t think so.

For various reasons, including the growing scarcity of basic materials, I expect many of our modern colors to become more expensive in the future – perhaps much more expensive. If this happens, I will be very curious to see if we artists of the twenty-first century develop more of a medieval attitude to the inherent value of pigments (among other things, perhaps to the dismay of modern relativist economists); and, in painting practice, the preservation of the purity of colors.

Another egg tempera study

March 15, 2010
Egg tempera portrait

Egg tempera portrait

I’ve made another egg tempera study, again from a photo portrait by Steve McCurry. This one turned out a bit better than the first – it’s done in natural Venetian red and titanium white, again from Rublev. I am really liking this new (for me) medium. I’m thinking I’m going to do lots more with it.

I’m currently working on a third study that doesn’t seem to be going so well… part of the problem may be an alteration of my technique. In this painting I’ve posted here, I used the egg tempera pretty much like gouache, applying the paint in thin but substantial brush strokes. But from what I’ve read, and from some feedback I received, egg tempera is at its best when it is built up slowly in thin layers. So I tried that in the current painting, which is a grisaille of raw umber and titanium white (if I finish it to my satisfaction I’ll post it here); but I was immediately thrown off my stride by the change. I wound up switching back to my older style after a few layers.

(Part of the problem was the drawing itself, I definitely screwed that up and needed to fix it with the paint, which is something I don’t like to have to do. Also, my wrists are weak – I have bad recurring tendonitis in my wrists, and they go sour if I overuse them – just too weak to be scrubbing at the panel forever. I do ink drawings that require that sometimes, but I wouldn’t be able to do them every day. I want to be able to paint every day, or close to it; so I paint standing up, the easel at arm’s length, and have at it, relaxed and loose. It’s really the only way I can paint if I want to do it regularly.)

Another reason I’m getting excited about the egg tempera is that it seems like it might be able to replace the mixed media technique I posted on a few weeks ago, the one that layers inks, watercolors, gouache, a separating varnish, and oils. The ink drawing is already a part of the egg tempera painting process, and the egg tempera itself can stand in for the watercolors, gouache and separating varnish, and can be painted over with oil glazes directly. This simplifies the process a lot, and it does away with the thorny problem of finding the right natural varnish for the separating layer – I was going to be trying shellac and all sorts of things. Also, it doesn’t get much more traditional than this. I like the innovation of the methods I was using before, but – well, according to one or two schools of thought, oil glazes over egg tempera or tempera grassa were used by the early Flemish masters. How cool is that? No secret medium – just oil over egg.

Obviously I’ve got a lot of work to do before coming to any decisions – but one of my problems is that I just think too much. But maybe, in this case, it’s led me in a good direction. A few more studies in straight egg tempera, then I’ll get those gesso panels and try out the tempera grassa, then oil glazes over all.

The wedding is in one month! – L.Lawrence

First egg tempera

March 7, 2010

I have finally tried painting in egg tempera. This is something I’ve been threatening to do for literally years – every so often in the Wet Canvas forum someone would post some brilliant egg tempera painting, and I would respond with the traditional “Wow, I’ve gotta try this soon…” and then I’d go back to working on other stuff. This time it really stuck in my brain though, and I gave it a try.

First egg tempera

First egg tempera

For convenience I was going to try some of the commercial tubes of egg tempera, either Sennelier or Rowney, but then I thought heck, I’m used to working with raw pigments, why not just grind up my own and get to work. So I did – I separated a yolk from an old egg in the fridge (my fiancée Joy came upon me in the kitchen holding an egg yolk in my hand – poor woman, it just keeps getting weirder and weirder around this place), and made a sort-of verdaccio with terre verte and titanium white, both from Rublev. I sanded down the surface of an Ampersand Claybord (of which I have a stack as a gift from my mom), made a drawing with ordinary India ink using another photo portrait from Steve McCurry as reference, and went at it. The result is the above pic – unfinished, and too reliant upon the ink drawing – but representing my first real try at egg tempera.

