Sunday, October 22, 2006

A Renaissance Master Class

sample ink drawings with handmade pens made of (left) goose quill and (right) reed
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

I'm now going to make all the art history buffs very jealous - however this is a very long post so bear with me!

On Friday I participated in a Renaissance Masterclass at the Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington, London. This was another event associated with the Da Vinci exhibition which I have already written on this blog (on the 7th and 18th October).

The masterclass tutor, Philippa Abrahams, gave us an overview of the materials and techniques used by Renaissance artists including the ingredients of paint and the preparation of a panel. In the afternoon we made quill and reed pens and a silverpoint stylus - and then drew with them. Philippa studied at the Slade and the Courtauld and works as a conservator and an artist as well as being a tutor in matters relating to art history and her specialised area which is historical pigments and techniques. She's been instrumental in restoring a Verrochio - in egg tempera on a gesso coated wooden panel. I was suitably impressed! She is a great believer in developing understanding about how paintings were developed by actually gaining knowledge of the media, supports and instruments used to make the marks - and how they all behave in reality rather than in principle.


Artists and their workshops in renaissance times had to be expert at the preparation of paint as well knowledgeable and skilled at what you should/could do with it. We were introduced to all the media used in renaissance times - starting with the sources of all the organic and inorganic pigments and injunctions not to drop the jar of powdered lapis lazuli (weight for weight it's double the price of gold) and to be very careful not to touch the ones which were toxic!!!

The processes used for extracting the pigment were explained and the behaviour of the different pigments was methods of painting (eg tempera; glazing) were touched upon and/or demonstrated. Apparently, nowadays, the main supplier of historical pigments is a German gentlemen called Kremer - who has a website and supplies through arrangements with stores in Germany and distributors in various countries. AP Fitzpatrick in Bethnal Green is the UK distributor.

The sources of different types of ink (eg sepia and bistre) were also examined. Philippa made ink from ox galls - which I now have sitting in front of me! It's a lovely blue-black colour.


The preference and choice of different geographical areas for different supports was discussed. I now understand much better why artists in some countries and towns chose wood (eg poplar or oak) rather than canvas and vice versa. The practice of a first stretch of a canvas was also demonstrated - and the scope which this gives for adjusting the size and shape of the finished canvas. We also considered the composition and properties of gesso on different types of surfaces - wood, canvas and copper.

Drawing instruments

We first tried drawing with red and black chalk - the substances used to make many of the drawings from renaissance times (and earlier and later periods). They were not unlike having a small flint version of a conte crayon. A sharp edge would produce a fine line. Stroking the chalk worked pretty much like pastels of medium hardness - but using a feather it was much easier to blend the marks made with the chalk to get an even or gradated value.

Then we made drawing instruments starting with a quill pen (from a goose quill - fallen not plucked); then a reed pen and finally a silverpoint stylus. I drew with each of these and found that:
  • the quill pen (drawing top left) provided a nib and a line which was quite flexible
  • the reed pen ( drawing top right) was stiffer - but I liked it and drew easily with it. found that it kept its point stable and usable for longer than the reed pen. However this is as likely to be a product of my skills at cutting!
The Regia website provides illustrations of how to cut a quill pen (I'm expecting to see Jeanette get cracking on this!). Page 1 provides broad guidelines and page 2 shows you how to prepare the quill pen.

The final drawing instrument we made by hand was a silverpoint stylus. I found drawing with silverpoint to be quite easy - but I'm very used to drawing and hatching. I did the sketch (below left) in a couple of minutes. The issue with silverpoint is that it is rather like drawing with an 'H' pencil - the line is quite feint. I enhanced the drawing (below right) so you could see what I did with the sharpened tip of silver wire - which is what silverpoint is. Drawings must also be done on a painted or coated ground and not on paper as otherwise the silver will not react and show up.

Unfinished Silverpoint Drawing
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

Philippa recommended:
"Drawing on the combined expertise of curators, conservators and scientists, it brings together a wealth of information about artists' materials, working practices and techniques."
More next month - when I return to do a two day course in egg tempera painting!

These are mine and not ones supplied by Philippa - except where indicated above.
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Jeanette Jobson said...

Oh, so neat! I wish I could have been at that class Katherine. You're so lucky to have all the goodies on your doorstep. But being in the boonies does have its advantages. Goose quill pens anyone?? They go 'to glory' on Thursday so I will request they keep a few handfuls of flight feathers for me. Experiments to follow.

Making A Mark said...

Thanks Jeanette - can I be first in the queue for any spare quills you might get! ;)

Do read the bit about what you need to do to prepare the quills before they can be stripped and cut. Got any hot sand handy?

Jeanette Jobson said...

Yes, I saw the prep notes on the quills. Hmmmm, hot sand. Guess I'll have to raid my god daughter's sand box for a few handfuls :)

Of course I'll send you spare quills. Not a problem.

Making A Mark said...

Oh goodie!

Jeanette Jobson said...

Yes, I saw the prep notes on the quills. Hmmmm, hot sand. Guess I'll have to raid my god daughter's sand box for a few handfuls :)

Of course I'll send you spare quills. Not a problem.

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