Thread: Casein Gesso
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Old 13-10-17, 07:12 PM
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Koo Schadler Koo Schadler is offline
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Join Date: Dec 2003
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Default Casein Gesso

Hello All,

Artist James Gurney, on his excellent blog, posted excerpts from an 1942 American Artist Magazine article that discussed Andrew Wyeth's working methods (see http://gurneyjourney.blogspot.com/20...s-in-1942.html). The article mentioned that Wyeth used casein gesso as the ground for his egg temperas. I am skeptical of this, so I asked Dr. Joyce Stoner, who is the Wyeth family conservator, what she knows. I'll paste below portions of her response, because they are so entertaining and illuminating.

Koo

From Dr. Stoner:
Andrew Wyeth...[tried] to follow Peter Hurd’s description of the grounds used by Cennino Cennini.

His first tempera was in the late 1930s. In the early 1940s (after he married Betsy James in May, 1940) he cooked whiting and animal glue on Betsy’s toy stove, he told me, and apparently sometimes may have overheated it—there were bubbles which popped and caused pitting.

However, since 1932, Peter Hurd had been using Weber Company’s “Renaissance panels” – prepared by the F. Weber Company with their “Permalba white” and animal glue, supposedly seven coats on the front and several coats on the back; the verso white gesso was then coated with a “red lacquer” according to the company. (Weber would give artists a little vial of the red lacquer to coat the edges if they cut 4’ x 8’ panels down instead of ordering an exact size.) Tailor-sized Weber panel came with a label centered on the back: “Made for Andrew Wyeth Esq. /date / by F. Weber” etc. Andrew, his father N. C., and Peter Hurd all used Weber panels.

A. Wyeth also mixed Weber Permalba white as a dry powder with egg yolk to make his white tempera paint.

As soon as he could afford to use the prepared Weber Renaissance panels Wyeth did so, and stockpiled a number in his studio. He generally had the panels pre-coated and ordered them from sign painters, etc. after Weber Renaissance panels were no longer available. But he sometimes added more white—this could be his own “gesso” of Permalba mixed white pigment and animal glue or white tempera paint, when he intentionally scraped through the gesso ground.

I hope this is helpful. He had friends who may have made panels for him with other gesso formulations. He used at least two ANCO panels, to my knowledge, which were, I believe, pre-coated, and I do not know what ANCO used. The two I have seen have had cracking problems.

Koo replies:
Joyce, thanks so much for sharing your knowledge of the Wyeths, invaluable to those of us who love both egg tempera and Wyeth artwork. My impression, from reading various books and writings, and talking with a few people who knew A. Wyeth, is that, how to put it, he didn't completely attend to "best practices" in egg tempera. I don't know if this is true, and by wondering this I don't mean in any way to question his brilliance as an egg tempera painter (he was a magician). I'm just trying to understand egg tempera more fully and figure out the best working practices for the medium (not because I think every artist must attend to best practices, only that a tempera artist should have the option). People so revere (rightly) Wyeth as an artist that sometimes they presume they must exactly follow Wyeth as a paint technician.

Dr. Stoner replies:
Andrew Wyeth was not especially a stickler for techniques. He liked to talk about his “wild ways” of using tempera—mixing up a bowl of tempera paint and “throwing it at the sky” and waiting to see what it looked like in the morning after it dried. He said he did this on Brown Swiss and part of the sky of Snow Hill. We talked often about what he did for specific paintings, so I am not able to say “he always did this” or “always used that.”

His father N. C. Wyeth and his father’s teacher Howard Pyle, were both careful craftsman with an eye on longevity and “best practices” [but they worked largely in oil.] NC was very firm about telling his four artist children to “wait a year before varnishing” for example.

However, AW’s mentor and teacher in tempera was Peter Hurd who often did many unexpected mixed media things—combining tempera and exposed (highly water-soluble) gesso; Hurd may have mixed tempera and oil on the same painting. AW told me he and Peter Hurd laughed about combining [possibly too much] ultramarine blue with Permalba to make gesso that would already be blue for the sky area. And then at a gallery exhibition “it all fell off” – they thought this was wonderfully funny.

Because critics often talked about Andrew Wyeth as if he were an every-blade-of-grass intensively focused, humorless Pre-Raphaelite, he bristled under this idea and was pleased to do surprising untraditional things. He included an actual leaf in at least one watercolor [Virgin Birch] and one tempera [Thin Ice]. He told me he combined Brandywine mud with the tempera paint on a very large tempera called Goose Step. I’ll vouch for that because it was too leanly bound with tiny mealy-crumbly areas and had loose areas almost immediately after it was put on display at the Brandywine River Museum. Visitors were treated to seeing AW and Helga Testorf repainting problem areas on the painting in the gallery. I had to treat it further later. [His two favorite historical figures were Lafayette and Washington. AW was very intrigued by the story that Lafayette was buried with Brandywine mud in his coffin due to his time at the Battle of Brandywine. Goose Step was painted soon after he told me that story – Brandywine mud was an almost “sacred” ingredient. Another time he told me and others that he had used actual squirrel blood in a painting of a squirrel hit by a car. Helga later told me that wasn’t true. You could never be sure—he enjoyed pranks and fun stories that might not be accurate. The only thing you can be certain of is that at the time he WANTED someone to think a certain thing was true. Often “it ain’t necessarily so.” He and son Jamie have told journalists a number of things that I know are not so. I called him out on material things occasionally, and then he’d readily admit oh “not in this case” etc.

But he was not obsessively concerned with “best practices.” He liked trying to achieve new effects and then would ask me to fix things that went a bit awry. He was more concerned with embedding emotion into his works and the associations he had to the subjects [and in the case of the Brandywine mud—to the actual material]. He called ultramarine blue “Peter Hurd blue” and you will see that trademark blue often in his work—wagons, etc. Scratching into paint in both tempera and watercolors was also associated with Peter Hurd who had taught him fencing.

I cannot say he did or did not ever use a casein ground. But if he did, I think it was probably momentary.
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