Text of article as it appeared in American Artist magazine in the August 1988 issue.

Douglas Wiltraut

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.


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.

Wiltraut’s 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 them—that 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 Wiltraut’s subjects—each 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 moments—when 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 Wiltraut’s 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 I’ve been working on. As soon as I see it, I see the painting,” Wiltraut says. “I don’t change a lot. What I might do is eliminate things—such 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 doesn’t 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, there’s nothing like being able to sit right in front of a
three-dimensional object and paint it. It’s just difficult to arrange.”

Since his overall compositions are designed in his head, Wiltraut does few preliminary drawings. “One school of thought believes that you can’t have too many drawings, but I don’t do very many,” explains Wiltraut. “I guess, for me, it’s boring; I want to get right to work on the painting—that’s 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. I’m 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 that’s not always possible to mix, but I don’t 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 tones—and 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 mold.”

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 Wiltraut’s 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 perspective—cooler colors in the distance, warmer tones near the foreground—in 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 Today’s Art magazine’s 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.

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 carpenter’s wood glue (1). He holds the glued framework and Masonite together with C-clamps—the pressure is redistributed by small strips of wood slipped between the Masonite and the clamp itself—and 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.

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).

The Pigments:
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 Nestle’s 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. Myron Haydt.
Ten photos of preparation of the egg tempera panel.
Boston Rocker, 1983, egg tempera, 20 x 28. Collection Dr. and Mrs. Bruce Viechnicki.
Six photos of preparation of the egg tempera paint.
Out Back, 1985, egg tempera, 24 x 34. Courtesy Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Khoury.
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. Thomas Khoury.
Dying Embers, 1987, egg tempera, 24 x 34. Collection Mr. and Mrs. Myron Haydt.

Valerie R. Rivers is an assistant editor of American Artist.