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Just in time for his feast on 11th February, I was last week delighted to add St Berach of Kilbarry to the little clutch of less known Celtic saints I have been commissioned to paint: another first I think, at least as he is represented on the web. St Berach's life in the 6th century in Ireland has a few well-attested facts and a great number of fairy tales. He was a disciple of St Kevin, built a church, and is still greatly reverenced in Roscommon. This is a hand-sized icon designed to travel with his owner, for whose family St Berach has a special significance.
I drew for my design on the illuminations in the Book of Mulling, which was painted (only!) two hundred years after the death of St Berach. The hairstyle and robes owe a great deal to St John, seen below in the original - faded but still startlingly blond and blue-eyed. For the face and beard I also confess to a touch of The Dubliners in their later manifestation, I'll leave you to guess which one.
Thanks to the generosity of Trinity College, Dublin who own the manuscript and make public their technical researches, I was even able to approximate the pigments used in the original. For other pigment 'anoraks' out there, these were various ochres (John's curls are yellow ochre), indigo blue, organic pinks and purples and orpiment. Orpiment is a startlingly bright lemon yellow, an arsenic compound. I actually have a sample of the pigment, but decided to substitute with a cadmium mix identical in colour but less poisonous. Indigo and organic compounds don't last so well on a panel as between the pages of a book. I used indigo for the underpainting but enhanced it with azurite and egyptian blue: contemporary, but perhaps not easy to obtain in 6th century Ireland. The purple-red is indigo overpainted with natural carmine, but as I did not adopt the flat geometric style of the manuscript I found it necessary to highlight with a little cinnabar: probably just as poisonous as the orpiment I rejected. Ah well... The green background is a mottled application of indigo glazed with yellow ochre and my orpiment substitute.
To represent his hermitage and the abbey he founded, he is clutching a stone chapel of ancient Irish form. His abbot's crozier I copied from an ancient example dug up in a peat bog. These had a little reliquary chamber in the their ends and were staves of mighty talismanic power with which the early Irish clerics warded off the forces of darkness as they strode around the wild and sodden landscape of pagan Europe. I tell you the Desert Fathers had nothing over these fearsome Celtic hermits and evangelists, they were redoubtable spiritual warriors. They travelled to and fro to Sinai and Byzantium on networking visits, and even spread their mission over here to Austria, in those early days a truly terrifying landscape for any visitor, never mind a stray Christian.
Recently a family member asked me to provide some artwork for the cover of a forthcoming book, which besides being my first opportunity at a project of this kind presented some interesting technical problems. Gold areas in a design are notoriously difficult to reproduce in print. Every scratch and blemish is magnified in a scan, it comes out looking dull and brown, or gives off unwanted reflections. I decided it would be a waste to include any gold in the design at all. Not that lack cheapens the piece as an icon in any way. In the past, icon painters by no means always used gold in their designs. In times of scarcity or of war, for fresco schemes, for clients with shallower pockets, or sometimes simply for artistic reasons, many icons were painted with coloured backgrounds.
Putting aside its symbolical properties, burnished gold acts as neutral in a painting (strangely enough) and also, as a background, makes a motif 'tell up' incredibly well. Also, let's be honest, that amount of bling tends to distract from a multitude of shortcomings in a painting. Icon painters can tend to get very hung up on the quality of their gilding and devote less time to improving the actual painting!
In the end I substituted a painted ground of red for the the medallion of Christ. I added the symbols of the four gospellers afterwards, to complete the piece as an icon, and used brilliant white for the background. White is used in icons to convey the brilliance of uncreated light (think of Christ's robes in icons of the Transfiguration). I would have made life a great deal easier for myself if I had not glazed the red with transparent quinacridone pigment to warm its tone - forgetting that quinacridone is horribly staining and travels everywhere, especially onto pure white backgrounds! The quinacridones are a new addition to the artist's palette, developed by the car industry I am told, and useful as a substitute for carmine and alizarin, which are of suspect lightfastness. It's just too darn messy, though; I think I shall have to retire it from my arsenal.
An icon of Christ the Teacher in combination with the Hindu and Buddhist lotus symbol were specifically requested by the author to tie in with the theme of the book, which is a work of comparative theology. I designed the roundel of Christ to appear within the 'O' of the book title, with the eastern lotus symbol and frieze beneath, though no doubt the publisher will rehash my design to his own taste. I believe the book goes to print quite shortly: publisher James Clarke & Co Ltd. The actual icon will be framed (unusual for me, but for purposes of reproduction the board was a lightweight one), and appear for sale on my website in due course.
