Posts Tagged ‘historical color’

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!

Brunaille, Eighteenth-century Palette

February 1, 2013

Portrait of Neil

Portrait of Neil

Here is a recently-completed portrait of our friend Neil. I am, among other directions, working toward the brunaille underpainting as a general starting point for my portraits. A brunaille is simply a brown underpainting, usually done in umbers or brown ochre, and is something different from either verdaccio or grisaille.

I may have posted earlier that the old master portraits and figures I’ve seen up-close in musea recently – notably Rembrandt, Rubens, Hals and David – all seemed to display a common feature, which was a brown transparent color in the shadows of the flesh, over which the lights and some midtones had been layered opaquely. I’ve seen photos of other old master works (I’m thinking of Velasquez in particular) which also seem to display this: shadows left transparent to the canvas, lights built with opaque colors. I’m sure this process isn’t universal or anywhere near it; but it’s common enough that it seems to have been a standard procedure, if one of many.

I noticed this some time back, but had held off on introducing it into my own work, probably because I fell in love with thick paint and broad brushwork – which haven’t lent themselves to the care which is required to preserve transparency in shadows. But more recently, when I took a portrait painting class with Vanessa Lemen, I discovered she was following this very procedure of leaving shadows transparent from session to session, and I couldn’t help noting how efficient it was for her.

So, after a few experiments, I tried the process with this portrait. The underpainting was brown ochre and lead white (Da Vinci Arizona Brown Ochre and Rublev Lead White #2). After the underpainting dried, I used transparent earths – siennas and yellow ochre light – in a transparent glaze which both gave a bit of color to the shadows (especially a bit of red around the cheeks and ears), and provided a nice couch into which to lay the opaque lights, wet-into-wet. (This is a trick I learned from Vanessa.) I took some care to leave the shadows transparent, except for a bit of reflected light under the chin (which is the only place that got screwed up – gotta be careful with those!). At the same time, I painted the shirt opaquely in something similare to a grisaille, but with some color variation.

If I were a more accomplished painter, I could have completed the skin tones in two layers. It really is an efficient way to work. As it was, it took some fixing. The whole thing was painted using a student palette of natural earths and lead white, plus a final glaze layer of Prussian blue over the shirt. I think of this as an “Eighteenth-century Palette,” as Prussian blue was discovered in 1704 and used through much of that century. Snapshots of the process are presented below:

Neil Portrait Process

Neil Portrait Process

I do still love thick paint, and I will not sacrifice it to this technique. I will be keeping in my mind the question of how to use the two together. I am already using shorter, smaller brushstrokes rather than the big paint smears of just a little while ago; perhaps these two methods will meet in the middle.

Note: I am currently engaged in a massive madder harvest. I should be finished within the next two weeks, and I will post about that. Good painting!

Old Flemish Technique

July 15, 2012
Flemish 2

Walnut Ink Drawing

This drawing is derivative of a copyrighted work of Steve McCurry.

When I write about Flemish Technique, I’m talking about techniques of the so-called “Flemish Primitives” of the early Renaissance, right at the dawn of oil painting as an art medium. I appended the adjective “old” to the title of this post to distinguish this Flemish Technique from other techniques of the same name, including Baroque Flemish portraiture, Dutch Rococo floral still lifes, and others newer still.

Oil painting in Flanders was really a mixed medium technique, and not really oil painting as we understand it today. Egg tempera paintings, as you may recall, were often begun with an ink drawing, sometimes a quite detailed one. Egg tempera paint was laid on, being the main component of the painting, and them sometimes an oil glaze or two was added at the end to enrich or deepen some colors. (Theophilus described the use of oil glazes over metallic surfaces some time before the Renaissance, so the idea had been around for a while.) Sometimes the oil glazes became more important; instead of being an egg tempera painting with some final glazes, a work might become essentially an oil painting with an ink and egg tempera underpainting. This is the basic technique as it was exported to Italy, before the invention of oil painting as we know it by Bellini and his compatriots. This information on Flemish Painting I first found at the great All the Strange Hours blog.

