ARTICLES ON THE ARTIST
How Douglas Wiltraut captures the subtleties of his surroundings with layers of egg tempera.
BY WALTER GARVER
To Douglas Witraut, painting in egg tempera is like peeling an onion in reverse. An egg tempera painting is composed, as in an onion, of many, thin layers. The thoughtful sandwiching (or laminating) of these layers of paint eventually results in the eye-catching luminosity and intricate colors of the typical egg tempera.
Wiltraut uses this medium to paint what he knows best. The dramatically lit subjects in his egg tempera paintings are the people, objects and places he has come to know and love during a lifetime spent in and around Lehigh county in eastern Pennsylvania.
Before moving into his present home, he and his wife lived about 20 miles west in a small village named Stony Run. It was here he met the Pennsylvania Dutch house-painter portrayed in The Painter (page 53).
This man lived directly behind the Wiltrauts, and we became very close to him and his family, says the artist. He would tell us all of the history of the town and the habits, ways and traditions of the people who lived there. Being so close to this individual and absorbing all his glimpses into the lifestyle of the area inspired me to do a painting of him. The work shed, crammed with tools necessary to work the land and keep the home in pristine condition, came to symbolize many of the things important in his life and provided a setting for the portrait. Its such experiences with people and places that are vital to an artist if hes going to successfully convey the spirit of the subject.
To have exactly the right surface to paint on, Wiltraut prepares all his own panels. Untempered, quarter-inch-thick Masonite is glued to a wood cradle, and the side to be painted is sanded, sized with rabbit-skin glue and covered with six coats of warm gesso (the heat ensures absorption and bonding, although too much heat causes air bubbles to form). The back also is coated with sizing and gesso to prevent warping. After smoothing the surface with a moist, flat block of wood and letting it dry overnight, Wiltraut draws the composition with 3H to 5H pencils. His outline of the figure is precise, but he avoids the minor details since they would soon be obliterated by the tempera.
Wiltraut begins with the dark values, believing that
putting them in first eliminates numerous adjustments later. For instance,
since the figure in The Painter was to be illuminated by strong, raking
sunlight and stands in front of a darkened doorway, Wiltraut began
with the background, covering it with a network of large crosshatches,
spatters, etc. His colors are yellow ochre, followed by layers of
alizarin crimson and ultramarine blue. Applying the
Continuing to follow the development of The Painter, Wiltraut made sure hed brought the background to a satisfactory value, then moved to step two: the development of the head. To me, capturing a likeness and the characteristics of a person is critical. If Im not able to achieve this, then the decision could be made not to continue.
As seen in the detail of step two (page 52), Wiltraut again started with darker values, concentrating on the shadowed side of the face. For a foundation skin color he used yellow ochre with vermilion. At the same time, he indicated creases and changes in the facial plane with greens and purplessuch cooler colors allow the creases to sink into the skin. They also remain visible through subsequent transparent layers.
While he was darkening the flesh tones, he added other textures into the layers of paint, including scars, whisker stipples and skin pores. The intermingling has a softening effect on the details, making them more naturalistic.
Compared to the skin, the painters white hair has relatively few layers of paint. Wiltraut used the white gesso for a base color, blocked in a pattern of shadows with grays, and then added washes of pale yellow ochre and ultramarine blue to give shape to the hair and head. The strands of hair needed to complete the texture were brushed in with titanium white.
SHIRT OF MANY COLORS
When looking at an object, I never think of its colors in neutral terms. I dont say to myself this looks like a brown building, or that is a gray wall. Instead, I assign either a primary or secondary color to the objectperhaps a dull, pale purple. He then builds grays, like those in the shirt, with glazes of these colors.
The same process is followed when painting the rest of the clothing regardless of what the final color is to be. All that needs to be done is to build up many glazes of different variations on a particular primary. Instead of the underpainting tying everything together, its the top glazes that create the desired color.
The top glazes can also be a compositional aid. For instance, in the first step of the demonstration, a scythe is hanging on the wall over the mans left shoulder. As Wiltraut developed the patterns of light and shade, the scythe was pushed into the background so it didnt interfere with the figure as the center of interest. By the fifth stage, the tool was just barely visible.
A WEALTH OF TEXTURES
For the textures in Scrub Tub (above), he began with
his usual procedure of drawing a pencil outline on a gesso-covered
Masonite panel. Then, he blocked in the pencil drawing with layers
of alizarin crimson, yellow ochre, orange and ultramarine blue. Early
in the glazing process, he brushed in lines defining the wood grainthe
more layers of paint he put over them, the darker the lines became.
Fewer layers were put on the highlights along the edges and the side.
Where necessary, some were accentuated with titanium white.
When Wiltraut rendered the texture of the tub and the concrete, he had to use a different combination of painting techniques on each. The same change of pace was necessary in order to do the chipped paint and weathered, exposed wood on the house. First priority was to keep the crack lines visible under the glazingthose were painted in with cerulean blue and yellow ochre. Next, to create the aged, mottled effect of old white paint, he brushed in a layer of titanium white, leaving some of the gesso bare. When he went over the titanium and gesso with a glaze of off-white, each accepted the paint differently, making an uneven, blotchy pattern.
After the foundation was firmly in place, Wiltraut brought the chipped and peeling paint shapes into focus with fine-line brush work and carefully controlled spattering. The gray color of the exposed wood was built up with glazes of cerulean and ultramarine blue, yellow ochre, alizarin crimson and black. Finally, he added the stains and some more yellowing.
PAINT FROM SCRATCH
ABOUT THE ARTIST
One: Develop the Darks
Two: Build a Likeness
Detail: Yellow ochre and vermilion were roughed in for
the skin color. In successive layers, Wiltraut added creases, whiskers
and other distinguishing characteristics that would remain visible
through the transparent tempera.
Four: Moving Outward
Five: Finishing Glazes
MAKING THE PAINT
While thin washes are an important part of the egg tempera technique, other application methods work well also, including crosshatching, spattering, drybrush and stippling.
This article, written by Walter Garver, appeared in the June, 1991 issue of The Artists Magazine.
©Copyright 2004 Douglas Wiltraut. All rights reserved.