22, May 2015 § 2 Comments
by Jane Morris Pack
We admire masterworks in museums for, among other things, their brilliant colouring, their longevity due to the painter’s technical expertise and for the evidence of the artist’s hand in the brushwork. Many paint effects from the past seem nearly unattainable with modern materials and this has lead artists to try to rediscover secret formulas or find additives that emulate historical processes. Resins, wax, and complex chemical mixtures have all been tried. Research done by the National Gallery in London however has revealed that linseed oil, coloured pigment and additions of calcium carbonate are the sole ingredients in many master works before the 20th century.
Though we are seduced by the ubiquitous presence of modern materials, traditional methods are intriguing and wonderful to investigate. Egg tempera and encaustic have both had a renaissance in the last twenty years. The fundamental substance of oil painting however, which is the oil itself, has been accepted as standard by most artists. Modern linseed oil is alkali cleaned and heated, it is no longer manually pressed and sun thickened as it was. Some artists with curious minds have now reexamined the refining of the flax oil. Louis Velasquez and Tad Spurgeon both have websites dedicated to methods of hand refining oil to produce a non yellowing, flexible, fast drying oil which completely transforms the painting process. What they have uncovered in their investigations is a remarkable way to access an old and very successful formula.
My involvement in this exciting investigation began when I assigned Velazquez, the 17th century painter, as the topic of my advanced painters seminar. We looked into the addition of marble dust, a form of calcium carbonate, to his paint. I stumbled on the information about hand refining oils then but felt it was too intensive to delve into at the time. It took me several more years and further seminars on Rubens and Vermeer before I took the plunge and followed procedures I had read about online. The results are quite amazing to me, and the difference from the handling of modern tube oils is significant. The hand refined oil makes many things possible which I had read about and seen but had not been able to obtain. I always felt tube oils were too slippery, too thin, too flat once dry. I also found the suede effect annoying and could not build up impasto areas without needing many days of drying time. The hand refined oil has none of these defects.
This semester I introduced the new oil to students and we worked together to understand its potential. It is more flexible, shinier and forms a tougher film than the tube oils. The viscosity of the paint allows one to paint wet into wet without loosing brushstroke integrity and colour purity. It is far more transparent, the glazes are deep and clean, and it dries evenly and quickly without darkening as much. Impasto areas can dry overnight, depending on the weather, and keep their sharp edges and texture.
The best part of all of this is that solvent has been banished from the studio. We clean our brushes in vegetable oil and never thin paint with solvent. The smell of the new oil is something like fresh grass or fields of flowers. Because we mix it 1:3 with chalk and then use that 2:1 with tube paint our paint supply goes much further. It is hard on brushes though, as they wear down quickly. One wonderful advantage is the ability to wipe off the paint completely from a dry underlayer making changes in plan easy to execute.
There has been a complete change in my approach to paint and the student work is richer and more colourful. We are able to work into surfaces more quickly which speeds our process. The studios are no longer redolent with turpentine and the improved environment is beneficial for all who share our space.
2, February 2015 § 1 Comment
Knowing the exhibition would be crowded we organised our tickets for the last two hours of the day. Even so the smallness of the rooms and the number of people jammed into them did not make for comfortable viewing. A similar crush occurred during the Da Vinci show. It’s time the National Gallery allocated a bigger space for its major shows.
The first room of the exhibition held four self portraits from the last ten years of Rembrandt’s life. Entering from the grey damp London weather directly into the vivid charcoal reds and resinous blacks of the paintings we experienced a quick intake of breath. The powerful self portraits each capture a memento of passing time on his face and form, his flesh more grey, his eyes growing more opaque with the years. Those who know any of the other nearly one hundred self portraits can see his loss of energy, humour and confidence. We believe the paintings to reflect the veracity of his physiognomy and yet we are not looking for attributes that would identify him. We feel he is revealing his inner depth. Knowing that he died bankrupt having turned away from the lucrative commissions which would have kept him in the public eye, suffering the death of lover and children, we feel we are witnessing his sorrowful soul.
