February 9, 2019

woman in profile
Woman in Profile, UCB (acrylic on heavy paper)

Last week I went into quite a bit of detail about an egg tempera I did while at UC Berkeley. It took me a bit of time to find it in my many portfolios and while I was looking I came across this study. I think what intrigued me most about her is that I have absolutely no memory of creating it, while my memories of the egg tempera were so real and complete. But I can’t picture the art room, where I was when I painted it or anything else for this one. During my time at UCB I did many acrylic paintings, so maybe there was nothing special about it. What I do remember about making such creations is standing at a huge metal sink off one of the art rooms in Krober Hall, cleaning out my mixing trays and brushes. I have since figured out that all you really need to do is clean the brushes and let the acrylic dry in the tray. Then you can easily scrape it out with a razor blade. But I do remember standing there, visiting with the other neophyte painters as we endlessly rinsed and scrubbed out our brushes.

What struck about this one is that I kind of remember being surprised that it came out kind of nice. Not so sure about her skin—looks a little dirty I think. Since it appears she is only in a robe, maybe she was about to jump in the bath. I don’t know. Maybe her head is a little big and her breasts a little flat and oddly placed. Maybe it’s a little like the question, “Besides that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play? But I really like her intense stare in profile, with her hand covering her mouth, as if she is really contemplating something important. (Maybe she’s looking at the bathroom door, hoping her roommate has not used all the hot water so she can take a bath?) I also like the way I rendered the print on her robe. Wish I had such a robe with those colors. I can actually say that I don’t remember if I did this from a live model or a photo of an existing painting. But I sure don’t remember doing this in a figure drawing class, so it’s probably the latter.

Doing sketches or paintings of other painters work is actually encouraged when in art school or taking a painting class. I think such exercises have always been encouraged for artists of today and long ago. It gives us a chance to study the masters, looking at their rendering of fabric, skin or hair. It is also good to look closely at how another painter uses proportion, depth and foreshortening. For this week’s blog, I thought it noteworthy to write about drawing faces, and how a painter uses angles, facial expressions and even where the subject’s eyes are looking to give you some kind of message or emotion.

60% sketch3
Sketch of Portrait of Boy, Rembrandt, Norton Simon Museum

Here is a sketch I did of a Rembrandt at the Norton Simon a couple years ago. For this one I remember noticing that the child was looking straight out at the viewer. Such a straight on angle is not all that common for portrait paintings, not really sure why. But somehow it seems appropriate for a child to be looking out at the viewer so clearly, as children don’t really know they’re not supposed to do certain things until they get older. I loved noticing the plump round features that tell us it is a child. Of course the hat that kid is wearing is actually kind of big and strange. It looks like one that maybe he got out his dad’s closet. I don’t know anything about the young boy, but I don’t think children were often painted alone, so he must have come from a wealthy family. It was fun to imagine that Rembrandt himself had probably started the painting with a similar sketch, or two, or ten.

50% sketch 2
Sketch of Self Portrait, Rembrandt, Norton Simon Museum

This face is none other than Rembrandt van Rijn. I’ve always been fascinated by self-portraits. If you think about it, it means that you are looking at yourself in a mirror for hours. And every time you look away to mix a color or add some pigment to a canvas, you have to get your face back to where it was, so you can keep going. In a way, it’s probably simpler than finding a patron and/or paying for a model in the hopes of finding a buyer. However, I am guessing no patron would be buying such a painting as it’s not a member of his family. So, I think this kind of work was done when a painter had down time, or it was winter and too cold and rainy to go outside and look for a model or a patron. I just Googled Rembrandt to find out how many self-portraits he did in his 40 years of painting. Wikipedia says he did almost 100, and that included: paintings, etchings and drawings. I think it’s lovely to see what he saw when he looked in the mirror. This piece shows him as maybe a middle-aged man and I like that he captured a more adult self in a three-quarter view—not looking straight at the viewer. For this one I remember thinking it was fun to imagine he was sitting for me and I was drawing a sketch of the great Rembrandt van Rijn. He seems to be wearing the same hat as the boy and it somehow looks more appropriate. And if you haven’t figured out by now, all of my ramblings about sketching/painting someone else’s art can give you possible insight into what you are looking at. Of course I made up everything I wrote about today, except all the self-portraits of Rembrandt. I am guessing he couldn’t have sold a single one in his day, and I believe he died poor. But I wonder what just one would sell for today. Or what would be the total value of 100 of his self-portraits? I have never even attempted one. I guess I had better get busy…

Final note about copying a painting or photograph

I have seen a number of sketches/paintings of photographs taken of famous people, or not so famous people. That’s kind of dangerous territory for a painter. If you paint something from life or from a photo you took, it’s OK to frame it and try to sell it. (I think I have even seen that people send sketches/painting to the famous people they have depicted. I guess that’s OK because they are not asking for money.) If I had done Woman in Profile looking at a live model and I liked it well enough, I could have put it in a frame and maybe sell it. But, if I did it while looking at someone else’s photo, or copying another’s work, there should be no framing and selling. Right? That would actually mean you stole someone else’s idea and claimed it as your own. Oh, and if you do decide to frame a piece of your art, pay a couple bucks for it and get a nice one. One thing you can steal from the old masters is the importance of a good frame. OK?

