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(This is the written part of my documentation for this project... the photographic supplements are getting posted in my Scraps section!)

Tempera painting, ink, and gold leaf on wooden panels

Inspiration: Coronation of the Virgin by Lorenzo Monaco, 1414; various 14th century triptychs, altarpieces, & panel paintings…

I think I can safely say this is the biggest project I've ever done in the SCA.  When Her Majesty asked me if I could make their ducal award scroll, I was super excited and honored – and mildly panicky when she said they wanted something big and shiny.  I had been thinking along the lines of a fancy Russian scroll; maybe painting ducal Russian nesting dolls; or perhaps a panel painting, which I had always wanted to try.  Turns out a panel painting was sort of what Her Majesty had in mind, but in the shape of a triptych.  Eek!  Thus began the adventure of my very first panel painting!

Once I started looking at sources, I couldn't help but get excited and start making plans.  I wanted to make a period-looking triptych and use as many period techniques as I could while remaining within the budget, time frame, and my level of ability.  Obviously there was no way I could do everything from scratch, and along the way some things turned out to be done in a more period way than I had planned (hinges!), and others less so (augh! bole!).  Luckily it balanced into a decently period look.  It got done!  Hurrah!

A lot of people helped me out during various stages of this project, and I'd like to thank them all forever and ever and ever.  First, thanks to Vladimir & Kalisa for providing the project and funding for something I'd never have gotten to do otherwise.  Rowan of Hawkridge was my builder and consultant – she helped me figure out how to put together the physical pieces I wanted that would actually form the triptych.  Solvarr Hamarsson showed me how to make hinges and he made the ones for the triptych from scratch.  Mistress Livia Zanna was forever answering my questions about anything chemical or paint related, and saved me from a lot of time-consuming screw-ups.  My apprenti-siblings Letia Thistelthueyt and Eilionora of Black Diamond would always listen when I needed to fret, and my laurel Mistress Aneira had to have answered a million of my panicked phone calls and facebook messages during the past few months.  Yusuf bin Abdullah was an excellent cat-wrangler, paint-cleaner, support-giver and chocolate-supplier during the whole project, and there's no way I could have finished this project on time without him.  :)

Starring Rowan of Hawkridge; special thanks to Wistric & Sunneva for letting us trash their garage!

-plywood boards
-rope moulding
-picture frame moulding (2 sizes)
-edge banding
-column caps/bases
-wood filler (goey liquid sawdust)
-thin bass wood for small architectural details
-fancy wood applique designs

After perusing lots of pictures of triptychs, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted mine to look like.  I loved the gothic architecture aspects in triptychs like the ones pictured in the "structural and architectural inspirations" part of this documentation, and I wanted the shape of the triptych as well as its internal design (both structurally and as part of the painting) to reflect those.  

I drew out several small designs of what type of structural embellishments I wanted and talked to my laurel as well as several other people about how I could make them using wooden edge moulding.  Rowan of Hawkridge had built triptychs before and was friendly with the hardware store, so she became my shopping partner and purchasing consultant.  She helped me pick out all of the above-mentioned materials based on my design.  She was also quite handy with power tools, so instead of losing my limbs in a freak mitre saw accident, Rowan handled most of the slicing and dicing.  

Rowan took my design and used a jigsaw to cut out the panel shapes I had drawn on the plywood, and then she showed me how to apply edge banding to hide the ugly plywood edges.  We measured the borders of the panel for the moulding and she used a mitre saw to cut the moulding into the correct lengths and angles needed for each side and joint.  We used a handsaw to cut the column caps because the mitre saw liked to fling them into the depths of Wistric and Sunneva's garage when we tried to use it on them (…we never did find them all).  Once all of the moulding and architectural bits were cut out (using a combination of Rowan with a jigsaw and me with an x-acto knife), we attached them with wood glue and clamps.  Once it was dry, any gaps were filled with woodfiller.  (There weren't very many – Rowan is pretty hand with a saw.)

Preparing the Panel

-easy gesso from (mixture of rabbit skin glue, chalk, & marble)
-Minwax woodstain (woodstain & polyurethane varnish in one)
-sandpaper (several grain varieties)
-extra chunk of panel to apply test samples of stuff to

For most of the panel prep and painting processes, I followed the instructions from fairly closely.  A few times I ended mucking something up and having to improvise, but their website was my jumping off point.  

