Thursday, January 24, 2019

Russian mass-heater

So, this actually answers a question I had years and years ago about a Russian novel I was reading - or maybe it was a play - in which a character was "sleeping on the stove". My only experience with wood stoves was with the tin and cast iron kind that you most decidedly can't sleep on.

More and more I want to go visit the East of Europe. I think they know some things that the West and the stupid, indulged, lazy fat and boring 1st world have forgotten and forgotten to care about.


Also, finally identified the bird I heard the other night. Tawny owl. Probably the female.

From the trees behind the house last night. Not the first lower-pitched one, but the second, high screechy one. The idea is that the female and male of a given species have different calls, so they can locate each other. I know the sound carries a long way, since I've heard it across the fields too.

A friend who is a birder said you identify birds by learning their calls. Never been a big bird-person, but now I can get magpies, pheasants and blackbirds, as well as the very easily recognisable chirp of the parrot that lives in the bay tree who comes out in the spring. Not too many of course, but I get it now. Birding isn't about looking, it's about listening.


Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Medieval painting; how it's done

Conservators and other art-expert people know now that certain pigments are more chemically stable than others. The green, apparently, lasts more or less forever, but the pink and white dabbed over top to make skin tone doesn't. This means that when the painting gets to five or seven or eight hundred years old, you can really see how it was constructed.

Someone asked me what I'm looking for when I go up to the National Gallery with my magnifying lens to look at the medieval and early Renaissance altarpieces, expecting me to start waxing poetically about the spirituality of sacred art. I said, "Brushstrokes." She seemed a bit disappointed.

This little screen cap from the video shows a bit of what you see when you look very closely at these paintings. The lovely "sfumato" effect, the delicate and subtle changes in colour, the contours of the face, the infinitely delicate golden hairs, the transparent veiling... are all achieved not as in oils with big swathes of paint, but with many many layers and tiny little dibby-dabs of brush strokes over an underpainting. 

But the trouble with art books is that the resolution is un-alterable. You can't zoom in close enough with a picture in a book. This is the one advantage we have with the internet. A lot of museums now are producing super-hi-res photos of the paintings so art students and historians can zoom in to micro-close views to see how the paintings are constructed. But of course, if you live in Italy you can just take the bus up to Perugia and pay the super-low 8 bucks to go look at the real thing. Once you get over the shock and awe of actually being in the same room with these things, you can sort out quite a lot just from looking.

One of the things I like about all this is learning these ancient and somewhat arcane ways of combining natural materials to produce your own art supplies. The long process he's doing here in the first half is to make 'bole" the red clay gesso that goes under gilding.


Monday, January 21, 2019

Art supply news and adventures in Egg Tempera

Nitram, for those outside the world of traditional academic drawing circles, is the most important artists' charcoal producer in the world. Their product is used in all the ateliers and studios of the "Classical Realist" revival around the world.

Based in Quebec. The last time I heard their entire operation was closed because of a fire. One of their charcoal kilns ignited the whole thing. But I guess they're back.

I think I could figure out how to do a version of this at home. Maybe use a glass muller like this...

...and grind up a bunch of leftover charcoal, mix with some gum arabic as a binder... Charcoal watercolour... It's a thought. I've also got a bunch of pure sanguine that does grind down to a very nice fine powder, but tends to be too crumbly to use in chunks. I've made a bit of "sangine ink" just by mixing some water with the powder, and it's pretty fun to use.

Egg Tempera experiments

I recently started adding egg tempera medium to artist's quality gouache and have found it's really great. It solves all manner of problems with gouache - like that incredibly irritating thing with it drying lighter than when you put it on - and makes the paint much smoother and easier to work with and resolves that ultra-flat matte finish that I didn't like about gouache.

The finished results of my egg-gouache experiment in December, a commission from California for four miniatures for the Christmas tree:

Here they are in the clearer photos I took myself, showing the process a bit:

Source material: just a page cut out of a book on Fra Angelico's painting.

And a screen shot from a 14th century manuscript page from the British Library.  Not specifically about Christmas, but I thought the happy, sleepy animals looked sort of Christmassy nonetheless.

Traced the drawing, then go over it on the back with a soft graphite pencil, about a 3B, then flip the paper over and transfer the graphite to the surface with a stylus (I used a porcupine quill). The little wooden forms were 3 inches diameter (bought in a packet of 50 from Amazon) and finished by a thin layer of plaster, sanded and then covered in commercial (acrylic-based) gesso.

For this one, I copied the drawing from the original into my sketch book, then simplified it and traced it.

