Arctic Dreams/Drawing the Line in the Snow (acrylic gesso, graphite, silverpoint ground, acrylic and oil; 84×120) by Patricia Bellan-Gillen
Complementing the intellectual breadth of Patricia Bellan-Gillen’s work is the scope of her technical abilities and range of materials. Currently she’s working on large-format drawings that employ gesso, graphite, silverpoint ground, acrylic and oil paint. “I like the combination of materials because it offers me the ability to create a wide vocabulary of textures and marks,” she says. “Mixing materials and media also provides the possibility of setting conditions that I can control as well as conditions I can’t.”
Read on for a demonstration of Arctic Dreams/Drawing the Line in the Snow, which appears in Bellan-Gillen’s feature article by Ruth K. Meyer, “Line by Line, Layer by Layer” in the January/February 2011 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.
1. Preparing the Birch Panels
I draw and paint on ¼-inch birch plywood panels that can be purchased in 48×96 and 60×60 sheets. (Birch panels are of better quality and have a tighter grain than other plywood boards.)
For the larger works, I cut the wood and splice pieces together with glue and wood strips on the back. I generally reinforce the large panels with three segments for strength. Seams are filled with DAP Drydex wall spackle and then sanded.
I paint the back of the panel with two or three layers of latex house paint, which serves as a counter-layer to keep the board from warping and also protects the back when I’m applying the washes on the front.
I cover the front with at least two coats of acrylic gesso. I often tint white gesso with varying amounts of black gesso. I don’t sand the prepared surface because the gesso brushmarks provide hills and valleys to hold the washes that I apply later.
2. Pondering the Possibilities
I was thinking of stories and photographs of a friend who climbed Mount McKinley in Alaska; books about survival in the Arctic and Antarctica; concerns about global warming and images of melting ice; and reports that, with the opening of new passages, formerly filled with ice, the United States, Russia, Canada and Norway are all claiming ownership of the oil underneath the frigid, newly accessible waters. I surrounded myself with old encyclopedias, newspaper clippings, comic books and medical illustrations—a confluence of images.
3. Drawing the Figure, Assembling the Background
After drawing many sketches in pencil, I chose one, scanned it into PhotoShop, reversed it so I could have mirror images, and then enlarged both images. For the background clouds, I appropriated an image from C. Collodi’s Adventures of Pinocchio, beautifully illustrated by Frederick Richardson. The use of clouds surrounding an image is also influenced by the tradition of picturing gods in the sky, in particular by the royal paintings of Jodhpur in 17th- to 19th-century India.
4. Adding More Elements
In a recent book that I read about travels to the Arctic, a whole chapter was devoted to the importance of a porcelain teacup that the expedition leader took with him. I see the cup as both a reminder of home and an emblem of culture or status.
5. Pouring Acrylic Washes
On sunny, temperate days, I try to do a number of panels—preparing all of my surfaces for wintertime drawing at the same time. I create an atmospheric surface with six to eight layers of washes (gesso mixed with acrylic and water) that vary from opaque to transparent. I let the washes dry between applications. I like the density and richness of the accumulated—wash over wash—layers.
6. Beginning the Drawing
With Faber-Castell PITT graphite woodless pencils, I re-created and replicated the image of Pinocchio’s dream of finding a bush from which coins bloomed. I reserved space for the main figures, then painted in those general shapes—first with gesso and then with one layer of Golden silverpoint ground. I sanded lightly between the applications. For the clouds, I tinted the silverpoint/drawing ground with a slight amount of black gesso.
7. Drawing with Graphite and White Oil Paint
After the first layer of drawing was completed, I began to rework the drawing by applying thin veils of Weber Permalba white oil paint mixed with mineral spirits. (Weber Permalba oil is a cool white, doesn’t yellow and dries faster than most oil paints.) The application of the white oil paint over the initial graphite drawing brings cool tones to the drawing. The silverpoint ground is absorbent, thus holding the graphite marks and allowing for little smearing.
I then drew back through the paint with softer graphite pencils Nos. 6 and 9; the graphite pencil partially dissolved as I drew through the paint. The underdrawing that was left untouched and visible through the white oil added a cool tone. (Experiment with the oil/paint thinner mixture. Too much thinner rejects the graphite as does too much oil.) When the oil paint dried, it set the graphite, preventing any further smearing.
8. Drawing in the Main Figures and Applying Paint Thinner
I wanted the figures to be dark with bold marks that would contrast with the sharpness and delicacy of the clouds. I used a Lyra graphite crayon that comes in a stick form and has some grease content, allowing for dark and emphatic graphite marks. Then I reworked the drawing by applying paint thinner with a brush; the solvent dissolved the graphite. Once the surface dried again, I added more drawing with the graphite crayon. This was a good time to study the work and think about it before doing more.
9. Applying Oil Washes
I poured a wash, consisting of white oil and mineral spirits, unevenly over the drawing to simulate a snowstorm and lend the piece a suitably arctic atmosphere. (Acrylic wouldn’t work at this point, due to the principle of fat-over-lean, since the previous layer was in oil.) Note that oil washes dry differently than acrylic washes do; again, you should experiment. After the oil wash dried, I poured another wash, let that dry, and poured one more.
10. Arctic Dreams Finished for Now
I applied a small square of gold leaf divided by a clumsily drawn white line between the two figures. The gold suggests the wealth that might lie beneath the snow. The white line plays off the “drawing a line in the sand” phrase, which implies an aggressive attitude toward ownership. The square also functions as a design element providing a warm, shiny contrast to the cool, dry flatness of the white oil wash. My work usually has an element that contradicts any depth of field and acknowledges the flatness of the canvas. The gilded square is that element in Arctic Dreams/Drawing the Line in the Snow (above; acrylic gesso, graphite, silverpoint ground, acrylic and oil, 24×120).
Patricia Bellan-Gillen has a bachelor of science degree in art education and a bachelor of fine arts in printmaking from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. At Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where she has taught since 1987 in the School of Art, she is the Dorothy L. Stubnitz Professor of Art, an award given in 2002, in recognition of the excellence of her teaching. To read more about Bellan-Gillen’s process in the January/February 2011 issue of The Artist’s Magazine, click here and order your digital copy.
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