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  • Andrew Wyeth's GroundApproveRejectUn-ApproveSubscribeUn-Unsubscribe
    Question asked 2017-10-10 15:33:41 ... Most recent comment 2017-10-12 11:55:38
    Egg Tempera

    ​My understanding was that Andrew Wyeth used a traditional chalk and glue gesso, learned from his brother-in-law Peter Hurd, under his egg temperas paintings.  I presumed this from various articles I've read; also from a Mr. McNeil (I think his name was), an older gent (he was in his 90s when I met him 20 years ago) who used to run a company called Permacolors and told me he made traditional chalk and glue gesso panels for "Andy".   However someone else recently told that Wyeth worked on caesin gesso. Can Dr. Joyce Stoner (or anyone who knows) corroborate what ground Wyeth worked on?  

    Thanks,  Koo Schadler

Answers and Comments

  • EditDeleteModerator Answer

    An excerpt from the ​1942 American Artist interview with A. Wyeth was posted on the excellent Gurney's Journey blog, mentioning casein-based grounds:

    Matthew Kinsey, Utrecht Art Supplies
    2017-10-10 16:27:16
  • EditDeleteModerator Answer

    Dear Koo,


    Andrew Wyeth did indeed try to follow Peter Hurd’s description of the grounds used by Cennino Cennini.

    His first tempera was in the late 1930s.  In the early 1940s [after he married Betsy James in May, 1940] he cooked whiting and animal glue on Betsy’s toy stove, he told me, and apparently sometimes may have overheated it—there were bubbles which popped and caused pitting.


    However, since 1932, Peter Hurd had been using Weber Company’s “Renaissance panels” – prepared by the F. Weber Company with their “Permalba white” and animal glue, supposedly seven coats on the front and several coats on the back; the verso white gesso was then coated with a “red lacquer” according to the company.  [Weber would give artists a little vial of the red lacquer to coat the edges if they cut 4’ x 8’ panels down instead of ordering an exact size.]  Tailor-sized Weber panel came with a label centered on the back: “Made for Andrew Wyeth Esq. /date / by F. Weber” etc.  See attached photo of one of the N. C. Wyeth Renaissance panel labels.  Andrew, his father N. C., and Peter Hurd all used Weber panels.


    AW also mixed Weber Permalba white as a dry powder with egg yolk to make his white tempera paint.


    As soon as he could afford to use the prepared Weber Renaissance panels he did so, and stockpiled a number in his studio.

    He generally had the panels pre-coated and ordered them from sign painters, etc. after Weber Renaissance panels were no longer available.

    But he sometimes added more white—this could be his own “gesso” of Permalba mixed white pigment and animal glue or white tempera paint, when he intentionally scraped through the gesso ground.


    I hope this is helpful.  He had friends who may have made panels for him with other gesso formulations.  He used at least two ANCO panels, to my knowledge, which were, I believe, pre-coated, and I do not know what ANCO used.  The two I have seen have had cracking problems.


    Best wishes, 

    Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner

    2017-10-10 16:54:25
  • ApproveRejectUn-ApproveUser Comment

    ​Thanks for your responses.  The artist who told me that Wyeth worked on caesin gesso referenced that 1942 Amer. Artist article. The article could be correct, but isn't necessarily so, yes?  My sense (correct me if you think otherwise) is that artists and artists' magazines weren't (sometimes still aren't) always attentive or careful in describing materials and working methods.  I'm not saying Wyeth never used caesin gesso, only that it would be helpful to have additional sources and more information (did he use it once, several times, often?).

    I would think caesin gesso too vulnerable to wetting and lifitng ('til the caesin polymers have cured) to be well-suited to egg tempera.  I would also think it not as strong as an animal gue and chalk gesso.  But I've never tried it. I'm curious if others have, and what they think.  (I did try Sinopia's Caesin Gesso, advertised as suitable for egg tempera, but it contains oil and I found it not at all friendly to egg tempera).  

    Joyce, thanks so much for sharing your knowledge of the Wyeths, invaluable to those of us who love both egg tempera and Wyeth artwork.  My impression, from reading various books and writings, and talking with a few people who knew A. Wyeth, is that, how to put it, he didn't completely attend to "best practices" in egg tempera.  I don't know if this is true, and by wondering this I don't mean in any way to question his brilliance as an egg tempera painter (he was a magician) or his greatness as an artist in general.  I'm, as you know, just trying to understand egg tempera more fully, and figure out the best working practices for the medium (not because I think every artist must attend to best practices, only that a tempera artist should have the option). People so revere (rightly) Wyeth as an artist that sometimes they presume they must exactly follow Wyeth as a paint technician - for example, a student of mine read Wyeth painted on caesin gesso and right now she's busy making caesin panels.  

