To truly reenact the Quattrocento Italian panel painting process, we should have flown to Florence and set up a little studio in the Italian sun. I’m not sure what Cennini would have made of Manhattan in December. But my classmates and I gamely made do: we stored our eggs and gesso alongside jars of chemicals in a laboratory refrigerator and transformed the workshop known as “4R” into a true workshop. By the end of the semester, the whole story of our panel painting process could be seen just by looking at the butcher paper on our table. It had a dusting of fine white gesso, drips of red bole, a few tiny pieces of gold, and many energetic/frustrated and brightly colored brushstrokes.
Like Kate and my classmates, I began my panel painting by gessoing a little piece of poplar and sanding until I was terrified that I had sanded straight through the ground layer to the wood. I then chose my painting—“Madonna and Child with St. Catherine of Siena and a Carthusian donor”—created by an unnamed “Lombard Painter” in the middle of the 15th century and currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Intimidated by the prospect of recreating the whole panel, I decided to center my replica on the figure of Mary.
I created a little pencil outline of my chosen area, transferred that outline to my waiting panel, and applied additional gesso to the panel to recreate the pastiglia, or three-dimensional linear and dotted decoration made of gesso, used by the Lombard painter to accentuate Mary’s halo. After sanding the pastiglia and applying multiple coats of red bole, I was ready to gild.
Gilding the background was the most difficult part of the whole assignment. I listened to Christmas carols in an attempt keep focused, patient, and mindful of the religious purpose served by the original painting. After coaxing endless little squares of leaf onto my panel, I used metal skewers, a ruler, and a variety of punches to create the incised pattern.
Finally, I was ready to begin tempera painting. Like the Lombard painter, I started with a base layer of green earth under the flesh areas to establish a cool tone and articulate general areas of light and dark. I then painted over the green layer with small strokes of flesh colored paint.
I found myself trying to handle the tempera like I would handle oils, attempting to create blending effects by delicately re-dissolving my top paint layer in water and egg yolk. The most difficult part of tempera painting was fighting this inclination, limiting myself to the hatching and glazes used by the Lombard painter.
For Mary’s mantle, I attempted to imitate the order of paint application and pigments likely used by the Lombard painter. Often a blue color would be created using first azurite (a relatively opaque and moderately expensive pigment) followed by glazes of ultramarine (a relatively transparent and extremely expensive pigment). I used cerulean blue as a substitute for azurite and synthetic ultramarine blue as a substitute for the natural pigment, applying glazes to deepen the shadows and modulate the color.
My last steps were to add little hair tendrils, refine the drapery folds and apply a clear glaze of egg yolk to even the gloss.
Creating this little replica gave me the unexpected sense that such panel paintings are just as much sculpture as painting. I spent the majority of my time preparing the surface, refining the surface, and applying the gold. The actual painting steps seemed fleeting in comparison. This process was a refreshing and eye-opening reversal of my normal studio practice, where I typically spend only a few days building, stretching, and priming a stack of canvases and then spend a whole season making those canvases into paintings.
I enjoyed every moment of this assignment. Not only were we learning from storied generations of artists, we were also following generations of conservators. Upperclassman and alumni routinely stopped by the studio and reminisced about how the panel assignment was their “favorite part of all graduate school.” Though I am I looking forward to our next semesters, I can understand what they meant.