April 27, 2010

A New Painting, "Lineup", Step by Step

Because my egg tempera book, The Luminous Brush, is now online, with its numerous step by step illustrations, I thought I'd show the process of making one of my small temperas on calfskin vellum. I am working on a panel that is 4 7/8 x 3 inches; I stretched the vellum over a piece of 1/2 inch birch plywood, using a method that I describe in this post. The first thing I do is trace the drawing onto the vellum, using a piece of newsprint paper covered with chalk to transfer it. I then paint over the chalk lines with a light color, such as an ochre, and then wipe off excess chalk.

As you can see with the line drawing, and with this first blocking in of the color, I start off fairly loosely, not worrying about exact color or placement of form; I just want to get the surface covered so I can see the balance of elements, which here are a closely hemmed-in row of tubular forms.

I should remind you that with my paintings on vellum I am using the white of the egg––glaire––as a medium, instead of the yolk which I use for painting on a gesso panel. For paintbrushes, I use round brushes, #s 2, 4, 6, sometimes #8 for broadly brushing in the beginning of the painting. When I wrote my book, I was using Kolinsky sable brushes, but now find that high quality synthetics work very well for me. I recommend Stratford & York Rydal Gold 001 brushes; I order mine from The Studio Store in Johnson, VT.

In this second image, I've added more color layers and begun to adjust the drawing. I like there to be many layers of paint because I feel that the final painting benefits from the richness of the layers one on the other; an illusion of density and volume is helped by this process.

In the third step, I've put more color on the black forms so that they are becoming less transparent. On the small red triangle above the blacks I painted a light value of cadmium red medium (adding white to a color makes it more opaque) over a lighter red. I found that this wasn't bright enough so I scumbled (placing a lighter value over a darker one) a yellow-red over it. (Here I will say that to really see a step by step I'd have to shoot the painting every couple of minutes, because it changes that quickly, which is one of the great joys of tempera: its quick drying character enables fast changes.) To bring the color back up, I then glazed a thin coat of red over the lighter color.

This was the end of my first session with the painting, which took about 2 hours.

The next day I started by working more on the hoses; I like to work back to front because it is easier to overlap forms. I started building up more of the light values in the hoses, and made more drawing corrections. I use a ruler and a t-square with a hard pencil to draw straight lines.

I completed the hoses, trying to make smooth transitions of value to give the illusion of roundness. In the shadows, I put some cool lights––you can see the bluish tones––and warm-colored reflected lights towards the bottom of each hose. I also worked on the vertical reds on the right, going back and forth between lighter and darker values (you can see some darker paint at the bottom right) in order to get a color that looks like red in sunlight and not like pink.

Lineup, egg tempera on vellum, 4 7/8 x 3 inches

Some big developments in this final step of the painting: the green form at top is finished with a strong bright color; the reds are enriched; some stronger darks in the hoses make more dramatic volume. This second session of painting took a little over 3 hours, so altogether I spent a little over 5 hours completing the painting. That is quick, but the work is very small, and for me tempera is a very fast medium, allowing for rapid adjustments and layerings of paint. I can see myself doing many many paintings in a year––75? 100?––and then sorting through them to pick out the best. What fun to play with shape and color!


  1. wow, a whole wall of these!
    I love seeing the progression from the loose informal to the fully realized. they say completely different things.
    without the camera we wouldn't be able to know these two things at once.