Developments (DoL)

So, what is going on with this piece?

On returning from Ireland, I was hoping the silver would have darkened for me. Two weeks usually gives me some changes in value. I have used chalk gesso for silverpoint before, but this time things seemed slow. Silver oxidation is dependent on many factors, including environment and weather, but this area of the country has never let me down, as the air pollution and humidity always seem to work with me on this.

The surface also seems less able to handle the thinner silver stylus I use for fine detail. It seems to gouge the surface more easily.

I reviewed the formula of the gesso from my old notebook, and I think I have found the issue. The development of a panel for iconography includes an increase in the ratio of the rabbitskin glue solution to the chalk every three layers. The top layers have a thinner consistency, with more glue, allowing for a smoother surface for sanding. This may decrease the ability of the surface to pull silver from the stylus.

Panels I prepare for silverpoint are rarely covered with more than 3-4 layers of sanded or textured gesso, and I do not decrease the ratio of glue. There is more chalk, and more substance to the layering.

So what do I do?

First, the silver is darkening, it is just taking longer, so I need to work up the colors and be patient. This one may take longer than anticipated and may not be ready for the June show. Second, I need to work up my design in a more stylized fashion, with fewer details than I wanted.

I also need to start up another piece to keep me from fussing too much with this one.

Enjoy the opening act of ‘A Pookah Encountered on the Spiral Path’



Silver Layer (DoL)

Working up the first layer of Daughter of Lir silverpoint. At this stage, the silver is highly metallic, cool grey, and a bit bland. All the darks are similar in value. As the silver tarnishes to a browner color, it will darken, and I will add more layers of silver.

But this is a closeup of some of the detail.

details of the silverpoint layout

details of the silverpoint layout


Transferring design (DoL)

The movement of a design from one surface to another is an issue I have dealt with in many ways, over the years. Everyone has their experiments. Many artists will tell you that they don’t like to do it, as it damages the clear lines and crisp edges of an original piece every time a design is copied out. I’ve even been told that it is ‘cheating’ to do so, and that everything should be done ‘freehand’.

I get that a lot. I use drafting tools to layout pieces, rulers for straight lines, and I transfer sketches from my layout boards to my paper or panels using … tracing paper.

I work in two general styles, one more freehand, creating sketches and finished pieces from materials collected on my travels. And I also work in a more Medieval style, with geometric patterns and flat figures. The more geometric styles from Celtic and Moorish sources can benefit from the ’softening’ around the edges attributed to transferring the designs.

In the piece ‘Daughter of Lir’, I get both. I will carefully and slowly copy the spirals and patterns of the Celtic border and splash, while only briefly marking out some parts of the swan, which will be finished primarily in a sketchy, freehand technique.

Because the border and central design of ‘Daughter of Lir’ were created separately, it is only on the tracing paper that I first get a full feel of the design itself. Because the central design was laid out on a fiberboard panel, a light box was not used to copy it, just a sturdy piece of heavy tracing paper.

So, I took a piece of tracing paper, traced the border and the central design. Then I use a trick I first picked up while studying icon writing. I smeared red ochre dry pigment on another piece of tracing paper and used that for the ‘carbon’ in my tracing. In the past, I have used graphite and I have used wax-free quilting transfer paper to transfer designs. But graphite can be greasy, can smear and leave dark smudges, and even wax-free transfer paper is brightly colored and it has caused some irritating color transfer to some of my pieces, still visible to me as I look at them, years later.

Red ochre pigment is easy brushed away after using gold or silver to block in the lines, or after scribing the lines with a small stylus, or after drawing them in with a light pencil line. It doesn’t add much to any colors used over it, except a white pigment. This is the technique I use to transfer onto a gessoed panel, and doesn’t work quite so well when transferring to watercolor paper. Other ochre colors can be used on different colors of gesso, but red seems to work with most. Ocher isn’t as gritty as some pigments, and a gritty pigment won’t transfer a fine line. If the pigment doesn’t smear nicely on the paper, it won’t transfer the fine lines you need to put down.

More on other techniques as I use them in other pieces.



Three words for ‘Daughter of Lir’

I was finishing up some final details on the layout for Daughter of Lir, and I realized I hadn’t put in my three words for this piece.

First of all, with a piece depicting swans and La Tene spirals, the elegance of the lines becomes a major issue. So I shall choose the word ‘elegant’ to represent that particular concept. Lines are curved and sweet, with swan wings and feathers, spirals and ’s’ curves. Even in the more realistic swan, I am working with a more stylized feel, with no specific attempts to create a photo-realistic bird.

The dynamic between the silverpoint swan and the tempera ’splash’ and border needs to be maintained as well. The handmade chalk gesso can pull some very dark shadows out of the silver, so I would like to remind myself to avoid this darkness in the silver, keeping the swan light and ethereal. ‘Delicate’ with reference to the swan was my first thought, but having just used the word, I like ‘ethereal’ better.

