Face Value

Posted Nov. 02, 2009, at 7:18 p.m.

SARGENTVILLE, Maine — Consider Claudia.

She’s a woman of a certain age, in what appears to be a fine dress and necklace of pearls, sitting in a room with patterned wallpaper as a backdrop.

Yet there is a certain wistfulness in her eyes. There is dirt under her fingernails, and her hair is out of place.

Painter Phil Schirmer also considered Claudia, an acquaintance of his who lives near Schirmer on the Blue Hill peninsula, as he embarked on a portrait several years ago.

“I wanted to paint her because I think she has a beautiful face, for one thing, which is a minor part of it,” Schirmer said on a recent morning in his studio, in the top level of a renovated schoolhouse where he lives with his wife, Mary, and her brother. “More importantly, she has an amazingly complex personality. She is a very intelligent, articulate, highly educated woman. But she has an incorrigible, contrary personality, and it was a challenge to try to capture that in a portrait.”

A longtime proponent of the rare medium of egg tempera painting, Schirmer entered Claudia’s portrait, “The Secret Gardener,” last year in the Outwin-Boochever Portrait Competition, held every three years at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

Schirmer learned this summer his painting was one of 49 out of 3,300 entries from every state to make the finals of the competition. “The Secret Gardener” wasn’t a prize-winner, but for Schirmer being a finalist is prize enough.

The painting of Claudia will hang at the National Portrait Gallery until Aug. 22, 2010, as part of a major exhibition of all the finalists. It is expected that around 2 million visitors will see the exhibition, Schirmer said. He, his wife — an oil painter who displays her work in the Blue Hill area — and other family members attended the opening last month in Washington, D.C.

Schirmer is the second painter from Maine to be a finalist in the triennial competition. Brett Bigbee of South Portland was a prize-winner in the 2006 event.

Schirmer was somewhat out of his element in portraiture, because he has become known as a painter of exquisite yet spare natural images, using layering and highlighting techniques which are the mark of the egg tempera, a centuries-old medium that Schirmer said went out of style and then came back into use in the late 1800s after an old Italian text on the technique was translated into English.

Most egg tempera painters use the same techniques used centuries ago, Schirmer said.

The egg refers to the binding agent painters use to mix hand-ground dry pigments, along with a little water to dilute the egg, to make colors which are used as paint. Artists usually have to mix a new batch of paints every day, or the mixture starts to give off that familiar, pungent, sulfurlike smell of a rotten egg.

Schirmer starts the painting process with a board made of untempered masonite, which he smoothes down with a wet wooden block to remove the small imperfections that could cause shadows or wrinkles in a painting. A layer of primer known as gesso is then applied to the board. The gesso is usually made of a white agent such as calcium carbonate or crushed marble, mixed with water and glue made from rabbit skins, which Schirmer said is a byproduct of the food industry in Europe.

The materials are relatively inexpensive but not always easy to find in rural areas. Schirmer does a lot of online ordering.

After the gesso is applied and the paints are mixed, Schirmer will do an underpainting in a monochromatic color, which is one of the trickier elements of the egg tempera technique.

“The more layers [of paint] you do, the more complicated it becomes,” he said. “But you have to be careful because if you go too dark in the underpainting, no matter how many highlights you put in, it will always look dull.”

Glazes and highlights are then added in and fine-tuned. Schirmer is able to capture shine and reflection on smooth rocks he finds near the ocean, and the water itself. But the process is time-consuming — Schirmer estimated about half of his time is spent painting, with the rest consumed by preparing materials and framing. He thinks there are probably fewer than 10 Maine painters working seriously in egg tempera.

It takes a certain type of personality to excel in egg tempera, Schirmer said.

“You have to have a zen attitude,” he said. “You can’t be in a hurry. It’s very opposed to modern trends, but that fits my personality.”

A Massachusetts native who has spent many summers on Orrs Island, Schirmer has been painting in egg tempera for about 25 years. He started out as an artist — that is, as an artist outside his working life as an art director at different publications over the years — using drybrush watercolors.

But Schirmer found that medium to be too unforgiving. Once the paint is on the paper or canvas, the artist can’t remove the color. Schirmer sought an alternative, and looked to a very Maine painter.

“I’m not sure where I heard about tempera but I had always liked [Andrew] Wyeth’s stuff and I think I read an interview with him where he said he saw tempera as an extension of his drybrush watercolor,” said Schirmer, who now teaches egg tempera technique at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, which has an extensive collection of Wyeth paintings.

“Basically you’re doing the same painting technique,” Schirmer added. “But with the egg in there it gives you a new dimension, you can actually mix whites in and build up to the highlights rather than use the white of the paper as in watercolor.”

Schirmer found he could make mistakes in egg tempera. If he wanted to redo an area of the painting, all he had to do was sand down his board and start over again.

Schirmer learned all he could from some standard egg tempera texts and soon enough his paintings began to sell out in galleries in Massachusetts and then in Maine, where he moved in 1995. In addition to painting, Schirmer is working part time for Wooden Boat magazine in Brooklin.

“The Secret Gardener” came about after Schirmer had painted a portrait of his wife, and enjoyed the process so much that he decided to paint another, this time using Claudia as a subject. Schirmer showed the resulting painting to someone who suggested he enter it into the National Portrait Gallery competition.

After Schirmer found out he had been named a finalist, he got a card in the mail from the Deer Isle Writers Group, of which he is a member. Inside was a check for $750, enough to pay for most of the expenses for him and his wife to go to the exhibit opening in Washington, D.C.

“That just blew both of us away,” he said.

Schirmer will use only Claudia’s first name to identify her, and he confirmed Claudia is, in fact, a gardener. He knows far more about the woman than he’s willing to reveal, however, in a newspaper interview.

The viewer will never know why Claudia is looking off to the side, an index finger to her lips, what she’s thinking, or why she might seem wistful.

“The pose that I ended up choosing showed her in a pensive mood, and there’s a little sadness in her eyes, perhaps a little regret,” Schirmer said. “If you look closely, she has dirt under her fingernails because she spent the morning working in the garden. And her hair is a little out of order. But that’s Claudia. She has to sort of rebel in some way. She wasn’t about to clean her fingernails.”

For more information on egg tempera painting, go to www.eggtempera.com. Schirmer’s work may be viewed at www.philschirmer.com.

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