Death of a Pigment

August 16, 2016

As I have posted before, we artists are at the mercy of much larger industries in terms of what art materials we have at out disposal. The art materials industry is minuscule compared to textiles, architecture, automotive, etc. It does not have enough clout to leverage economies of scale.

Without these larger industries to manufacture our pigments and other materials for us, these things would be much more expensive for us than they are. Without them, artists might have to actually make and mull their own pigments again – as artists and their apprentices from past centuries have done, as I and others have at times done.

A few pigments are still made by the art materials industry, for instance Winsor & Newton’s Rose Madder Genuine, and those tend to be the more expensive colors. But the vast majority of them are not made for artists at all. We just buy the leftovers from the bigger boys, and that’s how we get our pigments on the cheap.

To some extent, this has always been true. Even in the Middle Ages, the copper blue pigment (blue verditer) that was used by artists was manufactured as a by-product of silver production. But it is truer at this point in history than it ever has been before.

One of the results of this situation is that when a pigment is no longer deemed useful for the larger industries, its manufacture will cease. Cerulean blue (PB35), for example, may wind up on the chopping block at some point. If it does, it will not matter that many artists love this color: it will go away, for all except those who have managed to stockpile some for themselves.

This has happened to a pigment I happen to love: ultramarine green, PG24. PG24 is not considered useful any longer to the large industries, and as far as I can learn it has stopped being made. It is an extinct pigment.

It used to be available as a tube color in oil from Rembrandt. But the tube they call “Ultramarine Green” is no longer PG24, but a convenience mix of PB29 and PY129. It used to be available as a powder pigment from Kremer. No more. (They still have some of their PG24 watercolor pans left, I believe.)

In the next post, I will post some pictures to show what this wonderful pigment looks like, and why I love it so much and was so sorry to see it go – and what might be done to bring its production back online.

In the meantime, here is a closeup of a painting I did a couple of years ago, in which PG24 was used extensively, especially for that aqua foam on the water. To be continued!

wyoming_waterfall-2d2_800

Ancient Paint Box

February 2, 2016

I came across this ancient palette of colors through a post on Tumblr by Ancient Peoples. It’s a palette of pigments from the second century b.c.e, in New Kingdom Egypt.

1914.680_w

This from the Cleveland Museum of Art. I guess from a quick perusal of their website that this is in their permanent collection. That would make at least two things from Cleveland I really like, along with the Cleveland String Quartet (loved their recordings of the late Beethoven quartets!)

Here’s a description of the pigments:

This paint box still preserves its original cakes of pigment: one cake each of red (red ocher), blue (Egyptian blue), green (a mixture of Egyptian blue, yellow ocher, and orpiment) and two of black (carbon black, from charcoal). It belonged to Amenemope, who was vizier, or prime minister, under Amenhotep II. Amenemope probably used his paint box for recreation.

As I posted on my new tumblr microblog, I question the description of the green in the image as “Egyptian blue, yellow ocher, and orpiment” (not really – I’m sure the folks at the museum know what they’re about). It sure looks like plain old malachite to me.

Anyway, I really like this palette. As some of you know, I’m a fan of earth colors, and a great blue to add to yellow and red ochre is Egyptian blue, which is copper bound up in silica. With the addition of black and white, it would make for a great subdued portrait palette, though the blue would have to be used a bit judiciously due to its cost. And in place of that green I could add in my own copper green.

As a reminder, here’s what Egyptian blue looks like in oil:

Mulling Egyptian Blue

Mulling Egyptian Blue

Nice glazer, that. I think I’ll try out that palette soon.

And: If I ever visit Cleveland, I’ll have to try out that museum!

Upcoming show and opening reception

June 1, 2015

My upcoming show got a mention in the San Diego Reader here:

http://www.sandiegoreader.com/events/2015/jun/06/rustic-portraits-local-artist-prese/

My friend Rena Kamariotakis also kindly created an event for the show here: Art Show featuring Louis Bispo.

The paintings are all framed and wired and ready for installation. They’ll go up tomorrow (with a few stragglers on Wednesday) along with all their labels.

As a reminder, the show will be at the Ranch Buena Vista Adobe Gallery from June 4th until July 4th, Thursdays through Saturdays 10am to 3pm. There will be an opening reception from 1–3pm on Saturday, June 6th.

The gallery is located at 640 Alta Vista Dr., Vista, CA 92084. I’d love to see you there!

First Solo Art Show

May 28, 2015

Hi all! I’d like to announce my first solo artist exhibit! It will take place at the historic Rancho Buena Vista Adobe gallery in Vista, CA. (640 Alta Vista Dr., Vista, CA 92084.)

The show is coming up in a couple of weeks. It will last from June 4th through July 4th – Thursdays through Saturdays only, 10am–3pm. There will be a small reception on Saturday, June the 6th from 1–3pm; the public is invited.

