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...