Who on earth would paint white paint on to a white background? An artist with too much time on her hands perhaps? Actually that’s far from the case and in my painting ‘Alyogyne ‘Misty’ and Varied Eggfly Butterfly there are two techniques that require just that.
Painting on calfskin vellum [see Blog Post ‘Painting on Vellum’] allows the paint to rest and dry on the surface of the vellum and act in a three-dimensional way, unlike paint that sinks into the fibres of paper. Careful manipulation of tiny blobs of paint (using the tip of my tiny sable brush and a fair degree of obsessive attention to detail!) I have created individual scales (about 3 per millimetre) on the butterfly wings, both white and coloured. Because each blob is raised and therefore has a tiny shadow the white scales are distinguishable from the white background.
Likewise, working in silverpoint has a three dimensional quality. Many silverpoint artists past and present work on treated paper in which, again, the ‘ground’ sinks into the paper fibres and creates a fairly flat surface on which to work. Because I work on vellum and board I have learnt to manipulate the ground so as to create the grooves and raised veins that I will be burnishing with the precious metals with which I’m going to draw. The more detail that I can achieve with the white ground, the easier the task of drawing the fine detail will be, but painting an entire painting in white on to a white background without losing your way can be quite a challenge. I find it easiest to lightly sketch the palest possible outline with a 4H pencil to help me navigate my white on white painting. Then, as I paint I keep my working light angled so as to catch the difference in texture between the paint and the background.
I suppose what is key to these techniques is the concept that paint, even watercolour paint is actually a three-dimensional medium rather than flat colour and should be treated as such even when painting on the smallest of scales. Remember too that there is no such thing as 'white' when dealing with paint or background, rather a myriad of shades of off-white, though ivory to cream, all of which provide subtle contrast.