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.
13, July 2009 § Leave a comment
by Jane Morris Pack
Six students who returned to the Aegean Center for a second semester worked together on a project for the advanced painting class. The aim was to delve deeply into the great work, “Las Meninas” by Velazquez. This task afforded us the opportunity to understand his palette, his brushwork and his compositional methods: to see essentially what makes him an important artist.
We first constructed a full size drawing of the piece, which gave us a plan of the actual size to work from. The main figures were then divided among the group, and the students set to work drafting them in scale for the oil paintings. We talked about Velazquez’s paint handling and looked at Las Meninas in detail on Google Earth, which shows every brushstroke at close range. We discussed his use of space and his playful handling of the reflection of the King and Queen. Just one revelation the students experienced upon close inspection is that Velazquez’s brushwork and use of paint is thrilling and decidedly modern.
Copying the work of master painters used to be the norm in art schools. It has been out of fashion, generally regarded as a inhibition to creativity, but there is a great deal to be learned in apprenticing ourselves to past masters. Not only is there a new awareness of history but also an illumination into the mystery of what makes a great work of art.
The painters were:
12, June 2009 § Leave a comment
The semester has ended and things have come to a close here in Paros. It’s hard to believe that I have spent two semesters studying with the Aegean Center. I feel incredibly lucky for this opportunity and in my time here I have met such wonderful individuals and learned so much. It has been a year of personal growth as I have had a chance to reflect and explore myself in new and unique surroundings. The beauty of Paros and the experiences I have had will be with me forever, and the magic of Paros will echo throughout my life and my art hereafter.
In Jane’s Velazquez seminar, we have completed the painting of our sections of Las Meninas. Painting a life-size replica of one of the figures was a great exercise to culminate our semester-long study of Velazquez’ style and technique. I really enjoyed working so large (120 x 75 cm). Studying how he painted has definitely influenced my technique and how I view the act and art of painting. He painted subjects ‘out-of-focus’ but included passages with more attention to detail, which is similar to our vision. We are able to focus on only a small area and all surrounding forms are more or less blurred. I now see how this gives a painting more dynamism than painting everything in perfect focus. Another idea I will continue to keep in mind when I paint is the potential for a painting to be both abstract and realistic. From a distance Velazquez’ paintings read as clean, smooth realistic depictions. Yet up close we see that they are merely slashes of paint splattered on canvas. Paint can create great illusion but is essentially just paint on canvas. This semester Jane introduced us to putty, which I have nearly become addicted to using. It gives the paint more body and sculptural form and helps me to loosen up my brushstroke. I plan on continuing to explore texture and putty for my senior honors project next year at Brown University.
Because putty lightens paint and preserves the luminosity of it without making it opaque or chalky like white, I have used it a lot in my work dealing with a particular lighting effect. I have always been attracted to and inspired by scenes where a distinct feeling of light creates a certain mood. Almost all of my paintings this semester address some specific effect of light, particularly cast shadows, as in my first painting of lamp-lit vegetables, the school courtyard walls, and the trash bin cats. In a more recent work I wanted to capture the mood of the storeroom/garage that we visited last semester at the local olive press. The strong, glowing light hitting the wall and illuminating the objects within intrigues me. I wanted to keep a loose drawing quality to it and I kept a primary color theme through repeating passages of red, yellow, and blue. I used these colors in many layers of putty and glazing.
I continued my personal exploration with olive trees with a second painting dealing with the wrinkly, knotty, and aged quality of olive trees. I learned things from my first painting that I applied to this one. I chose a different, more static composition and I included more surrounding landscape.
We also did a ‘white painting’ using a limited palette of white, burnt sienna, and ultramarine blue. I really enjoyed working with such a limited palette. I find it easier to be creative when there are stricter constraints to work within. We pushed our palette as far as we could to create a variety of hues, tones, and temperatures. It was a good exercise to focus on the art of subtlety. Working with whites was a peaceful process and I like the feeling of my finished piece so I would like to do more work with a limited palette in the future.
