Archive for the ‘Art materials’ Category

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.

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!


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.


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!

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!