Gold is yellow, right? Well not really: some golds are more yellow than others. The two icons of St Francis above are looking like one of those 'spot the difference' puzzles we used to get as children, but the chief difference - the colour of the gold leaf I used in each - is not at all obvious on the screen. When you go to buy a book of gold leaf - generally from an on-line supplier - the array of golds on offer is completely bewildering. Bog standard 'yellow' gold can be 24, 23 or 22 carat, extra thick, double thick or regular, and each differs slightly in its tone. Not enough difference to read on a computer screen perhaps, but very obvious if you accidentally mix them up on the same painting (yep, been there!). Then there's Italian gold, German ducate, moon gold, red gold, lemon gold, green gold, champagne gold, white gold - the computer screen doesn't give one a very good idea of the differences and sample books are very expensive. The different colours are determined by the quantity and type of alloy metals in the leaf - silver, copper, nickel etc. 24ct gold, being pure, is a rich yellow colour; 22ct tends to be slightly more silvery. Some gold leaf has more of a crinkly texture, which you may or may not like. The presence of copper in the mix makes the leaf appear pinker (one sees this reddier tone clearly in gold jewellery made in India, for example).
So how to choose? Well, anything below 22ct is likely to tarnish fairly quickly, so is best avoided for work that you want to last: that instantly eliminates quite a number of options offered by the goldbeater. 24ct gold is more malleable and does not tarnish at all, so is chosen for 'best work' and for anything that will be exposed to the outside air. It is softer and therefore show the joins between leaves less after burnishing. Using 'double' or 'extra thick' gold leaf may mean you can avoid double gilding, which is generally necessary in order to get a good finish with standard thickness leaf: it is more expensive than standard thickness, so you will have to calculate whether with luck and skill you will make a saving or end up having to double gild anyway! For work intended to stay indoors, so less exposed to atmospheric pollution, 22 ct is adequate and perhaps a little easier to handle on the cutting pad. Beyond those parameters, you can let your choice be dictated by personal taste and price. The second of my St Francis icons (dated 2017) was made with 23 ct red gold, which I bought this time for no better reason than that it was older stock being offered at the old price. I like the way its warmer tone sits with the reds and browns of the icon - I have yet to decide whether it will sit comfortably in other pieces.
I was hard put to it to decide which beautiful picture to use as an illustration of my recent visit to this exhibition and eventually decided on this page from a Latin Kingdom of Jersusalem sacramentary, dated around 1128. I love it for the east-meets-west style of the icon panel, and the beautiful versal script. I am learning how to write versals at the moment, this is definitely one to add to the study list.
A must-go exhibition for iconographers, illuminators and scribes - on till December, so don't miss. Many of the manuscripts are in cases of course, giving the usual difficulty for close examination, but there are many cuttings framed on the wall which one can eyeball closely. There are also handy reference copies of the £30 exhibition catalogue lying everywhere, which means one can examine photographs and read up on detail without expense. Give yourself a good couple of hours and try to get there early before the usual headphone brigade are there blocking the view!
Many of the manuscripts are from the University collection, but there are also borrowings from the British Library, the Archbishop of Canterbury's Library and elsewhere. The later medieval and early Renaissance period is quite heavily represented, as one might expect. The show's chief focus is on the chemistry and provenance of pigments and materials used in book illumination but technique is also touched on. Iconographers will be interested to study the gradual development of different fleshpainting techniques, from the fully modelled style of the Byzantine period through to western experiments with pointillism, grisaille and tinted drawing.
Other random gleanings that I shall follow up on my next trip:
- Different ways of ruling the page: pricking, hardpoint, silverpoint, plummet. Medieval readers preferred their pages to be ruled and even drew in guidelines to the first printed books because the page looked naked without! So this business in calligraphy class about not showing the lines is a load of rubbish, ha!
- Using black gesso under gilding for special effect. Must try, could look amazingly contemporary.
- Indigo and woad are chemically indistinguishable when used as dyes or pigments. Western artists probably used woad. It will grow in the back garden, and I found someone on line who extracts and sells the pigment.
- The fabled Tyrian purple, so expensive, was extracted from North Atlantic dogwhelks as well as from the Mediterranean murex. The farthest Scottish islands had a trade in it. On the other hand there was a cheap subsitute to be made from the turnsole plant or a variety of lichen, used on some of those glorious purple-dyed manuscripts.
- Some French manuscript fragments c 1250 were described as having a 'stained glass palette', an artistic cross-fertilisation from the contemporaneous technological developments in coloured glass (remember that amazing Chartres Cathedral blue?). One of the pigments used was minium. I have always held off using minium (red lead) on the grounds of it being so toxic, but I suppose that's a bit daft given that I already use vermilion (mercury), white lead (for gesso) and the cadmiums. I am interested in this manuscript school, and up till now have had to guess at what pigments were used to achieve the effect.