One can skip the egg tempera bit altogether, and simply paint in oil directly over the ink drawing, much of it still in glazes. This is what I’ve been working on. The ink drawing has been in homemade natural walnut ink, the same as I used here, but this time on a traditional gessoed panel. It’s nice to draw in ink on gesso, as it’s mostly erasable by scrubbing with a bristle brush; the only difficulty is in getting a flat wash. For the ink drawing, I’ve used a bristle brush, a fine sable ink brush, and the occasional quill pen. The picture at the top of the post shows the second ink drawing I completed, before the oil paint glazes have been applied. Here’s the first:

Flemish 1

Walnut Ink Drawing

After the ink drawing, I laid down an imprimatura of linseed oil, because the gesso is so very absorbent that it can otherwise suck an oil paint layer dry, and also to lock in the ink drawing. Oil paints on gesso dry very quickly, so by the next day it was completely dry to the touch. I then laid down oil paints; some of them, as in the brown glaze over the hair, were able to remain completely transparent, so that the ink drawing really is an integral part of the final painting. For this stage I used a student palette of natural earths, bone black and lead white (pardon the quality of the pic here, the paint was still a bit wet in spots).

Flemish 1

Flemish Technique

The final stage was for more highly-saturated glazes over the clothing, which again I could apply very quickly. For the blue I used natural ultramarine (lapis lazuli from Da Vinci); and I just couldn’t resist glazing with natural carmine over the red overshirt. (This is the Winsor & Newton Carmine oil paint I located a while back.)

Flemish 1

Flemish Technique

All materials that were available in the Renaissance. Woo-hoo! (Well, the walnut ink is conjectural – but probable.) I will be doing one of these with egg tempera included; before that, I will complete in oil the drawing at top, and post in more detail about the technique of layering the oil paint.

Part II of Hand-mulling Paint is on the way too – promise!

Lead White: The Real Story.

June 6, 2012

(With apologies to Stephen R. Donaldson.)

Lately there has been some hand-wringing over the shortage and high price of lead white artist’s oil paint on the market. Some artists believe that lead white is now illegal or on the verge of being so, and that it will be only a black-market item in the future – or that the artist’s materials companies are being strong-armed behind closed doors to not produce the stuff any more. Others, that the art companies themselves are jacking up the price or discontinuing the pigment voluntarily because of some kind of market disapproval of toxic materials.

That, of course, is not the real story.

Artist’s pigments, with very few exceptions (for instance Winsor and Newton’s Rose Madder Genuine or Rublev’s Stack-process Lead White), are not actually artist’s pigments. They are pigments that are manufactured for much larger industries than our little artist’s corner – for instance the massive auto, plastics, and textiles industries. The art materials industry is too miniscule to manage the economies of scale that make materials inexpensive in the modern world. So we buy pigments that are left over from the big boys and get our tubes of paint on the cheap.

In the United States, lead white was banned from commercial paints all the way back in the 1970s. There were some good reasons for it. Artist’s paints were kindly excluded from this injunction. There has been no banning of lead white in artist’s paints in the United States; nor, as far as I know, any real political discussion of such. Lead ammo, yes. Lead fishing tackle, yes. Artist’s oil paints, no. I believe we are probably safe from Washington in this regard. We’re under the radar. (Europe is, unfortunately, a different story.)

However, since that ban on lead white in commercial applications occurred in the 1970s, the big manufacturers have almost entirely shut down production of the material. Why shouldn’t they? Artists still wanted it, but the larger industries couldn’t use it any more – and again, we’re just way too small of a sector to make it worthwhile for them to keep producing the stuff just for little old us. No economy of scale, in other words.

Without the economy of scale provided by larger industry consumption, materials are going to be more expensive. No way around that. So artist’s paint companies have a choice: Keep selling lead white paint, but at a higher price – or drop the pigment from their lineup. Only a few have chosen the former.

Those interested in reading more should check out this recent article by George O’Hanlon over at Rublev. In it, he describes how basic lead carbonate is still obtainable from Asia, though with some difficulty. His article is what inspired this post.

