Archive for January, 2010

Portrait completion

January 25, 2010
portrait from life

portrait from life

Here is the more-or-less completed painting, one week later. It was done in class over a period of three hours with some breaks in between. My instructor helped me out at the final stages, bringing the colors more in harmony and expanding upon the cool range in the shadows of the flesh tones.

The colors used were a combination of mostly synthetic inorganics, with two synthetic organics (the organics occupying, as usual, the cool red part of the spectrum): cadmium yellow light, cadmium orange, cadmium scarlet, quinacridone rose, alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, cerulean blue and viridian – with titanium white. No black was used, the darks were attained by mixing complements. Most of the darkest darks included some ultramarine or alizarin, as those are the deepest and most transparent colors on this palette.

This is an unusual approach for me, not only in the use of ultramarine blue for the underpainting as I mentioned last week, but also in using so many high-chroma colors for skin tones in a portrait painting. I’m used to using the Zorn palette, which is just a vermilion hue (or the real thing if want to hurt your wallet) and yellow ochre, plus black and white. The way we worked for this project was very different. I can see some benefits, including seeing temperature differences more clearly, learning to better control the more saturated colors, and having more options for brighter rendering of clothing and drapery (the model’s violet sweater and scarf would have had to be much duller using the Zorn palette). I did miss using yellow ochre quite a bit – I found the bright cadmium yellow light was the most difficult color on the palette to control.

But the chief benefit was the addition of those two blues to the palette – ultramarine for real darks and cerulean blue for wonderful cools in the reflected light and shadows of the skin tones. Cerulean blue PB35 is a stannous cobalt that came into use in the mid nineteenth century. I enjoyed using it quite a bit, as I’ve enjoyed several other synthetic inorganics from that time. Not only does cerulean blue possess a delicious color and nice opacity on its own, it also behaves itself in mixtures, not dominating as other cool blues such as Prussian blue or phthalocyanine tend to do. I think I’ve found a new permanent addition to my portrait palette – “permanent” being relative, or course. According to some professionals, cerulean blue is the pigment most in danger of being discontinued by manufacturers, for reasons I’ll go into in another post. Figures.

portrait palette cools

portrait palette cools

I also enjoyed using the viridian, another synthetic organic from the same period (as is artificial ultramarine, for that matter) – it was great for cooling off and desaturating the reds and oranges. This is another color that behaves itself in mixtures a lot better than the phthalos. It was a favorite of C├ęzanne’s, whose work I’ve always admired, and is as bright as green as I can imagine ever needing. On the right is an image of some of the shadows using ultramarine, cerulean and viridian. I’ll be happy to get rid of the cadmium yellow light and switch back to yellow ochre – but those three cools will stay on my portrait palette, at least for now.

Pigment varieties – part II

January 18, 2010
portrait - ultramarine underpainting

portrait - ultramarine underpainting

In an earlier post were introduced two varieties of pigments, the natural inorganics and the natural organics. Third are the synthetic inorganic pigments. These are the human-made colored materials that contain no carbon atom, and are essentially artificial minerals and metals. In my opinion this group of pigments represents some of the greatest historical triumphs of colormen and alchemists through the ages. The earliest were Egyptian blue and Han blue and purple from China; then there is lead white and lead red; vermillion, verdigris, smalt, blue verditer, lead-tin yellow, cobalt blue, synthetic ultramarine, veridian, cadmium yellow, cadmium red, cerulean blue, and so on.

Some of these colors have been discontinued from the artist’s palette because of their great toxicity. Naples yellow genuine and vermillion genuine are made by only a few manufacturers now; lead white is still available in art supply stores but is generally only used by professional artists with a flair for tradition. Other synthetic inorganics, such as manganese blue, have fallen out of use because of economic or environmental considerations. Still others, such as ultramarine, are safe and made easily from common materials, and will probably be in use for quite a long time to come.

