Notebook, 1993-


Thompson, Daniel V., Jr., Research and Technical Adviser, The Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London. The Practice of Tempera Painting. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1936. Fourth Printing, 1946.

The Practice of
Tempera Painting - Methods of Drawing

Drawing for tempera
Care and thought are necessary in planning the design of a tempera painting; but it must not be supposed that the plan need follow any tractional lines. If the fundamental design is not good, the painter will become cruelly aware of it usually even before the painting is done; but its goodness may take any kind of form. Tempera painting lends itself equally well to the rendering of the most subtle and the most vigorous designs; but imposes this inescapable condition for both, that they should be perfectly crystallized into graphic elements. The drawing may be fully naturalistic in construction and the rendering of light and shade; or it may be entirely abstract and arbitrary; it may be planned for delicate, precise handling, or for bold, loose treatment. The draughtsman has perfect freedom to draw what he will and as he will; but he must draw it definitely, and abide by his drawing. There is no room for accident or "fudging." The finished job will show all that has gone into it, and no more. It is possible to make improvements as you go along; but it is a mistake to count on making decisions about the design after the painting is begun. All the trouble and ingenuity that a designer may put into perfecting his plan will be rewarded by this uncompromising medium; and any carelessness will be impossible to hide. This is not a medium for sketching, or for unconsidered work: it is a highly developed, permanent means for final, deliberate performance.

If you lay a piece of tracing paper over a photograph of a good medieval or renaissance tempera painting, and mark around the outlines with a pencil, you will usually find that the composition is made up of clearly defined shapes which fit together snugly, like the pieces of glass in a stained-glass window, but do not blend in to each other. In good stained glass, the leads make an obvious pattern, following the design; and in a good drawing for tempera painting, the same sort of linear pattern binds the elements of the drawing together. Of course, in the painting These outlines are not emphasized as they are in the glass; but they make themselves felt in the structure, and a great deal of the power of good work depends on the nice adjustment of these fundamental shapes. Each area enclosed by an outline is treated separately in the painting, and it keeps some individuality even when it is fitted into its place in the finished work.

Though there is, of course, nothing to be gained by trying to reduce design to a formula, there are a few hints which may be given to the draughtsman in this connection. The beginning tempera painter will find it easier to execute the work if the individual areas of the composition are not too large. He will usually find it easier to handle the medium, at first, in a pattern made up of fairly small pieces. It is a good plan, as a general rule, to try to avoid "bottle necks" in the drawing, and to keep the shapes rather simple and compact. This is chiefly a question of ease in painting, and if a design calls for "bottle necks" or "dumb-bells" they may certainly be [p. 41] used; but it is often more satisfactory to break them up into two or three separate areas. Another general principle is to avoid "asterisks," the intersection of two or more lines at a point, except when they are admitted for the sake of emphasis to attract attention. A slight break, separation, or change of direction will keep these intersections from assuming an importance which the designer does not want.

It is sometimes helpful to remember that a certain unit can be achieved by keeping all the separate areas of the design about equal in size. The result of doing so is, of course, monotonous and dull; but if a sort of standard measure is established in the composition as a whole, it emphasizes any departure from the standard that the designer's intention may dictate. It is useful to adopt a fairly uniform standard size for the component areas which do not need to be made emphatic, so that other areas, larger or smaller than the norm, will have an effective basis of contrast.

The whole secret of using the medium effectively is to keep it constantly under control, to eliminate the accidental and substitute the deliberate. This means establishing a normal, colorless procedure at every stage, and departing from it knowingly, to produce a wanted result. The same principle may be allowed to govern the drawing. The drawing may well be whatever the draughtsman thinks is normal, natural, inconspicuous, in all parts which do not call for emphasis. In those which he wishes to stress, he may certainly [p. 42] employ any divergence from the standard which seems to him likely to produce the kind of emphasis he wants. [pp. 40-43]

Preliminary studies
Just what studies the designer will care to make in preparation for the final painting will depend, of course, on his own judgment of what is necessary. He will find it helpful, as a rule, to plan the pattern of color and the pattern of the main disposition of light and dark values. These patterns can be studied on tracing paper laid over a small sketch of the whole composition, and the painting will generally go more smoothly if the painter has taken his decisions about color and value arrangements in advance. There is another sort of study which is well worth making, a study of the modeling of the forms, through the use of light and shade. This can best be investigated by drawing on tinted paper with tones lighter and darker than the tint of the paper. Black and white chalk on gray charcoal paper will do, for a rough study of modeling; but there is another method, much more penetrating, and much more closely allied to the painting which is to follow, that may be highly recommended: drawing with a brush, with ink and with paint, on a pigment-coated paper. [p. 43]