Background started with Arabic Gold gouache paint (Finetec) and some gilding gesso for the raised parts. Going to have to work a lot harder on the raised gesso technique. I spent a lot of time in the Perugia National Gallery looking at the original Fra Angelicos with my magnifying lens and a huge part of the impact of his work, what makes it look otherworldly, is the incredibly intricate gesso work. Patterns impressed with specialised tools into the gesso under the gilding is what creates the amazing light quality. It's hard to describe, and I'm sure the tools no longer exist. More research required. But I wasn't at all happy with the effect of the gilding gesso, which came out lumpy no matter how much I scraped and sanded it.

Did a layer of Primary Yellow under the gold, hoping it would brighten up a bit. The green for the underpainting of skin tones was the standard technique in egg tempera painting (before oils were developed and popularized later in the Renaissance) and comes from the Byzantine icon style that was the standard for sacred painting in Italy before the Giotto revolution. If you look very, very closely at the originals you will see that the shadows on the skin tone of the medieval altarpieces and Madonnas all have a very slightly green undertone.

Correcting the drawing (perspective) as I paint... not exactly recommended...

Getting there...

The scale was really difficult and I don't think I'm destined by God or nature to be a miniaturist. The stress was monstrous. One slip, one minute jiggle and it's ruined. The faces are put on a dot at a time with the magnifier in one hand. I must invest in one of those goose neck magnifier lamps. Or a headset. Or just never ever do another miniature again as long as I live...


Same general process for the Happy Animals, but quite a bit more forgiving...

Unfortunately, my crummy camera work doesn't pick up the colours very well, and the little points of stars in the background (Finetec "Moon Gold") lose their shine entirely in the pic, but this gives the general gist.

So, improvement, I think. And starting to get the knack of the egg tempera medium. Or at least, getting the beginning of a feel for it. As you will see, to be an expert egg tempera painter in the traditional manner is no small weekend project...


Learning the technique

The egg tempera technique is incredibly complex when it's done in its full traditional manner, but its very arcane, ancient and alchemical aspects of it is what lends it such a mystique. But as a "lost" art, outside the rather rarified circles of Byzantine iconographers, it does have the disadvantage of being quite difficult to learn. There's a lot you just have to more or less figure out on your own. Fortunately, I live in Italy...

Its use was universal in the early Renaissance and all the great masters of the period used it exclusively. Oils didn't come into use until they were developed from egg tempera, with "tempera grasso" ("oily" or "fatty" tempera). There is ONE book by a contemporary egg tempera artist who has done the research to fully re-create the techniques, and a very small number of professionals using the ancient methods in modern ways. I've only just begun to scratch the surface.

Part of the challenge is getting hold of the materials. Properly done, in the medieval and early Renaissance style, egg tempera paint is made by mulling a tiny quantity at a time, direct from raw powdered pigment, each batch made for use in just one day's work. So mixing paint - a long process by itself requiring special skills and tools - was done daily by the artist or his apprentice. Traditionally, each day's paints were only one colour, and you put them onto your painting in a sort of patchwork method. A painting was made by an incredibly painstaking process of multiple layers of very thin transluscent paint. Each layer had to be allowed to dry and set completely before the next layer could be applied. The advantage of egg tempera is that it dries very quickly compared to oils, so several layers could be applied in one day.

Another big difference from oils is that you don't use it on a stretched canvas but on a solid surface, usually wood panels made of poplar wood and laminated together in pieces in order to allow for the expansion and contraction of the wood with changes in humidity and temperature.

These wood panels are sanded and then finished with a type of gesso called "True Gesso" that is itself normally home made. I'm pretty sure you can't buy True Gesso anywhere ready made.

You can buy (very tiny and expensive quantities of) rabbit skin glue flakes at Spoleto's art supply shop. I know you can get it in bulk at Poggi, the professional art supplier in Rome, and I think you can order it online in larger quantities from specialist places like Zecchi. I bought a nice kilo of Gesso di Bologna, which is a kind of industry standard, but 've been told the best True Gesso is not made with gypsum but marble dust. I'm on an egg tempera painter's page on Facebook and they exchange information on super-sekrit ways of getting hold of marble dust and what kind of marble is best. (Carrara marble, apparently, is great for sculpting, but makes gesso that doesn't hold the paint very well...)

THEN you have to get the right kind of linen cloth - unbleached, coarse weave - and glue it to your poplar boards, and the True Gesso goes on that in layers once it's dried. Each gesso layer must be allowed to dry completely and then sanded smooth. There are also special methods of sanding to get the desired finish... Apparently the last sanding can best be done with a cuttle fish bone, which I happen to have in abundance (picked up off the beach in winter cuttle fish fishing season and taken home with the thought, "Maybe these will be useful for something some day.").

