The first time I painted with egg tempera I felt as though I’d been given a magic wand, because I was able, all at once, to execute accurate representations of the things I love.
It is an ancient medium, and I use it in its simplest form, mixing ground pigment into a drop of egg yolk, forming transparent colors which are applied in layers over a rigid white surface such as a gessoed board. Each layer is laid on carefully with a very small brush from a different direction than the previous layer in order to avoid disturbing the paint beneath. Light passes through the layers and is reflected back from the white ground, resulting in a luminous effect peculiar to this medium.
My mother first taught me the names and faces of woodland flowers, and her delight in them. Dutchman’s breeches, blood root and trillium are friends from my early childhood in the Hudson Valley. When I moved north, the same were here to greet me along with others I had not seen, like the pink lady’s slipper and exquisite wild columbine.
My father taught me the names of songbirds and a tender regard for all small creatures. He was inordinately fond of toads, and I am as well.
One spring evening we shared the pleasure of holding a large and magnificent moth, newly emerged from its cocoon, trembling as it pumped fluid into expanding wings, clinging to the perch of my father’s finger until it was ready to fly.
Walking through woods you will see much of nature, but sitting very still you will see a lot more. I do this every spring with my sketchbook to get accurate drawings of wildflowers as well as a personal experience of their environment, in order to better express it in a painting.
Sitting or lying on the ground to draw a subject at eye level, I may remain still for some minutes, and very soon will begin to see a number of the residents begin to move about. Birds come closer and resume their songs, wood frogs and efts creep from under the leaf mulch, and I may be lucky enough to spot a turtle slowly making his way or a woodcock stalking past.
A neighbor once saw a coyote sitting only a few feet behind me, studying me intently. I didn’t get to see him before he took off, silent as a ghost, but I felt honored by his attention.
It is more difficult to see our nocturnal neighbors, but walking or sitting outside after dusk may provide a glimpse of them and the pleasure of their voices. Screech owl’s are not uncommon in villages and suburban areas and will perch and call near homes.
I tracked a night heron all over a farm one June evening, hoping to see the bird that gave voice to that strange cry, but got only close enough to hear his wings each time he flew to the next meadow. Fortunately I have an old case of mounted birds which provided a more cooperative model.
Most of the surrounding hills are old farmland, full of stone walls and foundations, and the rusty artifacts of those who worked the land. I often include these in a painting to tell a more complete story of these woods, and because they have become a valid part of the landscape.
Gail was one of the earliest artists participating in Stagecoach Run Art Festival during the July 4th weekend in Treadwell and Franklin New York. She died in November 2018.