Friday, August 14, 2020

Farm Cat Life

 In the dog days of summer, the afternoons are very hot, but the mornings are really nice. So every morning this week I've set up the sunshade on the terrace and had my coffee and eggs with my book in the chair in the cool air and this little fellow has come and sat with me.

He's one of Annamaria's little tribe of Farm Cats. They're feral and only barely tame enough for her to feed twice a day. They won't come near me, but one morning last winter, as I was off to Mass at Sant'Andrea, I met up with Anna walking up the long drive towards the house with a long parade of little grey cats following along behind her.

They live rather rough lives, but seem contented enough, sleeping in the shady spots in the day and roaming all over the farm all night. The population remains pretty steady; every year we lose one or two and gain a few new little ones that bounce around very entertainingly for a few months before settling into their lives.

This is one of the newer ones, born into the tribe year before last. He won't let me touch or get near him, but he doesn't run away now when I sit down near by.

I've been leaving the big stainless steel roasting tin filled with water on the terrace, and the Farm Cats like to come and have a drink. He's waiting for his moment when he thinks its safe to sidle through the kitchen door to see if Pippin has left any food in his dish.


Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Moving right along - size gilding and transfer leaf

Yes, it's been almost a year.


I thought I'd get back to writing about the process of learning iconography, Byzantine, Gothic and early Renaissance painting techniques. What the heck. If the world's ending, what do you want to be caught doing? Tweeting? Seriously?

Instead of an interminable post about what I've been doing for the last year, I'm going to assume that most of the readers who come back will have been keeping up on Facebook and elsewhere anyway, so I'll just dive right in where we are now.

Which is here:

It's late July, 4:45 pm GMT+1. The temperature outside is about 38C, and the windows and shutters are closed up to keep at least some of the Italian summer blaze outside. And I've just had some fun unboxing the latest order from Dal Molin.

It's always fun when you get a box of iconography goodies from Dal Molin, the Italian iconography supplier Up Norff. They never did stop working and delivering all through our Covid Crisis. The other day they sent their regular online customers an email saying, as a small family business, they were taking a couple of weeks off, most of August in fact. (This is normal in Italy).

Because I've got three more commissions, and I hope to get going on things immediately, I took the opportunity to order some stuff. Two more books of 23k leaf, a roll of imitation, some Red Oxide pigment and a bottle of oil-based gilder's size. All part of an exciting new adventure in what I think I'm going to call Less Painful Gilding.

I've learned two things in this process: 1) I hate gilding with the white hot passion of a thousand-thousand burning suns, and 2) everybody wants gilding. Gilding is glam. Gilding is Noble. It's Real. It's beautiful and lasting and deeply symbolically meaningful.

First sheet for a project in the spring. 23 3/4 carat. Somewhere between 1/8000 mm to 1/10,000 mm thick. It's so thin you can't touch it with your fingers or it will stick to the microscopic irregularities on your skin. You have to close the windows and turn off any fans. You can't breathe when you lift it (with a special brush made of very fine natural animal hairs) or your breath will twist it over on itself. Then it sticks to itself. Then you have to try to tease it apart using only brushes and get it to lie down flat again. You can't move your hands or arm too quickly close to it because the air movement will pick it up. It's incredibly fiddly to deal with and really a massive pain. But nothing else does what it does.

And doing it has, so far, made me feel like a giant balled fist with clenched teeth. I hate gilding. It makes me want to stab myself in the brain with a chopstick. I was desperate to find some other way of doing it.

So, this is going to seem a bit arcane, but with the new red pigment, Italian Red Oxide, a way opens. In the packet (they send it to you in little plastic zip lock bags) it looked almost identical to the Pozzuoli Rosso I already had. But I mixed them with a bit of water and did a test, and look at the difference. (This pic was taken in bad light with the shutters closed against the afternoon inferno. It's much redder in decent light.)

But the big difference is the grind. It's incredibly fine, as you would expect with a synthetic rather than a ground earth pigment. The Pozz. Ross. gets its colour from exactly the same substance - iron oxide - but because it's an ochre it's a kind of tinted clay, so is very grainy and much less intense - technical term: "saturated" - than the pure iron oxide pigment.

More importantly, the two textures are totally different. And this is because I'm going to use it for gilding. The Pozz. Ross. would have been really unsuitable for what I wanted to do with it, which is to create a coloured ground for gilding. You have to have something coloured underneath the leaf because the gold is so thin the colour of whatever's underneath will show through. So if you put it on a white background it will be dull. Red is best. I've also used yellow ochre, which doesn't give quite the same drama.