My oil paintings and ink drawings are of rustic and southwestern characters, and I think the Adobe gallery is a perfect place for them. I’ve included a few sample paintings in this post. Here they are:

At Ivy Ranch © 2011 L. Lawrence Bispo

At Ivy Ranch © 2011 L. Lawrence Bispo

Arizona Daybreak - © 2011 L. Lawrence Bispo

Arizona Daybreak – © 2011 L. Lawrence Bispo

Watching the Grandchildren © 2011 L. Lawrence Bispo

Watching the Grandchildren © 2011 L. Lawrence Bispo

Survivor, © 2013 L. Lawrence Bispo

Survivor, © 2013 L. Lawrence Bispo

The Spinster © L. Lawrence Bispo

The Spinster © L. Lawrence Bispo

The Weaver © 2014 Bispo

The Weaver © 2014 Bispo

This announcement is also posted to Facebook here, and to my artwork blog here. Hope some readers in the area can make it! – L.

How to Make Madder Lake, part 3

February 13, 2015

Previous post: How to Make Madder Lake, part 2.

After allowing the dye bath to cool down, you need to separate the roots from the liquid. Take a clean cloth sack – I use a pillowcase I bought for this purpose – and put it into a bucket with the top of the sack wrapped out over the lip, as shown below:

Making Madder Lake

Making madder lake – separating the roots

You can tell I’ve used that pillowcase a few times before – both for madder and for weld! Pour the dye bath into the bucket and sack, then slowly lift out the bag of roots. You want to squeeze these out somewhat as you’re removing them – there’s a lot of liquid being held in there. When you’re done, you can toss out the roots (I mean, put them in the mulch box, of course!) and wash out the cloth bag – you don’t need them anymore. From here on out, we’ve finished with the hard part; the rest is just following standard lake-making procedure.

Next we’ll filter the dye water. The purpose of the bag was to keep root bits and bark gunk out of the dye, but we’re going to make sure it’s as clean as possible. Once we get to the next step, any remaining contaminants are in there for good. Put the funnel over one of your jars and place a wet coffee filter in the funnel. (Getting the filter wet beforehand makes it easier to make it cling to the walls of the filter, which makes it easier to pour the dye water into it.) Pour and wait. Find something else to do for a few minutes; it can take a bit for the dye to filter through. When the funnel has emptied, pour again. I recommend using a new filter for each pour. Repeat until all the liquid has been filtered.

Making Madder Lake

Making madder lake – filtering and laking

When that is finished, you can wash out the pot that was used to hold the plastic bucket, and pour the dye water into it. Warm it back up a bit – again, be careful not to go over 170º – and then add the alkali. This is either washing soda or potash. I’m using washing soda here. You want to measure perhaps a quarter the weight of the alum that you used. Pour it in slowly, stirring, over a little heat. The dye bath will turn cloudy red, and perhaps give off some pink foam at the top. This is the madder lake pigment forming!

After a few minutes, when there’s no more foaming action, allow the liquid to cool. In fact, let it sit, covered, for a few hours, or even overnight. The pigment will settle somewhat to the bottom. We’re going to wash it a few times. Here’s how you do it. Carefully pour the separated liquid off the top, then refill with clean water. Let the pigment settle. Pour the separated liquid off, refill, allow to settle. Do this until the separated liquid is clean and clear.

Making Madder Lake

Making madder lake – washing and drying

Home stretch now. After a final settling, pour off as much of the separated liquid as you can; then we’re back to filtering. Put the funnel over a jar, and a wet coffee filter into the funnel, then fill up the filter with pigment water. Go do something else for a while. After some time, the coffee filter will have a somewhat thick residue of deep red, wet pigment. Pull the filter out of the funnel, spread it out and lay it somewhere to dry. (Laying it on a brick works well; the absorbency of the brick pulls out the moisture more quickly.) Repeat until all of the pigment water is used up, and you have various paper dishes of pigment drying around the house.

That’s it! You’ve done it! When the pigment dries, it will be a much lighter shade of pink. Don’t worry about that – once you’ve gotten it into one of its preffered binders, oil or gum arabic, it will regain all of that intensity. In the next post I’ll give the pigment a good grind and try it out in a painting!

How to Make Madder Lake, part 2

January 9, 2015

Previous post: How to Make Madder Lake, part 1.

The second secret.

There’s actually another little ‘secret’ to making madder lake, this one a bit more of an open secret, but something very important to keep in mind. It is this: you can’t just boil madder up the way you can with carmine lake or most other dyestuffs. The alizarin color in madder is destroyed by high heat, so you can’t turn the temperature up over 170ºF or thereabouts. However, the dye will not emerge from the roots unless it’s heated, so your job is to get the temperature up to between 120ºF and 140ºF, and keep it there.

