Total Art Soul - for artists

" Art is the proper task of life "
Friedrich Nietzsche

Egg Tempera and Gold

Posted by: Toni1


I am primarily a wildlife artist, but I have what my husband calls a 'butterfly brain' - meaning I flit from idea to idea, some of them a long way from what I am supposed to be doing!

Last October I went to Siena in Italy, partly to do some painting myself and partly to enjoy the art galleries. When I got back, I decided to experiment with some of the traditional techniques and see if I could make them work - not because I want a new career painting virgins and angels, but because I have some ideas about using those techniques in more contemporary ways. I have had more than one false start with this! Of course, I started with something wildly over ambitious - a large painting of the Archangel Michael - which was a complete disaster. So I thought I'd try something simpler.  I decided to paint a Madonna and Child, taking part of the painting by Sano di Pietro The Virgin and Child with Saints Jerome and Bernardino and four Angels as my inspiration. The Virgin has a beautiful, stylised face typical of fifteenth century Sienese art.

The board preparation was time consuming, withten layers of gesso, made at home to a traditional recipe, applied over cloth and sanded until satin smooth. Then came the addition of something called bole. This is a type of clay which acts as a cushion for the gold leaf, stuck on with 'gilding water'.


My inexperience shows - I could only manage to manoeuvre small pieces of gold leaf. If I tried anything of any size it would crumple, or stick where I didn't want it to stick, or fall off the brush I was using to pick it up. It looks decidedly dodgy at this stage, but it was better when it was burnished!

The original work was painted in egg tempera - a mixture of egg yolk and pure pigment, so I thought I'd have a go, starting with the blue of the Virgin's robe.

This is lapis lazuli

the pigment that would have been used at the time.

Lapis is found in far flung places, most notably Afganistan. Before the discovery of synthetic ultramarine in 1828 it was mined from a valley in the north west of that now worn-torn country, called Sar-e-sang - the Place of the Stone. It always amazes me that the pigment the great European Renaissance artists used came from such a distance.

In addition to the geographical difficulties there were issues with getting paint from the stone. Lapis lazuli is a complex combination of minerals, including calcite and pyrite. These white and golden elements had to be removed before the pigment was of any use. The painter Cennino Cennini gave us a three page 'recipe' for this process, with steps including grinding in a bronze mortar, adding resin from a pine tree, gum from a mastic bush and fresh beeswax to form a paste. The paste was kneaded every day for three days, then kneaded in lye, the lye being drained off when saturated with colour. This process was apparently repeated eighteen times....

Needless to say, I bought mine from an art shop - in this case the wonderful Cornelissens in London. The pigment needs mixing with distilled water to form a paste and grinding to ensure it is smooth.

Then comes the preparation of the egg, the white being removed and the yolk sac pierced to allow it's contents to be drained.

The addition of just a little more distilled water makes a great binder for the pigment and  - finally! - paint can be applied to the image

And here it is so far, complete with a reflection of me taking the photo.

There's along way to go and I need lots more practice, but I'm dead chuffed that I managed to get the gold to stick. I have a new appreciation of our readily available paint and am very glad that I don't have to mine my 'blue' from Afghanistan!


Inspiration - where does it come from?

Posted by: Toni1

Tagged in: wildlife , Painting , inspiration , birds , art


I'm often asked where I get the inspiration for my paintings. Well, that's an interesting one, because almost anything can trigger an idea, some of which are more achievable than others. I always seem to want to paint things that are just slightly out of my comfort zone, and am a sucker for trying new techniques (usually when I'm most short of time!).

This one

©Toni Watts 2011, Grey Wagtail, Acrylic on board, 38 x 51cm

Grey Wagtail - detail

was inspired by the water running off this old wall by the horse trough after heavy rain. It's a scene from the Lake District in the UK, on a footpath which runs from Rydal to Grasmere. Actually, the path is called the 'Coffin Route', due to the fact that, before there was a church in Rydal village, bodies had to be carried to the next village. Anyway, in spite of its name, it actually makes for beautiful walk, with great views over Rydal Water and a historic pub at one end. What could be better?

The Grey Wagtail wasn't there, but it might have been, so in it went - a lovely dapper bird which looks, I hope, at home in its surroundings.

My next painting will feature a raven. In fact, maybe the next two will. We did a lot of walking in the Lakes, and one of our highlights was seeing (and hearing) the ravens flying around us. They are big, impressive birds with massive bills and bags of character. So I have in mind a painting of a raven in flight, maybe featuring the landscape around High Spy - a great Lakeland look-out point. Here I am on my way up to that point, with a bit of climbing still to do. You can just make out our starting point, the town of Keswick, in the far distance.

The raven also features in Edgar Allan Poe's poem of the same name and I'm just working out how I might create a piece of artwork around that. I've been mulling over several ideas and am almost ready to go with that one. It will involve techniques I've never tried before, so I'll be interested to see how it goes. There may be the occasional blog post full of grumbles - be warned!

The painting of the car

©Toni Watts 2011, Shiny Pretty Things, Acrylic on board

was basically a product of my fiftieth birthday present - a day driving one of these....

Wow! What a day! We were dead lucky with the weather (it was last October). I'd never driven a sports car before: it growled in the most satisfying way!! I have to admit, it was a bit difficult to place on the road....and OK, maybe I did drive round some of the tighter corners with my eyes shut, hoping I didn't hit the stone wall which seemed about an inch away. And the handbrake was more of a 'pull towards you' rather than a 'lift up' (there's probably some technical term for that), so I dreaded having to stop on a hill. But overall, I loved it! In fact, we loved it so much that, for a little while afterwards, we dreamed of owning a classic car....not that we've got anywhere to keep it, or the money to buy it....but it didn't stop us going to a local car show. And it was there that we saw the Austin, complete with a magpie hopping around on the floor. We all know that magpies love shiny things - and so the idea was born. Reference sketches for the magpies came from Potteric Carr nature reserve in Doncaster.

So inspiration can come from seeing birds, or animals - from landscapes - from the small things, like the way light plays on a bit of lichen - and sometimes even from poetry. I have to say that, as a wildlife artist, if I don't get out into the great outdoors, I lose the enthusiasm to paint. I have to be out there, in all weathers, with a pair of binoculars and a sketchbook.

We're off to Cornwall in the summer, so expect paintings of tin mines and fishing boats!





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