An Attempt at a Gold-Point Drawing

Back a couple of years ago, I wrote about making prepared papers for drawing in silverpoint:  ( Silverpoint was the technique used by the Old Masters for many of their preliminary drawings.  It's just a silver wire in a holder or mechanical pencil to make a fine gray mark on the prepared paper, which has to have some grit to catch the mark.  My first attempts with sterling silver didn't work so well.  The points seemed so hard that the mark was scarcely visible, and the sharp points dug into the finish on the paper.  So I ended up adding ink and white egg tempera highlights to my drawings until I completely obscured the silverpoint.

I finally got around to going to the jewelry supply shop to buy some pure silver and gold wire -- after I heard about gold being used the same way as silverpoint, and lead too -- happily the wire only cost about $25 for more than enough to make a gold pencil and several silver.  I took it to work and used the dremel drillbits and the low-power microscope to sharpen both ends, one fairly sharp and one rounded.  Then I took them home, put them in the mechanical pencils, and tried them out.  The pure metals did so much better on the properly prepared paper, with real bone ash.

Last Thursday, my painting students came, and Carol brought her lovely daughter Drew, and I drew her while she drew.  That was an unintentional silly pun, but unavoidable.  Anyway.  The gold point was easier to use than the silverpoint, and made a lovely, pale violet mark, although it wouldn't let me darken her hair and eyes as much as I wanted.  Not sure if the violet color of the lines is an illusion. It must be.  Plus the pale blue paper I'd made just won't scan, no matter how I try.  But here's what I came up with:

Then this morning I decided to draw on the last piece of blue paper that I can find.  I must have lost the rest of it when I moved.  I went outside and picked a tiny little daisy and tried to draw my left hand holding it.  It was hard because I kept having to put down the daisy and scratch my nose or hold down the paper, and the foreshortened fingers were especially difficult.  I kept losing the drawing until finally the fingertips were a smudge of silver-gray, and I couldn't go any further.  So I made up a bit of white egg tempera and used ink and paint to finish it up.  It's not really silverpoint anymore but I was OK with it in the end.

It's been years and years since I first read about how to do these drawings in Daniel Thompson's The Practice of Tempera Painting. I know now that (1) his instructions are not accurate, and in fact make me wonder if he ever did a silverpoint drawing. (2) his instructions are actually instructions for making medieval copybook drawings, which were very tight, mannered, careful drawings which the masters used for teaching and transferring compostions to the gessoed board.  Yet re-reading the chapter again today, I realized how much he has influenced me, perhaps not for the better.  I don't know.  I enjoyed going back and forth from ink to tempera on the drawing of my hand, until the criss-crossed wrinkles in my nearly 60-year-old hand became a kind of satiny, textured fabric reflecting the light.


I attempt a Nerdrumesque painting

Here is my painting "The Wanderer," which I completed while I was in my old studio downtown.  I painted it in oils on a piece of Clabord.  My friend Thomas posed for it:  he has a wonderful profile.  The head is about life-sized on the board.

The hat is one the my husband, Ken, made to wear under his armor (we play around in the SCA, which is sort of like an amateur Ren Faire).  The collar and cape are also bits of old costumes I had lying around.  I really want to make some more costumes just for my paintings but find myself wondering if it will take up too much time.  That's why I've decided not to do any more pretend medieval period art for the forseeable future:  it's just a waste of time.  Oh, the walking stick he's holding is one we've had for years, too.  It came from the back of the old house in Brainerd, and it's twisted all the way up, but you can't see it in this picture.

I wish I could have painted a full-length painting  of this subject, and I still want too.  But it was such a struggle to even paint something this size.  I need to paint something enormous.  Positively enormous.  I've spent so much time painting tiny things, tiny things with a smooth surface, which translate well to print.  I realized at the gallery yesterday that huge works impress the in-person viewer much more.

Last night I went into my studio and poked around until I found the length of linen I bought on sale at Jerry's a couple of years ago.  I've got to get it out and stretch it.

