Wax finish (BI)

Note: I wrote this post in early June and overlooked it. I am publishing it now to make sure the information on the final stages of Birch Interlace are included in the public postings.

A wax finish starts with a fine, microcrystalline paste wax, such as Renaissance Wax, or Behlen brand.

Put a small amount into a doubled over piece of cheesecloth, and rub onto the surface, using the amount that comes out of the cheesecloth. Gently. Or, apply with a soft cloth. Create an even coat, and after a short period of about 30 minutes, buff with a soft cloth. The softer the cloth, the glossier the finish. From the thick texture of cotton terry cloth to the fine texture of an old cotton t-shirt, make your own choice. I’m looking for a slightly matte finish, and I’m using an old terrycloth wash cloth to buff.



It is taking a bit of pigment off the heavier areas of blue. Probably due to a lesser amount of Gum Arabic in the top layers of the paint, as I was using liquid watercolors which use less binder. I’m not very worried, as I did layer the blues very heavily.

In the central areas, where I used more egg white, there is no lifting of the pigment, so it must be protecting the surface more. No pigment is lifting from the white areas of the branches either.




Painting stage complete (BI)


No, not quite. But the painting is done. Each piece of artwork has three stages.

Creation: Establishing the idea and the message. Sketching, drafting, sweating, cursing. Getting an idea down in black and white, or grey, or blue. Whatever. Sketchpads, notebook pages, cocktail napkins, back of my hand.

Implementation: Painting, drawing, carving, printing, adding and subtracting. Never quite sure when this is actually ‘finished’ and I usually stop before I think I need to. Also includes establishing the format and preparing the surface.

Finishing: Varnishing, polishing, waxing, framing, and doing everything after the actual painting of the piece in order to render it a complete and finished piece.

So, ‘Birch Interlace’ has been painted. Not completely satisfied, and I could probably fuss with it endlessly, but it has been more than 10 days since I established the background and I can’t really add much to it without the possibility of some flaking and peeling. It is a perfect excuse to STOP.

STOPping is the hardest part in most pieces. Endless fussing. Endless changes and endless ideas of what would make it better. I could move some of the sunset colors into the foreground, I could work up more of the tree branches with some more detail and shading, add some more white highlights to the moon, or I could just STOP.

Varnishing will have to wait a few weeks, to ensure the curing of the paint is complete. I’ll cover it with a soft cloth to keep out the dust, and set it aside until the end of April, when I will decide on a finishing coat. Varnish is the usual method, but I’ve heard that a soft wax can give a protective coating as well, with a soft sheen.

Thank you for working with me on this one. Check ‘page’ for the ‘Final Photos’ collection of Angelus Project artwork.



What was I thinking? (BI)

Yes, someone asked me what I think about when I’m painting.

Well, when I’m using colors, I’m thinking about the colors. Where did I see a blue like that? Is this blue as bright or dark as the blue I saw this morning, as the sun was coming up in a clear sky? What do I need to change the color, change the feel of the color. Is it cool or warm? Do I want it cool or warm?

It’s hard to go back and pick up the specific thoughts. Harder still to think about it when I am actually doing it.

When I am working up a picture based on an actual place, I usually start with a photo, and sometimes a quick grid to block in the basic shapes of light and dark, and some initial details. Then I start thinking about how I felt when I was there. Thinking of the things that are hard to put into a photo. Wind and damp, birdsong or silence.

While drawing a pen and pencil landscape of the cliffs and caves of Kesh Corran, I thought about the dead grass and hot stone on a rare, dry day in Ireland. I thought about the silence, broken by the wind and the coughing rattle of ravens calling across the face of the cliffs. The words ‘crisp’ and ‘edge’ kept working into my thoughts, and the black shadows became sharp lines in the water-worn limestone.

Channels and patterns in the limestone, not well-documented in my photos, came from my memory, creating a look that seemed carved by the hands of craftsmen. Abstract lines and almost understood runes formed from memories of the intricate weathering. When framing, I found a bronze frame and warm, yellow/brown mats to complete the look.

Sketches of the Beltany stone circle in Raphoe, Donegal, were affected by my memories of brightness and energy. Shadows in the sketch were darker than in the photos, and the sharp edges formed more of an element in the art than in the photos.

And in Birch Interlace, I keep thinking about the deepness and richness of the shades of blue in a cloudless, winter twilight. The colors of blue as the sun slips away and the reds and yellows fade. The icy edge of a clear, winter crescent moon.

Time for a hot cup of tea, I think.



More color than anticipated (BI)

Well, it looks great, so far. Much more color than I thought I would use. My central seascape has become a brilliant sunset, contrasting with the darker blue of the winter forest. I like it. Cadmium Red, Cadmium Yellow and a dark Indian Red have blended nicely, I’ve come up with a beautifully intense purple from the Cobalt Blue and Quinacridone Magenta. Just a little of each.

