Nicolas Otero has been practicing the tradition of Santo making for well over sixteen years. Apprenticed by master artists since the age of 16, he only uses the traditional methods which have been handed down through the generations including the productional of all-natural pigments and hand-carved ... moreNicolas Otero has been practicing the tradition of Santo making for well over sixteen years. Apprenticed by master artists since the age of 16, he only uses the traditional methods which have been handed down through the generations including the productional of all-natural pigments and hand-carved wooden panels. Over the years he has gained a significant reputation and can be seen in numerous museums, churches and has a following of many loyal collectors. He has also created altar screens which have become highly collectable and his work has been featured in a variety of publications.
About The Process
Much of what is known about the early materials used in this devotional art form is in thanks to scholars and artists who have spent countless hours of study on the tradition of making santos.
The early santeros, documented in census records as escultores, made use of local materials and resources. This included wood, pigments and varnish. It is not unreasonable to assume that Native American artisans also had a direct influence on the early santeros. Evidence that these early escultores worked within a tight guild- like system has been proven to be very likely. Today this guild-like system still exist, with many modern day santeros networking in their devotion of making and creating santos.
Preparing the Paints
The manner of preparation of pigments required time. The pulverization of pigments (both organic and inorganic) for refinement was necessary, so too was the addition of a binder (a holding substance to suspend the pigment on the gessoed base). The element of water was also necessary as a vehicle to allow for fluid movement. These same methods are still employed in the process of santo making today.
Preparing the Panel
Prepared wood panels were traditionally coated with gesso, a plaster made of gypsum and animal glue. Gypsum is found in great quantity in northern New Mexico. According to Cash “In the standard process the santeros brought from their homelands, the yeso as baked, ground to a fine powder, and mixed with an aqueous solution containing a certain percentage of cooked animal glue. This formula which has been in existence for centuries, was widely used in Europe.” (Cash, “Santos – enduring Images of Northern New Mexican Village Churches,” 209.) The process of layering the gesso upon the wood panel is a time-consuming art form in itself. It is not uncommon for santeros to have their own unique formula of preparation.
Varnishing and Waxing
As for the final varnish, it is a common practice for the modern day Santero to use pine pitch in combination with alcohol. According to Carrillo “In Pino’s 1812 report, he noted that pine pitch and fir gums (abeto) were used in New Mexico, and more specifically that fir gums were used to make a permanent varnish.” (Carrillo, “A Saintmaker’s Palette,” 102.) The method of collecting pine pitch and producing this traditional varnish is still a common practice. A final coat of beeswax is rubbed on the santo as a method of toning down the luster of the varnish.
The complexity of the materials used in the tradition of creating santos is something to be respected and studied further. These santos were (and still are) produced out of necessity for the devout and faithful alike. It is known that informal workshops or “schools” were active in the production of santos during the Colonial and Mexican period of occupation. The same tradition of master and apprentice continues today. This is in fact how Nicolas came to be part of this tradition.
Taught by the likes of Rhonda Crespin, Alcario Otero, and Charlie Carrillo, Nicolas continues the use of traditional methods of preparing pigments, gesso and hand carved wood panels. He has also practiced the tradition of bulto carving, gesso relief, gold leafing, and painting on hides (one of the earliest forms of religious painting). Refining the use of materials and developing the highest quality of work is important to Nicolas and it is evident in the quality of his work. Through time, he has developed a unique style that maintains the traditional and truly unique aesthetic.