Archive for October, 2010

San Francisco and the de Young

October 31, 2010
Renoir - from

Renoir - from

This last weekend I was in San Francisco again with my wife. It was only for a day and a night, but while we were there, and on our way back down the coast, we took in a lot of art. Our biggest art stop (besides perhaps Hearst Castle) was the DeYoung museum. Our stepmother Suzy works at the museum, and suggested a visit while we were in town. It was perfect timing: the Post-Impressionist exhibit is there right now. This is a followup to the Birth of Impressionism show from this summer, and it was an awesome show. The first thing you see walking into the first room is this big fat Sargent portrait – one of those cool ladies in satin dress. Absolutely stunning to see it in person, knocks the top of your head clean off. Damn that guy was good! In that same room were Monets I’d never seen before, Pissaro, Degas, and Renoir. Moving on, we were treated to a room of Van Gogh, another of Cezanne (swoon), and yet another of Gauguin. These are some of my favorite guys, and it’s always great to see them in the flesh. The Renoirs were a particularly magnificent treat – he’s one of those artists whose work is particularly diminished in reproduction. If you get a chance to see any in person, jump at it. Van Gogh is another – you just don’t know his work if you haven’t seen it up close.

Vilhelm Hammershøi - from

Hammershøi - from

We were not quite as interested in the later stuff – it didn’t take too long for modernism to start flying off the deep end – but all of it was cool to see. There was a room or two of outstanding pointillist work, including various Seurats and a couple from my favorite pointillist, Theo van Rhyssellberghe. A couple of other standouts were a painting by Vilhelm Hammershøi (the one seen at right, absolutely love it) and a few impressive works by Henri Rousseau. These were all works on loan from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris; this collection isn’t making any other stops in the United States, and probably won’t ever make it across the Atlantic again in its entirety. The only reason it’s here now is because the d’Orsay is currently being renovated. Maybe in another eighty years or so. So if you’re in San Francisco, or if you aren’t, I can definitely recommend the exhibit.

Something else that was magical about the museum visit is that I was lucky enough to be given a tour of the conservators’ painting room. The DeYoung is one of the few museums that still conducts its own conservation, rather than outsourcing the work, and I got to see a few of the pieces they were working on there, and to speak with a few of the conservators. One of them, Elise Effmann, gave us a tour and spent a good amount of time discussing things with me and explaining details of the trade. In case you don’t know me well enough by now: for me this was awesome. I’d like to talk about this more later; I think artists who are interested in the durability of their paintings should be soaking up as much as possible from the professionals who are working at keeping the older paintings alive. These are the folks who know which art materials have been more durable, and which materials eventually lead to problems in conservation. Elise, for instance, was able to confirm something I’ve thought in the past, and actually mentioned briefly in the last post: oil paintings in which soft resins have been incorporated into the paint layers are particularly troublesome to conserve. One of the primary tasks of the conservator is the removal and reapplication of final varnishes; and when soft resins are a part of the paint layer, they are all too easy to damage. Your paint layer can come right up with the varnish. Even if that doesn’t happen, then the resin will darken and yellow in your painting over time; and unlike the yellowing of oil, the yellowing and darkening of resins is not reversible by sunlight. It’s very fashionable now, as it was in the nineteenth century, to use things like mastic varnish, Venice turpentine, Canada balsam, megilp, Maroger medium, what have you, as a painting medium; but if you want your oil paintings to be durable (“archival,” in modern parlance), then it just isn’t a sound idea. Want archival? Then just use oil and pigment. Simple. More on that later. Thanks Suzy!

Verdaccio layer continued

verdaccio layer

verdaccio layer

Here is the next stage of the verdaccio layer, continued from the last post. Though unfinished, this will be the last time I can work on this stage of the painting. Please forgive the glare in the shadows – the paint is still wet, of course – but the shadows are uninteresting in this technique, they’re simply painted directly using the Zorn palette. It’s in the lights that the complex mixtures of chromium oxide and “sinopia” are used. There are warm and cool grays at this stage, to be brought to life with a final yellow glaze in a few weeks. Next week I begin work on the verdaccio layer of the figure painting.

Verdaccio layer – beginning

October 17, 2010

Chris wrote some questions about the piambura layer examples in this post here. Chris, thanks for the interest and questions. Sorry it took a few days to get back to you, it’s been a… trying week. Your questions:

Is the white layer done in one go. – For these studies the white piambura layer was done in one day. I don’t see any reason why the piambura couldn’t be done in multiple sessions, though, if needed – for instance in a larger or more complex work.

is the white paint thinned at all – The white paint is not thinned with a solvent, but painted quite thinly so that in the darker halftones the imprimatura shows through. The lead white does some interesting optical mixing with the brown underlayer, giving the impression of a blueish tone. From what I’ve been told this can actually help to neutralize subsequent warmer skin tones.

