Although many of you will probably prefer to just follow along, I’ll provide a few exercises and projects for anyone who actually wants to get their hands dirty. Since this is a topic that potentially involves a lot of specialty materials, I’m going to start with a list of the stuff you might want to buy if you wish to follow along as we go. Some of these materials are potentially toxic (although I also include less problematic alternatives), and I will also review basic studio safety practices that allow this kind of stuff to be used without any health problems.
In the list below, I’ll divide things into a simple approach and a traditional approach. The simple approach is designed for maximum convenience, using materials that are readily available. The traditional approach uses the same or similar materials, for the most part, that Renaissance Italians used. I’ll deviate from that only when necessary, and I’ll let you know why. If you want to use the traditional approach and you don’t happen to live near a big art store, you’ll need to get some stuff on the internet. I’ll provide web sites where these materials are available.
1. PAINTING SUPPORT AND PRIMING
If you want to try tempera, you will need one or more panels that are are primed with traditional gesso. Don’t use panels primed with acrylic “gesso,” clayboard, or pastel board. The best sources I know are Real Gesso (www.realgesso.com
) and True Gesso Panels (www.true-gesso-panels.com)
. Both of these companies will send free samples upon request.
Once we get to oil painting, you can use regular craft store acrylic primed canvas, or various kinds of acrylic panel. You can also use traditional gesso panels.
PANEL: the material used for this was wooden planks. These were typically cut and planed to size and then seasoned for at year or more, with further planing to correct for warping, until the panel demonstrated that it was dimensionally stable. So what we’re going to do is all go make some panels, and then I’ll continue the workshop in two years. I kid! I kid! Unless you happen to have seasoned panels hanging around, we’re going to have to cheat. What I suggest you do is go to your local home improvement store and buy some 1/4” hardboard. Get the nice folks at the store to cut it into several panels of whatever size you find comfortable to paint on. The reasons I want you to use panel are that (1) most of the surviving paintings from before 1500 are on panel; and (2) we’re going to cover egg tempera and tempera grassa painting, and those are not appropriate media for painting on canvas.
POWDERED GYPSUM: This is best ordered from Kremer (www.kremer-pigmente.de/englisch/homee.htm
) or Sinopia (www.sinopia.com)
. It’s also called Bolognese chalk. Plaster of Paris is cooked (anhydrous gypsum) but the brands I’ve tried are too gritty for this purpose. An easier material to find is powdered marble dust, which most large art suppliers carry (www.dickblick.com
, for example). Italians used gypsum (Northern Europeans in the Renaissance used the equivalent of marble dust), but they perform similarly.
HIDE GLUE/RABBITSKIN GLUE: Another art store item. You can substitute gelatin from the grocery store if necessary. I’ve heard of PVA glue being substituted for hide glue in making gesso, but I don’t know how well that works.
DENATURED ALCOHOL: Get this at the hardware store. You don’t need much. Rubbing alcohol from the drug store/chemist’s shop will do as well.
DOUBLE BOILER: Or any contraption that allows one pan to be placed in a warm water bath. I use a large cheap pan and a smal cheap pan, with the small cheap pan supported by an old tuna can.
GESSO BRUSH: You can buy brushes with this label in art stores. Any flat brush 1-3 inches wide will do, even a housepainting brush.
SANDPAPER: Several grades.
OIL PRIMER: In the later Renaissance, oil painters primed their supports with lead white. You can substitute titanium primer if you prefer.
Studio Products sells a lead oil primer and Williamsburg sells both lead and titanium oil primers. You could also use regular lead white or titanium white paint.
2. RENAISSANCE PAINTS AND PIGMENTS
IMPORTANT: Please do not get any of the pigments labelled “toxic” unless you know how to work with poisonous powders. Don’t handle any of the pigments without using a dust mask. I’ll be discussing studio safety issues later on.
If you don’t want to mess around with powdered pigments, is possible to make egg tempera paint using tube watercolor paints. There are also tube “egg tempera” paints. Those are actually egg-oil emulsions, which are like the tempera grassa paints used in the Renaissance.
Under no circumstances should you confuse egg tempera with notoxic “tempera” poster paints. Other than being kinds of paint, egg tempera and poster paints have nothing to do with each other.
You can use regular tube oil paints instead of making your own. Most Italian Renaissance painters used paint ground in walnut oil; the only company that does this is M. Graham. In a pinch, any oil paints will do.
The colors you get can be drawn from the list below.
You will need to get some pigments. These are available in larger art stores, or from various online suppliers. I’ve used pigments from Kremmer (www.kremer-pigmente.de)
, Williamsburg (http://www.williamsburgoilpaint.bizland.com/)
, and Sinopia (www.sinopia.com)
. It helps to have some small glass jars to put them in; I buy them from craft shops and art supply stores. Baby formula and baby food jars work great, but boil them in water for 20 minutes to make sure that they have no bacteria. If you will be doing tempera, then buy some distilled water from your local pharmacy or market.
A typical Renaissance palette contained very few colors. Here is a list of typical colors:
ULTRAMARINE BLUE: Get synthetic ultramarine; genuine ultramarine made from lapis lazuli is very, very expensive.
VERMILLION/CINNABAR: This is expensive and toxic. A good substitute is cadmium red light or cadmium vermillion.
FLAKE WHITE: This is toxic. A good substitute is a 50/50 mix of titanium white and zinc white.
LEAD TIN YELLOW (GALLORINO): This is toxic. A good substitute is Williamsburg’s Naples Yellow Italian, or a mixture of 3 parts yellow ochre with 1 part cadmium yellow.
VERDIGRIS: This is very difficult to work with verdigris in the manner that Italians did in the Renaissance: it required cooking with oil and resins. A good substitute is viridian.
RED LAKE: A modern red lake is alizarin crimson.
BLACK: Get vine black or ivory black. No Mars black.
TERRE VERTE: The best green earth I’ve seen is Williamsburg’s Italian terre verte.
OTHER EARTH COLORS: get at least a raw sienna, a yellow ochre, and a burnt sienna or red ochre. Umbers were not commonly used. There is a very wide variety of beautiful earth colors available in pigment form.
There are a number of less common Renaissance colors that you can get if you like, including smalt blue (ground cobalt glass), indigo blue, and malachite. You could also get toxic colors like minium (red lead), orpiment, or realgar.
3. OILS, BRUSHES, AND OTHER MATERIALS
To make egg tempera or tempera grassa, we will need hen’s eggs. Get them fresh from the market (or a chicken coop) and use them within a week.
The traditional approach to brushes would be to make your own. I don't know how to do that. Brushes were the equivalent of sable rounds and bristle rounds. Synthetics work OK, although I am very fond of Winsor Newton series 7 sable rounds. It’s not good for brushes to use them for both tempera and oil painting.
To make oil paint, you will need some oil (and pigment). Italians usually used walnut oil. You can get that from Kremmer or Doak. Some people recommend the stuff from grocery stores, but if you do make sure it doesn’t have anything added to it (anti-oxidants are good in human bodies, but oxidation is exactly what you want drying oils to do in paint). You can also use linseed oil. Italians did not, so far as I know, use safflower or poppy oil. To make oil paint, it helps to have a glass muller and a glass slab. You will also need carbonundrum powder to frost the muller and slab. Those can be gotten from Sinopia or Kremer.
Solvents were not common in this period. Leonardo is an exception; he probably used oil of spike (available from Kremer or from Studio Products; www.studioproducts.com)
. You can clean your brushes in mineral spirits or turps.