But to a two-molecule-thick piece of gold leaf, the graininess of the earth pigment would have been like lying over sandpaper. The little bumps of the ochre grains create little minute shadows which bring down the reflectivity of the whole thing.

Getting an extremely high shine is the point of going to all the extra work when you use bole, sanding, burnishing and polishing it incredibly smooth.

Applying the first layer of bole for an icon of St. Joseph in the spring.

Bole is just fine grain red clay and is the same colour as the red oxide pigment. It stays porous and absorbent, so the leaf will stick to it, while being capable of being polished to a very high shine. Then once you've got the gold down you can burnish it again, mashing the grains into each other with the gold on top and this, in theory, gives you the incredible Russian style mirror-shine.

 ... like this...

(Every time I've burnished gold it either rubs right off or bubbles up and creates holes. Please Lord, no more burnishing.)

 But LAWKS the amount of work you have to do to get there! and the agony of not being able to do it. The least little microscopic flaw in the bole will show through with the gold, and, short of sanding everything off and starting again, you can't fix it. It's incredibly nerve wracking.

This other method with gilding size and red oxide pigment is, reportedly, way simpler. Though you can't get that Russian mirror shine thing - which I could never do anyway.

 You paint the area to be gilded with Red Oxide pigment - no tempera medium, just mixed with distilled water or a little gum arabic watercolour medium. When it's dry, you apply the size, which is just a special chemical adhesive for gold leaf. You paint it on, and wait three hours. It'll be tacky to the touch, but not wet.


Then instead of using the loose leaf gold, you've finally wised up and bought the transfer gold, which you can cut with scissors and lift with the sort of low-friction silicone paper stuff it comes with. So you don't have to use the gilding tip (the long-hair squirrel brush that sometimes picks up a piece of leaf... and sometimes doesn't, as the mood strikes...) you just pick it up with your fingers, lay it down paper side up on the tacky size, rub the paper with your finger so it's good and stuck, peel back the paper and voy-lah! Gilding!

I'm also looking forward to doing more of this technique, which the Italians call "laghetto" - little lake or puddle - and the iconographers call a "float" because the pigment particles are suspended in a very thin solution of egg medium and water, and so float down slowly to settle on the surface of the panel, giving a very pleasing natural mottled effect, which you use as an underpainting.

 Like this:

But you can't use anything grainy, and the more finely ground the pigment the more even the finished result. So, the Red Oxide along with my Ultramarine is going to look very well, I think...

Sunday, September 29, 2019


Yesterday's practice.

Subdividing Thursday's blocks of colour imprimatura and learning the trick of creating the secondary colour not by mixing on a palette but by glazing, meaning applying very thin translucent layers of colour over top.

Learning value by mixing four or five different values of a single colour, applied with tiny brush strokes over top of the base colour imprimatura (that I think the Byzantines call "proplasmos").



Thursday, September 26, 2019

More experiments

It's funny how the old methods turn out to be better than the new Bright Ideas.

Trying to be a bit more systematic, learning the rather tricky egg tempera glazing methods and colour mixing.

Italian ice cube trays are ridiculous for making ice. Teeny little cubes that melt before you can start drinking your drink. But for colour mixing in egg tempera...

This is the other icon painter/egg tempera channel I'm using.

All in French but it's not that hard to understand. (And maybe my French might get a little better...)

Here's my first stage. I'm going to wait until it's bone dry, then do the glazing. The idea is that egg tempera paint is translucent, so the first layer of colour shows through and you put a thin glaze over it to make a third colour. Yellow over a blue base makes green, etc.

The top row is all from the same colours: Yellow ochre, Alizerin crimson and Burnt umber with a dab of ivory black. It shows how much difference can be created just making very small changes in the mix.


Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Having a go

A couple of months ago I signed up for the Patreon page of Ikonographics, run by a woman, Julia Hayes, from South Africa - who lives in Athens - and has been studying Byzantine iconography for many years.

She has essentially the same idea I have about art; learn to do it the hardest way possible. Do all the traditional techniques, learn the practices and materials that created the great works. Once you've mastered the super-duper hard stuff - like learning to draw icons free-hand, no tracing or even copying, you can have the freedom to do work that just learning the cheap n' dirty, easy way can't give you.

This is obviously not the way to do a finished icon, on watercolour paper. It's just an exercise in things like getting the drawing proportions right, colour mixing, using the paint, getting used to the way egg tempera goes on with a brush, what kind of brushes work best - and what tools and materials I'm going to have to buy.

