Technique: Elizabeth Daggar's Architectural Paintings: Boldness & Clarity

0804dagg1_600x453_4This Brooklyn-based artist uses a combination of casein and acrylic to create paintings of considerable power.


by John A. Parks

Amsterdam II
2007, casein and acrylic, 10 x 20.
Collection the artist.

Elizabeth Daggar makes austere paintings that reveal a stark geometry in her architectural subjects. To achieve the clean, matte finish needed for this type of work, she has developed a technique that involves mixing casein into her acrylic paints. “I build my painting up in thin glazes,” says the artist, “but I find that using acrylic on its own can sometimes leave me with a surface that has a rather plastic look. When I mix in the casein, I get a more velvety and beautiful surface.” Daggar says that using casein alone is not practical for her technique. “It’s difficult to glaze with casein by itself,” she says, “because the top layer tends to disturb the layer underneath when it is rewetted. By mixing the paints together I get the best of both media.”  The reason for the different finish of acrylic and casein paints stems from their constituents: Acrylic is made from polymer emulsions, which tend to dry to a glossy hardness, while casein is a protein derived from milk solids that has a gluelike consistency and dries to a very even, matte finish.

Amsterdam III
2007, casein and acrylic, 30 x 40.
Collection the artist.

The results of this combined approach can be seen in Amsterdam I, in which the upper façade of a Dutch house is shown thrusting skyward at a dramatic and almost uncomfortable angle. A thin, clear winter sky hovers overhead, and the windows reflect a golden sun setting somewhere out of view. All the shapes of the building, windows, and street lamp have been strengthened and simplified to a point where they are clean, assertive, and easily read. The effect on the viewer is one of an elegiac emptiness or alienation, somewhere between an image in a graphic novel and a painting by Italian surrealist Giorgio de Chirico.  An even starker clarity is evident in Berlin, where a group of buildings has been reduced to a set of severe planes and plunging perspectives. A gray sky churns overhead while a few dead twigs peek from the top of the canvas. Again, the view of almost featureless walls and simplified shapes creates a sense of unease, a slight grimness of alienation and emptiness.

2007, four-color serigraph on paper,
18 x 24. Edition of 48.

Daggar’s work is meticulous from start to finish. “I’ve been a graphic designer for some years,” she says, “and I guess that some of the feel for line and shape as well as the clean finish have come from that world.” Although the artist’s professional life has involved TV animation, digital video, and a large number of print projects, she finds that her painting is an opportunity to explore a quieter, slower-moving world. Her recent work is based on photographs she took while traveling to Holland and Germany. “It was winter,” she describes, “and the streets of Amsterdam were bare of leaves so that you could see the bones of the buildings. The whole city was in silhouette, and the light was amazing.” Some of the images from that trip were made into silk-screen prints, a medium that suits Daggar’s graphic approach and her taste for a limited palette. In her Necropolis image, for instance, she has added a decorative wallpaper pattern to the sky. “When I was traveling in Europe I noticed a lot of heavily printed wallpapers with outsized patterns,” she says. “I added those to the images to convey a sense of the whole experience.”

2007, casein and acrylic, 18 x 24.
Private collection.

While on her trips, the artist takes a large number of photographs and uses them as the basis for her paintings and prints. She begins by choosing an image with the kind of graphic qualities that excite her, specifically ones with severe angles and unusual perspectives. “I’m drawn to images that are devoid of people,” the artist explains. “But I don’t think too much about the atmosphere of the work, even though it is important to me. I feel that will emerge as a byproduct of the choices I make while doing the painting.” The stark and restrained look of Daggar’s paintings is increased by her decision to use a palette restricted to umbers, blues, and an occasional yellow. This is a strategy that reinforces the sense of austerity and absence in her work, a kind of blankness that is both intriguing and compelling.

When creating one of her paintings, Daggar begins by drawing a careful graphite outline on the canvas, which often involves considerable simplification and editing of the source information. Many features are removed, along with a lot of surface detail, while the shapes themselves are strengthened and clarified. The artist then begins laying in thin washes of burnt or raw umber in the shadows. “At this stage I’m just establishing the skeleton of the piece,” says the artist. In these early layers the paint is mostly acrylic mixed with acrylic matte medium and just a little casein. “I vary the proportion of casein to acrylic as I work,” says Daggar. “I use more casein in the light-colored areas where I really build up the paint to heavier layers.”

2007, four-color serigraph on paper,
18 x 24. Edition of 48


In a larger recent painting the artist experimented with a combination of hard and soft edges. Amsterdam III shows a view looking up a building façade to a group of overhanging awnings. The light shining through the fabric creates soft edges on the striped patterns while the cast shadows on the sides of the building are also soft. Although the overall look of the painting is slightly richer than her other work, the general feel of starkness and alienation remains. Daggar’s interest in edges is also evident in her work in charcoal, in which she relishes the blurry and atmospheric feel that can be achieved with the medium.The artist admits to a wide range of influences in her work. “I admire Edward Hopper for his sense of light and space,” she says. “Even when he doesn’t have figures in his paintings you feel that they are about people. You often have the sense that someone has just left the picture or that some sort of story is taking place in the houses he paints.” The artist is also attracted to the work of Charles Sheeler, mostly for his adventurous simplifications and his decision to take on subject matter that is anything but picturesque. Daggar admires Picasso because of the broad range of work he took on, and she has also recently become an admirer of Mary Cassatt, noting that this artist probably got less recognition than she deserved simply because of her gender.
As for the future of Daggar’s work, the artist feels that she will probably try to pare down her images even more, approaching starker and more abstract images.

About the Artist
Elizabeth Daggar studied at the Pratt Institute, in New York City, where she majored in graphic design. “I was attracted to the program because of the wide range of media I was able to work in,” she says, “but most of my electives were in the fine-art area.” Since college she has worked as a freelance graphic designer, doing animation work for VH1 as well as doing a large variety of print projects. She has published a number of posters through her own design company, Electrofork, and showcased one of her short films at Resfest 1999 and NY Vidfest 2000. She is represented by the Object Image Gallery, in Brooklyn, New York. More of the artist’s work can be seen on her website at

John A. Parks is an artist who is represented by Allan Stone Gallery, in New York City. He is also a teacher at the School of Visual Arts, in New York City.

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