Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Age of Tempera

Note: I found surprisingly little published material on this subject. Therefore, please take this post as a preliminary outline about, and a personal reaction to tempera architectural rendering.  Yes, the title is somewhat ironic. 

The decades after World War Two produced many design trends, but the central stream of architectural design in the United States was what I’d call “Mass Modern”. The outlines of design in the 30s (clean lines & minimal ornament) were mixed with the large scale mass production of the war effort, and the modern materials which were also developed in the war. Style setters advocated a simpler (and cheaper) way of building, using modern methods and fewer hands. There was an emphasis on machine made things, and a rejection of handmade ornamentation. Natural materials were still used, but they were always mixed with glass, steel and concrete, and always modeled in a simple geometric way. The emphasis was on efficiency, logic and simplicity. 

The Seagram Building is an icon of the period. With its undifferentiated slab shape and its use of structural shapes for ornament, it was the antithesis of design in the 30s.

Elliot Glushak, the creator of the image above, was one of a number of architectural illustrators who worked in tempera (a quick drying, water soluble, opaque paint). Tempera was a very popular medium at this time, due to the quick execution and bright colors. It lost much of its popularity by the end of the 60s.

Tempera happens to be the paint I gave my kids for art projects because of the easy clean-up (I still have a large box full sitting in the basement). Contrarily, I used tempera for only a short period at the beginning of my rendering career, moving quickly to acrylics. I never followed the style of tempera renderers from the 50s, seeing them as old hat. Indeed, I’ve heard renderings from that period described as “hack work”, and lacking sophistication. But tempera can produce amazing results, and there are still renderers who use the technique.

Following is a sampling of art from the heyday of tempera rendering (mostly found in a book from 1960 called Architectural Rendering, by Albert O. Halse). There is a dearth of sources on this media and period of architectural rendering, and so my comments will be quite limited. No doubt someone with access to art and artists from that time, will do a better job eventually.

This rendering of a church by Robert Schwartz is a good example of a vignette composition; a trick regularly used by tempera renderers. This image doesn’t show it well, but the effect of the solid colors on the neutral illustration board creates a nice tension between the abstract paint on board, and the illusion of reality.

Both Schwartz and his partner Emil Kempa were award winning architects, as well as tempera artists. Kempa’s rendering of the Iberia and Icelandic Airlines Passenger Facility is shown above.

This student project by Harry B. Mahler has an awkward composition and color palette, but it does show the impact of tempera.

Now days an automobile showroom is out of place on Park Avenue in New York City, but in the 50s it seemed perfectly natural. This proposal by Carson & Lundin Architects and Kahn & Jacobs Architects makes me think of the glass cube Apple Store on Fifth Avenue.  Pierre Lutz, the project’s renderer, displays a fine flare that is often lacking in architectural rendering.

The returning GIs needed millions of homes to raise their families in; so was invented the mass produced suburban developments. Model homes were built to entice buyers, and colorful, quick renderings were needed to illustrate the various options. The paintings above by Peter Rahill were done for Leisure Time Developers of Rock Hill, New York.

Tempera was also used for custom designs such as for this modular house.

But, in the end tempera renderings were most often used for large scale developments, corporate headquarters and skyscrapers. This rendering of the United Fuel & Gas Company Headquarters by George Cooper Rudolph is a good example of the typical corporate headquarters rendering. 

A list of active tempera renderers from the 50s and 60s would include, Vincent Furno, Elliot Glushak, Kenneth A. Licht, Pierre Lutz, Marcel Mutin, Robert C. Nelsen, Peter Rahill, George Cooper Rudolph, and Charles J. Spiess, Jr. (this list does not include young artists who continued to work through the 80s and 90s).

So, why has this period been ignored? My own opinion on the fading memory of tempera architectural rendering in the 50s is that it was too closely connected with the modern style of architecture in the 50s. Being THE style during an era of a dominant style brings rejection from the next generation. The 60s brought new music, new art, new lifestyles; and specifically rejected the entire world of the 50s. While tempera continued to be used through the 60s, 70s and 80s, it was largely relegated to the “provinces”. The Avant Garde projects which expected to be discussed, awarded and published, used the new techniques.The shopping center in Dubuque used the old tried and true tempera, while the latest Manhattan skyscraper did not.

All right. But why is tempera as a medium fading away, long after 1960? Tempera is remarkable in terms of speed and impact when practiced by a master, why not revive it? The answer here I think, is that the feel of tempera has been taken up in computer rendering. Computer rendering is nothing if not fast and powerful.
There are still masters of tempera working out there, but they are getting old. Not only that, but aspiring architectural illustrators are opting for watercolor or the computer. The skill is not being passed on.
This is tragic. When done well a tempera rendering is truly breathtaking. While most of the examples above are rather pedestrian, the best artists produced, well, Art! And I should not get too depressed: the best of the color sense and composition found in that era’s art is still being emulated by young artists and illustrators. 

The best of the old is remembered. Which is as it should be.