(Note: the vulnerability of madder to high heat is something I’ve read from numerous sources. However, more than once I’ve accidentally allowed the temperature of the dyebath to briefly stray up toward 200 degrees, and it hasn’t seemed to hurt the resulting color much. There are many different experiments I have in mind for madder lake production in the future; one of those experiments is to give the dyebath a really good boil, to see if it really does kill the color or not. But for the time being, I’m following the recommendations about temperature control as well as I can.)

Here’s the procedure:

After the last soak and straining, put the wet roots into a cooking pot big enough to hold them, and cover the roots with water – this will be henceforth referred to as the ‘dye bath’. Water: the first time I did this, I used distilled water for everything. It wound up being a lot of distilled water! Nowadays I just use tap water, and it seems to be fine. If you want to be a bit more careful, use distilled water for the initial dye bath, and then regular old tap water for everything else.

Then make a double boiler by putting this pot into a larger pot that also contains water. This way you’ll be able to control the temperature more easily. Also: the bigger the pots in question – and more specifically, the more water is in them – the easier it is to control temperature and keep it steady. Here I have this contraption cooking low on a gas stove:

Madder Double Cooker

Madder Double Cooker

A thermometer goes into the dye bath. Here I’m using a big thermometer I bought at a beer brewing supply shop – another activity that requires good temperature control! (I have acquired a slow cooker with temperature control, at some point I will try making madder lake in this, rather than the makeshift double boiler.)

Yet another little ‘secret’ to making madder: it takes a while! Cooking up carmine or weld lake takes an hour, maybe two; madder takes a couple of days at its lower temperature. At night, or when I’m out of the house, I cover the pot and turn the stove off, and turn it back on first thing when I wake up or return home. You may need to add extra water periodically to one pot or the other.

I cook the roots for about a day, then add alum to the dye bath. Alum: in my previous posts, I wrote that we were beginning with 10g of alum, but that was an error – I was confusing two different recipes in my head. I’m actually using 30g of alum here. I’ve corrected the other posts.

Take the 30g of alum and pour it into the dye bath. I like to dissolve the alum in its own warm water before adding it in, but this isn’t necessary. Then cook the dye for another day or so.

When you dip a piece of paper or paper towel into the dye bath after a few days, it should now come out a juicy, rich red. In the pic below, you can see how red the bath looks after a couple of days. This is the red you want, the alizarin! Time for the next step.

Madder Dye Bath

Madder Dye Bath

How to Make Madder Lake, part 1

December 26, 2014

Previous post: Preparation for Making Madder Lake.

In the last post, I wrote that we’re beginning with about 100g of madder root and about 30g of potash alum. I also wrote that there was a big secret coming in this one. Well, read on!

Most madder recipes I’ve seen online – including this one from Rubio Violins, which is the one I think most home chemists follow – have us putting the madder roots into water and cooking them up directly. These recipes leave out a crucial step, which is to wash the roots beforehand. One or two sources actually mention this washing, but do not mention the purpose of it, which is to remove extraneous dyes and other colors that the roots contain, and which will contaminate our lovely rose color if we leave them in there. So ‘washing’, in this case, means giving them a good soak, and then throwing out the bath water (without the baby, which is the rose dye that will not emerge until the roots are heated). Here I’ve got my roots soaking in water out of doors.

Madder Roots Soaking

Madder Roots Soaking

I soak these roots for several days. It’s best to do this when it is relatively cool outdoors, as I’m doing here. As the madder roots rest, they ferment, so you’re likely to see some bubbles or foam on the surface at some point. If it’s too warm out, a lot of mold will be generated as well. I don’t think this mold actually interferes with the making of the pigment, but it does make it a little difficult to see what’s going on in there. (Also, if it’s really hot, it might actually start cooking some of the alizarin dye out of the roots, and you definitely don’t want that yet.) So if it’s really warm out when you’re making your lake, consider moving the roots out of the sun – maybe even put them in the garage or something.

When the roots have been sitting for several days, the water should look reddish gold. At this point, dump out the water. Yes, you read that right – dump it out! Do it! I know it looks like there’s a lot of color in there that you want to be saving and using. Trust me: it’s no good. It’s just contamination. It is exactly this stuff you’re looking at that makes the finished madder lake brown instead of rose. So dump it.

This is the big secret.

Keep going at this point: refill the pot with water and strain a few times, until it comes out fairly colorless. Then soak overnight again. Then empty and strain, then soak overnight. Keep doing this until there’s not much color coming out of the water. (The purple gunk doesn’t matter – that’s from the root bark.) This entire process may take a week, or even longer. Be patient: a good madder lake is worth the wait. At some point the emptied water will start to look clearer and more pink. Once that happens, we’re ready to make our madder lake.

To be continued!

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 30g 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!