While studying in Italy last autumn I took a tempera painting class with the Swiss artist Marie-Dominique Miserez. Tempera is a method of painting in which pigments are mixed with a water-soluble binder medium, generally including egg yolk as the main ingredient. Each morning when we arrived in the studio for our three hour class Marie, who had already been there for at least an hour, had lit incense and prepared any additional materials we would need. The environment she encouraged for the class was serious and quiet. When we weren't preparing or painting, she asked us to make notes about the interior experience of working. At the end of the month long class we collected these notes into a brief document. Later, I realized she had given us the tools for an informal phenomenology of painting. By phenomenology here I mean, in the words of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view" or, my intentional recollection of the work of tempera painting and my state while I worked.
Week One: bands of yellow, green and brown
The studies from the first week were an encounter with the unfamiliar. I had never seen tempera used, or worked with it myself, and had no idea what its properties were. The first thing I noticed about the application was its transparency. I became quickly engrossed by the process of applying thin layers of paint and searching for the right place for each band of colour. In some places the paint became grainy, in others it built small ridges at the edges of each band of colour. Layering a single pigment was satisfying, but the process of trying to approach a strong hue was surprisingly long. Gradually, I began to feel an affection for the paint as I worked, which became greater patience and stamina. In these first studies it was a relief to work with only three or four colours. I found myself anxious about the prospect of mixing colours because the medium seemed to require such precision and evenness to communicate well.
Though I came to enjoy the waver of the line as I placed it with my unpracticed hand, at other times the bending lines frustrated me. I loved where colours emerged between two adjacent bands or as a new line was laid down over an old, but the erratic swerve of my hand weakened the studies. In one piece, a checkered grid, two bands of green overwhelmed the transparent yellow and unbalanced the entire study. While working on these first studies I felt anxious that I was using the paint too cautiously and allowing myself to follow a formula which I knew would be at least moderately successful, rather than trying to find out as much about it as I could within the limitations of the study. Because of my fear of 'ruining' the studies I kept them as simple as possible. But could I have learned more, had I been more willing to lose them?
Week one: opacity and gradation
The next studies were for the purpose of greater competency in achieving opacity and gradation. I loved these studies, both in constructing the design and in painting. It was satisfying to layer the pigment until it reached an even opacity. The pleasure of finding the right consistency of egg, water and pigment and placing colours beside each other grew the longer I worked. Like in the first studies, moments when my paint dipped or blurred outside of its shape I became almost angry. I thought about Josef Albers as I worked, specifically the exhibit of his colour studies at The Morgan Library and Museum in New York. Of all our assignments, I found the two studies which tried to achieve an even gradation most challenging. It was difficult for me to even begin working on them, since having worked only with one gradation I was unsure what proportions the paint mixture would require to change opacity. They weren’t satisfying to look at afterwards, but I had began to use the brush more freely in different directions. So although I was tense while making them, I realized afterwards that they had helped me grow comfortable with the medium.
Week two: copy and composition
When it was assigned, I could think of few things more tedious than a copy in tempera, but the actual work was interesting and surprising. While making the copy I began to see many of the characteristics of tempera which were important for the two portraits we would later attempt: how many layers it requires to make a shadow or dark area, how much transparency affects the final result even if the colour underneath appears to have disappeared, the potential of but also the dangers of white, the way the paint is absorbed and spreads when its wet, the persistently muted quality, and how it is possible to alter mistakes quite easily, but it is also very easy to begin overworking the paint and the board almost to the point of “ruin,” as Marie said. I had felt right from the beginning that unlike oil, tempera cannot be used roughly.
Working on the composition was delightful. We began it at the house of prayer we stayed at in Bolsena, and after a day of walking through open landscape, closely observing a face was a relief. Once again, in the composition, just how many layers were required for vibrancy surprised me. In this one I felt less afraid of reaching the point of destroying the materials, even though I repeatedly altered the forms and colours. It may have been the cloth board we worked on but this piece was forgiving. I felt close to the piece, like it was in my own space though it was a portrait of a friend. The light falling on her face was moving to me. Maybe I also felt as Professor Doll said, that the shadow was “coming onto her.” The acidity of the colours seemed to contradict the solemnity or peace of the light cast onto her face.
Weeks three and four: large scale portrait
Although I didn’t enjoy the smaller paintings any less than this larger one, I was far less anxious as I worked on it. It was difficult to work on the burlap, but once I realized the surface would become rough it no longer bothered me. Here, though, several concerns of the semester came to a crux. As in most of my larger assignments, I had learned a lot and managed to capture something important, but the piece lacked a boldness and integrity that it should have had. There was something non-essential or childish about it, as if I were walking toward a destination and ended up somewhere to the right but in sight of it, holding a few unnecessary props and too tired to change direction. Up to a point my observation felt rigorous, but it became soft too soon. How exactly does the sweater tuck behind the arm, and where does the elbow bend? Which are the most important folds on her shirt along her stomach, and what are the colours in her skin? How is the light distributed along a shadowy hallway? What is essential? That is the question of my object drawings, and I haven't yet found an answer. Several folds might be superfluous, but a tiny speck of white might be essential. The exact shape of the shadow beside the nose might be essential, but the one cast beneath her eye might be superfluous. Regardless, I found the work invigorating. The process of observing someone for a portrait undoubtedly connected me closely with the subject and I came to end of the class wondering why portraits matter and whether observation is the most important part of love.