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.
For thousands of years lead white (lead carbonate or cerussite) was the only brilliant and opaque white pigment available. Nowadays the inert titanium dioxide has supplanted it in food, cosmetics and household paints for obvious reasons. However, many artists swear by its very special handling properties, and it is an indispensible plasticising constituent of the gesso used in manuscript gilding. It is difficult to obtain genuine lead (flake) white these days because EU legislation tightening up the rules for producing such toxic substances is making it sub-economic to commercial pigment producers. Word is that it will soon be equally difficult to obtain in the US. So when we can't buy it any more what will we do? It is simple to make yourself: follow the link below and check out this fascinating YouTube video demonstrating how by US pigment maker Attila Gazo of Master Pigments. But if you do fancy having a go, be warned - lead white is extremely toxic even in small quantities and poisoning is irreversible. Don't put your rinsings down the drain either.
Today I finished an illuminated piece which I have been hanging fire on a long time, not knowing how I would manage the lettering. I've had several attempts at learning 'proper' calligraphy over the years, even with a tutor, which have mostly left me dishevelled, inky and frustrated. Finally I decided to use my mapping pen and work in my own adaptation of versals (inked in outlines): I swiped the design for these from the incomparable Klosterneuberg altar frontal by 12thC enamellist Nicholas of Verdun. Not perfect - I can just hear that calligraphy tutor now - but legible at least. The painted design is another homage to 12thc Armenian illuminator T'oros Roslin. This prayer of St Ephraim the Syrian, called the Lenten Prayer in the Orthodox Liturgy, is a favourite of mine. The support is natural calfskin vellum: I have been practising on vellum for a while, it is a touchy material but very rewarding. I used walnut ink made from crystals imported from the US (good old Ebay), gold leaf (of course), and mineral pigments including lapis lazuli and volksonkoite. On balance this was a mistake as their crystalline texture makes it very difficult to achieve the smooth surface needed for accurate top painting. Our medieval forebears must have had minions to grind their pigments much finer than the finest available today. For the medallion icon I used raised and burnished gilding, which is not historically accurate to the style of the manuscript decoration (in Eastern manuscripts only flat gilding was used), but then I wasn't intending a reproduction.
While everyone's packing for their summer holiday I thought I would share my homemade miniature art kit which I have just designed for my own travels. I'm very smug about it - feel free to copy! I'm no great plein air painter (and the family wouldn't care to hang around while I sketched a view) but I do like to make the odd little nature study of an evening when we visit foreign parts. I think my paintbox of homemade watercolours must be the smallest in the world at 5.5 x 4.5 cm. It was originally a tiny mint tin, and the dispensing lid will make a handy little mixing palette. Don't throw out your old fashioned film canisters if you still have any as they make reliably leak-proof water pots. I'm too tight to buy one of those fancy retracting watercolour brushes, so this was a normal one with the handle cut down on the workbench. The whole set fits into a dinky ziplock bag and packs into my little crossbody purse, because I like to be hands-free when out and about, and carrying a backpack is very tiresome. Happy travels!
I'm posting this pic just to make you all feel good wherever you're at with your own painting this week. You know how sometimes things just don't go well, and the more important they are to get right the worse it is. This was supposed to be my effort for the British Association of Iconographers exhibition later in the year. I've already scraped off and re-gilded without achieving much discernible improvement, and today when I came back to it after a long break I decided the background would have to come off too as it was a total mess. All that lapis lazuli, ouch.
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.