The Alchemy of Light
The Master Painters of the 14th and 15th Centuries were excellent alchemists as well as craftsmen. Some of their remarkable techniques have been recorded, whilst others have only become known through the efforts of art restorers. Their techniques and the methods they employed, establish a firm foundation, sufficiently flexible for infinite variation and experiment.
Giovanni of Bruges
I work on a 15oz loomstate cotton canvas, in acrylic emulsions with a technique that has been in use since the end of the 14th century. Jan Van Eyck who lived and worked in Bruges, in Belgium, perfected the original process and its principles. He was a remarkable painter, and his works are still in near perfect condition after 500 years.
Molteno Banding Rich In Warm Oxides
After stretching my canvas, it is primed with a white acrylic gesso. Then over this fine white surface I make an accurate drawing. I believe that every mark on a canvas counts and will show up sooner or later; so I make this drawing as carefully as possible, as it can support the effect that brushwork will have in the final effect. The completed drawing is very fragile, and so is fixed with a fine acrylic matt varnish which is sprayed over the entire surface.
A Universal Tone
This varnish may be tinted with a colour which will give a universal tone to the final work because it will shine through the layers of paint applied over it. The master painters called this toned layer an 'imprimatura'.
Plastic Modelling and Three Dimensions
Once this is dry, I begin to work with white on the tinted surface; in a technique known as'grisaille' or plastic modelling. Where more light is reflected from the subject, I apply more white and less so in the half-light and shadows. Gradually the form of the subject becomes apparent, giving it a '3D' effect which creates a sense of volume of the subject and of the space around it.
Glazes Filter Light
The range of tone and thus of volume, from the highest highlights to the deepest shadows, can be finely controlled in this phase of the painting. This 'under-painting creates an optical scaffolding from which the light is reflected back towards the viewer through the layers to be applied in the next phase of painting.
Once this is complete, the glazing process begins, using colours in very thin transparent and semi-transparent layers. Each colour is applied pure without any mixing. I understand that the Master Painters did this to isolate one colour from another, because some of the colours were inclined to react together and alter their tone as the work aged.
A Limited Palette Preserves Colour Intensity
Although modern acrylic paints are often ground with different pigments and are unlikely to perform in this manner, I find that this way of working preserves the brilliance of each of the colours and allows a finer level of control, as the glazes are applied to the canvas. Although any number of these glazes may be applied one upon another, five or six layers are sufficient.
Highlights are the Visual Cues
The final phase of the painting involves the use of highlights in white which are placed carefully where light from the subject is reflected strongly. Each of these highlights are applied in accord with the nature of the surface from which they are reflected. Once this is dry, a thin layer of acrylic varnish is applied over the whole surface, to protect the underlying layers and give a uniform low sheen to the work.
Van Eyck's Method is Very Flexible
Van Eyck's technique is open to all sorts of variations and it makes excellent use of the optical properties of the mediums used in it's execution. The final effect becomes a dynamic field of light which is ever a source of inspiration and discovery to the viewer.
The final test of all art is Time, which passes beyond the current fashion and the whims of personal opinion to reveal the unchanging Truth with which we are all one.