Posts Tagged ‘portrait’

Last of the Old Masters

September 9, 2014

Robert Henri - Dorita - WikiArt

Robert Henri – Dorita – WikiArt

“Know what the old masters did. Know how they composed their pictures, but do not fall into the conventions they established. These conventions were right for them, and they are wonderful. They made their language. You make yours. They can help you. All the past can help you.”
– Robert Henri.

This morning I went once more to see the Robert Henri “Spanish Sojourns” exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Art. This was the fourth time I’ve gone to see this particular exhibit. The other three times it was paired with the fantastic “Sorolla in America” exhibit; this time I went for the Henri alone.

I almost didn’t go. I’m pressed for time these days, and I only had about an hour to see the paintings before beginning the drive up to work. And I felt I had already seen what I needed to on my previous trips. But I had been planning to go once more by myself, and I figured this kind of Henri show would probably never happen again.

This is the last day of the show in San Diego. If you happen to catch this post within the next few minutes – and unfortunately, I mean the very next few – get yourself over there. Drop everything and just do it. You won’t regret it, I promise.

I saw in the news that the exhibit will be stopping in Jackson, Mississippi next. Same message for folks in that part of the country – if you are at all a fan of portraiture, this is not a show to be missed.

This last visit was amazing, but a bit sad, too – looking at paintings I knew I would probably never see again. I had a particularly difficult time saying goodbye to Dorita, the painting at the top of this post. She has long been a favorite of mine, and I’d been overjoyed to discover that she was a part of this exhibit. I do hope I get to see her again someday.

Every time I look at Henri’s paintings up close, I am further blown away by them. I’ve long been a fan of Henri’s, and I’ve long had the suspicion that he was grossly underrated. My suspicion was given some legs when I read Richard Schmid’s good opinion of him in his book Alla Prima. This last visit… I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and what so many others seem to be missing, if Henri’s limited fame is any measure. Henri’s paintings are so like the paintings of the Baroque, with his dark palette and glowing light… The brushstrokes are those of a modernist, but the compositions are those of an old master. I am beyond suspicion now, and I can make the following three statements about the artist:

One: Robert Henri is one of the truly great portrait artists of the last century.

Two: Robert Henri is as of now, bar none, my favorite portrait artist.

Three: I am ready to give Henri a certain title. This title has been given to different artists before; it was first given to David, I believe, and has since been given to different artists from Goya to Renoir. I personally will stake my own claim and give this title to Robert Henri,

Last of the Old Masters.

Back to the Student Palette

February 26, 2012
Student Palette - Layered

Student Palette - Layered

Here’s the next one in the batch. I wanted to use a slightly wider palette of earth colors for this one: In addition to my base palette of Rublev Ercolano Red, Venetian Red, Blue Ridge Yellow Ocher and Lead White #2, and Da Vinci Magnetite Genuine, I added Da Vinci Hematite Violet and Arizona Brown Ochre, and Winsor & Newton Burnt Umber. All the earths are natural except the WN Burnt Umber, which as has been discussed is likely synthetic. The violet shirt is done with the Violet Hematite, black and white. (Cool that that’s a natural earth, huh?) The “blue” shirt is just black and white.

Once again I’ve turned to Steve McCurry for my reference. I cannot say enough about his books as a learning tool for students of portrait art. Of course you can’t sell derivative works, but if you’re doing studies, these photos are just great for reference – interesting characters, good lighting, and so on.



This is a layered painting, unlike the others of mine in the thread. I used brown ochre and lead white for the underpainting. This sort of brown underpainting – transparent, opaque, or a combination of the two – has been called a brunaille.

My goal was to experiment with an impasto underpainting, and glaze, scumble, and wipe away earth colors on top of it. Though not everything is working here yet, I am really pleased with one part of the painting, which is the forehead, the part where I actually took that goal seriously and went for it.