So, then a word for the tempera, which is representing a splash of water and the cool eddies around the border. I want to keep the colors cool, but I haven’t really decided whether to use a cool ‘moongold’ gold leaf or to use a pure, cold, crystal white pigment in some of the foam of the water. I’m leaning toward the white pigment, which would work with the lines of the swan. So, perhaps ‘cool’ or ‘cold’ would work as a final word. I’m working mostly with greens and blues, white and black. I believe ‘wet’ might be best for the final word. It will keep me from using warm colors for the most part, and might affect the shading I use on the swan as well.

So, there are the three words for keeping me focused on Daughter of Lir: elegant, ethereal and wet. Ah well, it is sometimes a silly exercise, but I do have a tendency to lose focus and while this can be ok on some pieces, I usually end up with something that I don’t like, which means I often don’t finish it.

Perhaps a second major project will be finishing some unloved pieces. Others would have to select them, I assure you…



View Sketch (DoL)

Daughter of Lir

Well, yes, rather fuzzy. The sketch was larger than the scanner bed, and I had to finagle a bit.

The decorative spirals forming the “splash” of water are adaptations of very early Celtic La Tene designs. The La Tene style of Celtic art is named after the first location that the distinctive style was observed, in an archaeological site at La Tene, near Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland. The site was first excavated in 1857.

Dating artistic styles is a complex issue, but the La Tene style is generally accepted to be dated from 450BC to the first century BC, in an area stretching from what today is France, east to Hungary and the Czech Republic.

The outer framework of the piece (not visible in the scan), is based on an even older Hallstatt pattern, adapted from artifacts dated from the early Iron Age in Europe, 8th-6th centuries BC.


A word about silver (DoL)

I suppose, if I am going to work two pieces at once, I should have a notation in the title to show you which piece I’m posting. Birch Interlace: (BI) and Daughter of Lir (DoL). You can always go to the separate categories for material specific to each piece.

The original sketch for Daughter of Lir was done at least three years ago. I was excited about my new discovery of silverpoint, and when I found that the chalk gesso used for silverpoint was functionally identical to the gesso I used with egg tempera, I designed a number of pieces in a Celtic Mythology series to highlight the dramatic difference between the delicate silver lines and bright tempera.

Many artists have used metal points to do their sketching and underdrawings. We call our modern pencils “lead” though they are graphite. Originally they were actually lead. Many different metals can be used for drawing, most requiring some sort of “tooth” to be established on the surface for drawing. Silver and gold are the most prevalent metals used for drawing today, but artists also use copper and bronze.

Silver is a very popular metal point. It tarnishes as it ages, which creates a very nice sepia color and deepens the tone of the areas which are layered and crosshatched. A sealing coat is required to stop the process. Silver starts out as a pale grey line, cool and soft, tarnishing to a delicate, warm sepia. In heavily worked areas of metal, there is initially a reflective quality that tarnishes to a darker shine. Pieces take time to mature, and the artist has to be aware of the changing tones and temperature of the piece.

Gold works well, to create soft, warm, non-reflective, grey lines which do not tarnish. It is difficult to establish darker tones, for me anyway.

The silver used in drawing is not jewelry silver. Pure silver, or .999 silver is soft, and can be used for drawing. It can also be “annealed” with heat to around 800 F to harden it and remove trace impurities. I use gold points, and annealed silver points, sold at SilverpointWeb, which I have added to my links. It is an extremely useful website for all levels of interest in this drawing technique. I’m just getting started with it, and I visit this site often.

A chalk gesso provides a fine, microscopic “tooth” to remove shreds of metal from the point as it is drawn across the surface. Standard acrylic gessoes are not “toothy” enough. Chalk gessoes tend to be more brittle, requiring a panel or stretched paper to ensure that the gesso won’t crack. I prefer panels.

The creation of chalk gesso is a complex process, and I would be happy to discuss it on the Mydwynter Studio Art Forum (link available above). It will most likely become a topic soon, as there has already been some interest in it. A gesso with a high proportion of chalk can help create darker tones in silver, as it pulls more metal from the point.

Art-Boards sells an acrylic “panel gesso” with a high proportion of chalk, designed for use on rigid surfaces, such as wooden panels. I have used it, and while the tones in silver are not quite as deep as with chalk gesso, it makes up for that in its amazing ease of use. Just apply to the surface, allow to dry, and sand lightly. I prepared six panels in an afternoon with the quick-drying acrylic gesso, as opposed to three panels in two weeks with chalk gesso. I love being able to work with a quick silverpoint sketch the same day it comes to mind. This gesso is also supposed to work well with egg tempera. I hope to try that out soon.

Golden has recently come out with a “drawing gesso”, also having a higher proportion of chalk. I haven’t used it, but it is very positively reviewed on the SilverpointWeb site, where they also sell it.

I would be happy to engage in a more detailed discussion with other artists in this technique or with those interested in starting. Catch me over at the Mydwynter Studios Art Forum any time.


Free at Last

Within the story of the Children of Lir, there are many rich descriptions and moments of melancholy beauty. My own moment of clarity in the story comes with the description of the empty hills, covered with nettles and dry grass, when the children are expecting at least a glimpse of their beloved father. After three hundred years of loneliness, ice and snow, the world gives them a final blow.

