Monday, April 1, 2013

New Brushes and Grisaille Q&A

I received the following question from D.d'D. today:

Just a question in regards to the "underpainting" or grisaille. I know you mentioned using transparent colors as much as possible at the beginning stages of painting. So this applies to the underpainting as well? Do you usually do the underpainting and let it dry before doing the "color" stage of the painting?

Also, when working out the values of the underpainting, how do you handle the lightest part of the picture? Do you usually leave it unpainted, just letting the white of the linen depict the "light" areas. ( i.e. highlights of the clouds in the sky)

First, the lights in my grisaille are the unpainted bits of the canvas. Sometimes they are parts I haven't painted, reserving them for the sky, etc. Very often they are also marks where I have removed paint with a paper towel in order to re-capture a light area, or a sky hole, or a tree trunk (for examples).
The underpainting is done entirely in transparent colors. I think I've said before that my main mixture is composed of burnt umber and ultramarine blue. Sometimes, for some parts of the grisaille, I allow the mixture to move toward the cool (blue) side. Sometimes I stress the warmth of the burnt umber. If I'm in the studio, with all the time in the world, I often will add a transparent red (Rembrandt Brown Madder) or Winsor & Newton's Prussian Green.
Here's a 24"x30" (60x75cm) grisaille which I did in anticipation of our Vermont Workshop last June. I'd been thinking about Willard Metcalf and I decided to make up a Vermont landscape that Willard might have painted. This is the result
You'll see that I added a smidge of Prussian Green, and a bit more of Brown Madder. But the start is essentially a grisaille all done with transparent tints.
Here's a larger detail of the central part. 


And an even larger detail of the tree on the right side of the river:

As I wrote a couple of nights ago, in the post about the hayloft, most of the hard work is done when you've designed the composition, figured out the values, and corrected your drawing. In this particular instance, all that's left to do is to paint it.

Truth to tell, I've left it as it is for almost a year, rather enjoying its current state.

I also received, not exactly a question, but some observations on the correspondent's experience with stretching larger canvases. She keys her stretchers, and I presume she stretches tightly to begin, but her canvases oft-times go slack and, worse, it happens after they are at the gallery.

I'm not really sure what to answer. I had the same problem for a couple of years, now almost twenty years ago. I would stretch canvases in my studio in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts (this would be spring or early summer).

The paintings, when finished, would be shipped off to my gallery on Nantucket (for those who don't know of Nantucket, it's a summer resort island in the Atlantic Ocean, some thirty miles off the coast of Massachuetts).  

Quite regularly the gallery would need to have a local Nantucket artist re-stretch my canvases because they had gone slack.   

I attributed it to all the sea-born moisture on Nantucket. At the same time, however, the paintings I was shipping to my New York gallery were sometimes suffering the same droopiness. That wasn't about sea-born moisture.

So, what's the story? In New York, the dealer found that some time spent under the hot track lighting usually made the canvases more taut. Though there was still a need to re-stretch from time to time.

I still use the same canvas I did then (Claessens #13SP), and I still stretch exactly the same way. But I haven't had a problem with this in many years. There are two things that I suspect may be culprits. 

First, I may not have kept the unstretched roll of canvas under entirely dry conditions. After all,  I was painting in a barn. 

Second, and more important, I always shipped my paintings in those days, via FedEx or UPS. It's entirely possible that going from hot to cool to hot to cold, in transit,
may have caused issues. Canvas, and the paint film that it carries (especially when new), is quite an elastic item. 

When they are very gradually warmed or cooled, canvases adapt marvelously. But their great enemy is swift and dramatic change in temperature and/or humidity. I can imagine my paintings being in a hot aircraft hangar or, worse, sitting on the tarmac waiting to be loaded into the hold of an aircraft. Then, just a short time later, being exposed to serious cold, five miles up in the sky----only to be suddenly returned to another hot pavement a few hours later.

In recent years, my work is either picked up by my gallery or delivered to them by car. And I don't seem to have the same issues. Unfortunately, this doesn't answer my questioner's dilemma, but it may point in the direction of a solution.
Remember, though, that post hoc ergo propter hoc is a logical fallacy.


While pondering the large, vertical landscape that's in my future, I got to thinking about the best means to get some distance from the canvas as I was painting the subject in grisaille, the better to keep the overall effect in view. Even with my Hughes easel, the bottom of the canvas will go no lower than perhaps 10" (25.4cm) from the floor. 

This means that the top of the canvas will be, at its lowest, about 88 inches (224cm) from the floor. Since I, even on my best days, rarely crest 70 inches (178cm), I will be spending some time painting over my head (I hope only in this sense).

I remembered that Rosemary & Co, an English brush-making firm, carries bristle brushes with two foot long handles. Eureka! So I ordered three each of two sizes. They arrived today. But, since the stretcher bars haven't arrived from Upper Canada yet, I couldn't try them out on the new vertical canvas. But I did have the cow painting---you may remember Jezebel and her sister---and I put the brushes to the test.

Initially, I thought the barrels a bit too hefty, wishing they were a bit more slender. But I subsequently found them to be great fun to work with. I could more easily keep the whole painting in view as I worked. 
I also had thought that after about ten minutes my whole arm would fall off from holding the brush at the very end, and painting from the shoulder. In fact, I had no problem with the weight of the brush or with arm fatigue. It might be of interest to know that the total distance between my shoulder and the canvas, just making contact with the tip of the brush, is 49 inches (124cm). The distance gives a grand view, and it keeps me from getting niggley with my strokes (oh, those strokes again!).

Here they are, on my palette, next to a regular Raphael series 358 round bristle brush. The Raphael has quite a long handle for a standard brush. As you'll see, it's dwarfed by the six Rosemary & Co. brushes.

Here's a link to the Rosemary site, with the 24 inch round brushes.

I have used the Rosemary regular-size bristle rounds, and they are fine for most of my work. My only cavil is that they are not quite as resistant to my scubbing as the Raphael series #358 are. But, then again, if you use your brushes properly, you'll never have an issue with that. It's too late for me.

All in all, I can recommend these Rosemary brushes to you.



  1. Just wanted to say how much I enjoy reading about your process in painting... I was fortunate to see you paint in person and so it gives me more information about how you speak of your work in the blog. I'm learning so much from you and appreciate your willingness and ability to share your creative process, plus offer fundamental tips and such. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Christy. Nice to know I have one reader! Hope you're painting up a storm. D

  2. I'll second Christy's comment.

    Another question: your palette in this picture is very neatly ordered! Is that a blob of Liquin next to the mixed white? I have just purchased some and am at a loss as to how to use it.

    1. Monsieur Bruce, I don't know what you are currently using as a medium. Linseed oil? Turpentine? I use Liquin to thin my paints and to glaze. It's also handy, when making a grisaille, to put a wee bit on a paper towel in order to lift paint when reestablishing lights (sky holes, etc.)
      Yes, that is a blob on my palette. At the end of the day I invert a shallow tin over it to retard its evaporation/drying over the night. I use Liquin for everything, but I'he found it has a bit too much personality for a sauce bernaise. I do use it in rillettes.

    2. Thanks Donald,
      I bought the Liquin to replace turps, which really irritates my eyes and sinus cavities. I have also used odourless mineral spirits but find it waters things down a bit too much. I like the texture of the Liquin and also the fact that it acts as a drying accelerator. Just have to get used to using it.