Wednesday 26 February 2014

Vellum, which I love.

Spoiler alert: there are no pictures in this post.

I started using vellum, nearly two decades ago, because of its cool, traditionalist, medieval credentials as ‘the real thing.’ I bought small rectangles from Cornelissen (still a place of pilgrimage now) and scrap, at the time when they still sold scrap.

Vellum seemed quite hard to work on, and the instructions I found on how to handle it were inconsistent and didn’t always seem to work out well. It buckled when damp. It cockled when drying. It went furry when sanded or scraped, and then when wetted with a brush it glazed over in a gelatinous layer that, infuriatingly, picked up onto the brush with subsequent layers of paint. But I persisted, because it seemed like the right thing to do.

You’d think I would also have got into making my own oak-gall ink and grinding my own pigments at the same time. But my desire for cool kit is tempered with a healthy laziness and a strong appreciation for the virtues of contemporary life, such as Winsor & Newton Permanence A watercolours. Vellum was enough to deal with.

One day I went back to heavy watercolour paper for a commission and realised I didn’t like it much anymore compared with vellum. Later, I tried parchment for a small gift, and realised that wasn’t as nice, either. What exactly had I fallen in love with in the fickle, enduring substrate that is calfskin?

Vellum is indeed skin from young(ish) cows, a tight-knit protein structure grown by a large prey mammal, and it retains the placid obduracy of cow. Each piece still bears the stamp of an individual animate will. Even a hand-made paper, despite its lovely fibrousness and tangled structure, feels mass-produced and inanimate by comparison.

A piece of vellum has been soaked, scraped, stretched and scissored into a tidy, flat oblong more or less. But when you pick it up, it flexes with a curious energy, asymmetric. Tip it to the light, and you see it’s marked with semi-translucent tracks where the veins used to wander, sometimes resembling tree branches, sometimes rivers seen from the air. A cut rectangle of vellum is generally springier at one corner than another, it may be spotted here and there with faint thickenings of colour, barely discernible to describe as yellowish; a long curve of tiny dark speckles might drift across part of the rectangle, where hair follicles ghost a black patch on the former calf. The proponents of vellum talk about ‘hair side’ versus ‘flesh side’ and rub it with pumice and cuttlefish to soak up the heavy bovine grease that used to keep the hide supple for strolling through muddy grass. The spine skin is thick and crackly, the belly skin is thin and frail. Everyone wants that perfect, even patch taken bang out of the middle of one flat healthy flank where horseflies never bit nor barbed wire tore.

Faced with such blunt reminders that, in this ecosystem, creativity begins in death, the artist can (I think) go several ways. She can back off and use something else instead: paper, for example, or aluminium sheet, or wood, of course, if she feels that the unmeaty, unhobbled demise of a tree is less objectionable than that of the cow – or even silk, if the death by steam of so many nascent moths is likewise more acceptable. I guess I’ve made my point.

Or she can suppress the idiosyncracies of the vellum in front of her: damp it, stretch it on wood, prime it with gesso or a base layer of tempera, and commence painting on a surface as bland as housepaint.

(You see where I’m going with this?)

The third option is to work within the constraints and suggestiveness of the material, to be guided by its unique characteristics. Those tree-like lines will add movement at the top of a calligraphic piece, interacting with a set of long flourishes. The follicles demand that she leave part of that section bare, so what style of painting shall she use? This piece will probably cockle across its thin side, so supposing it were gilded elaborately, the gold might ripple and shimmer over the irregularities.

It’s not about some mystical idea that the artist collaborates with the posthumous cow. It’s just acknowledging that, dead as it is, the skin continues to possess a physical identity, reflecting the fact that it has been alive, and that it is not a standardised medium. And to work with that.

There are other reasons to use vellum, such as the effort not to waste valuable animal resources, and of course historical verity. It’s a very tough medium, too, so mistakes can be literally scraped or washed off (within reason) and overpainted. Clients tend to like it (though you should check they’re not strictly vegan, for example).

