ARTICLES ON THE ARTIST
Text of article as it appeared in American Artist magazine
in the August 1988 issue.
This award-winning Pennsylvania artist uses traditional
egg tempera painting techniques to depict the effects of sunlight
on his collection of weathered, man-made objects.
BY VALERIE R. RIVERS
Douglas Wiltraut lives with his wife, Beth, and their
two children in northeastern Pennsylvania, a few hours north of the
Brandywine River Valley, in an eighteenth-century house once owned
by his grandparents. He is working to restore the aging, two-story
structure, believed to have been a tavern on the route west, to its
original simple and gracious beauty by repairing plaster walls, refinishing
the wooden floors, and installing a wood-burning stove.
Wiltrauts decision to refinish and live in this house reflects
the same temperament and interests that make him choose individual,
man-made, weathered objects to focus on when creating a painting.
I think that the most emotional and intellectual of relationships
are those that exist between people and the people and places around
themthat which is familiar, Wiltraut explains. In
my paintings, I try to project my relationships and interests through
the subject matter I have chosen.
Old pitchers, jugs, baskets, buckets, trunks, irons,
and chairs collected at auctions and trade shows and from family members
are Wiltrauts subjectseach caught for a moment in streaming,
bright sunlight. It is only fitting that Wiltraut has also discovered
that the traditional Renaissance technique of egg tempera painting
is perfectly suited to capturing his light-bathed subjects.
I try to capture a particular feeling in my paintings,
a sense of the temperature of light, Wiltraut says. I
like to think that if I could place my hand into a shaft of light
in my painting, I would be able to feel the warmth of the sun.
In some works, Wiltraut has painted the hot afternoon sun; more often,
he chooses to work with the complex subtleties of rapidly fading evening
light. It is this light, he says, that creates special visual
momentswhen a momentary sliver of sunlight may transform a seemingly
ordinary object from the commonplace into the unique."
When painting a brightly lit object, Wiltraut concentrates on two
major factors in order to successfully create his effects. First,
he presses the contrast of values between the light and dark areas
within the painting almost to the point of exaggeration in order
to make the sun come out. This contrast between the light and
dark areas shapes Wiltrauts paintings.
Second, he has found through experience that it is very important
to work on the often overlooked details within the shadows. Wiltraut
says that it is being able to peer into shadows and see
what is there that adds to the realistic effect.
The medium can offer only so much, he continues,
then it is up to the artist to be a keen observer of the subtle
quality and changes in light. I paint what interests me. Right now,
that is light; light accentuates the objects I choose to paint.
Because of the time-consuming process of creating an
egg tempera piece and the fleeting nature of his strongly lit and
deeply shadowed subjects, Wiltraut uses photographs to save the chosen
moment and paint it later in his second-story home-studio. (He does
most of his painting late at night and will work into the predawn
morning when the house is quiet and his family is sleeping.)
When Wiltraut photographs his subject, he usually has
the completed composition already worked out in his head. As
I walk or drive around looking at things, I will recognize an object
or setting that exactly fits an idea Ive been working on. As
soon as I see it, I see the painting, Wiltraut says. I
dont change a lot. What I might do is eliminate thingssuch
as a road that is cutting a piece into two parts.
Using a beat-up Pentax Spotmatic camera, he shoots the
photograph of his subject at the perfect time of day to record the
direction of the sunlight and the exact sizes and shapes of the shadows
he wants to use in his painting. However, Wiltraut doesnt rely
on the photograph for realistic color. Because of all the different
shifts of color possible with film, he says, I will look
at the objects again and make my color decisions independently and
from memory. Of course, theres nothing like being able to sit
right in front of a
three-dimensional object and paint it. Its just difficult to
Since his overall compositions are designed in his head,
Wiltraut does few preliminary drawings. One school of thought
believes that you cant have too many drawings, but I dont
do very many, explains Wiltraut. I guess, for me, its
boring; I want to get right to work on the paintingthats
where a lot of my drawing happens. He does do some tight pencil
renderings to work out small details of the composition. He never
uses charcoal or Conte crayon.
Before Wiltraut begins to paint on the prepared panel, he will outline
the main objects to appear in the composition with a fairly hard pencil
(3H to 5H leads). The drawing is kept simple because any details would
be quickly obscured by the egg tempera paint. Wiltraut works with
a limited palette, usually only seven or eight colors, including cadmium
yellow medium, yellow ochre, ultramarine blue, titanium white, cadmium
red medium, Thalo blue, and cerulean blue. Im a firm believer
in needing only the three primaries and white for most of my paintings,
Wiltraut says. Of course, I keep a full selection of other colors
for that special touch of something thats not always possible
to mix, but I dont automatically put them all on my palette.
