Preparation for Making Madder Lake

December 1, 2014

(The good stuff!)

It’s time to make these posts at last, after many delays: How to Make Madder Lake.

I’ve posted before about how to make a lake pigment – check this post here – and will make more posts about it in the future: about the different varieties of carmine lake, and how to make a proper yellow lake from weld, and so on. But madder lake is, well, different. It’s more involved to make a quality red lake from this dyestuff. Many have tried making madder lakes, only to be disappointed in the reddish-brown color that results, and have wondered how to make that exciting rose color we all love. As it turns out, there is one little secret that makes all the difference.

Some history: madder lake is one of the older lake pigments, found to have been used on some rather ancient objects. But for most of the Middle Ages, some of the other red lakes – lac, brazilwood, etc. – were often preferred over madder. As Daniel Thompson puts it: “To make as good a lake from madder as any beginner can make from brazil wood calls for a good deal of expert chemical knowldege and careful manipulation; and there is no evidence to suggest that medieval colour-makers possessed the knowledge necessary to making good madder lakes.” (The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting, Daniel V. Thompson.) Madder lake, as an artist’s material, really came into its own in the Renaissance, being used as a glazing color for drapery and so on. Its popularity continued through the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras; one of its popular functions was as a glaze over vermilion in drapery, creating an intense and fairly stable red.

In the Nineteenth Century, a process was discovered to make a very rich and powerful rose color from madder, using sulfuric acid. (There are some sources that report that this is when madder lake was invented; this is not true. It was this more powerful madder lake that was created at this time, a color named rose madder. It is this recipe, given by George Fields, that Winsor & Newton claim to still be using today.) We won’t be using sulfuric acid in this recipe, but we will still be able to make a nice rose-red madder lake by taking our time and following a procedure.

Making madder lake may be more involved and time-consuming than some of the other lake pigments, but the results can be well worth the investment. Not only is it one of the most beautiful lakes, and an absolute joy for skin tones, but it is also, by all accounts, far more lightfast than any other natural lake pigment. It is the only natural lake, as far as I am aware, that is still in general use by artists, because it is the only one that is considered permanent enough for artistic use (at least as an oil paint). The stuff may not last forever, but it will last, as the man said, a goodish while. And, unlike the synthetic alizarin crimson, when it does fade it appears to fade slowly and gracefully over time, rather than disappearing all at once.

The ingredients are simple and few: some madder root; potash alum; sodium carbonate (washing soda) or potassium carbonate (potash); and water. We’ll also need a slow cooker – or a little double-boiler setup that I’ll show later on – a thermometer, a large jar or two, some coffee filters and a funnel. The coffee filters: get some of the big flat-bottomed basket filters, not the cone-shaped ones – those have a tendency to spring leaks.

We will begin with about 100g of roots, and about 1/10 that – 10g – of alum. This will make a small amount of lake pigment. Stay tuned – the big secret comes in the next post!

Madder roots

Madder roots

Last of the Old Masters

September 9, 2014

Robert Henri - Dorita - WikiArt

Robert Henri – Dorita – WikiArt


“Know what the old masters did. Know how they composed their pictures, but do not fall into the conventions they established. These conventions were right for them, and they are wonderful. They made their language. You make yours. They can help you. All the past can help you.”
– Robert Henri.

This morning I went once more to see the Robert Henri “Spanish Sojourns” exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Art. This was the fourth time I’ve gone to see this particular exhibit. The other three times it was paired with the fantastic “Sorolla in America” exhibit; this time I went for the Henri alone.

I almost didn’t go. I’m pressed for time these days, and I only had about an hour to see the paintings before beginning the drive up to work. And I felt I had already seen what I needed to on my previous trips. But I had been planning to go once more by myself, and I figured this kind of Henri show would probably never happen again.

This is the last day of the show in San Diego. If you happen to catch this post within the next few minutes – and unfortunately, I mean the very next few – get yourself over there. Drop everything and just do it. You won’t regret it, I promise.

I saw in the news that the exhibit will be stopping in Jackson, Mississippi next. Same message for folks in that part of the country – if you are at all a fan of portraiture, this is not a show to be missed.

This last visit was amazing, but a bit sad, too – looking at paintings I knew I would probably never see again. I had a particularly difficult time saying goodbye to Dorita, the painting at the top of this post. She has long been a favorite of mine, and I’d been overjoyed to discover that she was a part of this exhibit. I do hope I get to see her again someday.