The first thing I needed to apply to the panel was gesso, to provide a smooth base for the bole for gilding, and an immaculate(ish) white base for the tempera painting.  I used mixed the gesso powder – consisting of rabbit skin glue, chalk, and marble – with warm water and let it gel for two hours.  Once it had gelled, I heated it in a pot of hot water to liquefy it so that it could be painted on in thin layers, one at a time.  Each layer took about a day to dry completely, and each layer had to be sanded after it had dried.  In addition, some leaked over onto the sides that I intended to stain, so I had to remove the drippage with a razor blade.  Applying the gesso alone took four days for four layers.  

Moronically, I applied the gesso before I stained the back of the panel, so when I painted on the Minwax stain per their instructions, some of it dripped onto the other side and oozed onto the lovely gesso surface.  I could sand some of it off, but some was allowed to remain, and it was mostly covered later with the bole.  I wanted to use the stain both to give the plywood a nicer color and to give it a few layers of protection.  It was my first time using any sort of woodstain, and I am sad to admit it was a bit more challenging than I anticipated.  Heh.  (Note the cat hairs that got stuck in the stain near the bottom.)

I adapted my design for the triptych from an Italian altarpiece depicting the Coronation of the Virgin, completed in 1414 by Lorenzo Monaco.  It is a large piece done in tempera on a wooden panel, with ornate carvings and gilded background.  Despite the source being done all on one large panel, it was divided by three distinct arches, which I thought would translate well into the triptych style I wanted.  Once I knew the number of people I would be painting, this layout seemed perfect.

I drew out the design on separate pieces of paper sized to the same measurements as the three panels.  I then used transfer paper between my drawings and the gessoed panel.  For the following steps of gilding & painting, all I had to do was stay in my lines.  (See pictures on "Drawing & Painting" page!)

Special thanks to my laurel, Mistress Aneira, for answering all of my panicked phone calls and helping me maintain perspective, and to Mistress Livia for knowing things all sorts of cool stuff about chemicals.

-Armenian bole (from Talas – red clay-like paste used as colorant/base for gilding)
-gelatin (mixed with bole)
-fish glue (diluted with water)
-23 karat gold leaf (25 sheets; Wehrung & Billmeir Co. XX Deep Gold booklet from John Neal Bookseller)
-"Extra Brilliant Rich Pale Gold" metallic pigment (Neuberg & Neuberg Importers Group, Inc.)
-egg tempera (basically just egg yolk)

Period gilding on panel painting was generally done over gesso and bole, with bole applied over the gesso specifically in the areas you planned to gild.  That part was pretty easy to figure out.  However, out of everything I had bothered with so far, I think interpreting the directions (or lack thereof) for the bole was the worst.

Talas Armenian bole claims to be "ready to use" – implying that you could just apply it and gild - but after applying it in multiple layers to one of the three panels, I discovered that that might not actually be the case – it might need an added binder (something sticky) added to it in order to actually adhere to both the gesso and the gold leaf when it is applied.  (Something I had assumed was already in the "ready to use" bole.)  The tempera workshop website made bole by combining bole clay with gelatin, and I assumed that I was able to skip that step.  Probably not, it turned out – though I still don't know for sure.  False advertising!!!  After a mild panic attack, I began scraping off the bole applied to the left panel, which proved to be a painstaking and generally futile pursuit.  I had a conversation with Mistress Livia about my woes & she suggested just applying another binder over top of the bole.  With that suggestion, I reapplied what little bole I had managed to scrape off, applied a mixture of 50% fish glue and 50% water on top of it, and let it dry per my usual gilding method.  

The method described in the tempera workshop website involves successive layers of gelatin/bole mixture being allowed to dry, smoothed down, and then rewet several times before laying the gold down immediately after wetting the bole again.  This is what I attempted on the second panel I did – the right panel.  I wanted to properly follow directions, dammit!  Unfortunately, the gold did not cooperate as well nor look as shiny as it did on the left panel, with the fish glue.  Less than halfway through, I reverted to the other method, this time with the bole having gelatin in it as well as fish glue on top of it.  I used the bole/gelatin mixture again on the third panel & just went ahead and applied the fish glue as well instead of trying to follow directions.  It turned out a better result and was actually far less time consuming.  