Glazes Wiped Away

Glazes Wiped Away

Longtime readers may remember the posts on the so-called verdaccio technique from some time ago, and may see a connection here. I have long been thinking of getting back around to that technique, as I had the impression that the basic procedure was sound, but that the materials were bunk. This painting is going back in that direction – at some point I will try an actual pedigree verdaccio underpainting with glazes, and see if I can’t make something good come of it.

Next post: Mulling your own paint!

From Student Palette to Zorn Palette

January 22, 2012
Student Palette Portrait

Student Palette Portrait

As described in my last post, I’ve been working with something called the student pallette. This is a severely restricted palette using only earth colors, white, and black. I’ve been working on that some more, as you can see from the pics I’ve posted here. The color palette of the painting at top uses: Rublev’s Raw Sienna and Venetian Red; Da Vinci’s Magnetite Genuine; and Winsor & Newton’s Flake White #1. The color palette of the second painting is: Rublev’s Blue Ridge Yellow Ocher and Ercolano Red; Da Vinci’s Magnetite Genuine; and Winsor & Newton’s Cremnitz White (a blend of lead and zinc whites). So all natural earths, plus white.

Student Palette Portrait

Student Palette Portrait

It’s rather difficult to work this way. I wrote something to the effect that it is like doing calisthenics. You’re fighting to get as much saturation as possible out of earth pigments, while at the same time maintaining your valued structure. At the end of a couple of hours it can feel like you’ve been in a battle.

One of the more difficult things about using this palette is maintaining temperature contrast. Even the slightest amount of blending – intentional or not – and the colors just disappear into each other, making something that looks like a monochromatic painting. This may be partly psychological as well: when you’re fighting for saturation, the last thing you think about doing is deliberately de-saturating some tones to get that temperature contrast. However, as my instructors have pointed out, desaturating some tones is the best way to get other tones look more saturated – in other words, if you want one note to look more saturated, place a less saturated color next to it.

Mulling Vermilion Oil Paint

Mulling Vermilion Oil Paint

Despite these difficulties – or, I should say, because of them – I highly recommend working with this palette. I feel like I’ve learned quite a bit about painting just from the half dozen or so paintings that I’ve done this way. I’d like to include a third painting here, one that was done with a different palette. This one was done in the Zorn palette, wherein the red earth in the student palette is replaced with vermilion. And for the first time, I’ve gotten some genuine vermilion to work with.

Zorn Palette Portrait

Zorn Palette Portrait

I purchased the pigment from Kama Pigments (which was a good deal less expensive than purchasing a tube of real vermilion paint). Because the jury is still out on the toxicity of vermilion, I took a few more precautions than I normally do when mulling paint: I took everything out to the garage, left the door open, and wore a mask and gloves. (I still managed to get a bunch of vermilion paint on me. Of course.) This pigment makes the most incredible vibrant red imaginable. And it’s got pretty high tinting strength in mixes; however, it doesn’t paint at all like cadmium red. You have to fight cad red a bit to get it to behave itself in skin tones – but mixing skin tones using vermilion and yellow ochre was a breeze. I’m not sure I can explain exactly what makes it so different from cadmium red. I guess I’d say that Vermillion wants to mix into skin tones – whereas cadmium red has no such desire.

One sketch, and I already love this paint. I know I’ll be using it more. In my last post, I wrote that the Student Palette is great for study, but probably not robust enough for most professional work. Vermilion is for the professional stuff.

The Student Palette

November 27, 2011
Portrait using Student Palette

Portrait using Student Palette

The oldest palette, according to the story of the previous post here, has been in use for about a hundred thousand years or so. The palette consists of black, white, red ochre, and yellow ochre: these are the colors that have been used in cave paintings for all of our long prehistory, readily available and easily processed and used. Black, white, red and yellow are often the earliest colors to receive their own names in a culture, and I hypothesize that that’s precisely because those are the four colors that are universally in use. Pliny the Elder mentioned that the great Greek painters used the colors Attica earth (yellow ochre from Attica), Sinoper (red ochre from Sinope), black and white. And earth reds and yellows, plus black and white, have made up the greater part of easel painters’ palettes since the Renaissance (at least up until the Twentieth Century). This basic palette of earths and neutrals has been called the student palette, because the paints it uses are so inexpensive, and also because the restricted palette is an excellent learning tool.