Black Madonna of Czestochowa

Here is an icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa I painted, in 2008, in egg tempera on a wood panel I gessoed with gesso I made myself.  This was something I did in my old studio. I had already started the icon a while back and hadn't finished it because the gold leaf kept flaking off. I had thought I could fudge and use fake gold leaf but it wouldn't stick until I finally used real gold, and a lot of it. If finally developed a sort of matte finish but it still looks like real gold and thus very nice.

Black madonnas are something of a fetish of mine, I guess. Cathedral of the Black Madonna by Jean Markele is one book I have read a couple of times. He suggests that the black virgins in Europe are related to ancient sun goddesses, which appeals to me. Another good book is The Cult of the Black Virgin by Ean Begg, published by Arkana Books. Then there's Longing for Darkness, by China Galland, which is more of a travelogue memoir of her pilgrimage to Czestochowa to see the original icon. There's a new, scholarly book out that I want to read: Pilgrimage to Images in the Fifteenth Century: The Origins of the Cult of Our Lady of Czestochowa, by Robert Maniura. It's pretty pricey and I've been putting it off, but just typing out the title makes me want it again. I may have to try to get it by interlibrary loan.

I also discovered in my internet rambling that Our Lady of Czestochowa is associated with a Voudoun loa in Haiti, Mambo Ezili Danto or Erzulie Dantor. There she is considered very fierce, and sometimes is shown carrying a knife. She is the protectress of single mothers and gays. Here is a link to an interesting blog which goes into great detail on the relationship between Erzulie Dantor and Our Lady of Czestochowa:

I painted the drapery in a different style than the original icon; it's based on much earlier Byzantine icon called The Virgin Hodegitria, which is very angular and stylized.  The existing icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa is painted in a primtive style and has been reworked numerous times, so it is somewhat difficult to figure out exactly what She might have looked like originally. Here is a picture of the original icon from Poland:  I probably should have changed the draperies and made them even smoother. I did at least try in my version to make the blue draperies a little more flowing than the original Hodegitria source. The gold border is actually larger on my picture but it wouldn't all fit on the scanner screen. She's downstairs now sitting in the hallway on a chest of Native American relics my father dug up many years ago. Like I said, the gold is real gold, and the green background on mine is real malachite. I had to tone it down with yellow ochre because it was so green.

I wasn't going to include the scar on my icon's face (the Madonna of Czestochowa is scarred from a Hussar's sword), but a mark appeared on the paint there, and I had to make it into a scar.  Strange. It was as if She had an agenda and She was going to look the way She intended! [A few years after I orignally posted this, I got an email from a man in South America who asked me if I really, really meant it when I said the scar appeared by itself. I told him yes, and sent him a hi-rez scan of the icon. He's probably selling them as miraculous icons now somewhere in Rio but that's OK.]

But I never did think I got her facial expression exactly right.  She looks a little mean and sour where the original icon looks sad and sweet. It's a very subtle expression. A final note: a couple of years after I painted it, it was stolen from my new studio downtown, probably on Open Studio Night. I don't know what kind of person would steal an icon. I hope she's giving them Resting Bitchy Face every time they look at Her.


Making Silverpoint Paper

Bonnie and I have been making silverpoint papers, and I think we've finally got the process down.

Several years ago, I wanted to learn how to make silverpoint drawings, because this is one way preliminary drawings and studies were made during the Renaissance.  Easier said than done, though.  I had a book, "The Practice of Egg Tempera Painting," by Daniel Thompson, which purported to tell in detail how silverpoint drawings were done.  The author said to take drawing paper, tape it down, and paint it with a layer or several layers of glue size, powdered pigment, and something called bone ash.  When I first read this book many years ago, finding powdered pigment and glue size was quite an undertaking.  I remember how elated I was when I finally found Kremer Pigments in NYC, and then later, Sinopia in San Francisco!  But I was stymied by this bone ash stuff.

I thought surely it wasn't that important, and I tried making up some of the tinted papers detailed in the book without the bone ash.  Then I worked on figuring out how to make a silverpoint pen.  Again, not something you can buy at Hobby Lobby.  I finally stumbled on an article in the UTC newspaper about a new teacher in the art department -- David Young -- who actually drew in silverpoint!  Oh joy!  I trotted immediately over to his office and started asking many annoying questions which he was kind enough to answer -- how do I make a silverpoint pen?  And what is this bone ash stuff?  What does it do?  He explained that the bone ash roughens the surface of the paper enough to take a mark from the relatively hard silver pencil.  He said casually that it "wasn't hard to get" and that you could find it at places that sold supplies for ceramics.  OK, that's a start.  Except I found out later it's not true, but not to worry.