Every time I look at Henri’s paintings up close, I am further blown away by them. I’ve long been a fan of Henri’s, and I’ve long had the suspicion that he was grossly underrated. My suspicion was given some legs when I read Richard Schmid’s good opinion of him in his book Alla Prima. This last visit… I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and what so many others seem to be missing, if Henri’s limited fame is any measure. Henri’s paintings are so like the paintings of the Baroque, with his dark palette and glowing light… The brushstrokes are those of a modernist, but the compositions are those of an old master. I am beyond suspicion now, and I can make the following three statements about the artist:

One: Robert Henri is one of the truly great portrait artists of the last century.

Two: Robert Henri is as of now, bar none, my favorite portrait artist.

Three: I am ready to give Henri a certain title. This title has been given to different artists before; it was first given to David, I believe, and has since been given to different artists from Goya to Renoir. I personally will stake my own claim and give this title to Robert Henri,

Last of the Old Masters.

Daniel Smith Primatek Oil Paints Review – Part 2

May 31, 2014

Here is a somewhat better pic of the cool colors of the paint swatches (from left: ultramarine, turquoise, amazonite, malachite) from the last post:

Daniel Smith Primatek

Daniel Smith Primatek

Still having trouble photographing that amazonite – it’s really quite saturated out of the tube, but you’d never know it from looking at this.

The paints themselves: overall they were fine to use. Upon first opening, some of them (especially the malachite) gave off a distinctly rancid oil aroma, even though they were bought directly from Daniel Smith. Not a big deal, of course, though the smell of linseed oil is normally one of the (many) pleasures of working with oil paint.

The paints are very smooth, which personally I don’t particularly like; part of the joy of working with natural pigments is the sometimes grainier texture, which seems completely absent from these paints. I personally would like to feel the “naturalness” of these natural pigments under the brush; of course, other painters might disagree (in fact, I know at least one personally who does disagree). For me, missing out on that is missing part of the point of using natural pigments in the first place.

The vehicle for these paints is alkali-refined linseed oil (alkali-refined means it’s chemically processed), with the exception of the two blues (Turquoise and Lapis), which use alkali-refined safflower oil instead. Again, the choice of binders seems to me to miss the point of the paints: if you’re making a big deal out of using natural pigments, wouldn’t you want to use a natural oil to go along with them? (It’s not nearly as bad as wasting natural pigments in a thoroughly synthetic medium like acrylic, of course, but still.) Maybe it’s just me, as an enthusiast of natural art materials: but having these paints in a natural, raw, cold-pressed linseed oil, along with some greater variation in pigment particle size, would make these paints much more exciting.

Lightfastness: For some reason, the only one of these paints that has lightfastness information listed on the Daniel Smith website is the Malachite Genuine, which is listed as having “Lightfastness Rating: I.” Others of these pigments are available in watercolors and do have lightfastness ratings listed: Rhodonite Genuine, Purpurite Genuine, Lapis Lazuli Genuine, Sleeping Beauty Turquoise Genuine, Amazonite Genuine, and Malachite Genuine are all listed as “ASTM Lightfastness Rating: Excellent” in watercolor. However, there have been some lightfastness problems noted by various artists who have done their own tests. Note the changes in the Rhodonite, for instance, here by annie.nz on WetCanvas. Again note the Rhodonite here on Jane Blundell’s blog, and also the Sleeping Beauty Turquoise. These two posts seem to indicate there may be some question about those lightfastness ratings provided by Daniel Smith. (At the same time, I’ll note a general consensus that many pigments have greater lightfastness in oil than in watercolor, possibly mostly because of the thicker paint layers used).

Here are two test paintings done with the Daniel Smith Primatek paints. This first one is a sketch of some of the blue irises blooming in the backyard (the same irises from which I get the green ink). The background was done with some paints from Da Vinci and Rublev; the flower and plant parts were done with the Primateks, with some help from Rublev’s Blue Ridge Yellow Ochre and Lemon Ochre.