    So, my questions are:

    1. Do you know to what extent, if any at all, Wyeth's methods deviated from "best practices" (to the extent they are understood) for egg tempera?  

    2.  As for caesin gesso, what do you (or anyone else) think about it as a ground for egg tempera?



    2017-10-11 17:15:20
  • EditDeleteModerator Answer

    Andrew Wyeth was not especially a stickler for techniques.  He liked to talk about his “wild ways” of using tempera—mixing up a bowl of tempera paint and “throwing it at the sky” and waiting to see what it looked like in the morning after it dried.  He said he did this on Brown Swiss and part of the sky of Snow Hill.  We talked often about what he did for specific paintings, so I am not able to say “he always did this” or “always used that.”


    His father N. C. Wyeth and his father’s teacher Howard Pyle, were both careful craftsman with an eye on longevity and “best practices” [but they worked largely in oil.]  NC was very firm about telling his four artist children to “wait a year before varnishing” for example.


    However, AW’s mentor and teacher in tempera was Peter Hurd who often did many unexpected mixed media things—combining tempera and exposed (highly water-soluble) gesso; Hurd may have mixed tempera and oil on the same painting.  AW told me he and Peter Hurd laughed about combining [possibly too much] ultramarine blue with Permalba to make gesso that would already be blue for the sky area.  And then at a gallery exhibition “it all fell off” – they thought this was wonderfully funny.


    Because critics often talked about Andrew Wyeth as if he were an every-blade-of-grass intensively focused, humorless Pre-Raphaelite, he bristled under this idea and was pleased to do surprising untraditional things.  He included an actual leaf in at least one watercolor [Virgin Birch] and one tempera [Thin Ice].   He told me he combined Brandywine mud with the tempera paint on a very large tempera called Goose Step.  I’ll vouch for that because it was too leanly bound with tiny mealy-crumbly areas and had loose areas almost immediately after it was put on display at the Brandywine River Museum.  Visitors were treated to seeing AW and Helga Testorf repainting problem areas on the painting in the gallery.  I had to treat it further later. [His two favorite historical figures were Lafayette and Washington.  AW was very intrigued by the story that Lafayette was buried with Brandywine mud in his coffin due to his time at the Battle of Brandywine.  Goose Step was painted soon after he told me that story – Brandywine mud was an almost “sacred” ingredient.  Another time he told me and others that he had used actual squirrel blood in a painting of a squirrel hit by a car.  Helga later told me that wasn’t true.  You could never be sure—he enjoyed pranks and fun stories that might not be accurate.  The only thing you can be certain of is that at the time he WANTED someone to think a certain thing was true.  Often “it ain’t necessarily so.”  He and son Jamie have told journalists a number of things that I know are not so.  I called him out on material things occasionally, and then he’d readily admit oh “not in this case” etc.


    But he was not obsessively concerned with “best practices.”  He liked trying to achieve new effects and then would ask me to fix things that went a bit awry.  He was more concerned with embedding emotion into his works and the associations he had to the subjects [and in the case of the Brandywine mud—to the actual material].  He called ultramarine blue “Peter Hurd blue” and you will see that trademark blue often in his work—wagons, etc.  Scratching into paint in both tempera and watercolors was also associated with Peter Hurd who had taught him fencing.


    I cannot say he did or did not ever use a casein ground.  But if he did, I think it was probably momentary.  [I know casein paint only as a furniture paint in the 19th century. and I might think it could be too shiny and repellent for a ground?  But this is certainly not my area of expertise.]


    Whether or not a casein ground would be a good idea for tempera paint, I would defer to Brian Baade who monitors this forum.


    Best wishes to you Koo—I so love your paintings!  

    Best, Joyce

    2017-10-12 00:06:44
  • ApproveRejectUn-ApproveUser Comment

    ​I know you've written many articles about Wyeth, but please (in your spare time.. ;-) write a book, Joyce - these stories are a treasure.  I had a big smile on my face reading them.  Thanks for your illuminating and generous response.   Koo

    2017-10-12 11:43:34
  • ApproveRejectUn-ApproveUser Comment

    ​​PS - The finish on my egg temperas is very smooth.  I tell students this is merely personal preference, not requisite to the medium, that a rough tempera surface is perfectly acceptable.  As an example I point to Wyeth and say "his paintings are full of texture" and then, in jest, I'd add, "probably have a dog hair or two stuck in them".  Now I can say, truthfully, that there may be a leaf, mud, and perhaps a bit of squirrel blood.  Who'd have guessed!

    2017-10-12 11:55:38

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