No Really, That's How I Do It
Painting on Vellum
By Kate Nessler
Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist – Volume 15, Issue 2
Working on vellum is not just a technique, it is understanding what vellum is, what it does and developing a partnership with it. Every skin, every piece of vellum is different in some way, requiring adaptability and acceptance. With vellum, “perfect” is a relative concept. With vellum, the term “with exceptions” will probably apply with almost anything I write here. This will give you a brief description of how I do it, what I think about, what I look for.
Numerous types of vellum are available and you can find those described on various web sites, including www.TalasOnLine.com. For the purpose of this article, I’ll discuss only a few: Honey, Veiny and Kelmscott vellum. Honey is what it implies, honey-colored, ranging in tone, with or without markings. Veiny is much darker in tone with pronounced markings. Kelmscott is coated in a white wash and is the heaviest of the vellums. Most vellum produced today is ready to go for painters, without additional preparation.
What is the right side to work on? You will be working on the hair side. This is the side that is hard and smooth. You may see hair follicles. The skin side is often soft or fuzzy. Either side will work with Kelmscott or Manuscript vellum. If you buy a full skin, use the side with the tag on it!
Vellum is very tactile. You must know the surface, because not only will the color have variations, but so too will the surface quality. The first practical important thing to know is that you must keep your hands (or forearms) oil free. Oil that transfers to the surface can produce an “oil slick” that will repel paint and water. Vellum can range in feel from a very slick or wax-paper like surface, to very rough, unpaintable areas around the edges, to perfectly normal. Normal is not something I can easily describe in words, but for the most part, it is what most skins seem to be. Kelmscott is very consistent in color and texture, yet it lacks individual skin character.
Handle vellum carefully. Support the skin, full or cut pieces, so they do not hop, bend or fold spontaneously. A crease can become a permanent flaw. I store my skins, new, in-progress and finished work flat in an acid-free environment. I use 8 ply matt board top and bottom. This will keep it safe, weighted and flat. Do not store directly on wood.
What about all that buckling? Vellum is tough and very strong, but is very vulnerable to excessive water - either in the air (humidity) or on the surface. It can buckle, it can ripple. This is a natural property of the skin. The choice is yours as to whether you permanently mount it or not. Both approaches have pros and cons.
Pencil lead: I use .05 mm mechanical pencils for any drawing. Ideally a variety of leads from hard to soft is helpful, as the skin will determine which will be best. You do not want to have excessive lead on any area that will be covered with paint. Too much lead can clog the pores of the skin. When working over exposed graphite, be aware that it smears very easily on this surface. Take care to cover areas you are not working on with tracing tissue; this will also keep your painting clean throughout the entire process.
Erasers: Soft white and kneaded. If you use the kneaded eraser, it is important to be sure it has not been overused. Oil from the hands that transfers to the eraser can end up on surface of the vellum and create an area where the paint will not adhere.
Brushes: Blick (Dick Blick) Studio Sable Detail Round~#1, #2, #4.
Paint: I work with a variety of paint brands, using what is considered the best, most lightfast. I do not add anything to the paint.
First do a rough sketch of your specimen on tissue. It will give you a feel for the movement and nature of the plant and it will help with the placement of your painting on the vellum. One thing that helps me to understand and achieve the body, movement and fullness of individual parts of the plant as well as the whole, is to follow the actual shape and directional form of my subject with my hand and arm. I will follow the entire overall shape to know how it moves or stands. With my paintbrush tip, I will trace over the veining, the edges, and the details in the petals or stems. This helps me to have a fuller understanding and factual knowledge of the physicality of the plant and its parts. I can better translate the actuality of who and what the plant is, and how it is put together. It also begins to train my eye to acknowledge the important details that make up the whole.
Placement on the vellum: If you have color or shade or textural variation in the skin, this is vital to the composition. In this case, you are working together with a background not of your making, but fully present. It is now an integral part of the composition. Pragmatically, vellum is expensive and you want to make the most of your material. However, do not be skimpy. Allow extra space - some air - around the specimen. Open space is very important to the composition and you never know if you will want or need to add something. Remember too, you will want enough margin for matting.
Attach your vellum to a white backing board. I use either white masonite or canvas board. If you have a dark color under the vellum, the color will show through, altering your painting. I use masking tape -not all around but a few pieces top, bottom and sides, just to hold the painting on a rigid backing. Remove it at the end of each day.
Now place your finished drawing on the vellum. After the rough sketch on tissue, I do a detailed drawing directly on the skin; you may prefer to do this or to transfer a finished drawing to the skin. Once your drawing is complete, it is best to remove any excess graphite from the surface.
With the drawing on the vellum, begin with a light wash of paint to place or establish the color. Vellum is not porous, so paint will not go into the surface as on paper. It stays on top. It is important to remember that while you can use light washes, vellum does not like large amounts of water. Too much can cause buckling, pulling or rising of the surface. A good rule is to have enough paint that your color will flow freely, but not create blobs of water at the end of the pull. After you have placed your base color and it has dried, you will begin to apply light, dry-brush layers of paint. I use the #1 brush here, but if you can achieve it with the point of a larger one, that is fine. It is the point that counts here. Think of drawing with the tip of a paint brush, sketching in dry brush color.
Remember to let each layer dry before continuing in the same area. This really does not take all the time it implies; there will not be heavy watery paint on your brush. Go slow, think about and watch what you are doing. You will be gradually building color, light to dark, always keeping in mind the form and detail of the plant. A light touch helps. If you find yourself laboring over a certain area, get out, step away, or move to another area in the painting. One of the most common problems is scrubbing the paint or “mushing” it around. With vellum, if you work it too hard, too wet, too much, it will just lift off the bottom layer of paint or move it around. If you are trying to build color and form in washes instead of fine dry brush “sketching”, this can happen. These are the moments when most want to run from the room. You can do this. It is just a different technique to get used to. Try again. There are not a set number of layers that one must apply. “Done” is when you have achieved the color and form and body that describe the specimen. Can you put on too little? Yes. Don’t be afraid of deep shadow and dark color. If this is what the specimen has or is, do it. Can you put on too much? Yes. The magic of vellum is that paint is so beautifully reflected on it. Thick paint, flat paint, I think, can kill that luminosity.
Depending on the density and/or color of the paint and the type of paint, you can often lift color from the surface by using a wash of clear water and blotting. You want to be attentive to the amount of water and go slowly to prevent damage to the skin. This will not work with Kelmscott where a stray drop of water will stain the skin’s surface. However, with a razor blade edge, you can scrape away errors - experiment to see how much or how little.
So much more…
Vellum is best if experienced. Some love it, some fear it (I sure did), and some can’t wait to get back to paper. And others can’t wait to see what the next skin looks like and what challenges it will bring.