Fortunately, instead of allowing myself to get intimidated by all this amazing (ahem) Byzantine complexity, I just figured I'd give it a go with the materials I've got. This has allowed me to do it sort of algebraically, by adding a single variable to the equation at a time. Started with gouache, then learned how to make an egg emulsion medium and mix it, and the results are leaps ahead of where I was. Now I've gone down to the art supplier in Spoleto and bought two little jars of powdered pigment, some rabbit skin glue flakes and a kilo of Gesso di Bologna and some ready-made panels. 

So I think I might be ready to level up. I figure as long as I'm not trying to do The Whole Thing Exactly Right Every Time, I can allow myself to experiment, and the possible mistakes don't turn the whole thing into a Big Giant Disaster in my brain. It's all a matter of tricking your brain into not freaking out.


Thursday, January 03, 2019

You don't have to live like they tell you: home-made log cabin edition

Lately can't seem to get enough of these outdoors, camping, bushcrafting, build-a-fort-in-the-woods videos. We admire people who know how to do things. I'm guessing this guy doesn't live here full time, but what a thing it would be to have a cool place like this to go to, that no one else knew about, that you'd built yourself and where you could be alone and free to make things and explore, read and hang out in peace. I guess it's an ancient instinct, and we see it in things like people who have allotments (vids of which I also like).

We just can't keep on living the way we do. It's not just killing us as individuals ("sitting down all the time is killing us") but destroying our entire civilisation. We're paying everything for sitting down all the time.

And it seems like a lot of other people think so too.


Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Octave Day of Christmas

Bet you didn't know the story of the Christmas Moose, did you?

It's a Canadian thing...

Monday, December 31, 2018

Rosehip liqueur for Epiphany

On the road up to the old monastery in Norcia, February 2, 2015.

Well, I've finally figured out what to do with rosehips. I've just made a big batch of rosehip liqueur.

The problem with them is that they're difficult to process and incredibly acidic. You can't make them into jelly or jam since the pectin just won't work with that level of acidity. You can use them to flavour crabapple jelly, but you have to be pretty sparing with the juice. All my efforts have only ever produced rosehip syrup, but of course, there's nothing whatever wrong with that. I tried rosehip wine - the ancient Romans loved it! - but just couldn't get the yeast to not die. And the end result was too acidic to drink without adding a dollop of honey. But they remain one of my favourite fruits - I think I just can't resist their beautiful colour. So, this evening I tried again, and I think I've got it figured.

They're delicious, and amazingly good for you. Dog roses, that is, wild roses, have a fruit with the highest concentration of Vitamin C of any fruit we know about in the western world. But they're a pain to process. The scrapes and scratches you can't help getting picking them is only the beginning. The fruit encloses a little pill of hard seeds that are each covered in extremely fine, but very unpalatable hairs, like extremely fine cactus hairs. They are very unpleasant to get in your skin, and even worse to get in your mouth. The leathery case of the hip is the fruit part that you want, but they're difficult to separate from their seeds. So you have to boil them and then strain out the bits you don't want.

The best time is late December, last week before January 1. They've had all summer and autumn to ripen - and this was a particularly good year with a good balance of heat and rain - and then the first frosts have softened them. By the last week of December (in Norcia, which means only a couple of weeks of steady hard frosts) most of the fruits are still red, though by the beginning of the first week of January they will all have turned black, and there won't be any more until next year.

By that time, they're wonderful straight off the bush. You choose the ones with the best colour, brilliant scarlet, and nice smooth skin with no sign of wrinkling or discolouring.

Pick it carefully off the stem which should come away from the fruit leaving a little hole in the skin. You squeeze them gently between thumb and forefinger and this red pasty stuff comes out the hole like toothpaste out of a tube. This is the fruit and it's absolutely delicious at this point just to eat straight. Three or four is vitamin C for a week.

If you're picking them for cooking, bring along a long-handled umbrella with a hook on the end to pull the higher canes down, since the plants on the hedgerows often get ten feet in height. They're usually most abundant on the upper parts of the plant, and the parts that get the most sun in the day (though in a hot country like Italy this can mean smaller and harder fruits, since the sun can be hot enough in the summers to blight the fruit.)

The soft late season fruits can be pretty squishy, so make sure you bring a big zip lock freezer bag, something sturdy. Not a shopping back, since they tear too easily. Collect them most easily with a pair of kitchen scissors, and a plastic bag that has a handle you can slip over one wrist. The fruits grow in little clusters of two or three or sometimes four; take these gently in your left hand and use the scissors to cut the stems all at once, and drop them into the bag.