A bit of Sienna and Yellow, some more Cobalt Blue and I have a nice series of rolling hills.

I blocked in some of the snowy background and the crescent moon, and those will be primarily shadowed in blue, but I need some more white watercolor paint, and will have to wait to finish that up.

It isn’t exactly how I planned it, as will happen occasionally, but I am enjoying it.

Working up the central landscaping.

Working up the central landscaping.


Mixing it up (BI)

Drawing and sketching are my first joys, and it tends to show in my paintings. I prefer a very limited palette, selecting only a few colors at a time.

For Birch interlace, I have indulged in blues. Pthalo Blue and Prussian Blue are two of my favorites, but I do not have a Prussian Blue liquid watercolor jar, so I’m starting with Pthalo for lighter areas around the crescent moon. Ultramarine and Cobalt blues move the corners into a cooler range. To deaden some darker areas at the edges and make the lighter areas stand out, I have dabbed a bit of Raw Sienna, and a sneaky bit of Cadmium Orange.

The central seascape will work with the blues as shadows, and move into some Sienna browns and maybe a bit of green. Always make sure your colors move throughout the painting if you are going for an integrated look. If you isolate blocks of one color in one place, it isolates that space from the rest of the painting, and can make things look a bit cartoony.

The birch trees on either side of the crescent moon have been carved into the gesso with a small engraving blade, and the lines are barely visible to me as I paint. They don’t show in the photo very well. It makes it easier to create a smooth background, since I don’t want to keep painting around the tiny branches. I tried a bit of frisket on a corner, but the chalk gesso wouldn’t let go of it, and I didn’t want to put up with that considering all the fine lines I would have to remove.

Egg tempera is laid down in thin layers. It suits my own watercolor style, as I like to work with glazes, laying down thin, multiple layers rather than one thicker layer. Tempera does not develop the thick texture of heavy oils or acrylics, and seems flat to some artists.

I’m waiting on a delivery of some golden ochres and a red ochre from Sinopia pigments, to see if I want to include them. Sinopia carries a large selection of dry pigments, tools, books and gilding supplies. I use them for more than half of my supplies, as they are based in the U.S. and shipping is cheaper than buying from European sources.

working on Birch Interlace

working on Birch Interlace

The photo does not clearly show the depths and richness of the egg/watercolor mix. But I’ll work on getting a closer photo with the tripod next time.


Eggs and toast (BI)

After a stretch of the flu, and a lack of energy due thereto, I have returned to my art.

Paintings are both transferred, silverpoint swan for DoL is proceeding apace, and I needed eggs this morning. And toast.

Having actually visited a large egg-laying facility, I am most often supportive of cage-free eggs. But it is the freshness of the eggs that really counts in painting, so sometimes I cannot be so choosy. When I can buy local eggs, I do. I can find out exactly when they were collected that way.

I suggest the following techniques for getting the freshest eggs when shopping at a grocery store. First, of course, check dates on the cartons for the freshest date. Then look at the eggs themselves.

Eggs that have been sitting around start to deteriorate and have a faintly speckled look, like clusters of light pinhole sized dots. I understand that this is due to some gases working their way out of the shell. Also, when held up to the light, a fresher egg has a very small air space at the end, while the air space gets bigger in older eggs. Get the best eggs you can get, freshness is more important than grade, though A and AA eggs usually have thicker whites and larger yolks, which is a good thing for our purposes.

Separate the yolks and whites, preferably with your hands. Egg separators and eggshells have sharp edges and may break the yolk. Much like making a meringue, you want to beat the egg whites to a foam, and not include any of the fatty yolk. After beating the egg whites to a good soft-peak foam, let them sit. Do not use any of the tricks of the baking trade in making egg whites form peaks, such as copper bowls or additional ingredients. Some of the traditional pigments will react chemically if given any incentive.

Oh, and make sure the eggs are room temperature. Cold egg whites won’t respond well to beating.

While waiting for the whites, take a whole, unbroken yolk, and roll it around a bit on a paper towel to dry it. Then hold it in your fingers and pierce the underside of it, letting the inner goo fall into a bowl. Discard the skin. If bits of skin get into the goo, fish them out with a fork. The yolk can be used straight from the bowl.

The whites will sit a while, and start to weep. At the bottom of the bowl, under the foam, a clear liquid will start to pool. Pour off this ‘glair’ and you have another binder for paint, with different properties than the yolk. Cover both ingredients with airtight covers, and they will last in the refrigerator for about a week. Take out a bit at a time for use, as the air will dry the ingredients quickly.