Working with such a restricted palette has its own challenges and rewards. One challenge of using earth colors only is that they lose saturation quickly in either tints or shades. Another is that it’s difficult to avoid a monochrome look to the painting. But, with patience, it’s a palette that does work for portraits. The reason it works, aside from the fact that earth colors mixed with white naturally resemble skin tones, is something called simultaneous contrast. Simultaneous contrast means that colors have an effect on each other’s appearance when placed side by side; in particular, they tend to push away from each other, perceptually. What this means, practically, is that you can get a blue in your painting without actually using blue – a neutral gray will appear quite blue when placed among warmer colors (a mix of black and white actually is slightly blue, which heightens the effect). And a serviceable green can be had from a mixture of black and yellow ochre (in addition to the simultaneous contrast effect, dark yellow, or olive, actually looks quite green to the eye even by itself).

Sketch of Joy, student palette

Sketch of Joy

The benefits of working with a student palette: first of all, it teaches how to make effective use of this simultaneous contrast. (I think half or so of the so-called Old Master Techniques were developed simply to deal with the lack of inexpensive blue pigments, and this is one of them.) Also, one simply learns a lot about mixing with earth colors, which must be an integral part of any traditional palette – and about paying attention to values, since the student palette simply doesn’t work without good value contrast. Finally, crucially, one learns how to make a painting work without trying to match all the colors you see in front of you. Modern painting practice seems to be all about matching colors; but if you literally cannot match the colors in front of you with the paints you have available, what do you do then? Can you still make the painting work?

I wouldn’t necesssarily use this restricted of a palette in professional work – as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, you just can’t get all the colors you might need. But as a study it’s invaluable, and I definitely recommend it.

Portrait using the student palette

Portrait using the student palette

The four paintings on this page were done with variations of the student palette, and were painted alla prima (though the one at right took an extra few minutes in a second session to block in the background and the shirt). The painting at top was done using Blue Ridge Yellow Ocher, Ercolano Red (a light red) and bone black, all from Rublev, plus zinc white from Winsor & Newton. Notice the blue shirt, painted with black and white, and the green background, painted with black, white and yellow. The second painting on the page is a quick sketch from life of my wife singing and playing the piano (the other three are all painted from photo reference at the WetCanvas Reference Image Library), using the same palette as above. The painting just to the right of this paragraph was done with a slightly expanded student palette, using two red earths: the same yellow ochre and ercolano red from Rublev, plus Venetian Red (also from Rublev) and substituting Da Vinci Magnetite Genuine for the black, and Rublev lead white in place of the zinc. Other helpful earth colors can be added, of course, including raw umber, burnt sienna, terre verte, et cetera. Below is an experiment using a very limited palette indeed: Venetian red, burnt umber and zinc white only.

Venetian red, burnt umber, zinc white

Three tubes of paint

The temperature variation on all of these is very limited (though I managed a bit on the third painting), partly through my lack of experience with this palette, but mostly because they’re all painted opaquely. A good deal more variation can be achieved by taking advantage of transparent effects, and I’ll be exploring that direction in the future. Some additional reading: George O’Hanlon discusses painting with earth colors here, and here is a discussion of Marvin Mattelson’s use of earth colors for skin tones.

Verdaccio technique – complete

November 22, 2010
Verdaccio technique

Verdaccio technique

… well, sort of. The technique didn’t work out particularly well for me, as I made numerous crucial mistakes. But that’s not the issue. Any mistakes I made can be corrected the next time out. Trouble is, I don’t think there will be a next time, at least not following this exact procedure. I have some real concerns about this verdaccio technique.