So, two things: one, lead white will probably still be around for awhile; and two, yes, it’s going be more expensive. And that’s the real story.

The Student Palette

November 27, 2011
Portrait using Student Palette

Portrait using Student Palette

The oldest palette, according to the story of the previous post here, has been in use for about a hundred thousand years or so. The palette consists of black, white, red ochre, and yellow ochre: these are the colors that have been used in cave paintings for all of our long prehistory, readily available and easily processed and used. Black, white, red and yellow are often the earliest colors to receive their own names in a culture, and I hypothesize that that’s precisely because those are the four colors that are universally in use. Pliny the Elder mentioned that the great Greek painters used the colors Attica earth (yellow ochre from Attica), Sinoper (red ochre from Sinope), black and white. And earth reds and yellows, plus black and white, have made up the greater part of easel painters’ palettes since the Renaissance (at least up until the Twentieth Century). This basic palette of earths and neutrals has been called the student palette, because the paints it uses are so inexpensive, and also because the restricted palette is an excellent learning tool.

Working with such a restricted palette has its own challenges and rewards. One challenge of using earth colors only is that they lose saturation quickly in either tints or shades. Another is that it’s difficult to avoid a monochrome look to the painting. But, with patience, it’s a palette that does work for portraits. The reason it works, aside from the fact that earth colors mixed with white naturally resemble skin tones, is something called simultaneous contrast. Simultaneous contrast means that colors have an effect on each other’s appearance when placed side by side; in particular, they tend to push away from each other, perceptually. What this means, practically, is that you can get a blue in your painting without actually using blue – a neutral gray will appear quite blue when placed among warmer colors (a mix of black and white actually is slightly blue, which heightens the effect). And a serviceable green can be had from a mixture of black and yellow ochre (in addition to the simultaneous contrast effect, dark yellow, or olive, actually looks quite green to the eye even by itself).

Sketch of Joy, student palette

Sketch of Joy

The benefits of working with a student palette: first of all, it teaches how to make effective use of this simultaneous contrast. (I think half or so of the so-called Old Master Techniques were developed simply to deal with the lack of inexpensive blue pigments, and this is one of them.) Also, one simply learns a lot about mixing with earth colors, which must be an integral part of any traditional palette – and about paying attention to values, since the student palette simply doesn’t work without good value contrast. Finally, crucially, one learns how to make a painting work without trying to match all the colors you see in front of you. Modern painting practice seems to be all about matching colors; but if you literally cannot match the colors in front of you with the paints you have available, what do you do then? Can you still make the painting work?

I wouldn’t necesssarily use this restricted of a palette in professional work – as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, you just can’t get all the colors you might need. But as a study it’s invaluable, and I definitely recommend it.

Portrait using the student palette

Portrait using the student palette

The four paintings on this page were done with variations of the student palette, and were painted alla prima (though the one at right took an extra few minutes in a second session to block in the background and the shirt). The painting at top was done using Blue Ridge Yellow Ocher, Ercolano Red (a light red) and bone black, all from Rublev, plus zinc white from Winsor & Newton. Notice the blue shirt, painted with black and white, and the green background, painted with black, white and yellow. The second painting on the page is a quick sketch from life of my wife singing and playing the piano (the other three are all painted from photo reference at the WetCanvas Reference Image Library), using the same palette as above. The painting just to the right of this paragraph was done with a slightly expanded student palette, using two red earths: the same yellow ochre and ercolano red from Rublev, plus Venetian Red (also from Rublev) and substituting Da Vinci Magnetite Genuine for the black, and Rublev lead white in place of the zinc. Other helpful earth colors can be added, of course, including raw umber, burnt sienna, terre verte, et cetera. Below is an experiment using a very limited palette indeed: Venetian red, burnt umber and zinc white only.