Irises Still Life © Bispo

Irises Still Life © Bispo

I was expecting to be able to use the Purpurite for the flowers, but that color loses too much saturation in tints. As I mentioned earlier, I was able to get better violet tints with a mix of the Rhodonite and the Lapis. (I still had to steer the tints more toward the magenta, since the Rhodonite is so much stronger than the Lapis.) The Purpurite was fine for the darker violets. Amazonite, Malachite and a bit of Turquoise did a fine job for the green plant parts, and in fact were more saturated than I needed – except for the brighter chartreuse bits, which were helped along with some of that lemon ochre.

Here is another test, a portrait of my wife Joy. For this one I used the Primatek Sedona, Pipestone, Rhodonite and Turquoise; Rublev supplied the yellow ochre, black and white.

Joy Naomi © Bispo 2014

Joy Naomi © Bispo 2014

I went a bit mad with color on this one; it’s actually quite scandalous for me, who usually uses just earth colors (and maybe a touch of madder) for skin tones. A bit of a color theory experiment, really, that was only partially sucessful. Early in the painting I got the urge to use some of the Turquoise for the flesh tones, and it worked very well for that. The Rhodonite worked fine as well, mixing nice oranges with the yellow ochre, and rose tints with white. You can see how rich the color is in the shirt; if it were just a touch redder in hue I’d probably use this paint regularly.

Overall these Primatek oil paints will be a welcome, if occasional, addition to my palette; and I have to give a lot of credit to Daniel Smith for choosing some of these unusual pigments. I’ve been wanting to try painting with natural turquoise for a long time, and it was a pleasure to finally do so, especially in the portrait. Along with that paint, the clear winners here are the Amazonite Genuine and the Rhodonite Genuine – both stunning paints that can actually compete with some of the modern synthetic organics. The Purpurite is also fun for those dark violets, and the Sedona Genuine is a good-quality, if fairly ordinary, natural red ochre. Even the three disappointments in my set – the Minnesota Pipestone, the Genuine Lapis Lazuli, and the Malachite Genuine – are still useful paints (although the Pipestone may be relegated to underpaintings, since it’s such a weak tinter). At the end of the day, I can recommend Daniel Smith’s Primatek line of oil paints for those interested in painting with natural pigments. Give them a try; and feel free to post the results back here!

Thanks for reading!

Daniel Smith Primatek Oil Paints Review – Part 1

May 5, 2014

This is a review of Daniel Smith’s Primatek line of oil paints, which I’ll post in two parts. These are a set of natural-pigment paints, some of them quite unconventional. They have this line of oil paints, and also (and perhaps more popularly) watercolors. I haven’t tried any of the watercolors yet; I probably will someday, some of them look amazing (the garnet!).

First, an overview. The colors I tried in oil are:

Sedona Genuine, a red ochre from Arizona;
Minnesota Pipestone (Catlinite), pink pipestone;
Rhodonite Genuine, a rose-colored gemstone;
Purpurite Genuine, a violet mineral;
Genuine Lapis Lazuli, natural ultramarine blue;
Natural Sleeping Beauty Turquoise Genuine;
Amazonite Genuine, a lovely green stone;
Malachite Genuine, natural copper carbonate green.

Here are the swatches. Each color is painted from the tube (some with a bit of poppy oil added) and approximately 50/50 with zinc white (Winsor & Newton). You can see which ones are the strong tinters. There are also three other paints included for comparison.

Daniel Smith Primatek

Daniel Smith Primatek

The fastest driers were the Malachite (no surprise, as it’s a copper pigment) and Rhodonite, both touch-dry after three days. The Amazonite, Lapis, Sedona and Purpurite were dry after five days, and the Turquoise after seven days. The Sedona, strangely, was the slowest dryer in the bunch, still slightly tacky after a week.

Some of these paints were very impressive, others not so much. I’ll go through them individually here.

Sedona Genuine: red ochre, opaque, medium tinter. This is a pretty standard red ochre – perfectly serviceable and pleasant to use, but nothing out of the ordinary. What makes this paint fun for me is the same thing that makes Da Vinci’s Arizona Red and Arizona Brown Ochre interesting for me: it’s local to my region. I’ll probably keep using it for that reason alone.