Now that the beautiful summer weather has arrived on Paros, we went outside to paint on-scene at the bay port. I did a 2-hour study of some boats and it was a good exercise in synthesizing a large amount of information and detail. I used a limited palette similar to my white painting: only white, blue, and burnt sienna. Painting outside has its challenges. The light changes, the subjects are often in movement, and the weather conditions can be tough to work in (it was a sweltering hot day when we painted.) I learned to work with my immediate surroundings and should continue to do these quick nature studies.
I finally painted a self-portrait, which has been somewhat of a dread of mine. Jane has taught me the importance of choosing a ‘system’ and working within the parameters of that system to paint. This helped my tackle the portrait because it involves picking a method to break a painting down into manageable steps. I was getting overwhelmed with the many subtle colors and tones in the face but I worked in a series of layers that built up the form gradually. I began using the Velazquez method I have become so accustomed to: drawing with paint and adding in the dark tones then heightening with white. Then I went in with many layers of red and blue glazes. With just these two colors I was able to get many hues and tones. In places the blue and red mixed to make purple and because my imprimatura was a yellowish orange, I created a green tone when I put blue glaze on top. I found that using these layers interspersed with whites allowed me to get so many colors, temperatures, and tones without having to mix each shade of paint separately.
During our week-long semester break, I traveled to Santorini and Crete with a few other students. While in Crete, I was inspired by the geometry of the fields we drove through and the overwhelming variety of green. I was interested in how orderly and systematic they appeared, with the cast shadows of each individual tree forming a pattern across the landscape. In an ‘ode to putty’ I painted a tactile painting. How often do you see a painting labeled “please touch”? Not so much, so I decided to have some fun with layers and make a painting for the eyes and the fingers.
As a final painting of the semester I decided to do one last olive tree. After working on a large canvas for Las Meninas I wanted to do another big painting (70 x 100 cm). I went with a few other students to look at the olive trees that we pass on our way to Lefkes for hikes. I have always wanted to go up close and look at them and I am so glad I finally did it before leaving Paros! For me, these trees are incredible symbols of Paros. They have so much character strength; some have been alive for a thousand years. I feel that this painting is a good culmination of my year with the Aegean Center. Half is alive, half is dead. There is new growth and hope, yet there remains the dead wood of many years past.
My time studying at The Aegean Center has come to a close but I am excited to take with me all that I have learned to share with others and apply to my own work. The memories of the Aegean Center, and the sand, salt, and olive trees of Paros will be with me forever.
13, April 2009 § 1 Comment
Since writing my previous post, we have made a lot of progress in Jane’s Velazquez seminar. We began painting with a putty mixture, which is a technique that Velazquez and many of the Old Master painters seem to have used. We made our own putty out of marble dust and oil. Jane purified the marble dust that she got from a local construction yard through an extensive process of rinsing, allowing it to settle, pouring out the impure water, and drying it out. With the clean, dry marble powder, we experimented with adding various mediums to make putty. We tried three different consistencies of oil, liquin, and egg yolk. Each medium gave the putty a different structural quality and drying time.
Making putty was something new to me and I found it very satisfying. New research into many old paintings (by Velazquez or Rembrandt for example) shows that artists often mixed putty with their paint pigment. Using putty in this way instead of oil is a way to make the paint more transparent, more sculptural, and quicker to dry. Linseed oil will yellow with age and crack on the canvas’s surface, but putty will not. We found that using putty doesn’t make the paint chalky and opaque like adding white does, but it does make a little pigment go a very long way.
