Saturday, January 4, 2014


Mom didn't go to art school, and neither did I, so we are having to get our art education from Mom's job at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.  When Mom is at work, she tries to read about the different pieces of artwork, if she has time.  But sometimes she doesn't have time because she is too busy counting people with a little counter thingy or else watching to make sure nobody touches the artwork or does something else they are not supposed to do.

Anyway, when Mom sees a word she doesn't know, she writes it down, and then she and I do the in-depth research to find out what it means.  So today is the first day I will be telling you some of the artistic things we have learned.

Thing Number One:  faience

Combined Fore-parts of Lion or Apis Bull
Egyptian faience with green glaze
Walters Art Museum, Baltimore
If you talk about faience in the ancient world, you are talking about ceramic beads or figures that have a thin, shiny glaze.  At the Nelson, there are several hundred bluish-green faience servant figures that came out of an Egyptian tomb.  They were made so that if the next world required a bunch of work to be done, the dead person would not have to do it personally, because all those little workers could do it for him or her.  Faience beads have been found in Egypt that date all the way back to 4000 BCE.

Thing Number Two:  gesso

When artists are getting ready to paint on a surface, they put something called gesso on it first.  The "g" of gesso is pronounced like the "j" in "jello," but gesso is not really anything like jello.  Gesso is made out of chalk or plaster of paris or gypsum, and it has some type of glue to bind it together.  The glue was traditionally made out of rabbit skins.  I'm glad they made it out of rabbit skin and not out of dog skin!

Anyway, gesso was used on rigid surfaces such as wood or masonite.  It was applied in many thin layers.  Since it was brittle and might crack, this type of gesso was not used on more flexible surfaces like canvas.  Mixing and applying gesso was sort of an art in itself.  The gesso made a permanent and bright white surface to paint on.  It worked well as a base for almost anything, including oil paint, tempera, water paint, and gold leaf.

In the old days, artists had to make their own gesso from scratch, but nowadays you can just buy it in a can or jar.  The newer gesso is much more flexible, so it can even be used on canvas.

Thing Number Three:  japanning

You can actually use the word Japan as a verb!  Japanning was a European imitation of Asian lacquerwork, originally done with furniture.  The word started being used in the 17th century.  The most common background color was black, but some japanning was done in red, blue, or green.  Gold designs and pictorial scenes were then used in contrast with the background.

Japanning was very popular during the 18th century.  Things that could be japanned included snuff boxes, tables, and even whole walls.  Lots of japanned items were made in Italy.  They looked just as nice as the exports from Asia, and they were cheaper, so regular working families could afford to buy them.

Thing Number Four:  carnelian

Carnelian intaglio with a Ptolemaic queen holding a sceptre,
early 1st century, BCE; gold, garnet, emerald, and glass paste mount, 1724
Photo:  Marie-Lan Nguyen

Carnelian is a reddish mineral that is used as a semi-precious gemstone.  It can also be spelled cornelian, and it is similar to sard. Carnelian mostly comes from Brazil, India, Siberia, and Germany.  The ancient Romans really liked carnelian, and they used it for signet rings because hot wax didn't stick to it.  And probably also because it's a very pretty stone.

No comments:

Post a Comment