Aqueous Dispersions, Part II

January 14, 2019

Here’s an article about aqueous dispersions and what they’re for: Aqueous Pigment Dispersions.

I’ve made up some aqueous dispersions from that monster batch of pigments I received. Here they are:



Cobalt blue, ultramarine (in the back), alizarin crimson, cadmium red, raw sienna, yellow ochre, cadmium yellow.

The alizarin crimson was by far the most difficult to mull and clean up; I think it took up about as much time as the rest of them put together. And even when I called it finished, the resulting dispersion is weird… slabby, for want of a better term, almost as if it were a natural clay or something. I’m not sure why it behaved like this, but it may be that some of these pigments have been sitting around for quite some time. In any case I’m not really happy with it. I’ll try grinding some with a mortar and pestle before mulling it next time. The cadmium red also took a bit of work for some reason, coming out grainy like a natural earth—which would be great for oil paint, but I’m not so sure about it in water-based media. We’ll see.

The rest of them were easy peasy, dispersing in the water in no time flat.

We’ll have to see how well those containers work out; they were literally bought at Ross, years ago, for like three bucks for a dozen jars or so. I think you can get them at Joann Fabrics. They seem to be doing okay after a few weeks. But if the dispersions start drying out in there, or if the lids start giving me trouble after some use, I’ll have to find some better containers. These, maybe:

LaCon containers

LaCon containers

LaCons. I’ve heard they’re all right; an illustrator friend has told me they keep his acrylic paints moist for months at a time.

There are places you can purchase ready-made aqueous dispersions. Natural Pigments has some, as does Kremer (“color pastes,” as they call them); Guerra Paint offers a huge selection of them. Natural Pigments offers mainly earth colors, as you might expect; both Kremer and Guerra have a bismuth vanadate yellow, a color I recommend for anyone trying to get cadmium yellow light off their palette.

More on casein, next!


Christmas Colors

December 27, 2018

Among the numerous wonderful Christmas gifts I received were these gems from my beautiful wife:

Christmas colors

Christmas colors

A jar of cadmium orange pigment, by far my favorite cadmium and pretty much the only cad not represented in my recent pigments windfall; and two (!) tubes of genuine PB33 manganese blue from Vasari, I believe the only brand of it available in an oil paint any longer. I’ve been intensely curious about this color that’s hovering on the edge of extinction. And I’ve been wanting to try out Vasari paints in any case. Nice.

Thanks Joy!

Aqueous Dispersions

December 22, 2018

When you’re making water-based paints—gouache, casein, egg tempera—you can mull your pigments directly into binder, or you can use aqueous dispersions. Aqueous dispersions are simply pigments that have been mulled into water, without the binder. They can be stored in jars (with well-fitting lids!); then, when you need to put some of a particular color on your palette, you simply grab some of the dispersion, mix it with your binder with a palette knife, and go!

The main reason I’m playing with this right now is that I’ve been realizing casein might just be my medium of choice, for illustration work at least. Aqueous dispersions make a lot of sense to use with casein, because casein paints have a shelf life. They will go bad if you don’t use them quick enough. But aqueous dispersions should stay indefinitely. If my casein medium goes bad, I’ll have to toss it out… but at least I won’t have to discard a bunch of paints along with it.

Mulling aqueous dispersions is both easier and more difficult than mulling paints. It seems easier, until cleanup time. Since you’re only adding water, any drying on the slab reverts the pigment back to, well, pigment. It’ll blow around and get all over everything.

Put the drawer shelf liner under the slab, of course, but beneath that lay down some newspaper. Yes, I know this negates the purpose of the liner. Yes, you’ll thank me. Don’t do it like this:

Raw Sienna dispersion

Raw Sienna dispersion

Mmm, raw sienna. Nice and dirty, the way it ought to be.

Ultramarine dispersion

Ultramarine dispersion

Ultramarine. You can see it drying around the edges. This was about the time I began to realize how messy this can be.

Boy, look at that color, though. If folks from the Middle Ages could have known how cheap and easy this color would one day become, they’d be absolutely murderous with envy. Something to keep in mind as I wallow in this embarrassment of rich hues.

More on aqueous dispersions later. See you next year!

Custom Aquabord Unboxing

December 5, 2018

Yesterday I received and unpackaged five panels of Ampersand Aquabord. Custom size!