Minnesota Pipestone: red ochre with rose tints, semitransparent, weak tinter. I have to say, this one was disappointing. I’ve used a Pink Pipestone pigment from Rublev, ground into oil and tubed by myself, that is a delight – delicate pinks for skin tones or satin highlights on white fabric. I was expecting something similar here, but it was darker and significantly less saturated (and not NEARLY the color as shown on the Daniel Smith website!), both on its own and in tints. Here is a comparison of the Daniel Smith against my own:

Daniel Smith - Pipestone

Daniel Smith – Pipestone

Usable, I suppose, but not the exciting paint that it should be.

Rhodonite Genuine: rich rose color, transparent, strong tinter, fast dryer. This paint is one of the good ones. An amazing rose color that seems as if it must be an organic, it’s so saturated – and yet it’s ground from a stone. I immediately wanted to see if this could be used as an alternative to rose madder. It can’t, not quite – it’s a bit more magenta, and though it’s transparent, it’s definitely less transparent than madder, and therefore not as easy to glaze. But, as I’ll show, it can be used for rich skin tones.

Purpurite Genuine: dark violet, transparent, medium tinter. As many are aware, violet is a color that has long been problematic for artists, as historically there just don’t seem to be all that many usable pigments in this hue range. This one is an interesting attempt to provide another. As it turns out, purpurite is very nice for dark purples, but it loses quite a bit of saturation in tints. I was actually able to get better purple tints by mixing the Rhodonite with the Lapis.

Genuine Lapis Lazuli: natural ultramarine blue, transparent, weak tinter. This paint seemed not bad at all – until I compared it to another brand of natural lapis, Da Vinci:

Daniel Smith Primatek - Lapis

Daniel Smith Primatek – Lapis

Here you can see that the lapis from Da Vinci is significantly more saturated, both neat and in tints. Now it is possible, of course, that the Da Vinci has been enhanced with a bit of modern, synthetic ultramarine to increase saturation; I haven’t had a chance to ask them about it yet. But, assuming that is NOT the case, then that means Daniel Smith is offering a lower grade of natural ultramarine at, as it turns out, about double the price (comparing Daniel Smiths’s website against Da Vinci prices on Dick Blick). Not a great value if so. I will contact Da Vinci at some point and post their response here.

Natural Sleeping Beauty Turquoise Genuine: cyan, opaque, surprisingly strong tinter. I suppose the nearest modern color would be cerulean blue, but the Turquoise is lighter in value. I found this color to be most useful as itself – painted directly onto the canvas without much modification, or as a cool modifier for other light-valued colors to achieve pastel blues, greens, or even violets. It’s not much in the way of a general mixing color, but great as a cyan accent color.

Amazonite Genuine: green-cyan, transparent, medium tinter. This is another of the good ones. (Don’t be fooled by the photograph above – the paint out of the tube is much more saturated than that swatch looks.) Right out of the tube it looks very near to viridian. This works very well as a general mixing green, or as a glazer. An amazing (pun!) paint, really, especially for a natural pigment. On some research, I discovered that despite the name, amazonite is mined right here in the United States, making it almost regional to me. Cool.

Malachite Genuine: pale middle green, opaque, weak tinter, fast dryer. This must be a pretty fine grind of malachite, because it’s high-valued and not very saturated. At the last minute I decided to compare it to my own synthetic copper carbonate green pigment in oil (this is why the swatch on the right is almost hanging off the edge of the canvas). As you can see, the synthetic one is a bit more saturated, both neat and in tints, as well as being slightly bluer (the difference is more marked in person).

Daniel Smith - Malachite

Daniel Smith – Malachite

I think part of the point of using natural malachite is that with the larger particle sizes you can get when grinding a color from stone, you can get a more saturated color than with the smaller particles of the precipitated synthetic malachite. On the other hand, I shouldn’t forget that some of us feel a real pleasure in using a natural pigment, similar to the thrill I get when using a natural earth over a synthetic iron oxide. I also get a thrill from making and using my own copper carbonate pigment, of course, so this one is a toss-up for me.

To be continued!

After Titian, Part 2

January 10, 2014

Here is the basic process in the Titian study:

1. A simple, loose underpainting using earths and lead white:

After Titian 1

After Titian 1

2. Modeling the clothing using terre verte, raw sienna and yellow ochre, and deepening the background:

After Titian 2

After Titian 2

3. Modeling the flesh and deepening the background further:

After Titian 3

After Titian 3

(I apologize for the awful photograph – I’m having a hard time with it. If I can take a better photo soon I’ll post that one.)

