White Behind Red, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 6 1/4 x 7 1/2 inches.
I had a terrible time with this painting. It looks calm and rational, but its lower third fought me tooth and nail, forcing me to wipe off a full day's work twice. The upper part of the painting went fine, with me trying to work slowly and attentively, as I described with my last painting, Gray Cross. I mainly used a very small brush, a #2 round, and built the subtle variations in the surface color bit by bit. The wonderful thing about egg tempera is that because it's translucent, I can make color changes very easily, by lightly glazing or scumbling one color on top of another. I shifted the shadow blues many times until I was satisfied with their hue and value.
It was the red rectangle at the bottom of the painting that gave me all the trouble; it wasn't because of color, but because of lowly dust: for some reason the paint attracted every stray bit of dust, every tiny hair floating about. I began working on this section of the painting as I did on the upper part: after laying down a couple of layers of paint with a larger brush, as you see in the photo above, I worked carefully and slowly with a small brush to build a wall of color. My aim was for it to have weight and presence, with a slightly varied color surface. I don't know if it's because these earth colors are fairly transparent, but I needed many layers of paint to get the effect and color that I wanted. I would work for a while, then go downstairs and do something else for a few minutes in order to see what I'd done with a fresh eye. Over and over again it looked off; over and over again I picked out pieces of dust with a sewing needle I keep on hand for this purpose. Finally, after 5 hours, I looked at the painting and said "ah good, it looks velvety". But but, there was the dust, which mucked up the surface and lifted the paint when I tried to brush it off. So...trying to maintain my sense of calm, I wiped all the red off, down to the parchment, and began again the next day.
White Behind Red, detail
The second day of working on the red went much the same as the first: many layers, finally being happy with what I'd done, realizing it was too dusty and wiping it all off. (I wish I'd taken a photo of the dusty surface to show you, but documenting it wasn't on my mind at the time.) By the third day I felt I had to try a different approach; it was almost as though the painting was insisting I try a different approach. Instead of the small brush, I used a larger one, and went back to a tried and true technique of building a solid surface: cross hatching, layers and layers of it. When the shape looked opaque, I then went in and worked some varied color on the surface, with a larger, #5, brush and a light touch. And that, finally, worked. The lesson in this for me is that I must not have a fixed idea as to how to proceed, but adjust my technique as needed, and as the painting seems to ask.