Archive for May, 2011

Sunsikell seedlings

May 22, 2011
Turnsole seedlings

Turnsole seedlings

In a couple of past posts I have noted the difficulty I have had in getting turnsole plants to germinate. These are the fascinating plants that produced the medieval illumination color (or rather colors) of folium, and for which I have named my blog, my adventure, and, if it ever comes into being, my company.

The plants: I have planted, I have fed and watered, I have cried and cursed – and no matter what I did I could never get more than one out of many to sprout. Once they do sprout, they also need a lot of sun to grow, which is, or has been for the past two years here, a major consideration. But that issue pales with just getting them to put in an appearance in the first place.

Having said that, I figured out what else turnsole seeds need in order to germinate. They need a year.

Late in the spring of last year I planted many of my turnsole seeds in degradable seedling trays, to see only one of them come out of the ground. That one languished and ultimately failed because of the lack of sun last year – but none of the others came up at all. Eventually I stopped watering the little trays, disgusted, and let them sit. I figured I was going to have to order more seeds. Disappointing.

Then, earlier this spring, it was time to plant the tomatoes. Rather than waste the soil that was in the trays, I smashed them up and mixed them into the soil in the larger pot before planting the tomato seeds. Lo and behold, a week or two later turnsole seedlings began coming up. Well, they looked like turnsole seedlings, but I wasn’t completely sure at first, so I didn’t post about it. Now I’m sure. It’s them. They waited an entire year to make their grand entrance. Patient little buggers, them.

I plan to ask my source of the seeds, over in Malta, if he knows anything about these plants requiring a year to germinate as a general thing. But I’m guessing that’s exactly the case. Consider: before, I had extreme difficulty getting even one or two of them to sprout; now, suddenly, five of them have enthusiastically volunteered. So: turnsole growers take note.

These five are now in a similar fix to the loner from last year: struggling under a lack of sunlight. But they’ve gotten an earlier start on the growing season, and I bet the gloomy weather won’t be quite as bad this year (though it certainly is so far!). So I’m hoping to have a nice little crop of sunsikell plants again this year.

The ironic part? None of the tomatoes came up. Not one.

Maybe they’ll show up next year…

turnsole volunteer crop

volunteer turnsole crop


Lightfastness Anxiety Disorder

May 1, 2011

I think it is very beneficial to learn as much as possible about art materials, and how to construct a sound oil painting, and which commercial materials are to be preferred or avoided for this purpose. The last thing you or your buyer wants is a painting that crumbles to the floor when someone slams the front door too hard. But I also sometimes feel that artists of today are rather more concerned about “permanence” than they need to be. That’s putting it a bit mildly; at times it seems that many artists’ concern over lightfastness in particular has reached a fever pitch. And yet, the fact is that real permanence in an oil painting is impossible! No matter what colors you use, your oil painting will not last forever. If you’re painting on stretched canvas, your painting will probably not last more than a few centuries at most. If you’re adding many adjunct ingredients as mediums, then quite possibly considerably less than that. If future generations decide that your painting doesn’t merit conservation efforts, then almost certainly less than that. Many oil paintings created this year will likely crumble and be thrown out before the permanence of any color commercially sold today becomes a real issue. And yet, so many artists today are worried about lightfastness. I sometimes, with affectionate exasperation, refer to this obsession as Lightfastness Anxiety Disorder (LAD).

Artists of the past don’t seem to have suffered from this disorder. It was common for artists of the past to use colors that today are widely considered to be impermanent, fugitive, and even “unfit for artistic use.” This doesn’t mean that artists of the past didn’t know what they were doing, and it certainly doesn’t mean that they didn’t care about their art. Quite the opposite. I personally think that they were focused on the right things, and didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about trying to make an oil painting last forever.

At Ivy Ranch

At Ivy Ranch

Just as importantly, many artists of past eras simply knew how to use less permanent colors in the safest possible ways. Take the natural lake pigments: madder, carmine, weld, etc. In oil paintings the natural lake pigments were most commonly used as glazes, over underpaintings that had been completely modeled using more permanent colors. This way, if or when they faded, their doing so would not break the painting in any fundamental way. Take a look at the painting on the right, At Ivy Ranch, which I recently completed. The forms of the couch were glazed with two coats of rose madder genuine by Winsor & Newton. If the lake color ever fades, the drapery will still be there, because it was painted in very permanent earth colors, bone black and lead white. Then, if a conservator (or any reasonably competent professional artist, hired by some future owner of this painting) wishes to retouch or even completely reapply the glaze, it will be an easy matter to do so: no modeling required, just slap another glaze layer on there. (In the case of the conservator, this reapplied glaze would be done with a removable resin paint, rather than an oil paint.)

At Ivy Ranch - no madder

At Ivy Ranch - no madder

A benefit to working like this is that I can see exactly what the painting will look like if the glaze happens to fade entirely at any time in the future. I wouldn’t be able to do that if I used the lake as a regular mixing color. At right is a photo taken from quite early on in the painting process – just some basic value and temperature separations slapped in, the only parts that had been worked up at all were the skirt and the couch. The couch wound up going a bit farther than this before the glazes were applied, particularly in that the area behind the girl became a much darker shadow accent. But aside from that, this is somewhat like what the painting would look like if the madder glaze were to fade completely from the picture. Unlikely to ever happen, of course; rose madder, for all its notoriety lately among those afflicted with LAD, is actually a fairly durable pigment. (Surprise!) More likely is that the madder, over the course of decades and centuries, will fade to some extent; and so much later on you might instead see something like this:

At Ivy Ranch - simulated fading

At Ivy Ranch - simulated fading

Not my first preference – but not the end of the world either. And again, that madder glaze could be rather easily reapplied at any point in the future, and even more than once if need be.

Certainly the safest natural lake pigment to use is madder, and the safest way to apply it is in a full-strength glaze, as I’ve done in this painting. Many artists of the past were quite content to regularly use colors far less permanent than madder; but even for artists of today, with higher standards of lightfastness, there really should be no problem in my opinion with using madder as I’ve used it here. This is a very safe use of a pigment that is actually reasonably lightfast (ASTM II, suitable for artistic work).

Professional artists have a certain financial responsibility to use quality materials and sound painting practices; but this emphasis on “permanence,” I feel, has gone a bit far. And it almost always seems to revolve around lightfastness, and so seldom around other factors of durability in art materials. It has often amazed me that so many artists eschew the use of madder for “archival” reasons, but then turn around and mix large amounts of natural resins or balsams into their paint layers! … or buy and use the cheapest acrylic-primed canvases they can find, ones which will certainly not hold onto an oil paint layer for very long. I encourage my fellow artists to learn more about the structural aspects of longevity in a painting, and to lighten up – just a little – about lightfastness, and learn some of the ways in which less lightfast colors may be used in relative safety. Rose madder is certainly one of the most gorgeous colors ever to grace the medium of oil painting; and it is, unlike the quinacridones and pyrroles, a sustainable artist’s color. The madder lakes have been used by many, perhaps even most, of the greatest and most celebrated oil painters in history. So go ahead and use a rich glaze of madder on that drapery – why not! You’ll be in very good company.

Take the plunge. You won’t regret it.