I’ve been working on smaller, standard Aquabord panels, and I like them for the casein studies I’ve been doing. Like Ampersand’s Claybord, they’re gessoed with an absorbent clay-based white material; unlike the Claybord panels, they’re not mirror-smooth. (They’re essentially what the discontinued “Textured Claybord” product used to be; I did some egg tempera studies on these once upon a time, here and here.) The Claybord surface is a bit slick for my taste, but the Aquabord is quite nice. Its texture seems to grab hold of the paint on the brush, making it easy for me to cover large areas with color.

The only thing that disappointed me about the panels is the sizes available. They’re geared toward fine artists, and that’s great… but in the near term I’m planning to do book cover illustrations. eBook covers mostly have a ratio of 1:1.5 or 1:1.6; the only standard Aquabord in those proportions is the ginormous 24×36″, too big to be practical (although I may just try one out someday!).

Luckily for me, Ampersand makes it easy to order custom sizes. And they’re not even very expensive, not much more than a similarly-sized standard panel from Blick. Contact is at the bottom of the page at aquabord.

Having received advice from several illustrators to double the intended final size of the image to find the best working size for painting, I started with an old standard paperback size of 6×9″ and doubled that for a panel size of 12×18″. I ordered five to try out.

Aquabord packaging

Aquabord packaging

The packaging was solid. The two big panels top and bottom are not the aquabord panels, but somewhat larger boards to protect the product during shipping. Probably production rejects of some type or another, I can gesso the back and use them for sketches, or save them to use for shipping artwork. Here’s the stack of panels nestled in carboard:



With cardboard removed:

Cardboard removed

Cardboard removed

The panels are separated by foam:

Packing foam

Packing foam

The panels!

Aquabord panels

Aquabord panels

Ampersand seems to be a good organization that wants to help out individual artists. That makes me feel all fuzzy.

Pigments Windfall

November 14, 2018

An amount of pigment has recently come into my possession—quite an amount, in fact. An older artist passed away, and the stash of pigments he left behind was so large I understand it was in some peril of simply being thrown out. I had to keep that from happening, of course. Artist’s pigments are precious!

I have received a total of 71 (!) one-gallon cans of pigment in various states of fullness; 15 five-gallon drums (holy crap!); and one jar of an unidentified blue, say about 400g or so. There’s also a single box left unclaimed, by its photo a lovely-looking violet I expect will be either manganese or cobalt. Excited about that one, still waiting to hear.

Cans of pigment

Cans of pigment

There’s lots and lots of bone black and raw umber, far more than any artist could ever use in a lifetime of painting. Maybe a mural painter. Also significant amounts of burnt umber, chromium oxide green, viridian, alizarin crimson, and iron oxide red (it’s labeled “light red” but isn’t—it looks more like Venetian red). Plenty of cobalt blue, burnt sienna, raw sienna, yellow ochre, and ultramarine blue; cadmium primrose lemon, yellow, yellow deep, red light, red, red dark, and maroon; and two cans of phthalo green.

I’m still working out just what to do with this monster load of pigments, which we barely managed to fit into the free space in our garage. In the past I haven’t been big on cadmiums, with their overpowering tinting strength, but I suppose I could cut these with calcite or kaolin (both of which I have in plenty) to make them more manageable on the palette—essentially turn them into weaker, student-grade paints. They should last a goodish while that way. I’ve already mulled and tubed of some of the chromium oxide green, viridian, and “light red” in a gouache/casein mixed medium:



The second row is with some Winsor & Newton Aquapasto added. See how the watercolor medium helps preserve some of the transparency of the viridian? Pretty cool, huh?

This windfall is timely for me. I’ve just begun my adventures in casein, and with that medium you’ve pretty much got to make some of your own colors (unless you’re completely happy with the ones in Richeson’s Shiva offering). Luckily I’ve got plenty of experience hand-mulling paint, and some of these pigments will give me just the playground I’ll be needing.

I’ve also mulled several other of these pigments into aqueous dispersions, which I’ll post about next.

Drying Shifts in Water-Based Media

October 29, 2018

With matte, water-based media—gouache, casein, or transparent watercolor—some pigments can suffer a shift in color when losing moisture. The reason for this is physical—the scattering of light, or some such physics thing. The reason this doesn’t happen to the same extent in oil paints is that they remain more or less “shiny,” continuing to scatter light similarly to they way they did before curing, which is close to the refractive index of the surrounding air (again: or some such thing—I never took a physics class in high school, and I’m sure it shows). When gouache or casein dry they effectively go from glossy to matte, so some change in color is to be expected. For a useful (if incomplete) reference on how different pigments behave in watercolor, check Handprint: watercolor drying shifts.