He explains why he keeps three blues on his palette; Ultramarine
blue is my basic blue; I use it to mix most of my blue hues. Thalo
blue has a very transparent quality and, like burnt sienna, is a great
glazing color. Cerulean blue is very good for mixing with yellow and
cadmium red to get gray tonesand besides, I just really like
it. Of the two yellow shades, he says, I avoid using too
much of the cadmium yellow because I have read that the color can
For several years, Wiltraut worked on developing a stipple
technique, painting like some Impressionists by using tiny dots of
color to create the larger forms and shapes. He continues to use this
technique on skin in his portraits to give it a lifelike quality,
but he rarely uses this method on anything else. Instead, he has adapted
many of the color techniques he learned when stippling to his other
methods for laying in color. Wiltraut usually applies his paint using
tiny strokes, creating a layered, crosshatched surface, and every
inch of that surface is filled with color.
One of the principal color methods Whiteout has adapted
is the creating of optical mixes by using any two complementary colors,
such as orange and blue, to create a third, neutral tone, in this
case brown. When closely observed, the different touches of color
are separate. When seen from a few feet away, the colors melt together,
creating a subtle vibration and sense of movement difficult to trace
to its cause. The darker shadow areas in Wiltrauts paintings
most fully display this color technique.
Wiltraut explains another color method: Even though
I am not painting landscapes, with their deep spatial distances, I
use the color changes of atmospheric perspectivecooler colors
in the distance, warmer tones near the foregroundin both my
still lifes and portraits. It is as if I had inserted a color thermometer
perpendicularly into the plane of the painting, keeping the warm colors
closer and the cool colors further back. Even when there is a very
narrow depth of field, these color changes can work for you to help
create the illusion of three dimensions.
By the time he began high school, Wiltraut had studied
every book on painting he could find and had taught himself how to
depict realistically the world around him. His teachers let him turn
most of his classes into art projects and he kept reading and working
to find the ideal way to represent nature and light in realistic paintings.
Since he was born on the same day and month as naturalist writer Henry
David Thoreau and painter Andrew Wyeth, some would say that Wiltraut
was fated to make this search.
It was almost twenty years ago, while he was working
on his B.F.A. degree at Kutztown University, that Wiltraut discovered
the egg tempera medium. His professor had been assigning projects
in many different mediums; when Wiltraut worked on his egg tempera
piece, he knew he had found the best way to explore light. Although
he also continues to produce excellent watercolors (with a dry-brush
technique) and acrylics (with a method closely related to how he uses
egg tempera), for Wiltraut, egg tempera alone has that special,
almost magical power in its ability to capture the illusion of light.
Wiltraut began getting recognition for his extraordinary artwork early
in his career. In 1973, he became the youngest artist ever selected
for Todays Art magazines Medal of Merit in the 21st Annual
National Society of Painters in Casein & Acrylic Exhibition. Now,
in recognition of his many awards, medals, and other honors over the
past fifteen years, he has become an elected member of the Audubon
Artists, Allied Artists of America, and the National Society of Painters
in Casein & Acrylic, serving in the last as director, vice president,
and exhibition chairman. Often, Wiltraut is asked to jury regional
and national exhibitions.
In 1986, Wiltraut was selected by juror Jack Levine
as winner of one of the three Butler Institute of American Art Awards
at its fiftieth-anniversary ceremonies in Youngstown, Ohio. American
Artist honored him in 1987 when he was selected for recognition in
the Golden Anniversary National Art Competition and included in the
June 1987 issue. Most recently,
he was awarded the Ralph Fabri Medal of Merit for an unprecedented
second time in the 1988 Allied Artists of America Annual.
PREPARATION OF THE EGG TEMPERA PANEL
Wiltraut builds all of his own panels using 1/4 untempered Masonite
glued into a framework of 1 1/8 x 1 1/8 baluster molding
with carpenters wood glue (1). He holds the glued framework
and Masonite together with C-clampsthe pressure is redistributed
by small strips of wood slipped between the Masonite and the clamp
itselfand leaves it overnight to dry (2).
He then rounds off the corners of the Masonite to prevent damage to
the gesso and paint layers during framing, shipping, and handling,
and roughens the painting side, or front, with sandpaper to provide
better tooth for subsequent layers of sizing, gesso, and paint (3).