I spent an hour yesterday just doing pages and pages of ovals. I bought a box of cheap-o copier paper to practice drawing on, so I can just cover the pages in doodles and scribbles, and not feel bad about tossing them at the end of the day. It's amazing how hard it is to draw a simple oval shape - not pointy on top like an egg, or flat sides, or bumpy or lop-sided - just by eyeballing it. I've got several pages in my workbook of hands, eyes, noses...

Today I thought I'd have a go at using the paint.

Wobbly oval on a centre axis line. Hilariously difficult. (It's off-centre on purpose.)

Finished the drawing, but then you go over it with a gum eraser to pull the graphite off, or it shows through too much.

First few layers are yellow ochre, mixed with egg medium and thinned way down with distilled water. (Yes, it's supposed to be streaky.)

It's certainly not at all like any painting technique I'm used to. You do one colour at a time, and you just paint right the heck over top of your drawing. Then you mix up a little dark tone and go over the drawing - which shows through the translucent paint.

I've been using egg medium mixed with artists' quality gouache - Windsor and Newton among others - and have been very pleased with the way it changes the gouache as a medium. Gone are the frustrations with it drying darker or lighter, it flows and lays so much easier.

Drawbacks with practicing using watercolour paper is the drying time. Egg tempera paint dries in seconds, but the paper absorbs the water, so the pain won't set as well. This means if you do the next layer too soon, before the paper has had a chance to dry out sufficiently, the water in your next pass will reactivate the paint underneath, making it lift. So, you just have to wait a lot longer between passes. I got the hair dryer out, and tried it for a few seconds but then the thought, "There's no way this will not end badly." So, never mind impatience. Let it take the time it's going to take.

The neat thing about iconography, as you can see in this video that I'm using as a model...

...that you do it dark to light. You start with the darker values and slowly layer by layer build up to the highest highlights. So it's like the figure is emerging towards the viewer out of the darkness.

Another hilarious fun-fact about egg tempera paint: "How come Byzantine and medieval painters mixed their paint colours in little cups or sea shells and not on a palette, like oils?" Egg tempera is runny. You use it very thinned down.

This was three colours when I started. Live n' learn.

Of course, the traditional method is to use raw powdered pigment, to mull it yourself with egg medium and paint on a board treated with many layers of home-made gesso. I do have a bit of powdered pigment, but I think for me, learning something like this is best treated like algebra; add only one variable at a time. (Also, glass mullers are hella-spensive.) I also bought the makings for rabbit-skin "True Gesso" a while back, and hope to give it a go soon.

Learn one new thing each time. I'm a long way to mastering the drawing (don't look at the hands!) and just starting to get used to colour mixing. One thing at a time, I figure.


Monday, July 22, 2019

By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth

Who was Mary Magdalene?

"Woman, why weepest thou?"

From the 4th Lesson of the 2nd Nocturn of Matins:

Mary of Bethany, sister to Lazarus, is identified, according to a common tradition, with Mary Magdalene and the unnamed woman called in the Gospel, "the Sinner". But inasmuch as neither Mary of Bethany nor the Sinner is therein styled Magdalene, most Greek Fathers distinguish these as three woman, or at least two; whereas St. Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas leave the question undecided. St. Gregory the Great, however, taught that the Sinner was by name Mary and by title Magdalene, and that she was sister to Martha and Lazarus of Bethany; and his teaching came to be widely followed in theWest. Thus in the East Mary Magdalene is by some commemorated on July 22nd as the Myrrh-Bearer, and the chief saint of the Resurrection, whereas according to the other tradition, she is not only accorded this honour, but in addition venerated, with St. Peter, as a great Penitent, who being forgiven much, came thereby to love much; and is otherwise known as Mary of Bethany, to whom Our Lord said that she had chosen that good part, which same would not be taken away from her, either in time or eternity.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Italian air conditioning

20 inch thick stone walls, a big floor fan and shutters = coolth.

So, the temps have finally become seasonal here, which is to say that  this week we've gone abruptly from the more or less reasonable 31-35 range, to shoot up to the late 30s early 40s. Now, Italians don't believe in air conditioning. They think, probably rightly, that AC makes you sickly, weak, enervated and dependent on artificial things that just divorce you from reality. At first it's pretty purgatorial if you're from a temperate climate like England or Western Canada. I spent a little time as a child in Manchester, UK, but mostly grew up in Victoria, British Columbia, on Vancouver Island, a place that is famous for possibly having the best climate for human beings on planet earth. It pretty much never goes above 28 degrees in summer and rarely snows in winter. It doesn't really have humidity or mosquitoes either.