I deliberately put less yellow in the face than the reference contained, thinking that a lot of that yellow might be due to the darkening of the varnish layer on the original painting. I suppose I should have de-yellowed the clothing a bit as well, but I didn’t really think of it at the time. I may have gone too far with the face. I can always lay a thin glaze of yellow ochre over parts of the face if I decide it needs more. If I do, I will of course post the result!

In the last post, I wrote about ‘creating Old Masterish paintings…’ In retrospect, that sounds really conceited. The painting I’ve made here in no way compares to those masterpieces. I’m simply attempting to use the materials they probably used, and reconstruct the technique they probably followed as a result of using those materials. I think these materials and techniques could be used for many different styles.

In the pic below, check out the lovely range of colors you can get from simple terre verte and yellow ochre. Also, the total palette used, in tubes:

Titian palette, greens

Titian palette, greens

Thanks for looking – ’til next time!

After Titian – Student Palette WIP

December 25, 2013
After Rubens 1

After Rubens 1

Here I’ll be posting three or four stages of a work in progress. In addition to painting almost exclusively from life, I want to do more Old Master studies. Here is one I did a while back, a study of a head by Rubens.

This current one (seen below) is from a portrait, by Titian, of an Unknown Gentleman. I’ve begun with a basic underpainting, and will be moving on to the green clothing, then punching in darks, then finally adding color to the face. Throughout, a student palette (here and here) of only natural earths and lead white, and possibly a bit of black, will be used. (The Rubens study above was also painted with the student palette.) The basic underpainting color that I’ve used for the new study is an approximate 50/50 mix of two Da Vinci Natural Pigment oil paints: Arizona Brown Ochre and Mummy. And, of course, lead white from Rublev:

After Titian 1

After Titian 1

Here is an image of the original. I’ve cropped my copy a bit on the canvas to focus a bit more on the head.

Clearly, I need more study drawing and painting clothing. Rather than spend days getting this just right, I’m moving on to the next stage. Hopefully I won’t regret that decision dearly.

Posting this WIP is about showing how to create an Old Masterish painting using only natural earths and lead white, as Titian himself might well have done. I hope you’ll stick around, and post any comments or questions. More stages to follow!

The Monster Madder Harvest

December 7, 2013

I have been on a bit of a hiatus this year – lots of time spent with work, not as much with painting or pigment-making. One big thing did happen, though: this past spring, I made the decision to leave my wonderful garden plot. (Well, okay, I actually made the decision a long time ago, at least a year and a half. But it can take me a long time to get around to doing something, especially if I don’t particularly want to do it. But it’s a good thing I did: the way this year has gone, the garden plot would have languished completely.) And in this case there was another reason it took me so long.

Why did I get rid of the plot? Well, we bought this house last year. It’s a really great house, and it has some space for growing plants outdoors. A backyard, don’t you know. So it made sense to move my dye plant operations closer to home. And truthfully, I had been spending less and less time at the plot over the past few years anyway – it’s just hard to find the time. There was a waiting list for garden plots, so it didn’t make any sense for me to hang on to it and keep it from someone else.

Still, I miss the place sometimes. I put a lot of energy into that plot.

There was a big reason it took me so long, though, and that is that there was a monster madder harvest to deal with. Readers may recall that it takes madder about five years to fully mature; these plants wound up staying in the ground for almost six. And there were fourteen madder plants left in the plot, from an original seventeen. The roots go deep and far. It took me a month and a half to dig them all out, going over there to work at it a couple of times a week. I’d like to show you the pile they made when they were sitting out to dry. Here they are:

Madder Roots

Madder Roots

That’s quite a few madder roots. Of course the pile shrank when they dried; still, I should have enough to make, well, quite a few batches of madder lake. More than enough to try all the variations I’ve had in mind for so long. Here they are dried:

Madder Roots

Madder Roots

I also rescued a couple of volunteer weld plants. And: madder plants! Some root clippings took to new soil very well. Take a look:

Madder and Weld

Madder and Weld

And, the iris plants (the ones I didn’t give away) have successfully made it into the new location as well. This summer a few of them even expressed early approval of the place, unexpected but quite welcome:

Blue Irises

Blue Irises

So the dynasty continues. This time, though, I’ll definitely be growing the madder in containers. (!) I still have seeds from the indigo plants as well, they will go into pots next spring.

