So, what do you do with a spare pad of paper and a free hour or two? Artist Trading Cards?

Well, I’m trying it. I participate in a forum on Yahoo, ‘Drawing Together 2′ in which we discuss various drawing techniques among other things. A great group and a good way to get some advice and critique in a gentle format. Some of the artists who write the books I’ve been studying are on the forum. I wonder if they’ll autograph my books.

So in July I did my first ATC ever. They are a regulation 2.5 by 3.5 inches in size, fitting into a protective sleeve the size of a baseball card. I had to stay in my comfort zone for content, but definitely went outside my comfort zone in size. We submit our names to the organizer, and she pairs us with another artist. Names are hidden until the art arrives in the mail. The receiver of art then posts the ATC to the forum for everyone to enjoy and review.

Summer birds

Summer birds

It was fun, and I received a lovely little piece in return. My newest one, ATC number 2, is again a bit of comfort food for content, but much smaller than my standard, this time a pencil and ink sketch of a Gypsy Vanner draft horse named ‘Strega’.

ATC of Strega

ATC of Strega

Working small is a challenge. The temptation is to sacrifice detail as you begin to develop a composition. I specifically promised myself that I would work up something small with the same depth and attention to detail that I put into an 8×10. I have always loved the details in illuminated manuscripts of the Medieval period in Europe and the Middle East, so I may have to throw in a few attempts at illuminating the initials of the people with whom I am exchanging ATC’s.

I also need to move out of my comfort zone and try a bit of landscape art in miniature. Keeping an interesting composition at that size will be a challenge.




Framing, and how to do it, is dependent on what you are doing with your art.

I don’t have the space or equipment to do my own frames, and my foray into cutting my own mats was unsuccessful. If I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler, how can I cut one? I let the professionals do the work. Not all of my art needs framing, and if you take a lot of work in, a local frame shop often gives ‘professional’ discounts. I’ve worked with three frame shops over the years, staying loyal and bringing in lots of work. All three have given me discounts.

I stay away from craft shop framing. I have had bad experiences numerous times with stores losing my artwork, using pieced scraps to do my framing, heat sealing an original piece to a backing board. All are inappropriate for a framing shop.

I heard a lecture by a woman whose job it was to select art for display at prestigious gallery shows in Washington D.C. She said that you should keep gold and silver frames available for your art, silver for cool colors and gold for warm colors. Mats should be light colored and neutral, cream or grey.

I’ve seen artists gather pre-cut white mats and tons of gold frame kits to mat and frame each piece of art for a show.

I’ve been told that neutrals are best for selling art, so people can put the art where they want it.

I don’t like the look of light mats. They bring out the flaws or fingerprints in the white of the paper and never match the color of the paper. Drawing paper isn’t bright white in most cases, but very faint cream. White mats make the paper or gesso look dingy to me.

I consider mats and frames to be an integral part of the art itself. They draw you in with textures and layers, and they give me an added layer of color to work with.

The Pookah is a good example. If the brilliant and intense color isn’t going to match your couch, a neutral mat and gold frame won’t change that. Sorry. I actually worked with the framing guy to finally come up with a very dark, cold blue mat, and a burnt orange, wooden frame. Can’t wait to see how it all comes together.

It isn’t glaring or gimmicky, it just works well with the colors in the painting. I know that a lot of people have a certain view of framing, but if it works with the art, it will go anywhere that the art goes. Will I change it if I send the art to be considered for a display at a gallery that wants neutral mats? Possibly. But my art is not likely to sell well in that sort of gallery anyhow.

I tend to stick to greyed colors or charcoal grey for pencil and ink paintings. Black is too dark, and takes away from the darks in the pencil and ink, which are not dead black. Drama is bled away. Greys will often be either too cold for pencil sketches or too yellow in color, but a nice charcoal grey is usually good. Soft, grey-green or slate grey-blue will often be very complimentary to monochromatic pencil and ink.