Laying the gold leaf was fairly standard over the fish glue, and other than the few spots where I tried to apply it with the bole/gelatin mixture only, it shined quite nicely.  Of course, there were a few spots that I didn't manage to cover with leaf for one reason or another (I only had 25 sheets for three whole panels, after all), but the method used for gilding turned out to work well with the gold imitation powder from Neuberg.  "Huffing" on the fishglue to reactivate the binder and then brushing on a layer of imitation gold flakes turned out to be an almost seamless way to cover any mistakes in my gilding technique.  The powder miraculously matched the leaf almost perfectly.  In the right light, you can see where the square leaves of gold lead end and the powder begins, but in most light the shininess is so dazzling that it's hard to tell unless you know what you're looking for.  I really lucked out with that powder.  (Another thanks to Mistress Livia for the recommendation!)

I made the decision to use the imitation gold powder for the border moulding before I began gilding due to my concern for how the panels would behave when closed on top of each other.  I didn't want the binders below the gold leaf to adhere to the opposite panel and risk ripping off chunks of gold leaf, so I decided to use paint there instead.  It also allowed me to experiment with egg tempera as a binder before I started painting the figures, so that was a plus.  Overall it worked well – I had to apply it in layers, which was annoying after the relative ease of achieving opacity with the gold leaf, but it turned out looking okay once it completely dried.  A few places concerned me by developing what looked like cracks in the paint, however, and I am still unsure of why that is.  It added some nice period-looking character, though, and rather than screwing up more obvious parts of the triptych by trying to fix it, I allowed them to remain and hoped they were inconspicuous enough that I could get away with it.  :D

Also – not sure if it was supposed to be, but the gold pigment/egg tempera mixture was hella smelly.

*more on these border moulding issues in the "Painting" section below…. Oh dear…

Making the Hinges
Starring Solvarr Hamarsson as hinge-making blacksmith extraordinaire!

-bronze strips in various sizes
-brass tacks
-homemade chisel
-bendy-tool that curved each piece of metal
-small drill to make holes in hinges...

Basically I didn't do much for this part, but I got a first-hand look while Solvarr did all the hard stuff.  We ended up making two batches of hinges – the first one being a sort of test run.  The first load was cut down to size after shaping each piece, the second load was pre-cut to a consistent size before we began and then sanded to fit specifically where it would be placed on the triptych.  Other than that, the process was pretty much the same for both batches.

Solvarr began by heating the bronze in his forge.  He then used a tool that he had made himself to bend the metal strips into a curved "U" shape.  The "U" shapes were then hammered flat while holding a bronze dowel through their middle to create a sort of "P" shape.  Two "P" shapes were required to make each hinge.  

Each "P" shape was then divided on the hollow part of the "P" with two small lines, creating three equal sections.  According to what part of the hinge it was to become, either the two outside sections or the one middle section was then hammered flat and sliced out with a (homemade!) chisel.  When one of each of these pieces were threaded together on bronze dowel, it created a functional hinge.

Each piece was then sanded on its edges and in the areas where it had been cut in order to fit together properly and to be safe & pretty when placed on the triptych.  We measured out the spots they would be placed on each side, and then Solvarr marked each hinge where a hole would be drilled.  He drilled six small holes per hinge, and each hinge was attached to the sides of the triptych boards using six brass tacks.  


- variously-sized paintbrushes
-egg yolk (base of the binder for egg tempera painting)
-ground pigments from and from random generous laurels (thanks Livia & Aneira!)
- gum Arabic
- imitation gold pigment (see gilding section)
- Higgins ink
It's a really good thing that I did the gold border tempera painting before I started painting the figures (back in the gilding section of this documentation), because otherwise I would have screwed up the important part instead of the less-important, more easily-fixable part.  After doing a lot of digging around in various online forum discussions, I figured out that I tempered the paint for the borders wrong, which is why they were a little cracky in some places – they will probably get more cracks as they age.  Bleh!  For the portraiture part of the painting, I made sure to water down the paint to the recommended consistency and to paint very, very thin layers using very small strokes.  It nearly killed me, because that's not usually how I paint (normally I paint with gouache, which is much quicker, in my opinion).  However, the gradual building up of layers in various washes & shades is what gives tempera panel paintings their translucent, sometimes opalescent qualities that are so cool – so I accepted my suffering….
- until I needed to paint lots of thin tiny black lines.  That's when I started using ink.  For the sake of speed and efficiency, I started using watered down ink to get more lines done quicker.  Over top of the tempera layers I had already painted, the sheen of the surface stayed the same and it allowed me to get finer lines a lot faster.  I started using it primarily while painting the throne – lots of thin little lines.  Bleh!

