Monday, January 31, 2011

Color in Three Dimensions

Applying paint to sculpture is something of a puzzle.  Although three-dimensional, it can still look flat and static if you just slap a coat of paint on.  When I painted Jan Karon's Nativity figures I opted for an illusionistic approach to color. In other words, I didn't just rely on the light and shadows that would appear naturally;   I enhanced them  in my color choices. I approached the figures as I would if I were painting on canvas, using highlights and midtones as well as dark areas.  

Perhaps you have picked up a Nativity grouping that needs improvement or have other sculptures you'd like to paint.  Here are a list of helpful hints.  At least I hope they're helpful.

My first suggestion is to get yourself a bunch of plaster sheep and practice, practice, practice.  It's very relaxing.    I can't decide if this flock, stored away in Ms. Karon's attic, is amusing or menacing.
Check out those very dramatic shadows !

Continuing with other, more practical suggestions:

2.  Read about color.  Anything by the Bauhaus author Johannes Itten will provide a clear explanation of  the dimensions of color:  value, saturation (or intensity), temperature.

3. Experiment with layering color.  To do this  I recommend oil paint, but acrylic will also work.  The idea is to put a base color down and after it dries, brush or rub a semi-transparent color over it.

The rust colored clothing worn by the kneeling Wise Man was painted in layers. I applied a golden yellow to the base and then added various glazes of brown and crimson.  One advantage of this approach is that you can achieve a luminosity that is not possible in a one-layer approach.

4.  See what colors you can add to white and gray.  For the clouds below the angels I experimented with a range of warm and cool colors.  The shaded areas are blue-violet/gray and the lighter areas are warm pink.   The wing has touches of green along with orange and pink areas.  I was able to make them work together by keeping them tinted (mixed with some white).
5. Save crummy old brushes and used toothbrushes.  They are invaluable for glazes when you want to add texture.  The beards of the Wise Men above were done with my very worst brushes.

6.  Let accidents happen.  Paint is a very forgiving medium.  Even if you decide to cover up a "mistake," you may find that letting some of it peak through an added layer of paint will make the texture richer.

7.  Paper towels are often as effective as brushes for texture and to rub on glazes,  Bounty is my favorite.

Thanks to all the posters over at the Mitford website for your nice comments.  I'm glad you enjoyed seeing Father Tim's figures.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

I Always Wanted to be in Fiction

Art restoration is rewarding and interesting.  But is it the stuff 
of novels ?  I wouldn’t have thought so until I was asked by author Jan Karon to restore a large group of plaster Nativity figures.  Ms. Karon's engaging Mitford Series  transports the reader to the special world of Mitford, North Carolina.  We get to know  Father Tim, an Episcopal priest, and various townspeople, and we forget that Mitford  isn't a real place.  The series is read throughout the world.

Several years ago Ms. Karon moved to Virginia from Blowing Rock, North Carolina-- a novel-worthy name if there ever was one.    One of the items that accompanied her was a large box containing more than twenty plaster Nativity figures.  I first laid eyes on them when my husband, who was doing decorative painting at her home, brought them to our studio for me to restore.
I think Ms. Karon’s description of the figures is most apt: "unbelievably ugly."  The paint was crudely applied and the color choices were, let us say, ill-advised. 

Despite their obvious shortcomings,  Ms. Karon  “saw the bones” beneath the surface and bought the figures from an antique shop near her former home.  My job was to repaint them, replace various missing sheeps’ ears and an angel wing.    

Normally, restoration work is primarily meant to restore a work to a previous moment in time…most typically the moment of completion by the artist.  In this case, I would say that my job involved reimagination as well as restoration.  Colors were chosen, when possible, to conform to the symbolism commonly used, (Mary’s robe is blue, for example), but in other cases the colors were based on taste and an eye for contrast between the figures. 

While  work on the figures was in process,  I learned that their restoration was going to be a central theme of Ms. Karon's  Christmas book, Shepherd’s Abiding.  In the story,  Father Tim buys a group of derelict Nativity figures  restores them  in secret.  At the end of the book he gives then to his wife as a Christmas gift .  In order to describe the process in a credible way,  Ms. Karon visited my studio and looked at the tools I used.  She did a bit of sculpting also and soon realized that hiding the smell of epoxy from his wife would provide something of a challenge for Father Tim .

It was a rewarding project in many ways.  Besides seeing myself transformed into a fictional character,  I also enjoyed the freedom to explore color on three-dimensional surfaces.  As a result, I have modified  my ideas about color and sculpture, most of which were formed during the welded steel sculpture era of the 1970s.  In my next blog entry I'll go deeper into this aspect of the work.

I was, naturally, quite excited when Shepherd's Abiding came out. Occasionally I would see somebody leafing through the book at our local Barnes & Noble.  How tempting it was to approach them and say, "Go ahead and buy it already.  I hear that the acknowledgement page is a real tour de force.