Form drawing
This type of drawing is not much practiced nowadays, but in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was the favorite medium of some of the greatest masters. It can be made to yield work of great intrinsic beauty, and decorative effect; and might well be revived on these accounts for its own sake. No self-colored paper can match a pigment-coated paper in beauty of materials, in harmony with the material of the applied drawing, or in perfection of physical surface for [p. 43] drawing. The finished work, whether it is highly studied or roughly sketched, possesses much of the material unity of a painting. [pp. 43-44]

Tinted papers
To prepare the papers for this sort of drawing, first obtain a few pieces of good drawing paper, preferably hot pressed. Lay them out on a clean bench or table. They need not be fastened down at all. For large pieces, it is best to stretch the paper; but up to 11" x 14" or somewhat larger, the sheets can be managed quite well without even tacking down the corners. Next dissolve half an ounce of gelatin in 18 ounces of water. Then take dry powdered colors, and mix up any tone you please, making it rather lighter than you want the finished paper to appear. For this purpose, the best white pigment is zinc white. Zinc white, ivory black, opaque oxide of chromium, Venetian red, yellow ocher, French ultramarine, and raw umber will give a wide range of fine colors; but very beautiful results may be obtained by using such brilliant colors as vermilion and cadmium yellow. Some zinc white should be included in every mixture; and it is better to have the tint too light than too dark.

When you have compounded a satisfactory mixture of the dry pigments, add a little of the gelatin solution, and stir thoroughly to mix thoroughly and break up any lumps. Then add more of the gelatin solution, making the mixture quite liquid. Then strain it through a piece of fine silk into a clean cup or bowl. Instead of using the pigments dry, you may use pigments ground with water; but it will be harder to judge the color, and there is no great advantage in having the pigments very finely ground. If dry pigments are used, the straining will remove any unground particles which might be troublesome.

Apply enough coats of this mixture of size and pigment to your pieces of paper to produce an agreeably even tone. A bristle brush is best to use for this, say a 1" or 2" sash tool. A slight striation from the brush strokes is often pleasant. If you want a perfectly smooth surface, you may get it by putting on many thin coats, or by stippling each coat as you put it on with a badger blender. Let each coat dry thoroughly before you put on the next. If the papers tend [p. 44] to curl badly in drying, add a little water to your mixture. The advantage of not using thumbtacks to hold the paper down is that the brush strokes may be run over the edge of the paper onto the table, and the paper thus tinted evenly right up to the margins. If thumb tacks are used, the papers have to be trimmed.

The finished papers should be agreeably colored, not too dark, and smooth and even in surface. They should be kept under a weight, or between the leaves of a book, to keep them flat and clean. If properly prepared, they will have no tendency to curl, and the color will be firmly bound on the surface. [pp. 44-45]

Drawing instruments
To draw on papers of this sort, the design may be sketched first with charcoal, the charcoal then dusted off, and the drawing carried a little farther with a hard pencil, or better with a silverpoint. The zinc white in the ground gives the paper enough tooth to take silverpoint, and there is no more delicate and beautiful instrument for drawing. The most convenient and least expensive form of silverpoint [p. 45] is a propelling pencil in which a silver wire is used in place of the lead. Any jeweler will supply bits of pure silver wire exactly the size of a pencil lead at trifling cost; and the ends may be shaped, blunt or sharp, by rubbing on a scrap of sandpaper, and finally polished on fine emery paper or cloth. The silverpoint makes an almost invisible mark, at first, and the drawing should be strengthened by repeated strokes rather than by increased pressure. On any but the lightest tints, it will be too delicate for finished drawing, but admirable for sketching in the design. Hard pencil, not too sharp, may be used almost equally well. [pp. 45-46]

Brush drawing
When the drawing has been located with either of these instruments mix an extremely dilute wash of India ink, say one drop of ink in a tablespoonful of water. Then take a fair-sized sable brush, dip it in the mixture, and squeeze it almost dry. Work over the shading with this, paying particular attention to the edge that you establish between the middle tone, represented by the untouched ground, and the shadow, which you will develop further with the ink. Plan the modeling in such a way as to make the fullest possible use of the tinted paper ground. Carry the modeling of the shadows as far as you can with this first very dilute ink. Do not try to lay a wash with it; but draw with the brush merely damp, stroke by stroke, as if you were working with a hard pencil.