So, when I left to go live on the Mainland (people from The Island divide the world into two places, The Island and the Mainland, the latter defined as anywhere that isn't The Island) I was shocked to discover that you could live in a place where it got to be 34, 36 or even 40 degrees in summer and not simply explode or drop dead in the street. I did my five year stint (obligatory for Canadians) in Toronto - which still has the worst weather I've ever lived in and four years in Halifax NS, where I experienced the hottest day of my life (until the Great Drought Italian Summer of 2017, which I'll get to) at 42 degrees. That was where I learned to take a plastic water bottle or two, fill with water and freeze. Then when you go to bed, you take the block of ice, wrap it in a tea towel and put it between the sheets. It acts like the opposite of a hot water bottle, cooling the air under the sheets by several degrees.

But I've been in Italy nearly eleven years now, and I've found that no matter how old or stodgy you are, you do slowly adapt. This summer I have been out in the garden, digging and puttering around until noon in 33 degrees and thought, "Huh... I wonder when it's going to get hot..."

Where I'm from, if the house is too warm, you open a window. This would be a bad plan here.

Instead, you start to do things Italianly. You buy electric fans of course, but you also learn the heat management strategies that have served this country and other Mediterranean places for millennia. First, your house is made of stone that's 20 inches thick and the roof is terracotta tiles. So the heat of the day won't be getting through. You also have double glazed windows, but more than that, you have shutters. And you learn which direction your various windows face and you use your windows and shutters in sequence depending on where the sun is.

And most important, you adjust your life schedule. You don't sleep late; that's disastrous. You get up at six or earlier. The first thing I do every morning is go onto the terrace and put up my sunshade umbrella to cover the front door in shade. This immediately cools the air that comes into the kitchen. All the windows are open from bed time the night before until about ten am, when the air outside starts to warm up. The houses are all designed so that the air flows smoothly from one room to the next when the windows are opened. This means your house is lovely and cool most of the night. Even in the hottest weather, I'm still using covers on the bed to keep the late night, early morning chill off. Though the fan runs 24 hrs a day now, and helps with the airflow.

The kitchen, front door and terrace face due east, so the morning sun pours into the kitchen. About ten or eleven am I shut the east and south facing windows and shutters. This means the air inside stays cool as the sun swings around to the south west side of the house. The bedroom and workroom face west/south, so about three pm, I close the shutters on that side. This also means the house is darker, but it's a nice, intimate cave-like darkness that's very restful. And the ferocious Italian sun lights the rooms sufficiently anyway, even with the shutters closed.

This method means the house is warm, but not hot (about 10-15 degrees cooler than outside) and dark between 3:30 and about 7:30. This, typically is Italian/Mediterranean nap time - Siesta in Spain, and "riposo" in Italy (pronounced to sound like "repose-oh"). Given that you've been up since five and in the garden all morning in the warm sun, or busy with work or whatever you do, you're pretty tired by four pm, and the interior conditions of your home are very restful, so napping just makes sense.

This timetable heat-management strategy is why Italians eat dinner so late and everything closes in the afternoons. No Italian restaurant will serve you dinner until 7:30 at the earliest and lunch is never served after three pm. In most Italian towns and villages, you go home for lunch and take a rest after, and go back to work about 4 pm, until eight or so. So normal is this that there are usually bylaws restricting noise in the afternoons, though sometimes not at night - you sleep in the afternoons, so you're usually up late with the fam at night. This is why Italian shop hours are so odd to us Anglos. You don't shop in the afternoons. You're supposed to be at home resting.

The only trouble I have with this system is that my shutters are made of metal - aluminum, I think. This means that when the sun has been on them for a few hours, as it is now, they are like barbeque grills. And even though they keep the light out, they just heat up the room as if you've turned on the oven and left the door open. The glass of the windows can get quite hot. So when the temps get up to the mid 30s or higher, I take clothes pegs or metal clips and attach blankets and quilts to the insides of the shutters, essentially insulating the space between the shutter and the window.

In the Horrible Summer of 2017, even this was insufficient. We shot up to 35 half way through May, and the temps crept up to the mid-40s - without a single drop of rain - until the end of September. (It was a year of disasters. The previous October, the worst earthquake in 300 years knocked down the town I had been living in. The following winter - when people in Norcia were living in tents - was the coldest and snowiest in 70s years. Then the next summer devastated Italian agriculture. My landlady said the ladies in the village thought it was all a sign from God of His displeasure with the modern world.) That summer the nights never cooled lower than 25 degrees, so the house just got hotter and hotter. I was keeping six plastic water bottles in the freezer, and sitting at my desk with my feet in a bucket of water with the ice blocks in. I was packing everything I could find into the space between the shutters and the windows. Sofa cushions, floor rugs, blankets, quilts... I felt like I was fighting to keep zombies out.

