Sunday, January 7, 2018

Inspiration from the Bern Physiologus

Christmas time was a good excuse to do some painting, because I like to give friends gifts that I have made when I am able to make the time to do so. I have been gearing up to do some painting on a box that I am making, so a couple Christmas gifts were a good excuse to get in some practice in the art of painting without preparatory under-drawing.

I chose the Bern Physiologus, which is a 9th century rendition of a 5th century copy of a 3rd century manuscript, for my inspiration. This treaties was a precursor to the "bestiaries"  which had become very popular by the 11th century. They are a collection of writings on various animals and other creatures and were written with the intent of deriving a moral or Christological meaning  from the behaviour and characteristics of the named animals. The artist of the example found in the Bernbibliothek, must have had several different sources for his artwork, but the ones I liked best seem to be inspired by Roman wall fresco.

"The nature of animals at night"
in other words, owls. This work seems to channel the look of
Roman era wall murals such as those pictures below

A mosaic from Pompeii and a fresco from
Herculaneum exhibit the sort of artwork that the 9th
century artist had in mind when painting the
Bern Physiologus

In the world of decorative art, there is a very long tradition of decorating objects and walls with a very free and "unscripted" sort of painting. Most people are familiar with this sort of work in 19th century "folk" art furniture, but by that time, such work was already very ancient. I would venture a guess that as long as furniture has been decorated, this has been a way of ornamenting it. I do know that there is an example of this sort of painted decoration on a little book cover, also found in the Bernbibliothek, in Switzerland, which is from the beginning of the 11th century. I have reproduced a detail of it below, as well as a little painted panel that I saw in the Louvre, which was done in the 7th or 8th century.

Painted decoration on the inside of an 11th century wooden booklet cover
Bern, Switzerland

A very free and spontaneous bird catching a snake; fragment in the Louvre
To begin painting my panels, I first applied gesso as Theophilus directs, and then scraped it down with a cabinet scraper. I used a "silver point" which I made from a length of silver solder, to draw out the border. I do not believe that the 9th century artist drew in the trees or birds, so I did not either.

A blank white panel and the lines made with a silver stylus; you will have to
look carefully to see the lines that it makes because they are much lighter
than those made by a modern pencil

It is my intention to move into egg tempera painting, (something I have been wanting to do for a long time) but before I begin working with that medium I wanted to practice with something a little less expensive, (I spent over 300$ buying natural pigments for this purpose) so I opted to use milk paint. In all likelihood milk paint was also used in medieval times, along with glue based paint, gum (several varieties, including, according to Theophilus, gum derived from plum trees) and oils. Each type of medium has its own characteristics, but that exhibited by egg tempera was the medium preferred by most medieval artists.

The distinctive characteristic of milk paint is that it is rather "chalky", owing to its lime-based composition. This is great if you want to achieve the look of fresco, and that has been my main purpose in using it in the past. When it comes to applying a varnish or glaze to it, however, all sorts of weird things can happen.

A series of photos showing the progression of the work. Nothing is drawn in
beforehand, so this requires a clear concept of what you want to do before
beginning the work

Another thing that happens with this paint is that it is difficult to regulate lights and darks. When the dark colours are wet, they look dark enough, but when they dry, they become lighter. I am never sure what it will actually turn out like until I put on the varnish. If you compare the last two pictures, you will see that the dark border on the left side has turned light after it dried. Also, I had applied shadows to the trees, but they mostly vanished once the colour dried. In the same token, when I put on highlights, they were way too light and looked almost white, until I varnished the panel, and then the darks and lights came out (mostly) right again. This was definitely an experiment.

Grinding woad pigment with a muller

Another experiment that I did was adding some woad powder to my blue to make it darker. Woad was a European substitute for indigo and is a very dark blue. My blue that I had was not dark enough to make the border so I decided to use some of my newly acquired pigments to help it out. The stuff refused to dissolve in the water based paint so I had to add a lot of ammonia to it; it still did not dissolve completely, but I managed to get something that worked.

After varnish was applied

Above you can see the differences that the application of varnish had on the final results. My darks are dark again, and the highlights are not too white. The downside, however, was that the smokey haze look of the background was considerably lessened and the colour is not as pale as it was.

Once that one was finished, I did another one for another friend. 

Once I finished the first one I tried a second to see if I had learned anything

This one was based on two separate images from the Physiologus.

The two pictures which were merged to become my second one;
the original Oscar?

Very curiously, this guy is supposed to be a "salamander". In some versions of the text, it says "the lizard or salamander". incidentally, there is a lizard which looks like he could be the inspiration for this creature, but is supposedly only found in north America; I have no explanation.

Real-life horned lizard, but he comes from Texas!

I put these two panels against my box, imagining them as being painted on the box itself; the result could be quite pleasing but is not what I plan to use for its decoration. This was merely an exercise in learning to paint loosely.

The second picture was taken before the varnish. it has a very different look;
much more like a fresco