The exhibition continues with a journey into the oeuvre of the great Rembrandt as he experimented and pushed his technical skill to express his tender view of humanity. The paint itself captured us as it pulsed and swirled, thin as silk one moment and heavy with turbid weight the next. The transparent darks pushed back into unspecified backdrops while the lead white clumped or embroidered the edge of collars or highlights on nose and eyelid. We were particularly taken by these warm and textured whites. They were a character of their own, playing a part as varied and eloquent as a Shakespearian actor. Rembrandt placed the white with palpable energy, using a stick, a brush, perhaps a rag. It hovered under glazes and emerged like waves breaking. His limited palette, with little or no blues and limited earth greens did not keep him from expressing nature while his concentration on capturing faces was best served with the “tetrachromy” of the Ancient Greeks: white, black, yellow and red.
A portrait of Lucretia whose blood leaves her white gown stained red, trembles with sadness and dishonour as she plunges the knife into her side. Perhaps it is a tribute to his mistress, Hendrickje, who was hounded by society to confess her sin of living out of wedlock with Rembrandt. The subject from Roman history expresses a woman’s deeply conflicted emotion. The emotion is the theme again with the magnificent painting of Bathsheba as she contemplates the letter from David, her King. The somewhat damaged surface of this work does not distract from the subtle current of anguish she expresses.
There are many etchings and drawings interspersed with the paintings in this exhibition. Rembrandt’s etchings are a miraculous tangle of haunting lines. With bravado and verve he depicts so much information with so little effort. These pieces greatly added to our understanding of his vision and method. The vivacious brushwork is equivalent to the handling of the etching needle, the supremacy of white is equal to the vibrant unmarked white of the paper. Light is the subject and everything else falls to its authority. We see his thought process more clearly in the etchings but the large textural paintings dominated the show.
9, December 2013 § Leave a comment
by Jane Morris Pack
The aim of the advanced painting class is to deepen understanding of paint handling, to gain insight into one of the great painters of history and to push the students to expand beyond their own normal approach to constructing a painting. More can be learned from imitating the masters than most other pedagogical approaches. This style of learning happens without words, without theory. It is quickly understood that the eye and hand can absorb and convey information, bypassing the verbal centers of the brain. This information is rich and nuanced and reaches into our emotional core; we feel rather than explain the process.
The advanced painters each brought their own experience to this project and they will take away from it varied responses. The student learns what the mind is ready to accept; were it otherwise we could all be masters within a short space of time. My hope is that they will all find at least one aspect of Rubens to incorporate into their future work. I know that my own appreciation for this painter grew as we worked and I have already put his teachings to use in my own paintings.
2, December 2013 § 1 Comment
by Jane Morris Pack
Rubens frequently composed along the curves of an oval which rose diagonally from the lower left to the upper right of the canvas. This diagonal movement gives tension and drama to his work. We have chosen a group of stock characters from his mythological subjects, centaurs and satyrs etc, and arranged them with this device in mind, placing them in overlapping positions and in reducing scale to push the space backward into the depths. We created a dark tree as a foil against the highly lit figures on one corner and opened up another to deep atmospheric perspective.
The drawings, once accomplished on paper were transferred to the canvas with the perforated holes and pouncing method used by the Renaissance artists. The underpainting was then set in with raw umber loosely and not too dark to keep the shadows transparent and luminous. Much of the streaky gray imprimatura was allowed to show through. Highlighting with white came next which involved oil paint mixed with chalk to give the paint textural force and an active surface. This was placed to bring the eye to areas of interest and emphasize our oval composition. More modeling was accomplished with a toned down white and then the canvas was allowed to dry.
This procedure, which took several hours of group effort, brought the image to a more finished form and we began to visualize it as a whole for the first time. Rubens often used his studio assistants to bring a painting to this level and then he added his final touches in the glazing and overpainting that follows.
21, December 2009 § Leave a comment
Near the close of the semester I took the opportunity to demonstrate two traditional techniques to the students of the painting class. Oil paints are just one in a long line of materials that artists have used to create paintings. Tempera paint which uses egg yolk as a binder rather than linseed oil has been around since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. Pigments from earth sources as well as organic material are used for the colouring matter and the yolk binds them and adheres them to a surface. The other technique we looked into is using marble dust to extend oil paints and to make them more transparent.