At least it was something to offer up for my manifold sins and wickednesses.

We anglosassone of the 1st world assume that we are entitled to have the world - even the natural world - conform to our demands. If it's above 72 degrees we consider ourselves very hard-done-by and devote all our resources, including considerable quantities of cash, to damn well make it 72 degrees AT ALL TIMES! At least indoors.

One of the nice things about living in the 2nd World is that you learn you can adapt. It's rather relaxing to not be in such a panic to have your own way all the time.



Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The pursuit of holiness; how to train your brain

What is procrastination anyway? Most of us assume it's a moral failing. This is probably a bit true, but it's certainly mixed with a bunch of other psychological brain-trickery.

As a good friend recently reminded me, a big theme of my writing over the years is that "your brain is not your friend." In simplest terms, we have habits of thought - often deeply engrained - that do not correspond to reality. This messes us up.

There's a whole huge deal of stuff that psychologists are just now starting to get hold of - the ideas behind Cognitive/Behavioural Therapy (it's been a long day trudging around in the blistering summer heat, so I won't go into it right now - Google it) and all of it corresponds beautifully with Thomist thinking on how the path to holiness is through the subordination of the passions to the intellect and will - the right ordering of the human faculties.

In other words, procrastination, fear, anxiety, depression - all of these are mental habits that involve us indulging in things that are not in keeping with reality. Procrastination especially is a way of avoiding reality. The method of overcoming it is to exercise the will to choose The Real over Fantasy - defined as adherence to a personal preference in conflict with observable reality. This is the way to overcoming poor self-discipline (endemic in our culture), procrastination, fear, anxiety and depression - but much more crucially of rooting out our habitual sins and faults. The saints and theologians all talk about the methodology of sanctification, the "purgative way," and this, in essence, is it.

This is the work of the interior life that has to be done before we can start advancing in holiness. This is what the whole thing is about, getting yourself under control.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Catch of the day

It's the time of year when we pretty much get a lizard a day.

Lizards are a specialty of my little silky black and white ninja, Bertie. But lately it's been a favourite of Pippin. I kicked him outside this morning because he was doing his usual trick of finishing his own breakfast and then shoving Henry aside to steal his. All their little lives I've had to feed Henry separately. He's so good natured he just lets himself get bullied out of his meals. Pippy's a real lovey-dove, and just the sweetest little guy, but he's an incorrigible scamp too.

I can't resist picking them up and taking a close look. In life these guys are lighting fast, and it's difficult to get a close look at their markings.

The daily lizard. It should be the name of a punk newspaper.

The terrace in June.

Snap dragons finally getting close to finished. They never died back this "winter" and were already starting to flower in February.

Still some pansies holding up.

Sweet peas finally starting to blossom. The dill are all volunteers from last year's stray seeds.

First passion flower.

If you keep them in a shady place they will flower almost to July.

Four years ago yesterday I got a call from my friend Emanuele to come down to the shop to pick them up.

A friend had come to Norcia to visit, but had picked a day when the monastery guesthouse was all full up, so Br. Ignatius called me to ask if he could camp in my living room. He had to put up with this all night.

I took this one just about a week after they arrived. I kept them in the study for a few days to let them get used to me. Bertie was the first one to claim me as his own.

Bertie and Pippin helping in the garden in Norcia.

Bertie's favourite perch in the evenings. He likes to keep an eye on things.

Henry napping yesterday afternoon.


Saturday, June 08, 2019

Egg white and cauliflower pancakes

Finally figured out what to do with the egg whites left over after making egg tempera medium.


whites of two eggs
2 cups finely grated raw cauliflower
salt n pepper
handful of almond flour, coconut flour or other keto/low carb friendly flour of your choice
oil for cooking (I've just bought a hella-spensive jar of coconut oil... not sure about it yet)


Whip egg whites to stiff peak and fold in the "dry" ingredients. Season. Heat up the oil in a pan to just under smoking-hot. Spoon the mixture into the nice silicone crumpet rings someone sent you in the post but you can't use anymore because you're not eating carbly anymore. Fry over a low heat. Remove the rings and gently flip. Toast a bit on the other side.

Top them with sliced avocado, soft goat or sheep milk ricotta, load some sauteed mushrooms on top.


The pancakes come out sort of cakey, not at all cauliflowery. They'd be fine for a sweet thing too, with a little low-carbly-approved sweetener (stevia... barf...) or stewed fruit, or tahini or something nice like that.