My instructor advocates using a bit of Canada balsam mixed in with the paint for some stages. I didn’t follow his instruction on this, because I think it’s generally a bad idea to incorporate natural soft resins into an oil paint layer. I tried it out on a color comp thumbnail, and I didn’t really like the way it handled anyway. Can’t really see the up side here.

Do i need a smooth surface – We’ve been painting on oil-primed linen, Claessens 13, which is like canvas but a pretty tight weave. So, smoother than regular canvas, but not as smooth as panel. I just picked up a small traditionally gessoed panel, and I plan to try this technique with that. I don’t see any reason why this technique couldn’t be done on any number of different surfaces, but each will give a different effect since the layers of paint are pretty thin, allowing the texture of the ground to show through. Linen is considered by many to be one of the best surfaces for portrait painting, because of the tight weave and fairly smooth surface.

First verdaccio attempt

First verdaccio attempt

When do you think your next post will be. Well, now that you mention it… I’ve begun on the verdaccio layer of the first portrait, which you can see at right. It probably looks pinker than you’d expect a verdaccio to be – after all, verdaccio means green first. However, this style of verdaccio involves both green and red. The green is chromium oxide green, and the red is a complex mix called sinopia. (It isn’t really sinopia, though – more about that later. I mixed up quite a bit of this red and tubed it up to use for the figure next month.) Each color is mixed into the other, making a very grayed warm and cool, one leaning slightly green, the other leaning slightly red. From these two piles ramps of eleven values each are mixed. This is just a little preview; I’ll make sure to post pics of the fully-arranged palette in the next post – it’s a bit of work to set up! – and hopefully the finished verdaccio layer.

This is all stuff I’m learning in class, and painted from life, which always adds to the challenge factor when learning a brand new technique, at least for me. When the class is finished I plan to do one or two studies on my own, working from photographs so that I can really focus on the technique itself, and I’ll try to take those up to fully-rendered classical paintings. I’ll also make some changes to the colors I’m using, simplifying and making more traditional choices. More in two weeks!

Christmas card sketch, walnut ink

October 3, 2010
Pine cone sketch

Pine cone sketch

Here is a new little drawing made with the homemade walnut ink. It’s intended to be the design for a Christmas card, of which I plan to put a couple up on my Redbubble and Imagekind pages. This one came out a little stiff – probably because I drew it a bit on the small side, and also because I just tightened up, knowing that I intended it to be a professional piece (sort of). I’m also not thrilled with the distribution of values, though that part at least is fixable. There’s a chance I’ll attempt a redo, larger and looser.

Isn’t it just a pretty color for an ink, though? I’m not the only one out there making and using ink from black walnut hulls. Here is an old WetCanvas post by a member named Bluegill (Mark Tabler), an outstanding ink artist, who uses homemade walnut ink as well. In this post, he has made available the results of some lightfastness tests he conducted upon his walnut ink. I was quite interested to see this, of course, since I still haven’t gotten around to setting up the Great Lightfastness Test of 2010 (we’ll have to see if that doesn’t turn into the Great Lightfastness Test of 2011), although I have at least obtained my blue wool samples and have them ready to go. In the meantime, Tabler’s tests seem to indicate that walnut ink is fairly lightfast, though not perfectly so. Good enough for me; and when I do my own tests, hopefully I’ll get confirmation on that.

Here is Mark’s House Portraits page, exhibiting drawings done in walnut ink, and here is his Homemade Black Walnut Ink page, sharing his recipe and procedure for making the ink. Good stuff. I also want to share one of the best walnut ink wash drawings I’ve seen, posted on this page at Science-Art. Go ahead and click on the drawing for a larger view. Beautiful. I’ll get there someday if I can help it.

If you’re interested in using real walnut ink, I’d really recommend making your own. If you don’t live in an area with black walnut trees, as in my case, then you can purchase walnut hulls from a natural dyes shop and simply follow the process described in my post here. Or you can do a hunt for walnut ink to purchase online – just beware, not all of them are actually made from walnuts, and the ones that are not won’t necessarily tell you that on the order page.

Looking at the design above, I think I will redo it. It’s gotten to an okay place, but it’s not finished yet. I’ve made many sketches of pine cones, from life, which I had collected over the past few weeks with this little project in mind. It’s so important to work from life, whenever circumstances allow. I could have taken a photo and traced it; but in sketching from life, I really learned about pine cones: their structure, their rhythms, their mathematical patterns. At this point, I feel like I could probably draw a pine cone from memory if I were asked to. I may not have the time to redo this – but if I do, hopefully that familiarity will serve me well.