Many artists have learned to deal with this phenomenon. A quick image search for gouache paintings or casein paintings proves this amply. If you’re intimately familiar with your materials, you can keep an eye on which pigments you’re mixing, judge the drying shifts they’ll undergo, and adjust your mix accordingly—before laying it down. If you really know what you’re doing, you won’t be surprised by the result when it changes. Many, many good artists have learned how to do this.

Personally, I can’t deal with it. It freaks me out. I feel like I have enough trouble predicting how a color will look in a composition without having to worry about it changing on me after I lay it down.

Oh, I can handle it to some extent. I have to, if I want to use casein or gouache (which I do—the matte aspect means they’re easy to photograph and reproduce, which makes them ideal for illustrations). I can deal with some loss in saturation, and with small changes in value. But if either one becomes too drastic, I start losing my cool.

So I try to stick with the colors that have smaller drying shifts. One of the reasons I haven’t used natural indigo as much as I would’ve liked is that it loses much of what little saturation it has when it dries. Dry swatch is on the left:

Drying Shift Natural Indigo

Drying Shift Natural Indigo

What starts out as a lovely deep blue becomes something pretty close to gray. No fun! (Note: while I did paint the newer swatch a bit darker, the photo shows the dry swatch less grayed than in real life. I’ll let you know when I’ve conquered the skill of photographing artwork.)

One of the most dramatic value shifts I’ve seen is the “Ultramarine Blue Deep” in Jack Richeson’s Shiva brand of casein. It may be “deep” when wet, but that’s hardly an accurate description of the dried color. Dry swatch on the left:

Drying Shift Ultramarine Blue Deep

Drying Shift Ultramarine Blue Deep

I can’t use that paint. It just changes too much for me to manage it in mixes.

I told some folks at WetCanvas that this was the most extreme shift I’ve ever encountered, but when I wrote that I’d forgotten about my experiments with egg tempera some years ago. My rose madder pigment in egg tempera might have had an even larger shift, with the beautiful deep crimson changing back to the dry pigment color, which is a faded pink. Again, not usable, for me at least.

PBr24 also has something of a drying shift. Luckily, the tube I have happens to be from Schmincke, where they’ve tried to help out with this. Check it out, dry swatch on the left (note: colors are significantly more orange than IRL):

Drying Shift Titanium Gold Ochre

Drying Shift Titanium Gold Ochre

See what they’ve done there? The color displayed on most paint packaging tends to have only a vague relationship with the color inside the tube or pan. This label matches not the paint color in the tube, but the paint color as it will be after it’s dried. And that, my friends, is one of the things that set Schmincke apart from their competitors.

Oldest Known Drawing… and some newer ones.

September 13, 2018

Appropriately enough, yesterday afternoon my phone alerted me that the world’s oldest known drawing was found in Africa—a cross hatching some 73,000 years old (though there are engravings much, much older than that).


I say it was appropriate because at the time the widget popped up on my phone, my friend Cutter and I were just arriving at San Clemente Art Supply for an evening of life drawing. Cutter and I, and the facilitator Bruce, marveled at the extent of the tradition we were continuing.

Ancient ochre drawing

Ancient ochre drawing

Here’s the best I managed to do, a 20-minute sketch among others, and some two, five, and ten minute quick sketches:

20-minute sketch

20-minute layin

Nowhere near as important a drawing as the one discovered in Africa, certainly, but it was the best I could do. Not bad, not great, better than some of the others I did. Luckily for me, since I started drawing again (just a few months ago now), I don’t take the end result as personally as I used to. These days I’m enjoying myself more, experimenting more, not expecting any outcome in particular. For instance, instead of relying on my abstractions, in some of last night’s quick sketches I tried just blocking in the values first before adding any lines at all.

5-minute quick sketches

5-minute quick sketches

It was fun, like tightrope walking but without the possible dire consequences.

I’m not even really trying to make good drawings anymore. Just playing. It’s a good place to be.

Affinity Photo review

September 2, 2018

I’m a traditionalist painter (some might say reactionary). I only do digital painting once in a while, and it’s usually just to enhance a photographed image. But right now I’m working to create good comps for my book cover illustrations, and I’m keeping digital finishes in mind in case I’m unable to get my gouache technique under control in time (which seems all too likely). So I picked up Affinity Photo, as it looked like it might finally be the Photoshop alternative some of us have been waiting for. The features looked great, and with the special they were running it was less than 40 bucks—certainly a reasonable price for a full-fledged photo editing and digital painting application. Especially when you compare its free-upgrades-for-life deal to Adobe’s pay-us-every-month-of-your-life racket.