Ultramarine represents, for me, the greatest example of the triumph of the artificial synthesis of color. Not only in the fact that it is essentially chemically identical to the natural lapis lazuli (minus some impurities) – but it also took a breathtakingly expensive and difficult-to-obtain item and brought it within the reach of everyday artists. Processed lapis lazuli once traded its weight for gold – literally. Its use was identified in Europe first with the heavenly, and then with opulence. Now the synthetic variety can be bought in a tube for a few bucks. What was once one of the most expensive pigments you could buy (or more likely couldn’t buy) is now one of the cheapest. Despite my interest in natural pigments, I’m not overly interested in really expensive ones. I think art materials should be readily obtainable by artists, and the successful synthesis of ultramarine was a great step forward for the art world.

The example at the top of the page is a drawing and simple underpainting done in ultramarine by myself, from life, a couple of days ago. I’m unused to working in this way – normally I like to do a drawing and/or underpainting in natural burnt umber. This approach using ultramarine is one recommended by my teacher in order to allow the coolness of the blue to affect the layers of shadow color painted above. (I of course screwed it up a little by “erasing” the drawing too often, bluing the entire canvas.) This unfinished painting is relevant to this post in that a material must be common and inexpensive to be used in this way. The natural ultramarine of centuries past would never have been thrown onto the canvas only to be mostly covered up by the subsequent layers of the painting. To do so would have been outrageously extravagant, like painting opaquely over a gold ground. Today it is easy. Not only did the advances in synthetic organic pigments over the past couple of centuries expand the artist’s palette – they made possible entirely new ways of approaching a painting that would have been unthinkable before.

Smalt, a cobalt glass pigment, was indeed used in this way before the days of artificial ultramarine, but smalt does not have anywhere near the depth and saturation of ultramarine. Smalt needed to be darkened with burnt umber or another dark earth, which also would have desaturated the color and made for a quite different effect. In the painting above, the drawing was done with ultramarine alone.

The synthetic inorganic pigments that I have some experience making are various copper blues and greens, and mars yellow from iron sulfate. I’ll post about some of those later on. Next week we’ll see how this little painting turns out.

My first madder harvest

January 10, 2010
Madder plant in winter

Madder plant in winter

Last week I harvested my first madder plants, which have died back, as they do, for the winter. The fact that these plants die back in colder weather has been quite a relief for me, since I’ve spent quite a lot of time fighting them this year.

I love the fact that I’m growing madder plants for use, and that I’ve just harvested my first bunch of them. It’s exciting. But grower beware: madder does spread aggressively. I planted sixteen madder plants in raised/lowered beds in the spring of last year, taking up about half the garden plot. Yeah, maybe I overdid it a little – but that was right at the beginning of everything, and I was so anxious to get things started, and I didn’t have any other dye plants handy at the time. I also had read that madder needs at least two or three years in the ground before harvesting, and again that made me want to start big.

Madder shoots

Madder shoots

Since then, my main task in that garden plot – at times my overwhelming task – has been to keep that madder under control. They didn’t do much the first year, just kind of lay around in their beds, but the second year they just went crazy. There were two plants in particular, planted in higher, softer earth, which have caused some major issues, aggressively sending runners and shoots into my poor neighbor Frank’s garden plot. He has been good-natured enough about it, but it must have been a bit (or more than a bit) annoying at times to have unwanted madder plants among the broccoli. (The pic to the right shows some fresh madder shoots, sent by runner roots, invading my poor neighbor’s garden plot. This is after at least two throrough eradications already this year.) So those were the two plants I chose to dig up first. It’s only been a year and a half, but in this case a year and a half does at least mean two full growing seasons – and I just don’t want to leave those two particular plants in the ground any longer. In any case, I have an opportunity to test the literature on the subject of growing time: since I’ve got so many madder plants in the garden plot (there are still fourteen left), what I’ll do is dig up a new plant or two every six months or so and compare the results. There may be a “sweet spot” in terms of time in the ground versus the amount/quality of dye produced, and if there is I’ll find out.

Freshly-dug madder roots

Freshly-dug madder roots

Here is one corner of the decimated bed – that place was absolutely filled with roots. I know I left some roots in there, there’s no way I got them all – but after a while the back wins out over the heart, and there must be an end. I was out there for hours, and still didn’t finish the whole job in a day. Next to the bed, and nestled between some weld plants (right) and blue irises (top) are some of the madder roots after digging. I tried to pass over those much smaller than a pencil, as I know the roots will contract in size as they dry, and the smaller roots probably don’t have a whole lot of dye in them in any case. There were a couple of nice big blocks of root there, even from plants so young.

