February 23, 2010

A Miniature: Red Teeth

I was so thrilled and inspired by the exhibit of the Hours of Catherine of Cleves, which I wrote about here, that I really did dig out the two pieces of calligrapher's parchment, each 5 x 7 inches, stored away for years in my flat files. Then I went through my agricultural files, looking at photographs that never made it as paintings. Working with images that had some interesting abstract potential, I cropped them to make what I hoped were strong compositions. Here is the first of my forays into miniature painting, and my, did I have fun!!

I first made a tracing of the photo (with some adjustments), which I'd printed full size, 4 x 3.5 inches, then transferred it to the parchment using a sheet of paper covered with chalk. That is the red color that you see above. I went over the lines with ink, then wiped off the chalk as much as was possible.

The binder traditionally used to make paint for manuscript illuminations was glair(e), made with the white of an egg. Egg tempera, which I use for my panel paintings, is made with the yolk of an egg, which is quite fatty; for that reason, it wasn't appropriate for manuscripts, as it would be easily abraded with use. The white doesn't have that problem, yet still is a strong binder for paint, and for applying gold leaf. To make the glaire, the white has to be beaten in order to make it liquid and easy to apply. So, using a hand held electric mixer, I beat the egg white till stiff, then let it sit overnight in a cool room. When I tilted the bowl, a clear liquid ran from underneath the froth, which was the glaire. (the glaire continued to form as the day passed.)

As with egg tempera using the yolk, I added about an equal amount of glaire to the pigment paste in my palette wells, and thinned a bit with water. The image above shows the painting in its beginning stages, with some colors thinly washed in, and others with more layers of paint. I found myself using similar techniques to my panel work: layering color for greater depth, using a tint with white for opacity, thinly glazing some color for richness. The paint was very nice to handle, with a real ease in rendering detail––of course, considering medieval manuscript painting––and yielding a lovely subtle sheen.

Red Teeth, tempera on parchment, 4 x 3.5 inches image size

I had such a good time working on this painting; the parchment and paint are lovely materials; leaning in and focusing on something so small felt pleasurably intense; painting the small details was very satisfying. I decided to paint a thin border around the image, as is done in medieval manuscripts; it finishes off the painting and creates a frame, or window. What a treat to have a new medium to explore, a new art adventure.


  1. So great to see this and hear your enthusiasm for new techniques. Plus I love how the frame adds a dimension.

  2. wow, I'm impressed. this certainly is the beauty of being a free-lance artist, you can just try this out because you're inspired to. did you use the same size brushes for this as with the egg? do the colors feel/ look noticeably different? it would be nice to see a wall photo of this next to one of your other recent paintings just to insist on the scale. scale is so fluid on screen - sure you say 4x3.5 but it doesn't look it!

  3. Aren't I lucky to have the time to pursue new techniques?; I longed to learn egg tempera painting, but wasn't able to start until I quit my teaching job, so had time to concentrate on it.

    The color seems much the same with the white as with the yolk, except that the white of the egg doesn't give a yellowish tinge to cobalt blue or white, a tinge that bleaches out with the yolk as it dries.

    I'm using some smaller brush sizes––#2, 4, 5, and 7––but the same Stratford and York synthetic brushes, Rydal Gold, which are very good quality and keep a fine point.

    A group photo is a good idea, rappel; I'm always frustrated with the lack of scale in the photos online, where a small, simple composition often looks larger than a big and complex one. (On my screen, Red Teeth is exactly the right size.)

    Julie, I'm glad you like the frame. I think I'm going to play around with that idea; I even got some shell gold which I might use to paint a border around an image.

  4. Altoon, It's so exciting to see you trying a miniature, and glare too! Catherine of Cleves illuminations are certainly an inspiration to me too, and thanks for sharing some of the scenes you saw.

    I'm thinking if you bought your parchment from Talas it might be the same Kelmscott vellum I work on for minis, although I do straight egg tempera rather than glare on it. I've read about glare before but it always puzzled me because of how egg white in egg tempera can also cause the paint to chip off and crack (and yet when it's separate from the yolk it's different in behavior).

    One can also scan a miniature painting with a penny overlapping it to offer a sense of scale.

  5. The color really has a depth and richness that surprises me in something so small. And how well your subject matter translates. I do like the visual boundary the frame adds as well as finishing it in a more traditional way.

    Images aside, the discussion about the two painting techniques is fascinating to someone who has never tried either.

  6. Mona, I got my parchment from Talas, but it's what they call "Calligrapher's Vellum". The glaire seems very tough, and makes a hard surface. It's traditionally been used to adhere gold leaf, and I even noticed that Talas sells it in jars, already prepared, although I don't know if it is actually made from egg white.

    Linda, I was happy with the richness of color, which I didn't know would occur with this technique. Glad that you also like the painted frame; it encourages me to go on with it.

  7. Red teeth! Not what my mind was seeing when I started this post. Love the composition, colors, and the frame. Definitely could be a larger painting as I see it on my screen.

  8. Altoon, This painting looks just beautiful, so rich in color, and can it have more feeling of depth than your egg tempera paintings?

  9. thanks for the positive feedback, Maggie and Helen. I don't know if this medium has more depth; it might be a function of this particular image, because the next one I'm doing is quite different in effect.