Rabbitskin Glue Sizing:
In a widemouthed jar, Wiltraut mixes the granular flakes of rabbitskin
glue (also available in sheets) with water, 1 oz. of glue for every
16 oz. of water (4, 5). The covered mixture then stands for at least
two hours so the glue particles will begin to dissolve. The softened
mixture is heated in a double boiler until it is completely liquid
and is applied to the panel while still warm.
Wiltraut applies two coats of rabbitskin glue sizing to each side
of the panel. The first coat should be straked, or, as Wiltraut explains,
a brushful of glue should be applied in a row of parallel strokes.
Then, before putting more glue on the brush, stroke over that same
patch in the opposite direction. The first layer should be allowed
to dry for twenty-four hours before the second is applied. One more
day should pass before gessoing (6).
Wiltraut uses a Fredrix preprepared powdered gesso mixed in a two-to-one
ratio with water. Then, in a similar procedure to his preparation
of the sizing, he places the mixture in an open, wide-mouthed jar
and melts it in a double boiler (7). The gesso is applied to the panel
while it is still hot to ensure the best absorption and bonding with
the wood. Six coats of gesso are applied to the back of the panel
and five coats to the front. The paint will be adding another layer
to the front, ensuring a balance. He warns that the panel will
warp away from the side gessoed first for a few days (8).
Again, as with the glue, the first layer should be straked to minimize
the formation of bubbles on the surface (9). The coats should be applied
thinly and, Wiltraut says each coat should follow the last as
soon as the sheen of dampness from the previous coat disappears. It
is important that all of the layers dry together as on unit.
The panel then sets for two days before the surface is smoothed.
Smoothing the Surface:
Wiltraut does not use sandpaper for smoothing the surface, but has
instead prepared a 1 x 3 flat wooden block. He dips the
block into a bowl of water and rubs the surface with a circular motion
until the block begins to pull or stick. The block is again dipped
into the water and the process continues until the whole surface is
smooth (10, 11). The surface is then wiped lightly with a damp paper
towel and dried overnight. The panel is now ready for painting.
PREPARATION OF THE EGG TEMPERA PAINT
The Egg Yolk:
Only the yolk of the egg is used in egg tempera painting. Wiltraut
carefully separate the yolk from the white, punctures the yolk sac,
and drains the yolk into a small bowl (1,2,3). He mixes the yolk with
distilled or filtered water to form a half-and-half mixture. Wiltraut
recommends using distilled water here and in the earlier procedures
in order to avoid the unknown impurities in tap water such as mineral
deposits and discoloration from unforeseen chemical reactions, which
can possibly cause problems later (4).
Unlike many egg tempera painters who mix water with their pigments
and store them in jars, Wiltraut prefers to dump out small piles of
pure, dry color directly onto his palette (5).
He dips his brush into the egg mixture and then into the color he
wants (6). He tests the paint by scraping it off his palette, and
if it comes up in a thin, waxy curl that resembles the shaving
of a wax crayon, the proportion of egg to pigment is perfect
(7). He adds, It is very important to mix your paints on the
same color surface as your panel background. When working on a white
panel, I will slip a white piece of paper under the glass palette.
Wiltraut warns that some pigments, such as Thalo blue and alizarin
crimson, have a grainy, hard texture and will remain in suspension
as dry lumps of color on the painting surface if they do not receive
additional moistening and grinding before use. He likens them to the
dry lumps of powdered chocolate that will remain in a glass of Nestles
Quik. Two pigments, burnt umber and cobalt blue, require more
egg in the mixture to ensure that they dry to the same smooth, waxy
sheen as the other hues.
Photograph of the artist.
Indian Headdress, 1988, egg tempera, 30 x 30. Collection Mr. and Mrs.
Ten photos of preparation of the egg tempera panel.
Boston Rocker, 1983, egg tempera, 20 x 28. Collection Dr. and Mrs.
Six photos of preparation of the egg tempera paint.
Out Back, 1985, egg tempera, 24 x 34. Courtesy Mr. and Mrs. Thomas
A detail of Out Back.
Seven photos of the application of egg tempera paint.
Friendship Ring, 1987, egg tempera, 24 x 34. Courtesy Mr. and Mrs.
Dying Embers, 1987, egg tempera, 24 x 34. Collection Mr. and Mrs.
Valerie R. Rivers is an assistant editor of American