And finally, if you’ve read this far, there are the artistic qualities of the medium, which are what I have fallen in love with. When it’s sanded and pounced, vellum is slightly toothed, or even minutely fuzzy. Close up, it looks a feathery white colour. Its structure is not water-absorbent like paper’s, although it changes shape far more in response to atmospheric humidity. When a wet brush touches prepared vellum, the napped surface sinks into the moisture and gels; it becomes almost translucent. Light can therefore pass through a thin glaze of applied watercolour and bounce back out, giving a lacquered effect when using some of the more dye-like watercolours (viridian, quinacridone red, phthalocyanine spring to mind).

Conversely, body colour, being opaque, sits on top of the vellum and only reflects. A titanium white line trailed across thin lazurite blue looks as though it’s pushing forward off the page. A heavy dark line practically leaves a shadow inside the surface, like a photocopy of ink on tracing paper. These delicate but pronounced surface qualities aren’t visible in reproductions.

This can be useful, or annoying, or inspiring. In any case, it’s very different from paper. Part of the delight of handling a finished miniature or illuminated page, for me, is this textural detail. It’s not just the brushstrokes but the way the texture of the vellum has been handled to create contrast between a variety of painted and unpainted surfaces and with the shimmer or gloss of accompanying gold.

Sunday 5 January 2014

It's been a long time. Here is some catching up.

2013 was a productive year ... mostly for activities other than painting, but some painting got done. There were a few nice commissions, and I finished one piece. It's not well lit here, but:

This was inspired by a family all wearing amazing long blond hair in different colours, and by the seventeenth-century Mughal miniatures found in the Emperor's Album, that the Singh twins also seem to have worked with. Those miniatures are always static, so I decided to see what happened if I put some fluid movement into this one – the leaves, hair and water. I also wanted to say something about nice Western tourists occasionally missing the point – they have spotted a tern, while the sailors in the background are (illegally) fishing up a sturgeon for caviar. The title was 'Caucasians at Gorgan Bay'; it's on the Black Sea (near the Caucasus) and I wanted to examine what we think 'Caucasian' means. Iranian? Georgian? Turkish? 'European'? White?

(Here's Wikipedia's Caucasus entry.)

I entered it for the Discerning Eye but lost my nerve on the title and gave it a bland name: Illustration for a Story that Hasn't Happened, or soemthing like that. It didn't get in -- partly perhaps because it really does look like an illustration, partly because it doesn't quite hang together in the details, partly perhaps because it lacked pointedness without the word Caucasian in there.

Bird-watching couple; couldn't get her face to settle into the stylised-natural expression I wanted, and repainted several times till the vellum got rough. Will have to unframe and repaint at some point. (Or just move on.)
Small boy collecting pebbles and shells; he turned out more or less how I wanted.
Small girl skipping, looking at tern.
Sailors (more traditional miniature faces) and sturgeon (with mock-story-illustration crown) and bribed government official – on reflection I was probably trying to do too much here.

In terms of scale, the vellum inside the mount is 5 1/2 by 7 1/2 inches, and (for example) the two faces of the bird-watching couple plus hair strands are just under 1 1/2 inches across. I used shell gold and left it unburnished after a comment from a couple of friends that it looked more interesting as a sandy matt texture.

In other news, I have doubled up on studio spaces. One at home, and one chez my lovely partner. There have been a few tense moments when the lapis lazuli paint got left in one place or the other but it's been good for getting a couple of small pieces done, and perhaps in 2014 I can expand my ambitions :-)

Monday 3 September 2012

Egg tempera spots and stripes

Egg tempera is wonderful -- just translucent enough to show the colours underneath new brushstrokes, but opaque enough for each layer to hold its own.

Here's the piece I'm experimenting with:

It's about a third done, I think. Large areas are going to receive another two or three layers of feathery furry texture. The whole piece is about 230 X 395 mm. Rather large for a miniature? ... except that there is no good reason for a miniature to be small. (The post on that is below.)