Venetian red, burnt umber, zinc white

Three tubes of paint

The temperature variation on all of these is very limited (though I managed a bit on the third painting), partly through my lack of experience with this palette, but mostly because they’re all painted opaquely. A good deal more variation can be achieved by taking advantage of transparent effects, and I’ll be exploring that direction in the future. Some additional reading: George O’Hanlon discusses painting with earth colors here, and here is a discussion of Marvin Mattelson’s use of earth colors for skin tones.

The Oldest Art Studio

October 17, 2011
Ochre pic - from Gizmodo

Ochre pic - from Gizmodo

Here’s some news that blew me away: The oldest art studio ever discovered (National Geographic). In Africa, a cave was unearthed that included all the basics required for making pigments: natural colorants, tools for grinding them (stones), and bowls for holding the pigments (abalone shells) – as well as some evidence of some fairly complex chemistry in their making, and even color mixing. Which is all extremely cool. But here’s the really cool thing: These art materials are 100,000 years old. Yep, a tenth of a million years is how long (at least) we humans have been making art materials – which means, of course, that we’ve been making art for at least that long as well. I’ve always had a younger date in mind, and have often shared that with my students: say, 30,000 to 40,000 years. But clearly, it’s been much longer than that.

I’m excited by the news of this discovery for a few reasons. One, this means that we homo sapiens have probably been making art ever since we’ve been homo sapiens. One related article at CNN mentioned that fragments of pigment have been found from even longer ago than those in this find, though without the related tools found there. Longer than a hundred thousand years is how long we’ve been painting. In a very real way, I think, making art is a part of what it means to be human – as much as tracking, or storytelling, funeral rites, or any other part of our deepest shared culture.

Second has to do with the pigments themselves. The pigments discovered were ochres and other minerals, charcoal, and bone. None of these is unexpected – but what has an impact on me is the feeling that when I paint with a natural earth pigment, I am a part of a hundred-thousand-year-old tradition. That makes me feel differently about what I’m doing when I use these pigments, in a wide but not-quite-definable way. It makes me feel – human. Really a part of our culture, not our modern veneer and glitz, but the real deal. It feels good.

Third, of course, is the fact that I’m a handcrafter of pigments myself. When I read the article, I immediately felt a strong connection, a kinship even, between myself and those color-makers from long ago. I felt part of a string. I thought about myself, and about some artist grinding earth pigments 100,000 years from now, and about those ancient color-makers from so long ago. I wished they could have known about me somehow, grinding earth pigments so long after they did. And I wondered if they felt the same excitement in the gathering and making of the colors, the same satisfaction with the finished pigments, and the same joy in using them for their art.

I bet they did.

Watching the Grandchildren – layering process

July 24, 2011

I’ve just finished the most recent oil painting – It’s called Watching the Grandchildren. I had a lot of ideas in mind while I was painting it, and a lot of struggles as well. One thing that went pretty well, better than I had a right to expect probably, was a complex layering process on the blouse and wrap of the subject. The blouse has a complex pattern on it, and tassles as well – underneath which is a strong red color. I knew I wanted to use a rose madder glaze (can’t get enough of that madder these days), and as I’ve posted before I wanted to use the madder in a flat glaze layer so that any eventual fading will not break the picture. So, I would model forms in an underpainting and then glaze over that, as expected – but in this case some elements would have to go over the glaze layer as well. So how to layer everything? I made a plan and followed it, and here’s how it went:

Leo Carillo layer 1

Leo Carillo layer 1

The underpainting is Da Vinci Arizona Brown Ochre and Rublev Lead White #2 (lead white in walnut oil). I use paints from both of these companies regularly; I’ll do reviews here at some point I’m sure. I chose brown ochre because the transparent rose color of madder makes a nice middle red color over brown, as I’ve discovered in other experiments. As I found out later, I could have made this brunaille underpainting a bit darker. Common wisdom states that the glaze layer will darken whatever’s underneath; but I’ve found that’s only true up to a point. I wound up having to darken the shadows further at the end.