But when I tried Photo out, I immediately found some serious issues with their brush engine. To begin with, it periodically just… stops working. That is, I make a brush stroke (with either the drawing tablet or the mouse) and nothing happens. This goes for the Eraser tool as well. Sometimes you can restart the engine just by zooming in or out or rotating the canvas, but other times you actually have to close and then reopen the document to get it to work again. Needless to say, this is unacceptable.

There are other, weirder things going on with the brush engine. Sometimes the eraser tool will work only if I begin the stroke over existing layer pixels. If I start the stroke over transparency and then move the cursor over the layer pixels, nothing happens. This odd behavior is fixed when I zoom in or out. This is called weird.

On one notable occasion (actually, the very first day I tried out the application), the paintbrush antialiased to white instead of transparency, leaving jagged halos that showed up when I tried to paint a background on the layer underneath. This wasn’t because of any brush or layer setting that I could find; it started doing that and then stopped again, all on its own.

I initially thought this stuff might be a problem with my limited CPU or RAM—Photo is currently hogging about 1.8 gigs of memory on an open file with many layers. But Medibang Paint Pro is using almost that much with the same file open, and I haven’t had similar problems with its brushes.

Photo does have some really cool features, especially the live preview of both gradients and layer blending modes (hallelujah!), and I’m sure Affinity Photo is a decent tool for photo editing. But I think the application just isn’t ready for digital painting, even with the low price tag. I’ve got the thing now, so I suppose I’ll keep playing with it from time to time—and with the free upgrades, I can hope these problems will be fixed in future releases. But in the meantime, for projects that matter, I’ll use a free app like MediBang Paint Pro (or even Krita or Fire Alcapa), even with its relative paucity of features and slightly clunky interface (the wretched type dialog!). Photo is much richer, but until they fix that brush engine I’m afraid I won’t be using it much.

I’ve seen some great work done in this application—maybe others have had better luck on their machines. I’m genuinely sorry about this review. I’ve been waiting for years for a credible contender to knock Adobe off their horse. But as of now, from the perspective of this artist at least, Affinity Photo isn’t it.

M. Graham gouache plug

July 13, 2018

Periodically someone on WetCanvas will pipe up and ask the crowd to list their picks for the best gouache brand. All due respect for my fellow artists, but some of the responses make me think a lot of people just haven’t tried very many varieties. There are others out there besides the ones you can get at Michael’s.

I have a good friend, an illustrator who’s unfortunately developed some rather horrific allergies to certain art materials, including solvents, alkyds and even most watercolor preservatives. (Yes, he’s that sensitive. Airbrushers take note: if it’s in the air, it’s quietly bulding up in your body.) I emailed M. Graham on his behalf to ask about their gouache ingredients. Unsurprisingly, they couldn’t list for me their proprietary ingredients; however, they kindly offered to send us some sample tubes. When I received them I was pleased to find they weren’t the miniscule promotional samples I’ve seen from other companies, but full-sized, 15ml tubes.

It turns out that not only are M. Graham gouaches one of only two brands my friend can safely use, but we were both blown away by the quality of the paint. Their gouache prices are so reasonable ($12.50 for a tube of genuine cadmium orange!) you might think they couldn’t be that good. But they are. Out of the six or seven artist-quality gouache brands I’ve had the opportunity to sample, they’re tied for first place with Schmincke (also amazing, but considerably pricier). And their pigment lineup is attractive, with a full range of cadmiums, a PB36 cerulean (yummy!), Prussian blue, viridian, etc. No, I’m not getting paid to say it. I’m happy to plug a great company with such a fantastic gouache offering. These paints come fully recommended by moi.

I’m currently trying to get my hand back in by doing some gouache sketches, so I filled out my palette.

After Loomis

After Loomis

Here are my M. Graham colors:

M. Graham gouaches

M. Graham gouaches

For those longtime readers shocked to see a synthetic organic on my palette, the alizarin crimson is just a placeholder to jumpstart my sketching until I can make some of my own gouache paints to supplement these. Yes, of course I’ll be making my own! In fact, I’ve already started:

Vermilion gouache!

Vermilion gouache!

Sun tea

Sun tea

Bispo’s remedy for mulling paint on a hot summer day: sun tea!

For instant sun tea, try Trader Joe’s Irish Breakfast Tea—it’ll be ready in a jiffy. The stuff’s serious. (No, I’m not using a pigment jar for my beverage—perish the thought!)

As for the Sisyphean task of keeping ant scouts from suiciding in your vermilion during mulling, I’ll leave that post for another day.

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!