This is a technique that I was taught by a student of Adrian Gottlieb. I don’t know for certain if it is in fact the technique taught by Mr. Gottlieb; it may not be. It is given as a technique that was used by just about all of the classic painters; however, I have yet to locate a single example of an old master that was clearly following this technique, which is: imprimatura and drawing; lights stated with white in the piambura layer; cools and warms stated in the verdaccio layer; and final transparent yellow glaze to bring it all together. (These stages are seen in my study at right; once again I must apologize for the horrific photography.) I have seen two or three examples of what look to be piambura layers, but that’s about it. Apparently some other examples do exist, as teachers of this method have purportedly taken students to various museum galleries to show examples. But this procedure could not have been as ubiquitous as all that; there are more than a few examples of old masters who clearly did not follow this technique, but some other: alla prima; grisaille; verdaccio (as it is usually meant, using black, white and either raw umber or terre verte); ebauche; or some combination of these or other techniques.

But far worse, for me, is the inclusion – and even the demand for – so many thoroughly modern materials. This technique is pushed, again, as being the way the old masters worked; but since it seems to depend so much on modern materials, one has to wonder what in the heck they used! Consider:

The first layer is the imprimatura, which is a transparent initial toning of the linen. In this technique the imprimatura is a mix of alizarin crimson and olive green. Both of these colors are synthetic organics (remember those? see this post if not); neither of these colors could have existed before the late nineteenth century.

After getting the drawing in, the next layer is the piambura. In it, the lights are stated using various combinations of lead white and titanium white. Lead white has certainly been around for a while; but titanium white didn’t hit the art supply shelves until the 1920s! If tradition is what is being taught here, why not just use lead white alone, as the old masters must have done?

Next layer is the verdaccio layer. In this layer, cools and warms (grayed greens and reds) are stated over the lights of the piambura layer. The green used is chromium oxide green. This is often considered a traditional color, but even it didn’t make its appearance before the early nineteenth century. If this is a technique used by all the old masters, then what did they use before then?

The red used, named sinopia (it isn’t – sinopia is a traditional earth pigment) is a complex mix of alizarin crimson, mars violet and transparent red oxide. The mars violet and transparent red oxide (especially the latter) are recent additions to the palette; but those might be considered as substitutions for the older earth colors. But then, why not just use those earths instead? It’s not like they don’t exist any more. Same with alizarin crimson; I assume this is meant as a replacement for madder lake, which again, still exists and is obtainable. I don’t have anything against the more modern colors; but when I’m learning a technique supposedly used by the classical painters, I personally would be interested in using some of their materials. (And even then, it seems a bit of a stretch to imagine that all the old masters were using a mixture of burnt sienna, violet earth and madder lake for all of their warm skin tones, and that nothing else would do.)

But here is the kicker, worse than anything I’ve mentioned so far (in fact, before this the rest of it hardly matters at all): durability. Or rather, lack thereof. This verdaccio technique has been taught as a procedure that will give archival results. However, at this point everyone should be familiar with the impermanence of alizarin crimson. This fugitive color is used in almost all the layers of this technique, including the final, very thin glaze layer – where it will fade very quickly. (Considering the delicacy and precision of this technique, and that it is given as an archival technique, I find it ironic that the results intended will probably be effective for a few decades at most.) It is used there along with Indian yellow (it isn’t really Indian yellow, but yet another synthetic organic). But concerning the glaze layer, the problem is not only the pigments used. I’ve long been concerned about what the final glaze layer would turn out to be – as it turns out, the final glaze isn’t oil paint at all, but pigment in Canada balsam only!

Canada balsam is a natural tree resin, and like all natural tree resins, over time it will darken, yellow, and crack. Unlike oil paint, the darkening and yellowing of natural tree resins is not reversible by sunlight. In this technique, we’ve been pushed to use some Canada balsam (I didn’t) in the darks of the verdaccio layer; but at least there the amount used was minimal. But in the final glaze layer it’s all resin (the turpentine used to dilute it will evaporate off as it dries). Natural soft resins like Canada balsam are resoluble. This means that when some future conservator goes to remove the final picture varnish to replace it, whoops! There goes the glaze color! …Archival, indeed.