This vellum is an interesting piece. It had cockled during production and when it went into the sanding machine (so I understand from the manufacturers) the cockles sanded preferentially, giving it a curiously spotted appearance, which, with the veining, I've been working with to develop the background and the leopard spots on the 'dad' figure.

Haven't decided how to handle the white circles yet. They are gorgeous in real life, showing the vellum surface. But for reasons that will become clear below, I'm thinking they need to be coated with at least a glaze of egg and water.

I'm using a combination of broad thin coatings of paint like glazes, applied with a size 6, and short hairline brushstrokes to build up a furry texture, applied with a 000. Here you can see part of the bottom edge of the cloud with close-up of the little furry lines. There are a lot of these already, and an awful lot more to come.

Yellow ochre over lapis lazuli produces a pleasing very dark stone grey. A small quantity of titanium white mixed into rust and brushed in hairlines over blue layers generates a startlingly luminous violet. So startling in the context of what I wanted to paint that I scraped that section off. The dark section pictured below left shows a much more restrained spectrum including less violent purple.

The paint dries tender to start with, and can pick up scratches and scuffmarks in its first few days. After two months, it seems tougher.

More on flexible supports.

The layers of paint all over the vellum -- tempera in front, watercolour on the back -- have stabilised the skin so it is not flexing/cockling like past pieces painted with watercolour/gouache alone on one side. The vellum is not entirely flat, but it does lie evenly on the easel now with a heavy, almost floppy quality that can't be achieved using watercolours. I think this is because the built-up layers of egg pigment (1) provide independent structure, and, perhaps, (2) prevent environmental humidity from reaching the vellum. So if vellum were coated back and front with egg tempera, the paint itself might reduce the skin's tendency to expand and contract, and so help prevent flaking.

But this is all speculation so far!

In any case, it is accepted that egg tempera should not be left on a flexible support because in time it becomes brittle, and it will then flake off if the support flexes. However, it is not always clear whether it is assumed that gesso is also involved. So I shall frame carefully and also hope that my theories -- about egg binding well onto animal skin, and the paint 'hydro-proofing' the vellum -- will be borne out.

Here are some references from about egg tempera being successfully applied on paper -- on paper again -- and on vellum.

Searching "egg tempera on vellum" gets any number of hits for artists and courses ... but not much about technical how-to or conservation issues. I'll be chasing up more info in the next weeks.

Meanwhile I have a lot of very tiny lines to paint.

Saturday 2 June 2012

Usually, egg tempera is painted onto gesso on a rigid substrate (usually, wood). I'm planning something different, and wanted first to find out whether egg tempera could be painted directly onto vellum. Two animal proteins in contact -- you'd think they would bind well. So far, so good. I'm working with lazurite powder from Cornelissen's, very brilliant in hue, if a little gritty; titanium white watercolour, for body and opacity, and milkiness; and two tubes of iron oxide -- rust from a horse-trough in the case of the redder colour -- sent by a good art friend. Eggs come from the local supermarket. Egg tempera is very enjoyable to work with, so far. It dries fast, but on vellum not as fast as it would on gesso. It can be washed to some extent, pooled, and pushed around a little for interesting effects. Degrees of impasto appear possible. It layers beautifully. Washing white over the top of translucent colours transforms them into a new palette. And unlike those meticulous painters who work on gesso, if I don't like something I've done I can simply scrape my dry paint back down to the vellum, and start again. Whether the egg will stay on the vellum is another matter. In my bones I feel it ought to remain flexible enough to rest there indefinitely. But in a few hundred years my bones will be in bad shape and so may the egg. A trip to the British Library is planned to help answer this question. Meanwhile, there is a society of egg tempera painters to refer to -- their forums are especially useful -- and the inimitable John at Nuncketest.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

Obscure Histories

(All images in this post (c) Adriana Hartley and Katharine Scarfe Beckett 2009-2011. All rights reserved.)

