Sunday, December 13, 2009

24_Fresco secco and unrelated techniques

One can also paint on the fresco after it has dried -- with a technique known as "fresco secco," or "a secco." This is different from the "buon fresco" which we have been pursuing; that is, different from painting into wet fresco plaster.

Unlike in "buon fresco," with the "fresco secco" technique, the artist first needs to mix the pigment into a binder, like egg yolk, to paint onto the dried fresco. Artists in the Middle ages apparently painted their frescoes with a blue egg tempera, "a secco," because their blue pigments did not work well in wet plaster.

We have not yet used egg tempera to paint onto, or retouch, dried frescoes:


The remainder of this blog deviates from fresco into other quirky techniques, which I developed after challenging conventional painting practices. I followed the same approach which we took to fresco painting, by first breaking the medium down to its basic materials. Then I was able to reconstruct the technique on my own terms, and put together a painting kit. I expect that the labor-intensive fresco exercise should lead to more of these kinds of painting solutions -- such that, even if I do not paint another fresco after writing this blog, the effort has been worthwhile. Likewise I suspect that other artists would benefit from attempting a fresco, even if they abandon the technique in favor of oils, or for other mediums below.


While I have not yet painted in "fresco secco," I have painted in egg tempera. I first dip the brush into the jar of egg yolk, then I jab that wet brush into a jar of dry pigment. The brush picks up enough pigment to make paint, when swirled onto a plastic palette. I learned this technique from a Sinopia paint demonstration in the 1990s.

One advantage of egg tempera is that the artist can wipe away mistakes anytime he is painting, but weeks later the paint dries very hard:

The egg tempera painting kit. I should probably use the Golden Absorbant Ground acyclic gesso, or make traditional gesso from rabbit skin glue and chalk, to apply to the boards:

All the dry pigments and necessary accessories fit nicely into a zipper notebook to make a portable egg tempera kit. I bought the notebook and plastic boxes at Office Depot:

Portable egg tempera kit zipped up, so that it is easy to carry around:

This portable silverpoint kit fits into the Guatemalan binder shown below. The mechanical pencil holds a piece of gold wire which I bought from Rio Grande Jewelry. The blue leadholder clamps onto a piece of silver wire which is easier to find, for instance at regular jewelry supply stores in Albuquerque. First I cover a piece of watercolor paper with white gouache, to add enough tooth to the surface to file off the hard metalpoints. I have not yet tried the Golden Silverpoint/Drawing Ground shown in the picture. Nor have I coated any paper with ground chicken bones mixed in saliva to create silverpoint surfaces, as they did in the Renaissance. However, I have drawn silverpoint on boards I merely gessoed, and then enjoyed painting egg tempera over those drawings:

I painted with vegetable watercolors -- like wild saffron, red cabbage, and elder. I stored the powders in contact lens cases, which I pushed into an oil-based clay filling a plastic pencil box:

One can employ the same glass muller and plate used to grind fresco pigments into water, to grind the pigments into other mediums to make paints. Pigment into linseed oil (left in photo) makes oil paint. Pigment into acrylic medium (center) makes acrylic paint. Pigment into gum arabic (right) makes watercolor:

Pigment into melted beeswax makes encaustic paint (do not use cadmiums, cobalt, or lead in encaustic because it is not good to breath in heavy metal vapors). To make crayons, add a bit of melted candlewax to harden the blend, pour the mixture into a drinking straw, and throw the straw in cold water:

This mug warmer did not help much for making crayons, but most any small electric heater will do the job:

I have made soft pastels merely by mixing pigments with doughy French Chalk from Champagne. Those who prefer their pastels a bit harder might mix in dilute gum tragacanth or methylcellulose solutions to the dough:

Wet pastel dough under halogen light, made of Mayacrom® Violet and French chalk. Roll between fingers into logs and let dry:

The same pastel dough under fluorescent light, made of Mayacrom® Violet and French chalk:

I usually fix my pastel drawings with a mix of Everclear and skim milk, mixed about half and half, which I apply with a plastic pump spray bottle. The alcohol breaks down the surface tension of the milk, so that the fixative sprays more as a midst. The milk alone, without the alcohol, tends to form droplets and polka-dot the artwork. I now use drinking alcohol, because I once poisoned myself after fixing a lot of pastel drawings with a rubbing alcohol mixture. Fat free milk is better, but usually I can only find 2% skim milk at the store. I read about this fixative in Robert Massey's book, "Formulas for Painters."

This fixative is best used on thicker paper, such at the amate Mexican bark paper, pictured below:

I also like drawing with mushroom ink, because it has far more dimension than the harsh commercial inks. Its organic brown subtlety wobbles over a broader area of the spectrum, and thus is more inviting to the viewers. I just push the tops of the Shaggy Mane mushroom into an empty coke bottle, and the mass decomposes into a fluid ink by the next day. I then strain the ink and fill up my fountain pen.

The mushroom ink also fights a bit against the artist to add extra character to a drawing; it pools where the artist lifted the pen, while larger areas dry grainy, rather than smooth:

One of my charcoal drawings on canvas, sprayed with the milk/alcohol fixative, and then painted over with mushroom ink and homemade red earth watercolor (from the Colorado River in Moab):

Doors serve as good makeshift easels. In Juarez I commissioned someone to modify a lightweight door from Home Depot, so that it folded in half and fit in my car. Whenever I find a studio-squat now, I just unfold the door and attach plastic hooks over the top edge, to hang a canvas.

I sewed the edges of the canvas together previously, in order to slip dowels into the top and bottom for support, and forgo stretcher bars. The canvas hangs like an Asian scroll painting, and easily rolls to fit into a mailing tube. I leave enough margins around the image so that I can stretch the canvas later on, if I choose to:

I also commissioned a smaller easel in Juarez, based on a simple design I saw in Tokyo. Basically the easel is a tall triangle, no different from some display easels, except that it folds in half. Removable pegs support a (folding) drawing board. The pegs fit into holes, drilled into the front of the easel at various heights. The 8 inch plastic footstool from Staples folds flat, and completes the low drawing easel set up:

The whole easel setup above folds to fit into a baseball bat backpack, which I carry around as a "portable studio:"

When I paint in oils, I let the painting scroll dry inside a hard plastic porfolio, which fits in the back of my car:

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