He explained that making a silverpoint pencil involved getting some mechanical drawing pens at the store and instead of using pencil leads, you get some thick silver wire and grind it to a point on one end, and round it off on the other end.  You stick this into the pencil holder instead.   Ok, that worked. 

Later, I also asked more questions on my Natural Sciences Illustration online list -- I noticed that someone there was doing silverpoint too.  I wanted to know if you used sterling or pure silver, for instance, and how thick the silver wire should be.  Eventually I got enough information to put together some pencils.  I bought the silver wire at a jeweler's supply shop right here in town (and already, I've forgotten if I got sterling or pure silver.  I think it was sterling.)  and took the wires to work at UTC where I have access to a dental drill with several dremel tool attachments which I used to grind them down to points.  Each one took about 5 minutes or so.  So now I had about a dozen silverpoint pencils, although not fancy handmade like Leonardo would have used -- that would have been an ivory stylus with the silver wire embedded in it somehow that I cannot figure out right now and don't want to bother.

So, on to making the paper.  I kept hemming and hawing about ordering the bone ash because it was in the Kremer catalog, but it cost $35 for a bag.  I kept thinking I could find some around Chattanooga for cheap, so I wasted a lot of time.  First, like I said, I made some tinted paper without the bone ash, just using the powdered pigments and glue size.  It looked quite pretty, but it didn't work.  The silverpoint pen wouldn't make a mark on it.

So then another artist friend told me that the bone ash at Ace Hardware was exactly the same thing, and it only cost $5 a bag instead of $35 plus shipping!  The bone ash from Ace was a beige color and rough.  I mixed some into my next batch of glue and pigment.  Nasty.  And it didn't work either.  Instead of adding a bit of "tooth" to the surface it just added gritty lumps.

I was going to have to order the bone ash from Kremer.  But disaster!!  Kremer sold out to Sinopia and their new catalog didn't even list bone ash!  I had dawdled too long.  The only evidence I had that they had ever stocked bone ash was my 2-year-old Kremer catalog.  In desperation, I called Kremer and asked if they still had the bone ash.  "I think we still have some around here somewhere," said the woman on the phone.  It sounded as if she were shoving around boxes in the background.  "How much do you want?"  The directions in the tempera book said "A Little."  How much is "a little" bone ash?  I ended up buying half a kilo bag.

It arrived within 3 days, pearlescent and palest gray-white.  This was the real deal, and it looked to be enough to do me for quite a while, maybe forever.  At this point, Bonnie expressed an interest in making papers for silverpoint too, so we agreed to get together and mix a batch or two, and I could sell her some bone ash.

Our first efforts, back in the fall, were too thickly done, I realized after visiting the Leonardo exhibit in Birmingham in November.  His papers were tinted, but only lightly.  We'd been brushing on coat after coat in an attempt to make it look smooth, which wasn't necessary.

The new bone ash worked perfectly, though.  As soon as the pigment dried, we tested it with one of the silverpoint pens and it worked perfectly!  Success!  Since then, we've gotten together a couple of more times to make paper, experimenting with different weights of paper and colors of pigment.  Here's a picture of Bonnie stirring the pigment mixture on the stove.

Here's Bonnie painting the pigment mixture on paper.

This is some light blue paper we made in imitation of Leonardo's lovely light blue paper at the show.

Well, that's all for now.  Next step -- complete glorious silverpoint drawings!  Bonnie said she was going to make up some little handmade books of silverpoint paper and give them away, which is the sort of lovely thoughtful gesture I am too selfish to make.  But hey, Bonnie, you go girl!  :-)


The Magnus Crucifix Project finished painting

Well, this is the fourth time I've tried to post an entry about my finished "Magnus Crucifix" project.  I'd already somehow messed my Livejournal entry up twice when yesterday afternoon while I was typing away, my son was carjacked at gunpoint on my front porch.  Yes indeedy.  Everyone is fine now and he has his car back but not his wallet.  However, I managed to lose my LiveJournal entry.  So today I tried again and the screen locked up while I was trying to tell about the carjacking and I lost it again.