Leo Carillo layer 2

Leo Carillo layer 2

Then I laid down the pattern on the shirt. I wanted to get the pattern down first and then glaze right over it, because the pattern would still show through the glaze somewhat, so that I’d be able to use it as a template for repainting it on top of the glaze layers later. I figured if I tried to just tackle the pattern on top of the glaze for the first time, I’d wind up messing it up – erasing and lifting and correcting and scrubbing – and run the risk of ruining the crystal clarity of the madder glaze that I wanted. I think I was right about that; a pattern like this is not something I find so easy to do. My wife mentioned that I might stop painting at this point, and that was a compliment; but it wouldn’t have worked to leave it here. Besides, how could I resist the next step? It’s got madder in it!

Leo Carillo layer 3

Leo Carillo layer 3

This is what the first glaze of madder looked like. For some reason this particular color seems nearly impossible to photograph accurately. From this point on, heavy Photoshopping was necessary for each photograph, and so you may see some variation from pic to pic. I liked the color of the madder here, of course, but the blouse wasn’t really dark enough to make the composition work. It had to really stand out from all that white wall – especially since it would have all that distracting pattern in there. In a composition, focal point is everything. So more layers were necessary. Madder, of course, takes a long time to dry in oil; this stage of the painting took a while.

Leo Carillo layer 4

Leo Carillo layer 4

After three glaze layers of madder it was pretty much as you see here, dark and rich. But if I’d made the underpainting any lighter than it was, it wouldn’t have worked. I would have had to keep darkening with another layer of rose madder, and that might have made the element too saturated in color. It’s right on the borderline already (although, of course, this nice thick layer of madder gives some wiggle room for fading later on). Sometime before I try doing this again, I’m going to have to do a bunch of glazing studies over drapery, to really become familiar with just how these very transparent paints interact optically with differently-colored underpaintings. I’ll try various madder lakes, of course, but also ultramarine, Prussian blue, weld, carmine, verdigris, and perhaps lac. When I do these studies, I will most certainly post them here.

Leo Carillo layer 5

Leo Carillo layer 5

At last I was able to restate the pattern on the shirt, using the previously-painted pattern as a template. After it was down I had to knock parts of it back a little, and emphasized other parts, for the sake of the composition. After doing that, I put the tassles above everything, and did a bit of last-hour modeling on the whole thing. Below is the final look. I planned it out as carefully as I could; still, I think I was somewhat lucky. Much could have gone wrong, and I knew it could right from the beginning. It was a bit of a tightrope walk in the dark.

Isn’t that madder pretty, though? If you’d like to see the whole painting, you can see it (and a couple of life drawings) on my artwork blog here.

Leo Carillo layer 6

Leo Carillo layer 6

This is the kind of layering technique that is sometimes required when using a limited palette of traditional colors. Some colors, like rose madder, are best used transparently – and sometimes not as the final layer. Most of the time I simply paint directly, but in situations like this one, that just won’t do. I don’t think of the color palette that I use as being particularly limiting; but sometimes it is necessary to plan ahead. Though some other aspects of this painting could have gone a bit better, I’m very pleased that the blouse turned out so well, and even more pleased to have this process under my belt for next time.

Portfolio and traditional palettes

April 3, 2011

I always have so much going on in my life, both professionally and otherwise. There’s the gardening, the paintmaking, the painting, the writing, my family, exercise, research, drawing and painting classes, etc. etc. – and this is all aside from my day job. But it is time for one to take precedence over all the others (except my family and my job). It is time for me to get my portfolio together.

For about three or four years running, I’ve promised myself: “This is the year.” This time it really is. This time I’m forcing myself into the professional world: I’ve taken an illustration gig, a book cover job. Very low-paying, but with a not-insignificant promotional aspect. And there’s a deadline. If I don’t have a website up and running by the time the book comes out, it will all be for nothing. So… in a few months I need to have not only the illustration completed, but a professional body of work completed and online as well.

