Nicholas Hilliard was one of the preeminent miniaturists of the Elizabethan period, and completed portraits of Queen Elizabeth I and other prominent people of his time. This manuscript, written by Hilliard himself, discusses his process for the creation of portrait miniatures.
A few years ago, I was frequenting the Cleveland Museum of Art Library to visit a book. I was researching construction of historical panel paintings and “Let the Material Talk” was one of the most thoroughly researched and detailed analyses of a specific set of paintings from the Cologne region. I did finally purchase this book, and continue to refer to it frequently.
Over the past several years, I have been studying the process of historical paintings. This particular painting was made in conjunction with Pearce Arts, and we took turns working on various portions of it. Here are the steps to this final painting:
An oak board was obtained for the panel, and cut to size.
3 coats of rabbitskin glue were brushed on to the panel. Because this will gel at room temperature, the glue needs to be kept in a double boiler when applying. A piece of linen was soaked in RSG and placed atop the board. This was left to dry.
Plaster was slaked to a silky finish, mixed with RSG and water in a double boiler, and 8 coats of slaked plaster were applied.
The surface was pounced with charcoal and scraped smooth.
The design was transferred to the surface and inked.
The areas which would take gold were prepared with size.
2 layers of gold leaf were applied.
Egg tempera was prepared with pigment and applied.
Oil paint was prepared as a second layer atop the egg tempera.
Final details were added.
The frame was prepared and gilded.
The Ugly Stage: every painting has one. I watch students struggle with this part of the painting process, as they grimace at their work and debate whether the trash bin would be a more appropriate place for their half-finished work. I’ll tell you a secret – every one of my paintings goes through the Ugly Stage too.
This is the point of the painting process where the canvas is mostly covered in paint. It’s been worked on, so it looks like a painting, but details haven’t been added yet. More importantly, the parts of the painting that will really make it come together haven’t been added yet. In addition, there are probably decisions to resolve design problems, which an artist has to make on any artwork, that still need to be made. Usually, the artist hits the Ugly Stage wall when a particularly challenging decision needs to be made. The uncertainty of how to take the painting to completion causes the artist to either overwork the area in question or to throw the brush down in frustration.
This is all normal. Breathe.
Put the painting away for a while. Work on something else.
In time, pick up the painting again. With fresh eyes and perhaps a bit more experience, try to work through the problems you were having.
Most importantly, try to make yourself work through these Ugly Stage walls, because in any case, you will learn something from the challenge.
These two books, by Dinotopia author James Gurney, are a wonderful resource for the realist painter. Formerly an illustrator for National Geographic, Gurney discusses a wide range of painting techniques to create imagined realms, from the utilization of maquettes, to the physics of light and its interaction with objects at different times of the day. I am including links to these books above – check them out!
Every so often, I’ll post some links to products I like, with a short description of each. Here’s the first.
Anyone who has talked to me about painting knows I love these panels and have used them for over 10 years. These are pre-gessoed masonite, with a slightly textured surface. Much smoother than canvas, they allow me to get a lot of detail into my miniature paintings, without being so slick that the paint slides around. For framing, they are thin, so you can actually use regular store-bought frames with these, and just pop out the glass and pop in the panel.
The other day, I working at the local co-op gallery that I am a part of, and was scheduled to demo oil painting for customers that stopped by. There was one problem – I had all of my painting supplies, but I didn’t bring anything to paint! Luckily, my lunch came with a lime garnish that then became a lovely little painting. Another day, all I had on hand were some extra tubes of paint from my kit, which then became my subject.
Alla prima sketch paintings are great for practice because they pull you out of your typical subject comfort zone. When I go in search of subjects for these small paintings, I usually don’t know what I’ll end up painting that day.
I highly recommend doing these small paintings from life as they allow you to observe objects in varying lighting conditions, with varying shadow qualities. Replicate what you see as best as you can, but feel free to put some artistic personality in these works. Because you’re not committing to a large, extensive painting, you can try out new colors or application techniques.