Metallic copper scratchboards respond well to the depth of suede mats, but I also like to work with multiple layers of black mats, giving a nice depth and texture, and making the copper stand out even more. I am positive that I will not ever mat a copper piece in neutral colors.

Stop by the Potomac Celtic Festival in Leesburg, Virginia, June 13 and 14, and see if you agree with me.



Tips on Tempera

While I do occasionally work within traditional tempera painting guidelines, I also tend to ignore many of the fussier steps.

That being said, there are some things to remember when working with tempera. There are many reasons that oil painting became more popular.

1) Fat over lean: An ancient tradition, tempera painting has had centuries to reveal its limitations. Egg yolk is a fatty emulsion which works better if you put a fatty layer over a non-fatty layer, rather than the other way around. Working with distilled water and occasionally some egg white, I will sometimes lose track, and the leaner mixture will lift off the fatty layer below it, leaving streaks. Use it to your advantage if you want to lift off some small areas, but it doesn’t lift off evenly so don’t depend on it to erase mistakes.

2) Layering: Egg tempera does not offer the same textural advantages of oils or acrylics. The egg layers should be applied with thin layers to dry properly. It is RAW EGG after all, and will respond quickly to bacteria if it doesn’t dry well. Spread it too thickly and you will have some problems down the road with deterioration. Tradition states that you apply in crosshatching layers with a tiny brush, carefully working from darks to lights, layering opaque paints. I don’t insist on that, myself. I’ve worked with larger brushes, transparent paints and worked in lights and darks without a problem. But in thin layers. Don’t expect the rich brushstrokes and buttery goo of oils.

3) Drying time: Egg yolk dries to the touch quickly, very quickly. But it doesn’t completely cure for at least 10 days. Curing is also dependent on local humidity, which extends drying time. If new paint layers are added after the lower layer has cured, the new layers may NOT adhere properly, causing cracking and possibly peeling. So work steadily on a tempera painting, and don’t leave it unworked for more than 10 days, or there could be adhesion issues.
Icon writing tradition states that after a few layers are laid down, a thin wash of yolk and distilled water is worked over the layers to ‘unify’ them. This would help keep the layers damp and uncured until more work was done. I haven’t used this technique, so I haven’t experimented with the ratio of yolk to water.

4) Color issues: Egg yolk, sitting in the fridge, lasts only a few days – a week at most. Obviously, earlier artists had some issues with that, not having a way to keep the eggs cool, so the yolks went bad quickly. They came up with some methods to extend the life of the yolks. A few drops of vinegar or wine can change the acidity of the yolk, which keeps bacteria at bay longer. Be aware that the acidity can change the color of some pigments. Ultramarine blue is the most prominent example, losing most of its punch when the acidity rises. If you are using traditional dry pigments, you might need to do some research before working with the vinegar. I don’t usually use it. I just don’t process much egg yolk at one time, leaving it happily in the eggshell until I need some.

So, why use tempera instead of something else? It’s fussy, flat and messy.

First of all, the colors are unbelievable. Whether mixed with watercolor pigment or made from scratch with traditional or non-traditional dry pigments, the egg does things to colors that makes them glow.

Using crystalline pigments is a whole new experience. Azurite, Howelite, Malachite and well-processed Lapis Lazuli, as well as others, can form glittering pigments which do not translate well to linseed oil and are too heavy for suspension in watercolor medium. Pigment particles are larger and reflect the light like tiny gemstones.

Colors last. Properly applied, tempera paintings have lasted for centuries without dimming or cracking. No yellowing from oil or varnish. No water damage. After drying, tempera paint is permanent and resistant to dampness.

Fun factor: Nothing beats the feeling of crafting fine paintings using ancient techniques and choice materials. Ground gemstones, sun-warmed earth, dust, poisons, and dead bugs sit in all my tiny little jars, just waiting.

Nothing like it.



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.



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