Tempera colors were used extensively before the mid 1400’s when linseed oil began to supplant the use of egg as a binder. Most of the early Renaissance work we know is in this medium including the large pieces of Botticelli, “Birth of Venus” and the “Primavera” now in the Uffizzi. Tempera has the advantage of reading very well in the high end of the tonal range and having fast drying times. It works up almost more like a pencil rendering with a linear approach and little surface build up. It can be pushed to transparent, opaque or opalescent with ease.
Introducing marble dust into oil paint extends the paint and lightens it without turning it cool and chalky as white would do. It makes the paint more transparent and more pasty, reducing drying time and creating impasto effects. It is almost like adding light without unduly changing the tone or temperature of the color. If you add some drops of Liquin to moisten the mixture the resulting putty can dry overnight even in thick areas. Painters such as Velasquez and Rembrandt are known to have added some sort of marble dust or chalk to their pigments.
These and other techniques are interesting to extend our handling options and help us to understand why art of the past has certain characteristics. Techniques may suit some temperaments and some subjects better than another.
19, February 2009 § 2 Comments
This blog post was originally published in junpierre.net/words.
I am currently working on a series of paintings based on Greek myths that have been a lot of fun to work on. The myths are exciting and dramatic and they lend well to personal interpretation. It’s no surprise that artists through out the ages have been inspired to recreate the myths in their own eyes — Titian, Velazquez, Caravaggio, and Botticelli just to name a few.
Among the paintings I am working on are the twelve labors of Herakles. The twelve labors interest me because of the wonderful array of challenges that Herakles faces. Each adversary is so colorful, often times more interesting than Herakles himself. It also fascinates me how Herakles, the greatest of heroes in Greek mythology, takes on so many different roles throughout the twelve labors. Whether he is a hulking brute, a cunning strategician, a sly charmer, an overwhelmed underdog, or a menacing predator Herakles always comes out in the end as the heroic champion.
Herakles first labor is to hunt and kill the Nemean Lion. Of course, Herakles is successful in his mission, and from then on wears the lion’s own impenetrable pelt (which he skinned by using the lion’s own claws) for his subsequent adventures.
For this painting I had the idea of the two figures of Herakles and the lion interlocked in some type of circular formation that would somehow fit nicely in the rectangular compostion of the frame. I first started off with a few thumbnail sketches:
For the lion, I wanted to show that it was a powerful, formidable foe with clearly defined musculature. I looked online for some images of feline anatomy and did some sketches. The best reference I could use however was from the book ANIMALS: 1419 Copyright-Free Illustrations of Mammals, Birds, Fish Insects, etc. A Pictorial Archive from Nineteenth-Century Sources by Jim Harter.
Jane Pack, my fellow painting and drawing teacher at the Aegean Center (as well as former professor here and current studio mate) lent me the book. It is full of wonderful etchings and drawings depicting all kinds of animals. It’s been a wealth of reference material for my myth paintings (as there are so many animals through out the myth stories).Here are some sketches I did from the book:
With this in mind I went to YouTube.com and spent some time looking at some short videos of judo wrestlers. In judo there are so many amazing throws and takedowns that I thought they would lend well to a wrestling match between a man and a lion. While watching the videos I would pause on a particularly interesting frame and do a quick sketch. Here are a few:
I continued this and tried to substitute one of the figures with a lion to see how that would look.
I liked the very first judo sketch so I tried to place it in a composition with some aspects of a surrounding environment around the two figures:
For the surrounding environment I had the beautiful scenery of Kolimbrithes in Paros, Greece in mind:
Clearly I had moved away from the circular idea for the composition, but the figures were still considerably intertwined. Also there was a lot more movement and energy which I liked. After this last sketch, I was ready to start the painting.I didn’t take any pictures as I was actually making the painting, mostly because I worked too fast. Since I was painting pretty loose with a lot of paint thinner, I had to work fast because although it was an oil painting it actually was drying quickly. I ended up doing the painting in one shot over the course of a day. My objective was to move and push the paint around in a way where it didn’t seem too controlled and it retained the energy of a sketch, while having the resolution and impact of a finished painting.
Here is the end result (or at least the end result until I feel like I may need to tweak it, which I might do at any time):