February 2, 2019

first egg tempera
“Looking down at my feet by the stream…” First Egg Tempera, UCB (gessoed masonite board with egg tempera)

Not sure what made me think of posting my first egg tempera painting this week. I’d seen it a couple months ago when I was looking through my myriad of portfolios. Over a couple decades I have filled 11 portfolios, plus countless drawers, of art. And, mind you, these large flat envelope-looking containers are full to bursting with seemingly random sketches, paintings, watercolors, etchings, pen and ink renderings, newspaper articles and one lone 11 x 14 inch egg tempera on masonite board. While I was digging and muttering, I was wondering what I would write about when I found it. I hoped I wouldn’t be too under whelmed with the piece and then wonder why I’d made such a big deal out of it. Actually, I came across an interesting study of a woman (acrylic on heavy paper) I did about the same time and thought I might present that art today—but I eventually found what I was looking for, so stay tune for the Lady in Profile.

I was almost giddy when I finally saw the bag it was in. I was also pretty relieved and wondered how I had overlooked it the first time I went through that particular portfolio. As I gently ran my hand over the surface of the board, I remembered all over again how I worked to make it so smooth, and what I did to achieve the glass-like texture with such bright colors. So, my first thoughts were just that—what do I remember about making this particular piece? Where was I when I did it? And why didn’t I make more? If I think back, I remember wonderful afternoons in a “materials” art class in Krober Hall at UCB, so I think the “where” I learned about the medium is answered. I will try to explain “what” I remember about making egg tempera in the next section. And if you’re not too bored after reading the following “what” part, I think you will have an inkling of “why” I didn’t make any more. Finally, if you make it past that, there will be yet another set of “what,” “where” and “why” questions regarding the subject matter of “Looking down at my feet by the stream…”

What is egg tempera?

For me, it all starts with remembering what it is and how to make the pigments. I must confess I didn’t remember how long ago the technique was first discovered, so I Googled it. In doing so, I discovered that it was found in “ancient time” Egyptian temples. And it appears that it was used quite extensively in art during the Italian Renaissance. Andrew Wyeth (mid-century American painter) did some now famous paintings with egg tempera. Who knew?

As for how it is made, it appears that there are several formulas that have been used through the ages, but the three main ingredients are egg yolk, powdered pigment, and then one more liquid. I remember learning to make it with just straight water added to the other two ingredients. I read that some painters are adamant about the water being distilled, but I just remember getting water from the tap in the art room. The mixture needs water, vinegar, or white wine added because the egg yolk plus pigment will dry out too fast without it. And it seems some painters add vinegar or white wine in an attempt to also preserve the mixture. You probably don’t need to be reminded that an egg yolk, removed from the shell and left out of the frig, will spoil in a relatively short period of time. And the smell of a rotten egg mixed with water will stink and I can’t even imagine what a rotten egg yolk would smell like with a hint of white wine vinegar or chardonnay. So, you have to work pretty quickly with this medium, if you catch my drift.

Next, I remember that this medium needs to be applied to a stable hard surface, not canvas. This is because canvas is too pliable and dried egg tempera can crack if the surface is too flexible. And this part of the process I remember very vividly. My materials class was in the afternoon and the sun shafts drifted through a wall of windows in that Krober Hall room. I remember first prepping the board with a layer of gesso on the smooth side. There’s a great X of gesso on the back of the board, and I don’t remember doing that, but I obviously did, and I can’t think why. Maybe it was to remind you not to paint on the rough surface on the back? Yeah, right. Then there was a fair amount of sanding, mixing the paint and applying it. I remember adding the colors, with a final flourish of tiny details. I was truly surprised with the vivid colors and lovely finish. But even though I enjoyed every step of that creation, I never did another one. Over the years I have mixed a couple batches, thinking I would try it again, but never did. I think I prefer paints that come ready to go—in tubes, bottles and cakes. Ancient artists had to make their own paint, but I don’t. Even Vincent Van Gogh used oil paints (pigments mixed with oil and not egg yolks) in metal tubes. I mean, he was outside, painting in a huge hurry. He didn’t have time to catch a chicken and make the paint. And I’m sure if he had some wine, he wasn’t mixing it with cadmium sulphide. I’m with Vincent, I prefer my paint to be premixed and that’s why I never made more.

The What, Where and Why of “Looking down at my feet by the stream…”

Once the board was appropriately prepped, I remember thinking that the surface of the masonite was so very smooth, it kind of reminded me of ice, or the smooth surface of slow flowing crystal clear water in a stream. I decided the subject matter would be flowing water, making very small ripples around two rocks. I did the piece with the idea that it would be displayed flat on the ground down by your feet. And all you had to do was look over from the chair you were seated at, and see the water flowing past you. Crazy huh? What was I thinking? What if I stepped on it? What if you stepped on it? I didn’t want anyone’s footprints on there, not even mine. So, I put it away for safekeeping.

I have had “Looking down at the rocks by the stream…” on my easel all week and have enjoyed the memory of making something so personal, one of a kind with so many memories. Do you have something like that? Something you can run your hand over and remember a special time, person or whatever? How about a special painting that your great aunt or grandma made? It could even be a paint by numbers you did when you were in the fifth grade. Take good care of it. Don’t let anyone touch it with dirty hands and for heaven’s sake don’t let anyone walk on it. Who would ever think to make a painting that was meant to be displayed and enjoyed on the floor? Just one California girl, I guess!