This stuff is precious, I knew that, but toxic too as I heard today on BBC Radio 4 (report here). Today I have been applying it to vellum for a fine illumination commission. Lapis (ultramarine - 'beyond the sea blue') comes from modern day Afghanistan, which as everyone should know is located just south of the Garden of Eden on the medieval world map. Now I hear that the lapis mines are being stripped and the millions raised disappearing into the pockets of corrupt officials and the Taliban. Other deposits of lapis have been found since ancient times, in Chile I believe, but the stone is inferior. There is nothing to replace that extraordinary blue: azurite is beautiful but very green in tone. I suspect when one scratches the surface there is going to be nothing particularly wholesome about the way any pigment is extracted or manufactured, but for now I shall be refraining from smearing lapis all over the icons.
The dreadful looking mess in the top right photo is the 'proplasmos' layer of sample painted according to the Prosopon School of Iconology technique. Prosopon was founded by a Russian emigre in New York, and I recently attended a little workshop given to members of the British Association of Iconographers by Irina Bradley, Buckinghamshire-based Grand Master: you can visit her website at http://www.irinabradley.com/index.html. Proplasmos is the primal soup (or in the English translation 'chaos') from which God began the work of creation. We were copying a detail of Irina's own icon of the heavenly Jerusalem, pictured left. The technique relies on a textural sub-layer, created with gritty pigments in a very dilute suspension applied wet in small pools - as the pools dry they leave mottles and swirls on the surface of the gesso, exploiting the natural tendency of different weight crystals to separate out. When the proplasmos layer is dry, the large crystals are scraped off with a palette knife. This underlayer is then modified by many successive scumbles and glazes, ending with the characteristic abstract white highlights. Picture 2 shows the colours intensified and some rough delineation of the forms, picture 3 some quick highlights in white to demonstrate the next stage. A finished icon painted by this technique can have twenty or thirty transparent layers which produce a lively, even busy, visual effect. On the whole not a technique for the the control freak.
At the end of last year I took another foray into the Sienese style of icons with their characteristically ornate gold tooling and softer style of draperies and flesh painting so different from Byzantine iconography of the same period. Duccio, Buonaventura, Simone Martini, Taddeo di Bartolo and Sano di Pietro were all great artists from that city. It has been proposed that the purpose of such fancy goldwork was not idly decorative but intended to give the surface life with the increased play of light in a candlelit interior. On the whole I find the elaboration a bit distracting myself, but the craft is fascinating and demanding: the artists would likely have outsourced this work to a lifetime gilding specialist, which is some comfort to me in my comparatively clumsy attempts. The raised lines are called 'pastiglia', are made with fine gesso built up with a brush. I have found by trial it is better to use gypsum in the mix, rather than the usual chalk. The small round indents are called 'bulinatura' and a spent biro or round-ended bodkin is ideal for producing these: the timing of these is crucial as the gold must be burnished but the bole still damp enough to take the pressure without cracking. Italian artists had many fancy punches in leaf, star and scroll shapes at their disposal. These can still be bought at huge expense, but I improvised with various bits and pieces gleaned in the toolshed.
The Italian conventions of painting skin were quite different from what is taught at the average icon painting workshop. First a pale green layer was painted over the face and hands before the flesh tints and rosy glazes were applied. Michelangelo's unfinished painting known as the Manchester Madonna clearly demonstrates this technique. Duccio's Madonnas often look a good deal green round the gills. In fact they were originally painted in ruddy good health, but the carmine used for the roses is fugitive and has faded away until we are left with the pale and wan appearance.
The Apocalypse Art Prize is an initiative started by an artist in the USA and a rare platform for traditional art: the idea is to create an original triptych illustrating three different parts of the Apocalypse of St John (Revelation), using traditional media and drawing on the principles (but not necessarily the styles) of medieval manuscript illumination. The prizes are sizeable and there is still time to enter (closing date 31 December 2015) - but read the rules carefully, they are quite specific. I have been working on an entry for a while but have found it hard, as the specified size is a good deal larger than my preference and the need for the work to be postable restricts the options a bit. Gesso boards, whilst much the easiest to work on, are far too heavy, and vellum at this size would be far too expensive for a speculative piece. That just leaves watercolour paper, which is a pretty horrid surface for egg tempera: you can't change your mind about the design or obliterate the smallest mistake, and even the best quality watercolour paper (Fabriano hot press 600gsm in this case) has a 'hairy' surface which is not rewarding to work on. I tried various ways of reducing the absorbency and fibrosity, including surface sizing with alum and with gelatine. In the end I used a trick which I read about from a bookbinder, who uses it on endpapers to simulate the appearance of parchment. You stain the paper first ( I sponged on a mixture of glair and ochre pigments) and then paint it both sides with bleached shellac. This makes it a little more translucent, like vellum, and makes a smoother, less absorbent surface for the paint. Not good enough to allow one to scrape off mistakes, alas, but good enough for try-outs and ephemera when you want to avoid expense.
The view from my desk
Current work, places and events, art travel, and interesting snippets about Christian icons, medieval art, manuscript illumination, egg tempera , gilding, technique and materials.