Around two and a half years ago, I started working with a brilliant sculptor and medieval scholar, Adriana Hartley, in Geneva. We agreed that she would make abstract modern smoked ceramic sculptures playing with relationships between rectilinear forms and curves, rough surfaces and smooth planes -- and then I would paint fourteenth-century-style miniatures on them.

I got very excited by the relationship between form and surface, two dimensional representative art and three-dimensional space. I tried to paint so that the third dimension was always a necessary element in the miniature, and so that the story in the miniature related closely to the form and 'feel' of the piece and drew the viewer's eye to the individual beauties and characteristics of each shape.

Our work process was great. Adriana sculpted independently of any considerations about what the painting might be, other than to include some smooth areas as part of the form of the sculpture. When each sculpture was a complete piece and fired safely, we met and discussed what its qualities were and which way (roughly) the theme of the painting might go. The final stage was for me to go ahead and develop a miniature painting on the sculpture, and Adri left me to create that as a new independent stage of the work.

(In fact either of us had veto power on something we truly felt we couldn't live with that the other was doing -- but it was used only once during the creation of nineteen large pieces and around thirty tiny ones -- and used to good effect.)

We exhibited our pieces in Galerie Marianne Brand in Geneva as part of the Carouge Art7 festival. The response was amazingly positive and we sold a lot too, which was a very welcome affirmation of the work.

I was struck by the way visitors responded to the combination of sculpture and miniature as a pictorial object in a three-dimensional space. They got up close and stuck their noses in the hollows, used magnifying glasses to see the details, walked round and round the pieces to get the flow of the story. The picture and sculpture together were interesting to the eye and mind in a way that either, independently, might not have been. We had achieved our goal -- a synergy of surface and volume, decoration and structure, fiction and presence, figurative and abstract.

To our great delight, the prestigious Musée Ariana purchased our most ambitious (and largest) piece. I hope to return to Geneva in 2012 and go with Adri to see it on display.

Thursday 11 August 2011

The miniature as an art-form

Of course a miniature is a small painting. But who says "miniature" means "small"?

Here's the fabulous Online Etymology Dictionary with its entry for miniature:

1580s (n.) "a reduced image," from It. miniatura "manuscript illumination or small picture," from pp. of miniare "to illuminate a manuscript," from L. miniare "to paint red," from minium "red lead," used in ancient times to make red ink. Extended sense of "small" (adj.) is first attested 1714, because pictures in medieval manuscripts were small, influenced by L. min-, root expressing smallness (minor, minimus, minutus, etc.).

(My bold.)

In other words, "miniature" didn't originally mean "small". It meant "painted in an illuminated-book style" and, before that, "decorated in red", as in red-letter days, rubrication, all that.

As for why "red-lead pigment" was called minium: it's apparently named after the place it was naturally found in Roman times, in north-west Spain somewhere near the Minius (Minho, Miño) River. That's from Wikipedia.

So, the modern word "miniature" only means "small" because miniated paintings (ie paintings created in an illuminated-manuscript style) were themselves small. Such book miniatures were small because they were painted in fine detail using tiny brushstroked lines of gouache or tempera, which took a long time, and because illuminated books were not usually the size of large canvases, the price of calfskin being what it was. (Even more expensive now.)

However, one could in theory paint using an illuminated-manuscript style in fine detail using tiny brushstroked lines of gouache or tempera ... on an enormous ground. It would be a gorgeous paradox -- an enormous miniature.

Really, there is no good reason other than tradition and time why a miniature has to be a certain size. Admittedly, those are good enough reasons for most people most of the time, but they are arbitrary reasons too, and could be ignored.

Wednesday 27 July 2011

Lady with Quails

'Lady with Quails'
watercolour & gouache on vellum (calfskin)
(c) Katharine Scarfe Beckett 2009