Don't try to pull the thorny canes or move them aside; just use the scissors to cut away any pointy bits that are between your hand and the fruit. Don't reach into a big bunch of thorny canes or twigs to get the fruit. Just cut away and clear a path for your hand, and use the scissors to toss away the cut canes and twigs; don't grab them with your fingers. Don't worry about the plant; the rose family loves to be pruned and the more you cut in December the more fruit there will be next year.

I picked about 1.5 kg and just tossed them in the freezer when I got home. Tonight I took it out and put the whole thing frozen into the 9L pressure cooker with about 4 L of water. Cooked them for 2 hours, which was enough to liquefy the fruit and separate the skins, seeds and bits of stem. Mashing with a potato masher helps too. Then you do the first strain through a colander for the big stuff. Next is with cheese cloth over a strainer. This takes some patience because this is when you are straining out the hairs that form a thick paste. So you have to pour carefully and stir gently and slowly to get as much juice out of the paste as possible.

When this was done, I rinsed the cheese cloth and ran it through again, but probably didn't need to. I did up a good thick sugar syrup and poured it in, let it blend, and then added two bottles of vodka. Sugar is a personal taste thing, but you really do have to have it. Rosehips' claim to fame is the incredible content of Vitamin C - and that's also called Ascorbic acid. The liquor is more acidic by a long way than straight lemon juice, so yeah. Sugar. Lots and lots of sugar.

Give it a little stir and jar or bottle it. With that much acid, sugar and alcohol that stuff is NEVEr going to go off.


The finished product. About 6 L. A kilo or so of rosehips boiled for 2 hours in a pressure cooker with 3 L of water, a full kilo of sugar and 1.5 L vodka + as little water as possible added to the sugar just to make a syrup.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Not what you think.

I love this country so much!


Friday, November 16, 2018

"In Front" - Civilisational gridlock explained

Years and years ago, I developed a theory of traffic dynamics based on a single assumption that nearly everyone shares in our society: we must all be "In Front".

It doesn't matter if that means you are simply the first person at the stop light, as long as you are in front of everyone else at the stop light. It also doesn't matter if, once you have become In Front of your immediate opponent you are now Behind the next person in the queue. This should merely spur your efforts to be In Front of those guys. Those guys don't deserve to be In Front any more than all the other people you just passed.

Apply the theory of In Front to all of modern life and you have found the source of most of our misery.


Thursday, November 15, 2018

You don't have to live like they tell you: mountain hermit edition

Eremitical life is pretty strong in Italy. There are quite a lot of official, diocesan hermits and a whole bunch more unofficial, unrecognised, hidden "lay" hermits and semi-hermits.

This is a trend that is quite visible here, where Italians are still interested in the ancient things of the Faith. Mostly things they are emphatically NOT receiving from their parishes.

My rough translation:
TG2000: Alone among the immensity of the mountains, in the silence of creation, in a baita (mountain cabin) between rock and streams, Sr. Paola Biacino, lives like this on charity, after a marriage annulment and three daughters…

Suora Paola: Here you experience just that the holy spirit is something that goes beyond beyond us, that is, every word that comes out [from you] does not. It's never your perception. This is then reach for the other, reach for something bigger than myself.

So we are only instruments. We live and try to live in the time of God, not the time of man. It’s a seeking to live on the threshold of this experience and so it’s something beautiful.

TG 2000: We are under Monviso, the king of stone. The day of the hermit unfolds in the continuous conversation with God. As a Sister Paola another 300 in Italy witnesses that in the years of chaos the words, gestures, the eyes can write the days of God.

Every night she gets up at 3 am to pray and sing, then welcome those who come to look for hope.

Suora Paola: Try [search for] everything, look for someone that listens try to relearn praying. Try to understand why in a time of movement, solitude. [Why] a person seeks and chooses life of solitude and then look for a few. Sometimes they find and sometimes one [finds] stimulus to try even more.

TG 2000: The first day, 12 years ago, someone who knocked was a friar with lunch, and this brought tears of emotion.

Here's another:

Just watch it. Don't bother too much about the translations. (If you can follow a little Italian, it helps to click on the CC.)


Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Just before everything went completely to...

Late afternoon sun on the Tyrhennian, from the hills above S. Marinella 2014

Christmas eve hiking & running, enjoying my new hair.

Mike Matt and a few friends for dinner, Conclave week 2013

Winnie, before her illness. In fact, she was already showing signs, but I put it down to age. 

At home. 

The Abdicator's last day on the job: last Angelus

First sign something was wrong: it was too soon. Two days, 4 ballots. 

No s___, I was there. 

I keep thinking I should just move back to S. Marinella. But I guess you can't turn back time.