1909 Palette and Bench, “On Painting with Tempera” by Emil Carlsen, June-July, 1909, Volume 1, #9-10, pg. 202-203, 224-225
On Painting with Tempera
Emil Carlsen, Instructor at the National Academy of Design Schools
from Palette and Bench Volume 1 #10 (July 1909)
The most practical and very useful process is underpainting in tempera, to be finished in oil colors, varnish colors, or wax and varnish colors. This method is, I believe, the true secret of all well preserved oil paintings. That both Titian and Tintoretto used this process is undoubted. After one year’s study on a copy of Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, the whole technical procedure of this masterpiece was easily understood. It is recorded that Titian spent many years completing the picture that some of the figures were changed repeatedly, especially that of Ariadne. The paintings shows no alterations, and except where careless handling of the canvas had necessitated retouching-much is the pity-it is in excellent preservation. The blues and yellows in the Bacchante with the symbals are absolutely fresh and rich, and make a task for the copyist who relies entirely upon oil colors. The whole foreground, full of flowers, is hardly touched with oil color; it is all varnished tempera.
The procedure in this method of painting is simple. Carry your picture to a finish in tempera, either in a monochrome or in full colors, only keep it light and airy. In monochrime, terre verte and white, zinc white preferred. Make the monochrime complete; wash off and change until the composition is complete in every detail. Th less varnish and oil you use for the final painting, the more durable the picture will be. One very great advantage of this method is that your picture dries hard over night. There is no necessity for long waits, no pasty, sticky, half-dried color to delay you, no cracking, darkening or discoloring while the picture is in progress. It is a good healthy way of oding things, not full of the diseases of oil paint. All that is needed is one good varnish and there is the difficulty. our varnishes of today are not very good unless at a prohibitive price. Blockx amber varnish is probably the best, but very expensive. I personally use pure mastic 1/3, poppy oil (Blockx) 1/3, and chemically pure turpentine 1/3. It makes a good painting mixture. For final varnish, pure mastic diluted with turpentine, checmically pure.
In completing your picture, use your palette knife freely for scraping off all unnecessary pigment; use transparent color mostly, there will be no need for loading. The under painting will give solidity, and keep as much as possible the brilliancy of the lights. Don’t get discouraged over a failure or two; it take experience to accomplish fine work, and that means a great deal of labor and many disappointments. If the day’s work in oil is not perfectly satisfactory it is advisable to remove the paint with turpentine, or at least scrape off as much as the palette knife will remove, otherwise the value of the tempera underpainting will be lost. The tempera varnish will not be affected by turpentine, so the underpainting will be in good order for the next effort.
Tempera on oil is not largely used, and is, in my opinion, of questionable value. It is nevertheless an excellent method for restoring valuable paintings, as the Tempera can be easily removed, if needs be.
If an oil underpainting is used for a Tempera finish it must be absolutely dry, then well washed and dried. Afterwards rub the surface well with an onion or garlic cut in half. Now apply a coat of egg medium and the canvas is ready. Use the medium with the colors. For panel pictures or for canvas backed with wood it is useful, and very beautiful results can be achived, but it seems rather an unneccessary process, and is liable to peel off. The picture does not darken or discolor and that of itself is of value. A practical painter with absolute knowledge of his craft will occasionally use this process to give light to a somber piece of work. A student would better leave it alone.
The most important part of Tempera Painting is the laying of the ground, which should be absolutely white and with a light tooth. The canvas should be backed, and a practical way is to slip a piece of compo board between linen and stretcher. The paneled stretchers sold in the shops are superior, but expensive-compo board backing answers all purposes. First give the linen a coat of weak glue size and then apply several coats of caseine paste.
Receipts for making caseine paste: 20 parts commerical caseine, 100 parts water. Let soak for 3 or 4 hours, after which add small amount of ammonia, storring well with a stick till all is thoroughly united in a creamy paste. Still stirring add 20 parts glycerine.
Ten parts of zinc white (pure oxide of zinc) in 10 parts of water. Mix thoroughly and add to above. Apply warm, but don’t let the mixture boil. It will not do to apply the coats too thickly. Several coats are therefore necessary. Too much zinc will make the surface crack.
This ground is practical and excellent, especially for large canvases. For studies and small pictures firm drawing paper mounted on stretchers or compo board is very fine; if too absorbent, give a light wash of very thin glue. Linen washed over with thin glue and then given a coat of Tempera Zinc white, this dried overnight and then varnished with shellac varnish, has an exquisite surface for work, both Tempera and oil. For out of door studies it is unequalled.
It is best for the student to experiment on small work; the process is difficult and laborious, needs decision, and above all, thorough draughtmanship. The accidents of oil painting, so often delightful, do not occur, but for obtaining light, air and exquisite tones it is supreme, and it keeps its beauty.
“The painter who draws by practice and judgment of the eye without the use of reason, is like the mirror which reproduces within itself all the objects which are set opposite to it without knowledge of the same.” -Da Vinci.
WORKS BY EMIL CARLSEN REFERRED TO IN THIS ARTICLE