Painting on Copper Panels

An oil sketch on copper of  a dead bird I found on my morning walk. See the photo here.

A Small Death

A Small Death

I thought it fitting to paint this bird on my first copper panel painting. Here’s a traditional method of preparing the copper plate with garlic from National Gallery Technical Bulletin Volume 20: Painting in Antwerp and London: Rubens and Van Dyck. pages 26-27:

It is thought that the development of etching and engraving during the sixteenth century may have contributed to the use of copper plates as supports for painting, particularly as many painters also produced intaglio prints…. The use of plates previously used for etching or engraving seems to be fairly uncommon, however. Copper plates were occasionally coated with another metal (tin or zinc). In order that the paint should adhere to the smooth metal surface, it was necessary to prepare the plate before use. Recommended treatments included abrasion, and rubbing the plate with garlic, which is sticky when first applied; the garlic acts as a wetting agent, preventing surface tension effects between smooth shiny metal and oil paint interfering with the application of paint and formation of the film. Another treatment was to wipe the plate over with linseed oil. A thin oil-based ground, usually containing lead white mixed with other pigments, was then generally applied.

In an earlier paragraph, Rubens commented to the widow of his friend, the painter Adam Elsheimer, that she should send his small copper painting “The Flight into Egypt” to Antwerp for sale as there was a ready market for small works. See an earlier post where I wrote about being inspired by this Elsheimer painting here.

I found the copper surface – prepared with garlic to let the copper show through – to be excellent for the oil sketch. It’s slick and rub outs are easy to do. A lot of additive and subtractive brushwork can be done. Of course, I think it will also lend itself well to highly finished paintings done over several sessions.

Extra Thoughts:

Looking at the little painting today, I think I misjudged the lights and darks. The glint of the copper while painting made it seem brighter while wet but once dry, surface looks a bit duller. Since it was just an oil sketch, I kept to transparent earths for the darks and cremnitz white for the white fur. I avoided opaque paint (minus the white) to let the copper show through. I did it on the fly and it will be a study for some other as yet unknown painting. Overall my experience with painting on copper, while not enlightening, was enjoyable.  I had some copper from when I was doing drypoint etchings and wanted to use it up. More than anything else the experience is letting me get back to regular work with renewed vigor.

Note on working from life: The experience of painting something so immediate and in front of me always make me feel great afterwards. The next day, I feel a little nonchalant. Observing something in front of you demands a detachment to allow you to paint what you see so you don’t get to make up stories in your head. It’s a good exercise but I rarely work from life. I enjoy fabrications and prefer the haze left over after some time has let the element of nostalgia seep in. Grasping at some memory is important to my process. Absence from an object often imbues it with sweetness and sadness.

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