Thank you Theresa, for coming over last night and letting me blubber on your shoulder about the carjacking.  Here is a scan of the finished painting.  My son posed for the figure of both Jesus and St. John.  Now I'm wondering if maybe that was bad karma or something.


Book Review: "A Masterpiece Reconstructed - The Hours of Louis XII"

Last week at McKay's I stumbled onto a real find on the art shelf:  "A Masterpiece Reconstructed - The Hours of Louis XII," a series of essays on a wonderful series of illuminations painted by Jean Bourdichon, master illuminator for two French kings:  Louis XII and Charles VIII, his predecessor.  The book features super close-up photos of the late 15th-century illuminations, showing every brush-stroke, along with a long essay describing Bourdichon's technique.  Bourdichon's illuminations were actually miniature paintings every bit as lovely and realistic as easel paintings of the day.  They were created with lavish use of expensive colors:  pure gold in the highlights, and ultramarine in the skin tones - something easel painters could not afford at the time.  This lavish use of blue was forgotten until the 19th century, when French chemists synthesized ultramarine blue, and made it easily available, just in time for the Impressionists. 

The essays also include a fascinating foray into medieval eroticism in the work of the illuminators.  Apparently the subject of David and Bathsheba was an excuse for some quite explicit, almost pornographic little paintings.  And I had always thought that the little nudes scattered throughout the Hours of the Duke de Berry were just jokes, but according to the essayist, the Duke was quite a nasty perve in his time, and shared a predeliction for little girls with Pol Limbourg, his master illuminator.  I guess nowadays they would just be looking at the internet, but in the 15th century, they managed to get together and produce some exquisite and timeless art.  How things have changed. 

This book will take its place on my shelf with another little treasure I found a few years back:  "King Rene's Book of Love (Le Coeur d'Amours Espris)" published by the National Library, Vienna in 1975.  The book is a complete manuscript of illuminations painted, supposedly, by Rene, King of Sicily and Duke of Anjou while imprisoned by Duke Philip of Burgundy during the 100 Years War.  According to legend, while a prisoner he met Jan van Eyck and became his pupil.  The illuminations are fantastic and very three-dimensional.  Not all critics accept that they were actually painted by King Rene, but they bear definite stylistic similarities to the Bourdichon paintings and also to the work of Jan van Eyck.  Some art historians have even said that they could have been painted by van Eyck's sister or another female relative.

device is Heroin

Not long ago, Ken and I went to see "The Other Boleyn Girl" at the cheap theater.  It was OK, not especially historic, but a dollar's worth of fun.   I mean, didn't King Henry have red hair, and wasn't he already getting a bit paunchy during his affair with Anne Boleyn?  And Mary Boleyn had two children by Henry before he dumped her for her sister Anne.  And the sex wasn't all that hot, either.  Anne reported that Henry was lousy in the hay.  But never mind.  Shut up and eat your popcorn.

I was only vaguely aware of the Phillippa Gregory novel on which the movie was based.  So I surprised myself by impulsively snatching up "The Boleyn Inheritance," the sequel to "The Other Boleyn Girl," when I saw it in paperback at the bookstore on my lunchbreak.  I was even more surprised when I took it home and gobbled it up in one sitting!  "The Boleyn Inheritance" concerns poor Katharine Howard, Henry's fifth unfortunate teenage wife, cousin of Anne Boleyn, who also ended up on the chopping block at age seventeen or so (there's quite a lot of disagreement on her age).

Gregory has a fresh take on all the Boleyn girls and Katharine Howard -- she sees them as pawns of the powerful Howard family and especially the evil and conniving Duke of Norfolk, Katharine's uncle.  Henry comes across as a smelly combination of Idi Amin and Bill Clinton in Tudor costume.  He became a madman, surrounded by fawning courtiers who were afraid to cross him, but only too willing to attempt to control him by means of his codpiece.