Coming up: a review of some of Daniel Smith’s PrimaTek natural pigments oil paint line. And: the long-awaited madder lake recipe. Stay tuned!

Brunaille, Eighteenth-century Palette

February 1, 2013

Portrait of Neil

Portrait of Neil


Here is a recently-completed portrait of our friend Neil. I am, among other directions, working toward the brunaille underpainting as a general starting point for my portraits. A brunaille is simply a brown underpainting, usually done in umbers or brown ochre, and is something different from either verdaccio or grisaille.

I may have posted earlier that the old master portraits and figures I’ve seen up-close in musea recently – notably Rembrandt, Rubens, Hals and David – all seemed to display a common feature, which was a brown transparent color in the shadows of the flesh, over which the lights and some midtones had been layered opaquely. I’ve seen photos of other old master works (I’m thinking of Velasquez in particular) which also seem to display this: shadows left transparent to the canvas, lights built with opaque colors. I’m sure this process isn’t universal or anywhere near it; but it’s common enough that it seems to have been a standard procedure, if one of many.

I noticed this some time back, but had held off on introducing it into my own work, probably because I fell in love with thick paint and broad brushwork – which haven’t lent themselves to the care which is required to preserve transparency in shadows. But more recently, when I took a portrait painting class with Vanessa Lemen, I discovered she was following this very procedure of leaving shadows transparent from session to session, and I couldn’t help noting how efficient it was for her.

So, after a few experiments, I tried the process with this portrait. The underpainting was brown ochre and lead white (Da Vinci Arizona Brown Ochre and Rublev Lead White #2). After the underpainting dried, I used transparent earths – siennas and yellow ochre light – in a transparent glaze which both gave a bit of color to the shadows (especially a bit of red around the cheeks and ears), and provided a nice couch into which to lay the opaque lights, wet-into-wet. (This is a trick I learned from Vanessa.) I took some care to leave the shadows transparent, except for a bit of reflected light under the chin (which is the only place that got screwed up – gotta be careful with those!). At the same time, I painted the shirt opaquely in something similare to a grisaille, but with some color variation.

If I were a more accomplished painter, I could have completed the skin tones in two layers. It really is an efficient way to work. As it was, it took some fixing. The whole thing was painted using a student palette of natural earths and lead white, plus a final glaze layer of Prussian blue over the shirt. I think of this as an “Eighteenth-century Palette,” as Prussian blue was discovered in 1704 and used through much of that century. Snapshots of the process are presented below:

Neil Portrait Process

Neil Portrait Process

I do still love thick paint, and I will not sacrifice it to this technique. I will be keeping in my mind the question of how to use the two together. I am already using shorter, smaller brushstrokes rather than the big paint smears of just a little while ago; perhaps these two methods will meet in the middle.

Note: I am currently engaged in a massive madder harvest. I should be finished within the next two weeks, and I will post about that. Good painting!

Hand-mulling Paint, Part II

November 2, 2012

Continued from Hand-mulling Paint, Part I.

If you’re mulling a particular pigment for the first time, you won’t know just how much oil you should add. You can do some research online, something like “raw umber oil absorbtion” – but you don’t really need this information to begin. At first, use less oil than you think you will need. Many pigments (not all) will loosen and become more and more oily as you mull. I try to add just enough oil to pigment so that when I start mixing with a spatula, I’m pretty sure it won’t be enough oil. Then I start mulling. Often it winds up being enough after all. Once you’ve done this, you can keep notes on how much oil to add to each pigment.

You’ll go in a big circular motion with the muller, and pretty soon you’ll have to stop, grab the paint spatula, and scrape the paint together into a pile again. You’ll have to scrape paint off the sides of the muller as well. Make it into a pile and start mulling again. It helps to switch hands every so often. It can take a tiring amount of time with some pigments, and patience is sometimes required. After a while, you’ll know if you need to add more oil (or, sometimes, more pigment).

