BOLD WITH GOLD
Anyone who attended the last BAI study day on gilding will have been struck by Peter Murphy’s skill. When someone like Peter does a demonstration of water gilding he makes it look so easy. But Peter is a good teacher as well as an expert practitioner, so he soon had us all applying gold with a boldness we could never have imagined beforehand. When I saw not only the perfect gilding of one of his own Icons, but also the fine dry-brushwork lines of his hatching I wanted to learn more. So I signed up for one of the several courses Peter has been running at the very beautiful church of St Peter’s in the centre of medieval Canterbury this summer. The cost of the course included a beautifully sanded gesso board, lots of gold leaf and pigments, as well as the use of all Peter’s equipment and brushes – so the course promised to be a very good deal as well as a good learning experience.
Peter’s love of Byzantine Icons shone out throughout the week. Drawings were quickly transferred to beautiful ready made boards (obtainable from firstname.lastname@example.org) and then gently but boldly painted over in lamp black. Incidentally Peter adds a touch of alcohol both to his egg mix, and also when he uses some of the more grainy colours like black, carmine or vermilion. Peter uses squirrel brushes in preference to sable as they are softer and gentler, but can produce very fine lines (Rosemary and Co, pure squirrel, series 42)
The next job was to paint a gelatine and bole mix for the halo, which involved much watching paint dry, but as Peter reminded us, the better the preparation, the better the gilding. I think the thing I learned most about was how to repair all those cracks and imperfections once most of the gold leaf is down. The secret seems to be to use a tiny amount of gilding water on the blemish itself and three or four millimetres round it, and then use a much larger piece of gold leaf to completely cover the area. Press down with cotton wool, and burnish when dry, and then magically, not only do the blemishes but also the water stains disappear .
Most of the colours were Kremer pigments from A.P. Fitzpatrick, with the exception of terre vert (Cornelissen) and yellow ochre and verdaccio from Zecchi in Florence.
The lines of the painted underdrawing were reinforced with English light red and burnt umber, and then it was time gradually to build up highlights. The secret here seems to be only to add white to an existing colour mix, and to do it very sparingly and slowly, layer by layer. So you creep up on white before it bites you! The same principle applies to using reds – mix them in very small quantities bit by bit with the ochres, and creep up on them slowly. So the flesh highlights start with a lovely warm mix of yellow ochre and a touch of English light red – the colour of caramel – to which you slowly add tiny bits of white – layer by layer, until you end up with hair-fine highlights in pure white on the nose, the corners of the eyes, the forehead above the eyebrow, the lower lip and the top of the chin. You also add a blush of vermilion to your second highlight mix and wash over the cheeks, and then add touches of pure vermilion above the top eyelid and the inside corner of the eyes, along the shadow side and at the bottom of the nose, on the lips and under the chin .
It was a great week, and thanks to Peter’s skill both as an Iconographer and as a teacher we all came away with Archangels dripping with gold. But as these imposing beings gaze on the face of God they do indeed reflect the uncreated light of God’s presence – so it was a very appropriate way to end a marvellous course.
John de Wit
BAI steering Committee