Madder-dyed wood

Madder-dyed wood

I’ve read in a couple of sources that there is no indication in the appearance of the roots of the color that lies within. I say nonsense. They are bright orange if you break them open. As someone who is obsessed with getting color out of plants, and with trying out new natural dye sources, I can say that trying these roots out for dye content was probably pretty obvious in early times – there’s a reason madder is one of the earliest dyes recorded. On the right are some pulled roots that have stained the neighboring wood of the raised bed violet with their alizarin!

Fresh madder roots

Fresh madder roots

Here are the roots after an initial rinse with the hose, drying out in the sun. Watch out, bees seem to enjoy the smell of these fresh roots; I was forced to defend my harvest! Now the roots are dessicating on the back porch. When they are completely dry I will discard the roots that have shrunk to a very small size, and then test the remainder for dye content.

Bonus: I caught a lizard! Second time this year, I guess I’m not as slowed-down as I thought. Or maybe all this gardening is just good for me. Isn’t he cute?

Dye garden denizen

Dye garden denizen

Dragon’s blood watercolor

January 5, 2010
Dragon's blood powder

Dragon's blood powder

I just couldn’t wait to try out the dragon’s blood. I really am like a kid in a candy shop with this stuff.

Insoluble in water

Dragon's blood - insoluble in water

Now, I don’t have any previous experience with this particular material. I have read a few things about the stuff: it’s a resin from one of the Dracaena shrubs which grow in the Far East; it is a warm, transparent red that was favored in the early Middle Ages; and it is badly fugitive, which is why it hasn’t been popular since then. (Even Cennino Cennini, in his Craftman’s Handbook of the fifteenth century, warns against its use. I wouldn’t trust it for professional fine art work, but in my opinion just about any pigment is okay to use in sketches or even some illustrations.) But since I don’t have any first-hand experience, I don’t know what form the color will take. Will it be a gouache, a watercolor or an ink?

Dragon's blood watercolor swatch

Dragon's blood swatch

First I test the resin powder in water to see if it is soluble. If it is, then I may be able to use it directly as a dye-based ink, or I may be able to make a lake pigment from it. After soaking the stuff in water for a couple of hours, as you can see above, the powder remains visibly in suspension. This makes me think I might be able to grind it directly into a watercolor (watercolor over gouache, because of the reported transparency).

So I give it a shot, and it certainly does have a nice red color – as someone at WetCanvas mentioned, it looks like liquid sanguine (not too surprising, since the root meaning of “sanguine” is “blood”) – and it appears brushable. I decided to make some sketches with it.

Dragon's blood watercolor sketch

Dragon's blood watercolor sketch

These are taken from photo reference by Steve McCurry, the photographer whose portraits became famous through National Geographic magazine. The dragon’s blood is definitely transparent; however, I found myself painting quite thick in some areas, as if I were using gouache. I suppose it could be considered either one, as long as we aren’t being too sticky about whether gouache needs to always be opaque.

Dragon's blood watercolor sketch

Dragon's blood watercolor sketch

One thing I like about natural organic colors (aside from their beauty) is that they tend to be both transparent and nonstaining, which is a combination you don’t find much among the synthetic pigments. Transparent or nonstaining, to be sure; but seldom both. The transparent part means one can easily paint a complete monochrome sketch in a single watercolor; the nonstaining part means the color is very workable, even after it has dried. It’s a nice combination. “Transparent, nonstaining colors” is practically a tenet of watercolorists; however, it’s not really a reality any more, at least not in the colors I’ve tried from the art store.

I’m not done experimenting with the dragon’s blood yet; I still have to try other means of dissolving it. It’s insoluble in water, but I recall reading somewhere that it is soluble in alcohol. If it is, then I may still be able to make a dragon’s blood ink – or a lake pigment from the dissolved dye, a pigment that may have very different properties from the directly ground resin powder. We shall see.