Below, I’m mulling and then scraping together a homemade copper green pigment into linseed oil:

Mulling Copper Green

Mulling Copper Green


Mulling Copper Green 2

Mulling Copper Green 2

Just how necessary is it to mull pigment? Why can’t you just mix the stuff up on the palette with a spatula and go? Well, sometimes this might work – the homemade candle black I made into an oil paint recently barely required mulling at all, and probably could have been used right after mixing it with oil – but other times, mulling is absolutely required. See the difference between mulling or not mulling Egyptian blue, below:

Mulling Egyptian Blue

Mulling Egyptian Blue

The first swatch is unmulled. It was quite difficult to even brush it out: I had to add extra oil and use one of my stiffer bristle brushes to manage it. The second swatch is after perhaps only two minutes of mulling. Big difference, isn’t it? The third swatch is the mulled Egyptian blue mixed with some zinc white. Nice color, huh?

Some earth pigments are said to display their best colors when only lightly mulled, and that this is one problem with the uniform grind of modern, industrially-produced pigments. I thought that I was seeing this phenomenon when I was grinding up a nice raw sienna from Sinopia Pigments. The more I mulled, the duller the color seemed to get. See the pic below, the difference between those two piles of paint? I thought I was seeing over-grinding in action. However, I was wrong: it was just that the finer clumps of pigment were soaking up more of the oil. When I added more oil back into the paint, its color sprang to life again. So if that happens to you, try the same.

Mulling Raw Sienna

Mulling Raw Sienna

I’ll post one more installment of the Hand-mulling Paint series, and discuss tubing your own mulled paint.

Old Flemish Technique

July 15, 2012
Flemish 2

Walnut Ink Drawing

This drawing is derivative of a copyrighted work of Steve McCurry.

When I write about Flemish Technique, I’m talking about techniques of the so-called “Flemish Primitives” of the early Renaissance, right at the dawn of oil painting as an art medium. I appended the adjective “old” to the title of this post to distinguish this Flemish Technique from other techniques of the same name, including Baroque Flemish portraiture, Dutch Rococo floral still lifes, and others newer still.

Oil painting in Flanders was really a mixed medium technique, and not really oil painting as we understand it today. Egg tempera paintings, as you may recall, were often begun with an ink drawing, sometimes a quite detailed one. Egg tempera paint was laid on, being the main component of the painting, and them sometimes an oil glaze or two was added at the end to enrich or deepen some colors. (Theophilus described the use of oil glazes over metallic surfaces some time before the Renaissance, so the idea had been around for a while.) Sometimes the oil glazes became more important; instead of being an egg tempera painting with some final glazes, a work might become essentially an oil painting with an ink and egg tempera underpainting. This is the basic technique as it was exported to Italy, before the invention of oil painting as we know it by Bellini and his compatriots. This information on Flemish Painting I first found at the great All the Strange Hours blog.

One can skip the egg tempera bit altogether, and simply paint in oil directly over the ink drawing, much of it still in glazes. This is what I’ve been working on. The ink drawing has been in homemade natural walnut ink, the same as I used here, but this time on a traditional gessoed panel. It’s nice to draw in ink on gesso, as it’s mostly erasable by scrubbing with a bristle brush; the only difficulty is in getting a flat wash. For the ink drawing, I’ve used a bristle brush, a fine sable ink brush, and the occasional quill pen. The picture at the top of the post shows the second ink drawing I completed, before the oil paint glazes have been applied. Here’s the first:

Flemish 1

Walnut Ink Drawing

After the ink drawing, I laid down an imprimatura of linseed oil, because the gesso is so very absorbent that it can otherwise suck an oil paint layer dry, and also to lock in the ink drawing. Oil paints on gesso dry very quickly, so by the next day it was completely dry to the touch. I then laid down oil paints; some of them, as in the brown glaze over the hair, were able to remain completely transparent, so that the ink drawing really is an integral part of the final painting. For this stage I used a student palette of natural earths, bone black and lead white (pardon the quality of the pic here, the paint was still a bit wet in spots).

Flemish 1

Flemish Technique

The final stage was for more highly-saturated glazes over the clothing, which again I could apply very quickly. For the blue I used natural ultramarine (lapis lazuli from Da Vinci); and I just couldn’t resist glazing with natural carmine over the red overshirt. (This is the Winsor & Newton Carmine oil paint I located a while back.)

Flemish 1

Flemish Technique

All materials that were available in the Renaissance. Woo-hoo! (Well, the walnut ink is conjectural – but probable.) I will be doing one of these with egg tempera included; before that, I will complete in oil the drawing at top, and post in more detail about the technique of layering the oil paint.

Part II of Hand-mulling Paint is on the way too – promise!


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