I found the medium challenging but quite enjoyable – the study captured all of my attention for most of an afternoon, as I was introduced to some of the quirks of painting in egg yolk. One challenge was judging values across layers as the painting built up slowly. Another was the medium’s very quick drying time, which made soft edges difficult. One of the things I want to try is tempera grassa, which is an egg-oil emulsion that will make the paint strokes dry a bit slower, and therefore make it easier to blend colors for the modeling of flesh tones and so on. From what I’ve read this may alter the “jewel-like” quality of some of the colors in egg tempera – but I think that will probably be okay for flesh tones, I don’t particularly want my flesh tones to look like jewels anyway. One possibility is to do a verdaccio underpainting in pure egg tempera (like this one, except I’ll do it raw umber and black instead of the terre verte) with a full-color tempera grassa layer above – but for now I’ve got these Claybords to work on, and I don’t know how well the extra oil in the grassa will work on them. (I know that straight oil paints don’t do well on the Claybord – the absorbent ground soaks the oil right up, leaving nothing but dry pigment on the surface. Something similar might happen with tempera grassa.) So I’ll be doing eight or ten straight egg tempera studies first – which is probably a good idea anyway. I’ll make or buy some real gesso panels for the other.

There’s something about working in egg tempera that I already like a lot, and I can’t work out exactly what it is – making my own colors with the egg yolk, the clarity of the crisp colors and brush strokes, the controlled and quick building up of layers into a painting. Maybe it’s partly the feeling of tradition, the excitement of knowing that the basic process I’m using was the painting method a thousand years ago. I know I get that same rush from using traditional pigments. As I said to my fiancée with a grin on my face: This is totally medieval.

Yellow lake oil paint

March 1, 2010
Weld yellow lake glaze

Weld yellow lake glaze

I mentioned in the last post an oil color I had used for that practice illustration, which was weld. This is a color I’ve grown in my garden, the reseda luteola, an old dye plant that is just lightfast enough to have been used as a lake pigment by some of the old masters, such as Vermeer. It was commonly called yellow lake. (This term could actually apply to organic yellow lake pigments from many different sources, such as buckthorn berries or quercitron – but by the accounts I’ve read, weld was the most permanent. Even so, it’s considered fugitive by today’s standards, though at one point it was considered sufficiently permanent for artistic use. I have yet to conduct my own lightfastness tests upon it.)

Reseda luteola

Young weld from the garden

Weld is a color I’ve been grinding into a gouache watercolor for some time now, and it’s a great color. I’ll talk more about weld gouache later, and the process of making a lake pigment. This oil paint that I made from the lake more recently is actually my first handmade oil paint, and also my first paint that I’ve tubed (a process on which I’ll also post). It’s intended as a glazing color, something nice and transparent to layer over a dried paint layer of modeled forms underneath. This is the way it was commonly used in the past (though Rembrandt liked to mix his lake pigments directly in with his other colors).

I ground about equal amounts of oil and lake pigment, for a few reasons: that’s about the proportion of gum arabic to pigment in the gouache; that’s what I had read is required for madder lake; and it seemed during grinding to be necessary. As it turns out, it was definitely too much binder. Thanks to a couple of suggestions from the good folks over at the AMIEN forum, I stored the tube upright (cap up) for a few days, and was then able to pour off the extra oil, which had separated from the paint.

Another yellow lake oil glaze

Another glaze

I tried the paint out on some old studio paintings of mine that were ready for the trash bin. The picture at the top shows the lake color glazed over a green ceramic piece, and over parts of the background. The glaze warmed and livened up the green quite a bit, changed the hue of the background completely, and really brought the metallic parts to life. You can tell the two photos were taken under very different lighting conditions (in fact they were taken years apart); but the basic effect of the glaze is there in the second photo. This was only a quick experiment, but it was very exciting for me – painting with an oil paint whose color came from a plant I grew in my own garden! Drunk with power, I tried another, glazing the yellow color over the white shirt of the portrait at right. One thing is clear: painting with glazes requires a bit more planning than this (Color harmony? Hah!). Nice and bright yellow, though, isn’t it? I can’t wait to make some actual studies of glazing using this color – I’ll paint some drapery (something I need to study more anyway) with that in mind. For now, though, I have to get myself moved across town. Moving is never fun, but there’s maybe some good news – I might actually have an honest-to-goodness garage to work from. Here’s hoping…

Edit: we managed to get moved, though it was a near thing. Was not a good experience. However, I’m stoked because I’ve got a little backyard space to raise a few dye plants, instead of doing all of it over at the community garden. Not sure about the garage space yet. Now I get to nurse my lower back to health again…