After I read "The Boleyn Inheritance" I found a new biography of Katharine Howard in the Gregory's bibliography (I love bibliographies)  -- "Katharine Howard: A Tudor Conspiracy,"  by Joanna Denny.  A few clicks on and I found it "used" for practically nothing plus shipping, new in the wrapper and it was in my hands in a week. ( I love Amazon!).  In past bios, Katharine Howard has been portrayed as a stupid hussy, flipping up her bumroll for just about any chap in tights.  Denny's new book, however, shows Katharine as a pitiful victim of child sexual abuse at eleven, waved under Henry's nose  to further the Duke of Norfollk's schemes.  Gregory used Denny's new take on the Howard saga in her novel, to good effect.

The Phillippa Gregory book was a fun read and I took it to McKay's, but the new biography is a keeper.


"New" Wood Panels

Several years ago I bought a 2'x4' piece of indoor birch plywood, thinking to gesso it and paint a large egg tempera painting, but I never got around to it.  I dragged that heavy piece of wood around with me from room to room and to my new studio.  Finally, my newfound interest in Durer inspired me.  I checked out a book from the UTC library, "Durer," a monograph by Allan Braham.

What I liked about it was that it gave precise measurements of all his paintings in inches, and I noticed that his portraits were quite modest in size.  I wrote down all the measurements of all his portraits, and discovered that they easily divided into about three groups, based on similar proportions:  There were a number of portraits which averaged roughly 20"x16"; another group of smaller portraits which averaged about 12'x9'; a small group of larger portraits which averaged 29"x28"; and finally one circular portrait which was about 15"x15".

I divided my panel into two 9'x12" panels and two 16"x20" panels with only a little left over.  Now I"m readly to sand them around the edges and then to make up a solution of size glue.  The first step in gessoing the panels will be to paint them on both sides with the size solution.  This provides an adhesive surface for the gesso.  I'll take pictures (I promise in the future to take extensive photos of all artistic processes!) and show all the steps in creating a period gessoed panel.

Painting the Magnus Crucifix

Well, trying to paint like Durer or Grunewald is truly a humbling experience.  it goes without saying, I still can't paint like Durer or Grunewald, but I certainly learned a whole lot!  I only wish I could have been a real apprentice in one of their studios and studied with them.  

Here is a quote from Odd Nerdrum, a wonderful 21st century painter who lives in Iceland, and who paints like a modern Rembrandt, speaking of his own inspiration from the past: 

"We are responsible for those who come after us.  Most of my friends are dead.  They lived here and there in history - in this mass of years.  My friends - the years between them and me - are like the distance between planets.  Timelessly we mirror each other, my friends and I.

We are timeless if we dare."

At times as I painted this picture, I felt as if Grunewald were standing over my shoulder, giving me advice.  "What do you think I should do here, Master Grunewald?" I would ask, and he would make a kind and gentle suggestion.  Durer, on the other hand, told me I was a stupid woman who couldn't paint, although he admitted I could draw just a little.    

After doing the grisailles of the figures, I spent a good deal of time fiddling with the background scene.  It is based mostly on some cruciform landscapes scenes I found in Netherlandish crucifixion scenes.  I originally planned to make the background lighter, with a mostly blue sky, like in the earlier Netherlandish pictures and in Durer.  However, after I painted the figures and colored them, they just didn't look right against the lighter background.  They really needed the darker background to stand out, once I had made the  commitment to Grunewald's costume colors.  I hated to cover up all the little details I had painted but I had too. 
The Virgin is wearing one of those big German bonnet headdresses under her veil.  Oh, and the photo is a little bit off , so the cross looks slightly crooked, and it's not really.  Hmm, and the photo has also cut off the bottom of John's foot, which is in the picture, and also a bit is cut off at the top.   Not sure about the color, either.  It looks a little washed out.  OK, I'll have to make a better photo.  

My palette consisted of Peach black (a black made from burnt peach pits!), Mars black, Titanium white, yellow ochre, raw sienna, burnt sienna, Ultramarine blue in the Virgin's gown, but as I said, I think it's too bright, raw umber and burnt umber.  No bright green - I used a wonderful color, green umber, which is a marvelous dark green.  Plus a mixture of black and yellow ochre, which makes an olive green.  Lots of Terra Rosa which is a natural earth red and quite bright.  I used a tiny dab of Grumbacher red, as a substitute for vermillion, at the very end to do the blood on Christ's side.  That was the only modern color I used except for the Mars black, (I really should have just used the Peach black, but I only had a tiny tube, and the Mars black is virtually identical in color and handling properties) and titanium white instead of lead white.