Then strengthen the ink mixture a little bit, and carry the modeling of the shadows a little further. Do not try to get the effect all at once. Do not be afraid that your drawing will be "niggling." There is plenty of time for brilliant handling later on, after the form has been found and developed a little. Keep the modeling soft at this stage, so that the shapes may be adjusted easily as the drawing proceeds. Let the form materialize gradually, like a figure approaching through mist. [pp. 46-47]

Modeling up the lights
When you have developed the shadow modeling a little in this way, turn to the modeling of the lights . Do not try to finish one before the other. Take a little Chinese white [the water color in tubes is most convenient, or a little titanium white tempered with egg yolk, which lends itself better to the work, and looks better in the end], and thin it out well with water as you did the ink. In the same way, with the brush almost dry, work over the lights, and [p. 47] establish the edge between the lights and the middle tone or between the lights and the shadow edges. Take pains to reserve the middle tone, the tint of the paper, wherever it belongs. And carry the modeling of the lights as far as you can with this first thin mixture of white. Distinguish between the half tone which results from the first thin coats of white over the tint of the paper and the solid , opaque light which comes with repeated coats.

Work back and forth in this way, from shadow to light and back again, creeping up on the form gradually, making it do exactly what you want it to do, describing it as fully as you wish; and make it a rule to go as far with each successive stronger mixture of black or white as you are able. Finally, accent the drawing, if you please, with pure black and pure white. In the final stages it is quite possible to hide all the laborious preliminaries, if you wish to do so. Brilliant finishing strokes, applied with confidence and dexterity upon a thoroughly studied preparation will remove all suspicion of "niggling," but lie securely upon the work which has been done. No two painters will employ the same approach; but even the most skillful and accurate draughtsman may benefit by the principle of finding the form inconspicuously before he renders it finally.

This sort of drawing corresponds so closely with the handling of colors in tempera painting that it should be practiced by anyone who wants to start tempera painting in Cennino's way. Cennino says that it is the way to "start trying to discover the entrance and gateway to painting," and so in fact it is. When it has been mastered, painting a panel is a much quicker, surer, and easier business. [pp. 47-48]

Transferring the cartoon
When the preliminary studies are done, the drawing must be carried out on the panel. If a full-sized cartoon has been made [and it is certainly advisable for the beginner] the outlines may be taken off on tracing paper and transferred to the panel. Do not use carbon paper for this purpose, but rub the back of the tracing lightly with soft pencil, or with a little red ocher in powder. [Carbon paper usually contains soluble dyes, which "bleed through" any painting that you do over the marks it makes.] [p. 48]

Drawing on the panel
An alternative method, excellent for the experienced painter, and much the best for large works, is to do the drawing on the panel in the first place, in charcoal. This allows of some correction and improvement; but anyone who cannot feel fairly sure of his drawing had better experiment on a separate cartoon. If the drawing is done on the panel, the loose charcoal must be dusted off, and the faint shadow which remains serves as a guide for the ink drawing which comes next. If there has been much fumbling or correcting, it will be hard to find the drawing again after the charcoal is dusted off, and the precise outlines of the tracing will be easier to work from. [p. 49]

Importance of the monochrome rendering
Whichever method is used for placing the drawing on the panel, what follows is the same. The outlines and modeling are to be worked up on the white gesso surface in ink. The shadows may be done exactly as on tinted paper, with a thin wash of ink on an almost dry brush, gradually strengthening the tone by the addition of more ink, and producing a smoothly modeled shadow. Or they may be wrought more boldly, with hatching strokes like a pen drawing, or any other way the painter pleases. This ink drawing on the gesso acts as an underpainting, and has a profound effect on the modeling of the shadows in the actual painting with colors. It should be carried out with about as much accuracy and finish as the painter wishes to bestow upon the final painting. Color may be used instead of ink, if you prefer. The drawing may be done with tempered pigment, black or any color, as long as the half tone and shadow values are established at least as strongly as they are to be painted. [p. 49]

Incising the outlines
If there is to be any gilding, the outlines of the areas of color which border on the gold should be lightly scratched into the gesso, so that they may be seen through the overlapping gold. Outlines of color against color may be scratched in the same way, if one has [p. 49] any fear of losing the drawing. An etching needle is good for his purpose; so is a graver or burin. A lithographer's scratcher, too, can be made into an excellent tool. It consists of a steel wire made up in a wooden handle like a lead pencil, and as supplied usually makes a rather coarse cut. The point should be sharpened on a stone until it is slender and fine, so that it will make a clear but very delicate scratch. A steel needle is excellent, but must be mounted for use in some sort of handle. At a pinch, a needle may just be thrust into the rubber eraser at the end of a pencil, eye first, point out; but on the whole a good etching needle or dry-point is a tool worth buying if one does much work. Do not dig the point deep into the gesso. The surface is so smooth that the least little scratch will show, and a deep furrow is disfiguring. Simply go over the outlines with the point with about as much pressure as you would exert in drawing with a pencil. [pp. 49-50]

[Thompson, Daniel V., Jr., Research and Technical Adviser, The Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London. The Practice of Tempera Painting. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1936. Fourth Printing, 1946.]



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