Many translations use the phrase, “hearts cracked with sorrow” to describe their devastation.

After this description, it is difficult to see how anything can seem fair. They are finally freed from the curse through an act of violence, as an arrogant king attempts to drag them from the saint’s chapel. After living through the curse of 900 years, losing their beloved father and all of their friends and family, they die and are buried together, without much of a feeling of fairness at all. Simply relief that it is over and they can lie quietly. Some translations provide a description of the ancient faces as bitter and miserable, as the swan feathers fall away.

This pagan/Christian transitional tale is not heavily embellished with descriptions of their rise to heaven, or eternal reward. Just relief.

And I always feel that I have reopened their story, as I reopen the book, somehow renewing their flight through the North Sea to the empty halls of their father.

Free at last…


Notes on the Children of Lir

Well, yes. I often work on two pieces at the same time, and considering it is almost the end of January, I would like to get moving on more than one piece. It is also easier, when working with eggs and dry pigment, to have a second piece to work on while one is drying.

The story of the Children of Lir is a popular one in Irish mythology. There are a surprising number of versions of the story, and I have worked with the translation by Marie Heaney (Over Nine Waves; Faber and Faber, 1995.) She approaches her translation in a literary fashion, aiming for accuracy and understanding. Heaney’s book is a good overview, though not complete. I like to use it for quick reference. Some translations are for a more targeted audience, emphasizing the pagan aspects or emphasizing the Christian aspects.

Early monks in Ireland wrote down many of the older myths and stories. The secular stories are grouped traditionally by scholars into four collections. The Mythological Cycle centers predominantly on the arrival of the Tuatha de Dannan in Ireland and their struggles against the Formorians. The Ulster Cycle tells the stories of Conor mac Nessa and the heroes of the Red Branch, (most famously, Cu Cuchulainn), taking place in and around Ulster. The Fenian Cycle follows the history of the Fianna, followers of Finn Mac Cumhaill. The Cycle of Kings retells the legends of the more historical kings of Ireland, and is mainly centered around the Hill of Tara.

The Children of Lir is a story taken from the Mythological Cycle. The characters are of the race of Tuatha de Dannan. This makes the story read a bit differently than if the characters are merely human. When the children are cursed to live 900 years as swans, they fully expect to return to their father at the end of this time.

Lir, or Lyr/Lear, is married to the daughter of King Bodb Dearg/Bov the Red. She is named Eve/Ove. They have four children; a daughter named Fionnuala, and sons named Aed, Conn and Fiacra. Eve dies when the children are young, and Lir eventually marries her younger sister, Aoife. Aoife becomes jealous of the attention paid to the children, both by the other Tuatha de Dannan, and by her husband who cannot bear to be parted from them.

She spirits the children away from her husband and tries to get the servants to kill them for her. They refuse, and she herself is forced to admit that she cannot kill them either. She curses them to live as swans, unable to set foot on dry land. When Fionnuala cries for an end to their curse, Aoife relents and states that they may walk again as humans on dry land after 900 years as swans, and after a Northern King marries a Southern queen, and after a new faith sweeps through the land of Ireland.

Aoife becomes a spirit of air, either through her own magical skill or through the anger of Lir, and to this day she flies between the clouds, wailing on the wind.

For three hundred years, the children are allowed to stay by the shores of Lough Derravaragh, near their father and grandfather. Their singing calms troubled souls. Then they are forced to spend three hundred years in the wild seas of the Straits of Moyle, between Ireland and Scotland in the North Sea. They survive the loneliness and cold through the strength of Fionnuala’s spirit and their knowledge that they will return home someday.

They are then required to spend three hundred years on the Atlantic coast near Erris, which allows them to fly near their father’s lands again. But the halls are gone, and there is nothing but nettles and dry grass growing on the once-populated Sidhe mounds. The Tuatha de Dannan have retreated behind the veil. Devastated, the children rest on Inis Gluaire, or Inish Glory, a place said to be the first stop by the Tuatha de Dannnan as they came to Ireland. It is a place made holy by St. Brendan the Navigator, and a holy saint lives there, waiting for Lir’s children.

He calms them, allowing them to share his food and small chapel. They sing prayers with him, and listen to the bells that announce a new faith sweeping through Ireland. The saint fashions silver chains for the children to ensure they will never be separated again.

A Northern king takes a Southern queen for his wife, and she requires the magical, singing swans of the holy isle as a gift from her new husband. When he tries to drag the swans from the saint’s chapel by their silver chains, they become four ancient human beings, and he flees in horror. The saint baptizes the ancient children before they die, and lays them to rest under an Ogham stone, carved with their names.


Daughter of Lir

Daughter of Lir

Daughter of Lir
walks free
walking on the wet sand
feeble feet on the shores of Inis Gluaire

Feathers brush the water’s edge
bright wings sweep the sky
silver chains glitter in the mud
under the clear, cold water

Free at last
Thrice three hundred years have flown
Free at last
Empty halls with nettles grown
Free at last

From our need to hear your story once again.

KJN 1/09


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