Friday, May 27, 2016

Paint Basics

Whenever I think about something, it's important to begin with the essentials. So with this post I'm trying to begin at a very basic level. No discussion of paint brands or critiques of various ways of painting. This post is simply about paint--any kind--and what it's made of.

Paint is a preparation of pigment in liquid, intended for application to a surface or an object. Paint may be functional--barn paint--or decorative--fine art. Artist paint these days is sold in quite a few different forms including paint made with oil, acrylic, casein, gouache, egg tempera, or transparent watercolor. The last five types of paint are water-based or water-soluble, with certain additions. Some also call pastel pictures "paintings" and classify pastel as a genre of painting. Others classify pastel images as colored drawings. In this post I'm speaking only of liquid paint; in general paint is liquid and applied variously with brushes, knives, or other implements.

Besides pigment and liquid (vehicle, composed of binder and solvent), paint may contain any number of other materials, depending on the maker and the intended market. Although properly speaking, in oil paint linseed oil is the binder I'm going to call it the vehicle (which is the binder diluted with something) for the purposes of this post. Manufactured oil paint commonly has various additions--preservatives, stabilizers, filler, substances that improve the flow of the paint, and others. Generally speaking, the best paint is thought to be mostly (or only) pigment suspended in a vehicle, with the caveat that sometimes the "best" paint is a compromise. Certainly, to get the most from a color, the painter craves very pigment-rich paint, a heavy pigment load. But sometimes there's also a need to compromise between purity and additions that improve the paint's handling characteristics. Professional grades of oil paint may be labelled "pure pigment" but even then, certain pigments require help to be made into paint to avoid issues like stringiness or near-insolubility or other problems. Also, professional grade paint is often intentionally produced "short" of oil, which allows the painter to alter the consistency and handling of the paint to suit their personal preferences by addition of more oil or the use of mediums.

Gary Hoff: "Primaries," 2006
Paint may be "permanent," meaning that depending on exposure, the paint can last longer than most people do, and also that the pigment is stable and won't fade or shift in color. Impermanent paints may also go chalky or crackle into chips and pull away from the surface, especially those exposed to sun and weather on outside walls. Indoors, paint suffers considerably less, so that in traditional oil painting, layers of color can be put down and last hundreds of years. Casein paint dries and lasts well too, possibly as long as oils. Watercolor is another matter since watercolor paintings can be easily damaged by humidity or water. Gouache, an opaque watercolor that was once the preferred medium of illustrators, can also be damaged by exposure to humidity or water, but the colors available today are light-fast. Acrylic paint has only been around for about eight decades, a brief period in comparison to other kinds of paint, and so hasn't yet shown the longevity of other paint. Once it dries, acrylic paint seems nearly bulletproof, and is more flexible than oil paint layers, but whether that flexibility remains over many more decades remains to be determined. A neat advantage of acrylic is it's ability to be thinned dramatically and employed in transparent layers like watercolor, since after it dries it isn't bothered by water exposure.

The binder in oil paint is one of several natural oils termed "drying oils" that are derived from various vegetable sources. Oils that dry transform from a liquid into a solid, flexible, tough, durable film. If there is pigment (color) suspended in the oil, we call it paint. Drying oils take up oxygen from the air to form a natural polymer, hence the tough film. Drying oils include linseed, walnut and other nut oils, and certain treated safflower oils. Poppyseed oil is sometimes used as a paint vehicle and said to be a drying oil, but those I know and trust who have used it say it never really dries and remains gummy seemingly forever. It needs the assistance of a chemical dryer. I've no personal experience with it.

If you look at linseed oil in the bottle, it seems quite yellow to use in paintings, yet when mixed with pigment, the predominant effect is the color of the pigment, not the liquid. And when oil paint dries it seems to take on more brilliance, especially when the painting is exposed to sunlight. So the slight yellow color of linseed oil isn't a problem. Nut oils also have a trifle of coloration but again that slight tinge doesn't change the normal color of pigments or dull paint made with walnut oil. I've no experience with any other nut oils. Acrylic vehicles are generally clear, and of course the other kinds of paint mentioned above are all thinned with water, which serves as vehicle and thinner in one.

Gary Hoff: "Secondaries," 2006
With regard to buying, my experience has been that you should buy the very best quality paint (and other materials as well) that you can afford. Student grade paint (cheaper) contains less pigment than artist grade or professional grade tube paint and more inert (not pigmented) material, to make a less expensive paint. The problem is that fillers alter the mixing quality of various colors and sometimes the handling quality of the paint paste as well. It is better to paint with a limited palette of top-quality paint. And top quality paint can actually last longer since the pigment load allows better color mixing with less paint. When exploring new paint manufacturers, I've often bought only a few tubes at a time--say, a tube of raw umber, a white (I prefer lead white), and maybe yellow ochre. Earth colors can say a great deal about the paint maker. For example, ochres are brighter alone and in mixes if ground relatively coarse. That means the paint will feel a bit gritty if mulled properly. Some colors--alizarin crimson for example--are best when rather waxy. And all good paint should mix well. It doesn't cost much to try two or three tubes because if you're painting much at all, you'll use a small tube of these colors pretty fast.