Cowboy Santa illustration

Cowboy Santa illustration

The illustration isn’t really down my alley – it’s a Western Christmas story book – but it’s fun, and it’s a good opportunity to try out some traditional paint colors. I’m doing a Western Santa Claus on horseback, and my working title is – of course – Cowboy Santa. I’ve just gotten to the point of covering the canvas – the second of the four milestones in completing a painting (one, finishing the sketches and comps; two, getting the canvas covered; three, getting everything to work; and four, the endgame). I’m doing this with something of a nineteenth-century palette: natural earths, bone black, red lead (that’s the bright orange color that will be glazed with madder to get a Christmas red), chromium oxide green, ultramarine, Prussian blue, rose madder, Naples yellow and lead white. It has occurred to me to keep an illustration avenue open in addition to the fine art and portraiture, since in illustration I’ll be able to make use of some lovely colors that would be problematic in professional fine art, such as carmine, weld and indigo. But none of those are called for in this image, so it will actually be pretty archival.

At Ivey Ranch

At Ivey Ranch - unfinished

My fine art portfolio will initially consist of Southwestern portraits, for a number of reasons I’ll go into later, when I’ve gotten everything prepared. Here’s an image of a partially-completed painting (in the middle of stage three), one of the four or five I’m working on now (not counting the Cowboy Santa). The palette on this one is very traditional: natural earths, bone black, lead white, lead-tin yellow and orange, rose madder, and um… yeah, that’s it. Oh: and a new one, pink pipestone, made from the same soft red rock as the Native American Calumet pipes. This color is magical, and very useful. See the pinks in the shirt and skin tones? Yeah. More on that one later, for sure.

The end of an era

Today I had to give up my old community garden plot that I’ve been working for three years. We moved to a different town last year; that plus watering restrictions means it no longer made sense to keep it. We hadn’t been there for months. Made me sad to close it down today; lots of good memories of gardening with my wife (then my fiancée) there. But I have another garden plot, one closer to home, and we have some containers in the back yard for tomatoes and eggplant. So it’s for the best. In honor of the garden plot we had to give up, the painting above will be titled At Ivey Ranch.

The next few months will be a little sketchy as I indicated; but I will check in when I can. I will also be putting a lot more effort into the attached blog, Wish me luck!

Verdaccio technique – complete

November 22, 2010
Verdaccio technique

Verdaccio technique

… well, sort of. The technique didn’t work out particularly well for me, as I made numerous crucial mistakes. But that’s not the issue. Any mistakes I made can be corrected the next time out. Trouble is, I don’t think there will be a next time, at least not following this exact procedure. I have some real concerns about this verdaccio technique.

This is a technique that I was taught by a student of Adrian Gottlieb. I don’t know for certain if it is in fact the technique taught by Mr. Gottlieb; it may not be. It is given as a technique that was used by just about all of the classic painters; however, I have yet to locate a single example of an old master that was clearly following this technique, which is: imprimatura and drawing; lights stated with white in the piambura layer; cools and warms stated in the verdaccio layer; and final transparent yellow glaze to bring it all together. (These stages are seen in my study at right; once again I must apologize for the horrific photography.) I have seen two or three examples of what look to be piambura layers, but that’s about it. Apparently some other examples do exist, as teachers of this method have purportedly taken students to various museum galleries to show examples. But this procedure could not have been as ubiquitous as all that; there are more than a few examples of old masters who clearly did not follow this technique, but some other: alla prima; grisaille; verdaccio (as it is usually meant, using black, white and either raw umber or terre verte); ebauche; or some combination of these or other techniques.

But far worse, for me, is the inclusion – and even the demand for – so many thoroughly modern materials. This technique is pushed, again, as being the way the old masters worked; but since it seems to depend so much on modern materials, one has to wonder what in the heck they used! Consider:

The first layer is the imprimatura, which is a transparent initial toning of the linen. In this technique the imprimatura is a mix of alizarin crimson and olive green. Both of these colors are synthetic organics (remember those? see this post if not); neither of these colors could have existed before the late nineteenth century.

After getting the drawing in, the next layer is the piambura. In it, the lights are stated using various combinations of lead white and titanium white. Lead white has certainly been around for a while; but titanium white didn’t hit the art supply shelves until the 1920s! If tradition is what is being taught here, why not just use lead white alone, as the old masters must have done?

