Friday, February 03, 2017

Nocturne in Casein

Casein paint dries so quickly you can get certain kinds of effects, similar to glazing with oil paint, but much much faster. There are quite a few people who say that casein is opaque, but in my admittedly limited experience over the past few months, casein paint behaves rather like a mix between watercolor and oil. Some colors, such as the phthalo blue that Richeson markets as "Shiva Blue," is relatively transparent. The earth colors I've used have been in between, yellow ochre medium opaque for example, and titanium white is dead opaque, as you would expect. I don't find any other whites--no lead or zinc--so opaque white is the order of the day with casein unless you make your own. Making casein paint is likely to be simple enough since you can buy pigment (one good source is Sinopia) and mix it with casein emulsion, available from Sinopia or Richeson. I have yet to try that and only have tubed or commercially-prepared paints in the studio.

Casein seems to be useful for almost any kind of painting. Reportedly it was widely used by illustrators over a half-century ago, primarily for its quick drying and matte finish. Since the medium was used in advertising work, there is little doubt that it was used for all manner of figure work, narrative illustration, probably poster art, and others. While I haven't done still life with casein paint, it has been useful to try a few landscapes, a couple of which I posted not long ago. My primary work is figures and cities, so traditional landscape is a challenge, but it gives me a chance to continue working out the properties of this kind of paint. This time the landscape is a nocturne, a night scene. 

James Whistler, "Nocturne in Blue and Gold,"ca 1873
Naming paintings after musical forms--etudes, symphonies, etc.) was one of James Whistler's most interesting ideas. According to history, Mr. Whistler got the concept from a patron of his. Regardless of the source, Mr. Whistler's paintings, done contemporaneously with Monet and others, are sometimes impressionistic, sometimes tonal, and but idiosyncratically his own. The painting to the right, "Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge," painted in London in the early 1870s, is typical. Painted in a Tonalist style, it shows an old bridge in London. This picture has a relatively unconventional composition, with the bridge looming high above our viewpoint and the river stretching into a vague, distant city. Details are blurred or absent, but the distant shore sparkles with tiny points of light. Clearly Mr. Whistler was intent on producing the experience of night vision without denying the reality of his paint. And of course, the transparency and brilliance of oil paint was in part responsible for his effects.

Frederic Remington, "Old Stagecoach of the Plains."
Another of my favorite painters, Frederic Remington, also painted nocturnes and mostly used oils, but his paintings were uniformly western American scenes--native Americans, cavalry troopers, trappers, and so on. He painted an acclaimed series of nocturnes at the beginning of the 20th century that remain standards of the form. They were so successful that Mr. Remington, an illustrator, wrote to a friend that these paintings "landed me among the painters." Indeed they did. Here's one of my favorites, painted in 1901. Mr. Remington not only puts us out on the rolling prairie, but gives us a stagecoach outlined against a darkening sky, descending a steep incline. The lamps in the coach provide the only flares of warmth and are offset by the cool blue blazes on the horses' foreheads, which lead the eye to the coach in perspective. The driver sits left while the guard is poised, looking back, wary or alarmed by something. The sense of mystery and foreboding is  palpable. There is a mysterious narrative that invites the viewer to contemplation. This is real mastery.


Although I've done a few nocturnes myself, none can match Whistler or Remington. Still, it's an enjoyable discipline to produce a near-monochromatic work, taking advantage of indistinct forms and a narrower range of values. As part of continuing investigation of casein paint, I did the landscape below in casein using my back woods as a motif, altering the palette to make a monochromatic, nocturnal view. An old panel with an oil sketch made an interesting support. I was curious to see if casein would stick since it is said to stick to almost anything. I scuffed the surface with a scrub pad and then wiped it clean before painting. Casein laid down smoothly with no problem on the scuffed surface, so long as the paint was full-bodied (not thinned too much with water). Full-bodied paint is easier to use.

The cool and warmer blues of the paint--cobalt blue and "Shiva blue"--marry pretty well with titanium white, and the fallen trunk made a nice counterpoint to the bare-limbed trees. The casein's quick drying lets me layer paint rapidly to make more- and less-distinct details, taking advantage of transparency and opacity. Unlike the examples above, though, this work is utterly monochromatic since the woods--these woods at least--have no warm spots of light. "Mourning," is imagined as after a snowfall, at the bluest moments of day, just as darkness falls.
"Mourning," 2017
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The fallen tree above was previously seen in this post
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