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Painting on Vellum Part II

This is the second part of our assessment of some vellum samples kindly supplied by the Vintage Paper Company If you have not read the first installment see what Sandra Doyle thought about using this medium.

This week our founding President Gaynor Dickeson, adds her experience and thoughts.

Natural calfskin vellum

Each piece of vellum appeared completely different, so from this small sample I felt that ordering a pack of ten A5 pieces might not give me enough similar pieces for a series of pictures. Every calf is an individual animal and different parts of its skin may differ from each other, but the differences between the sample pieces was significant. This may demand some careful sorting, both by the vellum processor and the user.

Each piece gave the appearance that it had been prepared by machine. One piece was fairly dark with clear light, dark and even stripes that could only have been the result of a machining process (see below). This made me look more closely at the other three pieces. These were whiter and delicately veined and two also had translucent patches.

Figure 1. Complete vellum sheet with surface structure.

Figure 2. Vellum with close up of "stripes".

Botanical art vellum often varies from very light to dark. But generally, its quality doesn’t distract and detract from the artwork; it may even complement the detail of the plant subject. For instance, with natural veiny vellum, you may be able to incorporate veins in the composition.

Figure 3. Vellum prior to mounting.

All artists look for different things in their substrate and I found only one piece of the four that suited my criteria. This was fairly white with delicate veining, no translucent patches and only subtle lines from the mechanised production process. But I chose one of the other pieces to try as the Vintage Paper website particularly mentions this type of vellum.

The piece that I chose was partially opaque with fairly large translucent patches. The surface behaved differently over the opaque and translucent parts and buckled hugely. (Figure 3). I tried to stretch and flatten it slightly, between acid free paper, blotting paper and under heavy books - but to no avail. As this is a living material I considered stretching and gluing it on a board before working on it, but felt the piece was too small.

This was my first mistake – and there were more…

Trying to get the vellum as flat as possible I taped it to Fome-Cor® board. I was not completely successful as you see in Figure 4; it buckles under the tape. At that stage I should have taken the time to properly mount the piece of vellum.

This was my second mistake – and there were still more…

The vellum surface was beautiful to paint on and didn’t need preparation with pumice. But as this was a comparative trial and for comparison, I pumiced an area under the composition.

I painted three ivy leaves, one of them over the pumiced area. It seemed to make no difference but unfortunately, I could still see those very thin machined lines under the pigment in both the pumiced and unprepared areas.

Figure 4. Start of painting with vellum taped to backing board.

When I’d finished the small picture, I felt hugely distracted/disappointed by the way the vellum had buckled, even though I’d used very little water. I decided to stretch and mount the piece and hopefully save the painting. But I did it hastily and on too thin a piece of MDF board.

These were mistakes three and four - and there was still more to come…

The result was a smooth, flat though slightly bowed surface. But also, in my haste, I messed up the painting. Additionally, I’d trapped some tiny hairs between the vellum and 640 gsm Fabriano Traditional white paper that was on top of the MDF board. And, to make matters worse, the hairs lay directly under the translucent parts of the vellum!

That was mistake number five.

Because I had a picture I was trying to save. I needed to get it mounted centrally, and so lightly pencilled on the reverse where I wanted the board to be. Normally this is perfectly OK and part of the mounting process, but because of the translucent areas, the graphite showed through here, further making the edges of the picture look messy.

Mistake number six

During the hasty mounting process, I irretrievably damaged my picture, with wet glue on the surface. This gave me an opportunity to do yet more work to try the vellum’s properties. I was easily able to clean off the surface, leaving virtually no staining even though I’d used some staining pigments. So, I repainted the picture.

Would I buy vellum from this supplier?

I have thought about this question quite a bit. I loved painting on the vellum and learnt a lot from the mistakes I made on this sample. These are some of the things I would do if using this vellum again:

  • Mount each piece with a thicker board (probably marine plywood) before I started. Obviously the thicker the board, the more of the painting surface you lose. Had I followed the guidance regarding sizes, I would have used a board about 1.2cm thick with an additional overlap of about 1.5cm; leaving about 15 x 9 cm to paint on. My finished ivy leaf picture is 13 x 10.5cm.

  • Get a guarantee that the surface of each piece I bought did not have visible machined lines.

  • Not use a pencil to mark placement of the board if there are patches of translucency.

  • Make sure hair, dust or fibres do not contaminate the working area.

Overall, I like painting on smaller pieces of vellum and feel that this vellum might be ideal for someone starting out and wanting to practice economically. If the vellum quality proves reliable, it may be cheaper than that otherwise obtainable in the UK.

Figure 5. The finished painting.

Gaynor Dickeson

April, 2020

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