When I experimented with putty, I immediately loved it. It is a very economical way to prolong your oil paint since it is extremely cheap and easy to make – just mix marble dust and oil together! I chose to paint a knotty old olive tree that I saw in Lefkes on one of our hikes. One of the wonderful benefits of living in such a beautiful place as Paros is that nature is everywhere and it serves as a constant inspiration for artwork. Putty is especially great for painting organic shapes and it helped free up my brushstroke, which is usually more tightly controlled. I felt like I was sculpting and molding the paint as I applied it in thick gobs. I went in with several layers of paint and subsequent glazing into the knots and dark shadows. I am pleased with the final effect; the paint quality, particularly in the sky, has a unique semi-opaque yet luminescent feel. Because I had so much fun with this painting, I plan on painting another olive tree using putty.
In Jun’s painting class, I have done several new paintings. I chose to paint a scene of rather pissed-off cats perched on a dumpster. It is an image that we see on every street corner and I find it quite humorous. Cats, which I traditionally think of as cute cuddly animals, lurk threateningly around big trash cans and I can’t help but wonder what goodies they are gruffly guarding. I wanted to dramatize the scene so I used a slight worm’s eye view to look up at the cats who glare down at me, enhanced by a harsh sense of light with raking cast shadows. The background was a struggle because at first it flattened the sense of space and felt artificial, like a wallpaper that the cats were stuck on top of. I tried to subtly gradate it, which helped but I am still not pleased with it. I played with various textures on the cats, the trash cans, and the landscape, and worked up gradually with many layers. I enjoy people’s reaction when they look closely at the cats’ expressions; it’s a painting that’s ok to laugh at.
I also did a reflection painting. I began it much like the portrait I did of St. Paul, with a burnt sienna monochromatic, then heightened and darkened the details. My still-life set up was dominantly black so I went over everything with a black glaze but that left the fabric feeling very transparent so I added positive paint on top of it. This was rather frustrating because I had gone into so much detail in the underpainting and I ended up covering it over with the next layers. Having the framework laid out so thoroughly did help because I had studied the folds and crevices so intently that I understood the fabric’s form and how it was draped, thus making it easier to paint. For me the painting was a concentrated exercise in breaking down a complex subject into shapes and forms.
While I was working on the more arduous reflective study, I did a smaller side painting for fun. In Liz Carson’s photo history class, we were looking at early photographs of hazy cityscape scenes. I was attracted to the symmetric forms and shapes and I wanted to create a simple city line and play with blurry abstracted reflections. I have been meaning to experiment with letting watery paint drip and blend together since this is a texture I want to incorporate more into my work. It was a good way for me to loosen up and focus on paint quality rather than on form. I used many layers of glazing and a limited palette consisting mostly of pthalo blue, burnt umber, ocher, and black.
In keeping with geometric forms and combining watery paint and dripping methods, I painted the view from our school’s courtyard, looking up at a studio window. I sketched the scene in Draw Club one morning because I was drawn to the harsh morning shadows cast on the wall and all the sharp architectural angles that went off in odd directions yet all seemed to flow harmoniously together. I also found the simple color planes soothing and liked how they juxtapose the sinewy wire forms. I built up my color carefully and gradually with several layers of paint scumble and glazing on top. I integrated dripping on one of the walls and I painted the sky with very watered-down paint. The final piece conveys a rather simple relationship between shapes and colors. Next we are working with a limited color palette, setting up still-lives with only white or grey objects. This will force us to focus on subtle differences in hue and tonality.
25, March 2009 § 5 Comments
This semester the returning painting students are meeting with Jane Pack for a weekly seminar where we are delving into the work and style of Velazquez. We are learning a tremendous amount about both the process of how he painted and his techniques. Our long-term goal for the semester is to produce a replica of his masterpiece ‘Las Meninas.’ Through learning step-by-step about his painting methods, we will each do our own portion of the painting ‘in his style.’ There is a lot of preparation to do before that point, and we have begun with learning how he went about creating a portrait. Using this method, we are painting one of his portraits ourselves. I chose to replicate St. Paul from his painting of Saint Anthony the Great and Saint Paul the Anchorite.