I’ll give this technique one thing: when done correctly it clearly can give good optical results. I may have messed up this one (it was my first try at a pretty complex procedure, after all), but I can see how one could get pretty convincing skin tones by following it. But there are plenty of other techniques that can give good results too. Techniques that are sounder technically, and have a much clearer historical pedigree.

Because it can give good results, and because I’ve invested a lot of time and energy, I plan to keep experimenting with this; in fact I started today. I want to see if I can come up with my own version of this verdaccio technique, but one that is archivally sound and makes use of actual historical materials.

oil on gesso

oil on gesso

I apologize for the very negative review of this technique, which some of you have been following here with interest. It must seem a bit of a harsh indictment; but I’m afraid it simply goes against just about everything I’ve learned about historical color and sound painting practice. I will of course continue to study and experiment with all kinds of traditional painting techniques and materials. Speaking of traditional materials, a friend of mine is making gesso panels. I’m trying one out now. It’s an amazingly smooth surface, which absorbs oil really quickly. I began by laying down an initial layer of cold-pressed linseed oil, which was promptly absorbed – the panel was dry to the touch after less than a day! – so I started working on it. The first layer is shown at right, using one of my favorite combinations of earth colors, raw sienna and violet hematite. After all the fussiness of the last few months, I wanted to just enjoy making a painting again. Actually, I wound up being a bit fussy with this one too – but only because I was having fun with the materials.

Ah, that feels good to say.

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.

Traditional oil painting 1

August 8, 2010


I’m learning a historic oil painting technique, or rather a collection of historic oil painting techniques, from my instructor, who in his own way is as interested in traditional techniques and materials as I am. I’m lucky to have found an instructor from whom I can learn and supplement my knowledge in this area, and with whom I can actually have a conversation about this stuff.



As far as art materials go, we’ll be using both traditional and modern materials. That’s okay – what I’m after is the techniques themselves. I think a lot of the techniques developed by the old master artists had much to do with overcoming the limitations of the palettes they had to work with – the limited gamut, the expensive materials, etc. Once I’ve got some practice with these techniques, I’ll work with them in conjunction with the historic materials I prefer, and hopefully really get the most out of them.

This is a layered technique that we’ll be working on for at least two quarters. This quarter we’re doing the initial three layers of the paintings (there will be three of them – two portraits and one figure). We’ve just finished up with the first portrait for this quarter. The three layers are: the imprimatura, the drawing, and the piambura. The imprimatura is simply a toning of the canvas. The drawing is finding the shapes and also getting in the shadows. The piambura is the bringing out of the lights using just whites, lead white for the more transparent areas, titanium white for the more opaque, brightest areas. The top image on the right is the first two layers, imprimatura and drawing, and the second image is piambura. The idea is to provide a foundation for further layering – he’s actually supposed to look a bit metallic at this stage. We’ll call a couple of the models back and continue the paintings on into next quarter, adding a verdaccio layer and then final glazes. This is exactly the kind of thing I’ve been wanting to start practicing.

We had to purchase some materials for this class that are a bit pricier than what I’m used to – though it wouldn’t be a problem if I weren’t dead broke at the moment. The oil-primed linen panels are from Utrecht, their “Master’s Panels” – at eighty-odd dollars for three panels (16X20 and 18X24) they were the least expensive oil-primed linen panels I could find. (Their Renaissance oil-primed stretched linen is simply undoable for me at the moment.) I can see why we’re using these, the linen is a lot smoother and more brushable than canvas, it makes modeling form using only whites a lot easier. Also, according to AMIEN, linen is stronger than the duck canvas everyone is using, possessing longer interwoven fibers that will be more durable over the long run. I have a lot of stretched duck canvas sitting in the garage – I mean a lot – and I’ll keep using it for my paintings because I can’t stand to just throw it all out, especially when I’m this poor. But as I go through them, I’ll also be buying the oil-primed linen as I may, and trying to use that for any professional work that comes along. Brushes: Escoda sable brushes, rounds and filberts, which came out to over a hundred dollars. Again, these were the cheapest acceptable materials I could find.