I painted the figures of the Virgin and St. John first.  The skin tones are mostly white and yellow ochre and red earth tones with a gray made from black and white as needed, plus raw sienna.  I mixed a skin tone a little on the bright side and went over the skin area first, then glazed in layers of warm shadow.  Then I mixed a lighter skin tone and scumbled paler tones on top of that.  I painted the loincloth on Christ in black and white with admixtures of umber in the shadows and I think a bit of blue in the highlights.  I glazed the background with black and Ultramarine a number of times to get the desired degree of darkness.  I sanded off areas to get the sun and moon on either side of Christ, and glazed and scumbled with reddish and ochre tones. 

I used a medium made of 1/2 linseed oiil and 1/2 copal varnish on most parts of the painting.  The copal was especially useful in areas where I needed tight detail, because it keeps the paint from spreading (if you don't get mineral spirits on the brush).  For instance, in painting the lettering on the sign I used copal medium mixed with black paint, and thinned to the desired consistency with a bit more linseed oil.  I didn't clean my brush with mineral spirits while painting because it would cause the paint to spread. 

The main problem I ran into with the copal medium was it caught dust and bits of hair and fiber from the air and I had to rub these off.  In between layers, I smoothed the paint, if needed, with linseed oil and rottenstone (very fine pumice powder) rubbed with a cloth or the fingers, and then wiped off.  I also sometimes smoothed away brush marks in wet layers of paint with a soft dry brush after finished with the day's work.  When the whole picture was finished I went over it with a couple of layers of the copal medium and smoothed it with rottenstone and a lot of rubbing. 

I used a variety of brushes, from a 0 or smaller for the fine detail to larger sable brushes for glazing large areas.  I used a large soft brush to pat down painted areas.  

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Sketch Close-Ups for Magnus Crucifix Project and Underpainting

 Here are some closer shots of the sketches for the crucifix:  This is the "undersketch" for the figure of St. John.  When you see the finished painting, you might think that I just copied the figure from the Karlsruhe Crucifix, but I didn't.  I drew this figure first, and then draped the clothes on him.  I tried to get my model to pose the same as the figure of St. John in the Karlsruhe Crucifix, but of course it is slightly different.  After I put the clothes on him, I changed the position of one foot, but having drawn this, I could move his foot with confidence, knowing where they were under the robes.  Here is a close-up of the hands in the sketch.  Once again, it is slightly different from the Karlsruhe Crucifix:  I wanted to know exactly where the fingers were before I started, and not just the fingers, but the wrist bones too.  Here are the hands of St. John from the Karlsruhe Crucifix so you can compare.

Here is the figure of the Virgin: I'd show her hands too, but for some reason my scan is a bit blurry.  Not enough pixels. 

OK, here is the first stage of the underpainting on the actual panel: I took the final sketch and transferred it to the panel with graphite, cleaned it up, made minor changes, and sprayed it with a bit of fixitive.  Then I went over the drawing with peach black oil paint, thinned with mineral spirits to the consistency of ink.  When this dried throughly, I applied an imprimatura: a transparent wash of oil color over the entire panel.  I thought Durer and Grunewald used a warmish ochre color;  but Joseph Shepard's book How To Paint Like the Old Masters said to use burnt umber to create an imprimature like Durer would have used.  I think I compromised and used burnt sienna mixed with a bit of umber but if I could do it over, I think I would use a red ochre. 

The dark area behind the head of St. John was a place where the gesso was too absorbent and took up too much of the imprimatura. 

After I applied the imprimatura, and it dried, I worked up the figures in a grisaille:  I used black and white paint to make a complete "grayscale" of the figures.  You can see the completed grisaille of St. John on the right of the panel.  After all the figures were painted in grisaille, I then began to glaze color over them. 

I really should have made more photos as I worked, but I got into the painting and forgot.  This weekend I'll photograph the finished painting and show here.  I'll also say a lot more about how I worked and other sources for the painting.