Velazquez worked with the strategy of starting from a ‘middle ground’ and building up from there by adding darks and lights. I began learning about this method of working last semester and I am beginning to really understand its benefits. It is a way of working that allows the artist to be economical with his use of layers, paint, and brushstroke. For me, it makes the various steps in creating a painting more manageable because as Jane says, you break down a complex subject (like a face) into various layers, and in each layer you deal with a separate issue.
Velazquez began his portraits with an underlayer of paint, or ‘imprimatura.’ I used yellow ochre mixed with a bit of black. When dry, he would make a rough sketch of his subject with dark brown paint (I used raw umber). This should be loose and to get it correctly modeled, I used a rag to constantly wipe out and mold the shapes in St. Paul’s face. I was intimidated at first but this method of blending, wiping, and re-applying over and over allowed me to get a facial form that I was happy with. In a way it took the pressure off of getting it just right the first time. And since it is the first layer, any mistakes can be fixed in succeeding layers.
In the next stage, we “heightened with white” like Velazquez. Jane taught us how he would mix chalk with his pigments to get a certain silvery-opaque quality. We are adding zinc powder to our white to help quicken the drying time, which is very slow for titanium white paint. I applied an ochre and white combination instead of straight white so that I can bring up the darker tones more gradually. I found this step of “heightening” very enjoyable. The major ‘decisions’ had already been made when I used brown to sketch out St. Paul’s face and shape his features, so in this stage I was building on top of the framework I had laid.
On top of this white, Velazquez would apply a layer of glaze to bring the tones back closer to the base color. He would repeat this process of heightening and glazing back down, using different colors of glaze within the earth palette (yellow ochre, a red pigment like burnt sienna, black, and white) to achieve a rich skin tone. I too did this, and found that my slow buildup of the canvas gave me time to contemplate and think about the process, planning out several steps in advance. Working in many layers allows me to get a feel for the subtle nuances of the forms and their shadows. In the process of heightening with white, I began noticing little details that I hadn’t seen in the initial sketch, like the indentations within cavity of the eye socket. I also added some ‘positive paint’ into the wet glaze. This gave St. Paul’s face more body and form. I found that I also had to go back in and darken select areas and add more white to brighten other places. In the final step, Velazquez would put the finishing highlights in with thicker paint. Looking at close-ups of his portraits, we can see the movement of his brush and how he used brushstroke to model his figures with incredible skill. I added some last touches also, and when I put in the highlights of the eyes, it made St. Paul come alive on the canvas.
Aside form Jane’s class, I am working on other paintings with Jun’s painting class. for the first painting, I chose to take a quirky spin on the traditional still life setup. I had the idea of poking fun at the traditional ‘fruit still life’ by mimicking a police lineup and hanging my subjects on the wall under harsh spotlight, as though they are suspects for committing a crime. Fittingly, the spotlight is an artist’s lamp. I had fun with this idea and I tried to create a dark and dramatic painting yet have it be silly at the same time. For this piece, I knew the lamp would be a challenge so I began by sketching it out, first with a loose gesture drawing, and then with a more detailed sketch in which I carefully examined the tones and reflective qualities of the different parts of the lamp. Doing this sketch helped me tremendously. I had the image of the lamp, it’s proportions, and the shapes of its reflections already worked out in my head, so I was more confident depicting these qualities in paint. Completing a detailed pencil sketch of challenging objects before tackling them in paint is something I am definitely going to more often.
I love painting vegetables and I found it enjoyable to build up in layers much like the Velazquez portrait I am working on. I used many layers of glazing with burnt sienna, black, blue, and green to get a sense of depth in the shadows. Last semester I learned a tremendous amount when I replicated Vermeer’s Woman with a Balance and I applied those lessons to this painting. I wanted a similar sense of atmosphere and space so I used a light scumble over a dark ground and applied subsequent layers of glaze on top of that.
Coming up in Jun’s class we will be looking into reflections, literally. I am going to study the complex reflections on glass objects which will be a great challenge and I am looking forward to it. Stay tuned…