As I’ve been shelling out money I don’t have during this financially challenging time, the thought crossed my mind that I’d better make a good painting with this stuff – if I don’t, I’m throwing away a decent chunk of change, and not just a couple of bucks spent at Michael’s. And then of course, I wondered if artists of past times, who could not take their materials for granted, and who also spent significant amounts to support their craft, ever felt the same way. I think if an artist is forced into a genuine respect for her materials, then a greater care and respect for her art may follow. Just a thought. These days, when one can grab a tube of bright, saturated and lightfast oil color almost for the price of a cup of coffee, there’s no real reason to respect materials.

Unfortunately, despite my feeling that I’d better do good stuff with this, my first attempt is a little disappointing. That’s all right – it’s a completely new way of thinking for me, and I’ve no doubt it will take a few tries, or more than a few tries, to start getting the hang of it. We’re doing two more this quarter; I’ll post them as well, assuming they’re not absolutely dreadful, and then I’ll post the continuation of these into next quarter.

Walnut ink drawing

July 25, 2010
Walnut ink drawing

Walnut ink drawing

Here is a drawing made with homemade walnut ink – 9X12 on Arches hot press watercolor paper, cropped a bit. Once again a Steve McCurry photo provided the reference. I sketch in ink pretty regularly, as a way to practice and keep my hand in on an everyday basis, but normally I sketch with a ballpoint pen if I’m out and about. (My bosses know that sketching is the best way to keep myself awake and focused during a meeting!) When I’m at home, I like to use crow quill or brush, and a bottle of ink, preferably one of the inks I’ve made. Walnut is a favorite of mine.

I love ink drawings, but I don’t care for how tight mine normally are – I tried to force myself to loosen up with this one, with some success. Instead of drawing flat on a table, I put the watercolor pad on an easel and leaned it back, and held the pen as I would a paintbrush. I think it will be a good method for me, and I’m happy with how it came out. Ink drawing without making a pencil sketch first also helps.

There are instructions elsewhere for making walnut ink directly from rotten husks dropped by a black walnut tree – for instance here or here – and if you live in a part of the country with a lot of black walnut trees around, it is something that’s easy to do. I don’t live in such an area, so I bought my walnut husks dried from a dye company. (Actually, there is a “Southern California black walnut” (listed as threatened, naturally) and of course I’m eager to try it out when I happen upon one of them – but it isn’t the kind of black walnut normally associated with making ink. When I find some and try them out I will of course post the results here. I’m all about using local materials when possible.)

Filtering walnut ink

Filtering walnut ink

Anyway, if you go the same route I did, making walnut ink is about as easy as it could be. Simply cover the dried husks with distilled water and simmer them for an hour or three until you’ve got a nice thick dark liquid, adding more distilled water if necessary, then drain through a coffee filter as with the iris green. You’ve got a pretty ink! If you keep it for a while it will mold, and then you just filter it again. I add a bit of clove oil to mine as a natural preservative, it helps a bit. I understand that another ink can be made with pecan shells, and so of course I’ve got to try that as well.

Iris green – fin.

Iris blue?

Iris blue?

Incidentally, regarding the two previous posts: I have resurrected an old mystery surrounding iris ink. According to numerous medieval sources, it is possible to obtain a blue color from iris by “leaving out the yellow parts.” Thompson and others assumed that the “yellow parts” meant the pollen, but were confused that following the instructions doesn’t seem to work at all. I myself thought at one point that it may have been a bit of a medieval joke, based on green normally being derived as a mixture of blue and yellow. However, through experimentation I’ve discovered that the iris juice, or at least the juice from my more violet blue irises, will indeed paint blue, if one adds only a very small amount of alum. Perhaps that is what was meant? I don’t know why alum would be referred to as “yellow parts,” but then I’m not privy to the various inner meanings in medieval alchemy, puns, or insider codes. Anyway, it might be a possibility.