Yolk is a fatty emulsion that adds richness and depth to colors, and the yellow coloring does not change paint colors. If you use too much of it in a paint, the paint will look greasy and clumpy. Yolk is the favored part of the egg for paintmaking, because the added fat allows the paint to dry to a tough film that is resistant to water.

Glair has little fat and creates a matte finish. Used alone to make paint, it forms a more brittle, thin layer, which is more soluble in water. Some instructions for making tempera will state that only the yolk should be used, but experiment with the egg white glair and you’ll wonder why. The use of the glair creates more opportunities for texture changes, as glair is more soluble in water than yolk, and the paint moves and shines differently.

More details as we go.

And Panera bakery has the best cheese bread for making toast. Especially good with fresh, scrambled eggs on top.



View Sketch (BI)

fuzzy and crooked, but visible

fuzzy and crooked, but visible

Well, the scanner isn’t cooperating. Future pictures will be taken with a digital camera, but for now, we have fuzzy scans.

Note the second “layer” of distance within the portal formed by the moon.

The interlacing of the birch branches is somewhat visible. I worked some of the lines with ink, which may make it easier to see.

The guidelines visible on the sketch represent a development of classical proportion in the design. I work frequently with the “Golden Section” and other proportions documented in Medieval manuscripts.


A means of support

A few years back, I was researching the techniques of Byzantine icon writing. I prepared three boards from scratch. One board was hand carved by a man who prepared icon boards for an Eastern Orthodox community in Pennsylvania. Pieced from strips of birch, it was a thick slab, with a lovely indentation at the center, providing the requisite broad border area for this sort of art.

I will go into greater detail on this process when I prepare another board from scratch, suffice to say that I began with rabbitskin glue sealing all sides, and a piece of glue-soaked muslin laid over the face of the board. Then I mixed a rabbitskin glue/chalk/whiting into a traditional gesso and applied it in 12 layers as specifically described, gradually thinning the mixture every three layers until I obtained a deep surface of it, with the smoothest and thinnest layers on top.

I let the boards cure, but shortly thereafter I obtained a job contract that left me little time for the elaborate process of icon writing. When checking back at six months, it became obvious that the birch board had warped from left to right, leaving it straight from top to bottom, like the side of a can. This is not acceptable in an icon writing support. I have since found much better results with cradled boards, or uncradled boards which are not pieced in any way. When using boards, I am more careful to seal all sides with multiple layers of rabbitskin glue before applying gesso.

I couldn’t bring myself to throw out the birch board. A lot of good energy had been invested in it, and the curve was so smooth and symmetrical. Only a single, thin crack had developed in the gesso surface, easily repaired. This meant that the surface itself had been well-prepared, with no extensive cracking during the movement of the warping board, and was unlikely to be damaged further as time went on. A light sanding was all the preparation needed.

So, in reviewing my options, seven years later, I decided to use the birch board, curve and all, in one of the Angelus pieces. Birch Interlace was a perfect fit, both physically and poetically, and considering I prepared the two at separate times, it is really amazing how it has worked out.


Planning stages

The initial work on the design for Birch Interlace began three years ago, with some inspiration from a brooch of a crescent moon in Art Nouveau style. The design sat in my stack of ‘unfinished’ layouts until fall 2008 when I began seriously planning for the Angelus project. I was reviewing all the unfinished works, when the piece brought back memories of cold walks in the icy winter woods. The written poem enabled me to work out further details and finish the design.

When I get started on a piece of artwork, I sometimes lose track of myself, and the piece. This isn’t always bad, but I like to start out by selecting three words to remind me what things are essential to the piece.

The concept of ‘interlace’ is essential to the poem and the picture. I want to keep in mind the image of the interlacing and the lacy nature of birch branches.

The image of the moon as an edge, and a sickle brings the word ’sharp’ to the piece. I need to keep things crisp as winter air, and the edges clean. Definitions should be clear. Colors well-defined as spaces.

And I also have chosen the word ’simple’ to remind me to keep the design uncomplicated. Celtic design has amazing potential to get complicated, and some of my pieces will. But not this one. Even the interlace design of the branches will be clear and simple, drawing the eye, but not holding it captive.

I want the eye to be drawn through the layers of the piece, not hesitating in the complexity of Celtic knots and spirals. The wooden panel offers me two layers intrinsic to the painting, with the cradle-frame and the central panel. A deep, shadowbox frame will create an outer layer, and an established space in the painting of the piece will be a fourth layer. This way, I hope to draw you on a path to the December sea.


Birch Interlace

Sweet with blue silence
Silver sickle edge
burns away
restless heat
of must and may
Touch the deep
Taste the snow in the wood
Birch interlace above
Netting the stars
Over a path to the December sea


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