For painting most everything, I started with a medium tone and then built up layers to get it more opaque .  After I had achieved the basic color/structure I wanted, I went back and shadows and highlights in other colors or shades.  For example, Ysane's dress was done with a deep red pigment.  I shaded it in a dark blue and highlighted it in orange.   Tedious process, and kinda boring.  My favorite part of painting, however, was probably the most tedious.  After I had built up all of the basic garb, I got to go back and add accessories, trim, embroidery, necklaces, belts, etc.  I loved this part because I am a major garb fangirl and love to do fashion illustration.  It took forever, but it was definitely the funnest.  Her Majesty Kalisa asked that everyone be depicted in their usual period garb with a few specific requests, as well as wearing their award regalia.  They didn't want to wear pointy ducal hats or have others in coronets, which was great because it meant I got to paint some awesome Russian hats.

The last part was doing the faces and adding finishing touch-ups.  I hate portraiture.  I apologize to everyone I have ever tried to draw or paint – I can't make people look like themselves to save my life.  I have to rely on the garb to identify people when I paint them on scrolls.  So, adding the faces was kind of painful because they seemed much cruddier than the stuff I had painted up to that point.  

I was going from at least one or two pictures apiece when painting the little miniportraits.  A few things I had to fudge - medallions got cobbled together with necklaces or other bling, edges and trim were partially imagined, and several other things were exaggerated or hidden somewhere unobtrusive so that I didn't have to paint them.  Flaithri's Pelican medallion was cobbled together from two pictures of two different medallions because I only had access to one of them in the last week of painting - and Rhonwen was laureled one week before this was completed, so I went back and added a new laurel medallion to an existing necklace (I hadn't found a picture of her actual medallion yet).  I couldn't find pictures of Ysane or Ella wearing their Golden Dolphin medallions, so they both got standard medallions on a simple chain.  

I think what ended up making it look even wonkier was me trying to look between a photograph of the person to a period painting of a person in a similar pose.  Trying to paint a sort of vague medieval expression on everyone instead of whatever (occasionally goofy) expression they were making in a photo made it even harder to figure out how to paint an accurate portrait in a medieval style.

From left to right:
Ysane, Seonaid, Ella, Christiana, Rhonwen – Kalisa, Vladimir – Angus, Flaithri, Roland, Aedan, Theodora


Originally I was planning on doing the calligraphy in gold ink from a dip pen on the ultramarine blue carpet.  However, despite testing the pen, as soon as I put it to the panel, everything was sucky.  Thus, the first two words appearing on the triptych are considerably more derp than the rest, which I ended up painting in by hand, very slowly, with the ink made of the imitation gold pigment and gum arabic.  

I chose to put the calligraphy on the carpet in the central panel because it seemed to be the only logical place to put it.  When looking at the source pictures I could find of Coronation of the Virgin, I *think* there might have been words along the very bottom of all three panels, in gold on a dark background.  I'm not sure, though, because I can't find a decent enough picture…. Soooo, carpet!  I figured it was close enough.  Instead of having a section of gold carpet within the blue, I chose to just put gold calligraphy on top of the blue section and hoped that it would look nice with the decorative gold stars scattered throughout the rest of the carpet.  It took longer than I wanted but at least it turned out shiny.

Sources  2013.  Technique tutorial.  

Late Medieval Panel Paintings: Materials, Methods, Meanings.  Susie Nash.  Contributions by Till-Holger
Borchert, Emma Capron, & Jim Harris.  Paul Holberton Publishing, London.  2011.  First published to
accompany an exhibition by Sam Fogg in London.


Things I Would Like to Go Back & Fix…

-probably would not make this project my first attempt at a panel painting.  A little more practice might have gone a long way with some of the mistakes I made…
- icky border made of sticky, badly-mixed tempera
- edges of gold paint both along the stained edges and the interior painting are uneven and poorly mixed
- NO MORE FACES EVARRR – no longer want people to look like creepy frog versions of themselves
- need longer brass tacks to hold hinges on better
- need to make bottom heavier to prevent top-heaviness & unsturdiness when standing
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April 7, 2013


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