Monday, January 17, 2011

When Memory Doesn't Serve

The next time you misplace your car keys try not to beat yourself up about it.  Just be glad you aren’t part of the Albemarle Historical Society.  In anticipation of Charlottesville’s 250th birthday, members are trying to locate a time capsule that was buried fifty years ago.  They just can’t seem to find it.  Steven Meeks, President of the Society, managed to track down three of the people who witnessed the burial of the time capsule.  Unfortunately,  they can’t remember where the ceremony took place.  (Daily Progress, page 1, Jan. 16, 2011). This is understandable, since they were children at the time. Hopefully the capsule will be rediscovered without excavating all of downtown. A likely scenario is that the search will be dropped since nobody can remember exactly what was placed in the capsule.  It may not be worth the trouble.

It just goes to show that history can go astray even when one has organized a ceremony to preserve it.  Time capsules and parades do not necessarily translate into hard data.  This newspaper article served as a reminder to me that documentation and a clear filing system are part of the restorer's job.

This lesson is especially pertinent as I launch on restoration of a painting that has been in our family for sixty years or so. .  We don't know anything about it other than the fact that my grandfather bought it from the junk shop near his office.  The artist was Ebinger, which is actually quite a prominent name in Chicago, although I have discovered nothing about Ebinger the artist.
The subject matter, a Chinese woman dressed in traditional costume, would seem to date from the twenties, when Asian themes were popular. It currently hangs in our hallway, but for decades it  held a prominent place in my grandparents' living room.  Over the years it hovered behind us in family photo after family photo. As you can see from the family photos, the  hair styles evolved.  We see a bouffant here, a shag there.  My brother and I change quite a lot. 
c. 1964

The painting, though, has changed very little...or so it seems. 

Upon closer inspection however, we can see drying cracks  and missing paint, along with general instability to the surface. 

Surely those problems weren't present in 1964.  But it's hard to know for sure if they were there or not. Ironically the photographs that  might have served as a document have faded. Like the painting, they are showing their age and are unusable to determine the painting's condition from so many years ago. From that standpoint, they are as helpful as a lost time capsule. Of course that was hardly the intent of our family photos.  They did a great job capturing the fashions of the day as well as the various ways one can express long-suffering tolerance while posing.

Today  as I begin to reline and clean this painting you can be sure I will take many digital photos.  I'll label them and I'll hope that Windows remains a software platform for years to come. I'd better make some archival prints just to be on the safe side.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

In Search of the Ideal

      A book entitled Conservation Treatment Methodology does not signal that one is in for a “fun read.”  Yet, this well-respected work by Barbara Appelbaum is enjoyable and approachable.  To give one example, when  the author discusses the ethics of conservation and the way we value objects  she relates the process of repairing her family’s Thanksgiving motif napkins. (We don’t, unfortunately, get a photo of these napkins, but we can easily imagine what they’re like).  She sets up a Values History table for it (p. 229)  With regard to aesthetic value, the napkins “evidently [possess] some—perhaps only to the owners.” By contrast, the sentimental value is “major”. This Value Table ultimately helps the family decide whether it would be ethical to sacrifice one of the napkins so that its turkey motif may be cannibalized and sewn into the tears of the remaining napkins.  I won’t say too much about how the case was resolved, but I can tell you that it ends satisfactorily for all parties...including the about-to-be-sacrificed  turkey (napkin). 
                Another part of the Ms. Appelbaum’s book which has stayed with me, is her chapter,  (Chapter 6),  on the “ideal state” of an art object.  At the moment I am thinking about the ideal state of an easel painting. The simple definition is that a painting's ideal state would be achieved when it leaves the restorer’s studio looking like it did when it left the artist’s studio at completion. There are barriers to this ideal state though, the most obvious being the craquelure (tiny network of cracks) that develop over time and that are usually enjoyed by the owner for they testify to the age of the work.  The other issue, one that I encounter from time to time, is the preference of the owner for varnish that has yellowed or darkened over time.  Paintings are valued when they show their age, which once again proves that art does not necessarily mimic life.   Below is an example of a painting with a darkened varnish.                 

As the photo shows, the painting required repairs to the peeled areas toward the bottom.  The question was whether the inpainting (painting of the missing areas)should match the darkened, yellowed version of the color or should the entire painting be cleaned first.  In this case, the client was interested in having the work cleaned.  The result of the cleaning (along with the inpainting) is shown below.

The difference in color is definitely dramatic.  The colors are cooler and the modeling more articulated.  There may be those that miss the softness of the “before,”  but we can certainly see the artist’s handling of form and greater nuances of color.   Having said that, I can appreciate  Ms. Appelbaum’s reminders that  a painting’s owners may have very strong feelings and associations that  signs of age—including darkened varnish—be left as they are. Her book makes clear that besides correcting problems, a restorer must consider a work’s meaning to the owner.