As the year progresses, the iris plants are producing fewer flowers – and those that are produced seem to have less color in them. Today’s little batch of ink is probably the last of the year, and it won’t be the best. I may not be able to really test my idea properly until next year. Iris green is definitely a springtime color…

Other medieval inks I’ve made besides walnut and iris green: brazilwood red, buckthorn yellow, saffron, folium red and turnsole blue (the color from which Sunsikell derives its name). All beautiful colors, which I’ll show and discuss in later posts. Medieval inks I have yet to make: iron gall, poppy and cornflower. The fun never stops around here!

Paintings of Van

May 23, 2010
Mountain Man Necktie - oil painting

Mountain Man Necktie

Here is a portrait painting I completed just a couple of weeks ago, which I’ve named Mountain Man Necktie. I figure it’s time for me to get back to what I do, to what interested me in becoming a fine artist so long ago – painting people. I’ve been spending a lot of time working on the experimental: making pigments, making gouache paints, researching historical techniques and colors, playing with different illustration techniques, etc. Which is fine: I’m not going to give up on that stuff. I’ve got the kind of brain that just can’t leave things alone – if I’m going to make art, I’ve got to think about how I’m making it, and why. It was the same way when I was writing music. But I can’t lose sight of the aim of all this, which is just to make art.

The egg tempera, by the way, is probably out for now, for a number of reasons. First of all, I have bad tendons in my wrists, and I must maintain good relaxation while painting, or I injure myself and need recuperation time, sometimes for weeks. Egg tempera doesn’t exactly lend itself to a relaxed painting technique. Also, I tried painting oils over a tempera underpainting – which is the main way in which I wanted to use egg tempera – and it presented some more unexpected challenges. As intrigued as I am by this ancient medium, I don’t think it’s for me, unless I figure out a different way of using it.

Arizona - oil painting

Arizona Daybreak

So, back to oil painting – and it feels great to be producing something again. The above is a picture of Van, a great model I took some reference pics of a while back. This is the second painting I’ve made from that photo session, and I’m working on a third. The first is on the right there, and it’s going to be the first painting I put up on Ebay to see if it’ll sell. I’m not going to sign it, since it was worked on a bit by an instructor of mine. But I’ll get a feeling for selling my art online – or not, depending! The others will follow.

The current one, about halfway finished or so, is below. All the research and thoughts about using more natural, more local and less toxic materials is beginning to have an impact on my work. These are both done with limited palettes – specifically, I’ve excluded any synthetic organic pigments. In Mountain Man Necktie, the one at the top of the page, I used yellow and red ochre, raw sienna, cadmium red, ultramarine blue, ivory (bone) black and titanium white. The one below is the same except that I’ve excluded the cadmium red and raw sienna, and added cobalt blue for the coat and rose madder for a few of the skin tones. One industrial toxic color each: cadmium for the first, cobalt for the second. Doing without the cadmium on this latest painting has been a bit of a challenge, but I think it’s working out all right, and it’ll get better as I explore more earth color variations for skin tones, Indian red, Venetian red, etc. The cobalt blue I’ll actually be happy to let go – regardless of philosophy I just don’t care for it much as a color. It doesn’t seem to do any of the things I need it to do on the palette. Obviously it worked out all right for Monet…

Work in progress - oil painting

Work in progress

I’m sure I’ll keep using the cadmum colors from time to time. The point isn’t to be purist about pigment use – the point is to be aware of it, and to reduce the use of industrial toxic chemicals when possible and convenient. If I can use cadmium red only for the necktie, and replace it with a red earth color for the skin tones – rather than using the cadmium for all the reds in the painting – then I’ve made an improvement in my materials: earth pigments are unquestionably more ecologically friendly than cadmium pigments. In this latest case, I think I’ll be able to do without the cadmium altogether. I’ll post the painting again when it’s finished.

Pigment stuff: I’ve mixed up my homemade madder lake and carmine lake both into oil paints to accompany the weld lake oil paint I made earlier. They are both extremely transparent, and beautiful. I haven’t used them in a painting yet, but will certainly do so when I can. I’ve been studying drapery, from life, so I will probably try these paints out as glazes for drapery studies. Soon.

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