Next layer is the verdaccio layer. In this layer, cools and warms (grayed greens and reds) are stated over the lights of the piambura layer. The green used is chromium oxide green. This is often considered a traditional color, but even it didn’t make its appearance before the early nineteenth century. If this is a technique used by all the old masters, then what did they use before then?

The red used, named sinopia (it isn’t – sinopia is a traditional earth pigment) is a complex mix of alizarin crimson, mars violet and transparent red oxide. The mars violet and transparent red oxide (especially the latter) are recent additions to the palette; but those might be considered as substitutions for the older earth colors. But then, why not just use those earths instead? It’s not like they don’t exist any more. Same with alizarin crimson; I assume this is meant as a replacement for madder lake, which again, still exists and is obtainable. I don’t have anything against the more modern colors; but when I’m learning a technique supposedly used by the classical painters, I personally would be interested in using some of their materials. (And even then, it seems a bit of a stretch to imagine that all the old masters were using a mixture of burnt sienna, violet earth and madder lake for all of their warm skin tones, and that nothing else would do.)

But here is the kicker, worse than anything I’ve mentioned so far (in fact, before this the rest of it hardly matters at all): durability. Or rather, lack thereof. This verdaccio technique has been taught as a procedure that will give archival results. However, at this point everyone should be familiar with the impermanence of alizarin crimson. This fugitive color is used in almost all the layers of this technique, including the final, very thin glaze layer – where it will fade very quickly. (Considering the delicacy and precision of this technique, and that it is given as an archival technique, I find it ironic that the results intended will probably be effective for a few decades at most.) It is used there along with Indian yellow (it isn’t really Indian yellow, but yet another synthetic organic). But concerning the glaze layer, the problem is not only the pigments used. I’ve long been concerned about what the final glaze layer would turn out to be – as it turns out, the final glaze isn’t oil paint at all, but pigment in Canada balsam only!

Canada balsam is a natural tree resin, and like all natural tree resins, over time it will darken, yellow, and crack. Unlike oil paint, the darkening and yellowing of natural tree resins is not reversible by sunlight. In this technique, we’ve been pushed to use some Canada balsam (I didn’t) in the darks of the verdaccio layer; but at least there the amount used was minimal. But in the final glaze layer it’s all resin (the turpentine used to dilute it will evaporate off as it dries). Natural soft resins like Canada balsam are resoluble. This means that when some future conservator goes to remove the final picture varnish to replace it, whoops! There goes the glaze color! …Archival, indeed.

I’ll give this technique one thing: when done correctly it clearly can give good optical results. I may have messed up this one (it was my first try at a pretty complex procedure, after all), but I can see how one could get pretty convincing skin tones by following it. But there are plenty of other techniques that can give good results too. Techniques that are sounder technically, and have a much clearer historical pedigree.

Because it can give good results, and because I’ve invested a lot of time and energy, I plan to keep experimenting with this; in fact I started today. I want to see if I can come up with my own version of this verdaccio technique, but one that is archivally sound and makes use of actual historical materials.

oil on gesso

oil on gesso

I apologize for the very negative review of this technique, which some of you have been following here with interest. It must seem a bit of a harsh indictment; but I’m afraid it simply goes against just about everything I’ve learned about historical color and sound painting practice. I will of course continue to study and experiment with all kinds of traditional painting techniques and materials. Speaking of traditional materials, a friend of mine is making gesso panels. I’m trying one out now. It’s an amazingly smooth surface, which absorbs oil really quickly. I began by laying down an initial layer of cold-pressed linseed oil, which was promptly absorbed – the panel was dry to the touch after less than a day! – so I started working on it. The first layer is shown at right, using one of my favorite combinations of earth colors, raw sienna and violet hematite. After all the fussiness of the last few months, I wanted to just enjoy making a painting again. Actually, I wound up being a bit fussy with this one too – but only because I was having fun with the materials.

Ah, that feels good to say.