Good paint comes from companies like Golden (acrylics and oils), Gamblin, Williamsburg, and Vasari, to name a few. The paint will cost more, and some of these companies only sell online or in limited locations. But the paint is worth the price, and the results have always pleased me.

What about those really poisonous paints that some people still use, like lead white or vermilion, or others? Well, most are still made because artist paint has an exception to the ban imposed on some pigments formerly in general use. Lead white is an example. You can't buy lead white in Europe, I'm told, but it's available here from a number of manufacturers. It's not a deadly poison, in the sense that you aren't killed by small doses. Further, lead carbonate, the main lead pigment, isn't absorbed well by the skin, at all. If you use lead, you should wash hands and maintain a clean studio, but beyond that, you're not in any danger. Vermilion is a bit different--it's a mercury sulfide compound and is more poisonous than lead. In the past, it was a great color for adding the flush of normal skin coloration to portraits, and so on. However, there's little reason these days to use natural vermilion--made by grinding a mineral called cinnabar--because contemporary substitutes are less toxic. Cadmium red is a good stand-in, but in any event is still toxic, just in much higher doses. Mercury causes nerve damage; cadmium causes cancer. The main solution in using paint (and other materials) that has toxic properties is simple cleanliness. Keep paint off skin, keep hands clean, don't put paint in one's mouth, ventilate the studio. Simple measures but important ones.

Friday, May 20, 2016

New Portrait, Part 2

Some time ago I posted an image of a portrait that I've had in progress for several months. I was trying to do it completely from life, without reference photos, rather in the way a portrait might have been done in the early 19th century. But as I wrote in that post, the model and I had difficulty connecting for sittings, which resulted in considerable delay. In the end I gave in and have been using a combination of digital photos with life sittings, although scheduling them has still been difficult.

Using photos--especially on a digital device--is a problem for me because photos tend to over-brighten the lights and lose the dark values in murk. That is, subtleties in skin tones and values are often completely lost for much of the image. For me, taking good quality reference shots is a considerable challenge. Some people use a computer to edit those things, but I'm not adept enough with photo-editing programs to do that.

In any event,  work has progressed sporadically on this one during the past couple of months but it's approaching the finish. The likeness is much improved, and the skin tones are too although the photograph still compresses values and flattens subtle color changes. The present state of the portrait is shown, left. 

Work remains to be done on the sweater and on the neck and chest, as well as final adjustments of skin color. Given the problems with photographs, all of these await a final life session.

A New Portrait

Friday, May 13, 2016

Pen and Ink

Time was when you read the term "pen and ink" it mostly meant drawings done with a dip pen and black ("India") ink. Today, the term is more commonly applied to drawings done using a technical pen with a fixed-diameter, cylindrical tip. Rapidograph is a common brand of tech pen that's widely available. These pens were originally made for drafting and technical drawing of other kinds, but because of convenience they've virtually replaced dip pens. The problem with tech pens is they lack the ability to vary line width. Each pen lays down a uniform line thickness, an advantage in technical drawings. In practice, technical pens are handy, fit in the pocket, contain an ink reservoir (no dipping into an open ink bottle), and are therefore simply easier to use.

In spite of a long-term trend toward technical pens, I still use an array of old metal nibs that I've collected here and there over the years. This sort of pen point can be enormously expressive and can yield delightful results. Most of the drawings I've done with these near-antiques have been studies.  Here are a few pen and ink drawings made for practice.

The first drawing is a view of the Iowa state capitol building. The capitol has two facing wings, each with two small copper-green domes. There is a much larger central dome over a big central rotunda, seen on the left of the drawing. The big dome is  completely gilded in 24kt gold. I could have continued the drawing to the bottom of the page, but chose to stop just below the evergreens to focus attention on the two domes above.
This is a local mansion, Salisbury House, built piecemeal nearly a century ago by a local business magnate. It was constructed by combining parts of several ancient English manor houses that he purchased, disassembled, and shipped to Iowa. Salisbury House was the residence of the builder and his family for a long while before eventually becoming a museum, as it is today. Inside it has wonderful beamed ceilings, a rather impressive library of old, rare books, and an air of real magnificence. This is an "ink and wash" drawing, first done with a dip pen and then toned with diluted ink washed on with a soft brush.

Here is a smaller drawing of an iris, employing more traditional ink methods. I had done this same subject in silverpoint awhile before this drawing and decided to see if I could translate the silverpoint image to one in ink. The problems with the two techniques are different in some ways but mostly similar. Pen and ink is at least as unforgiving as silverpoint so that you must be very certain of yourself as you put down lines. Both also rely more on crosshatched darks than other techniques. Notice the varying line weight (thickness) in various sections of the drawing. I thought this one turned out reasonably well.
Another bearded iris, this time done from a photo I saw online. This drawing is approximately the same size as the one above, but in this case I relied on crosshatching the background to emphasize the brighter, lighter color of the blossom and did very little shading of the petals. There are numerous passages of this one where pressure on the nib gave a darker, thicker line within the same stroke.
Although this kind of pen and ink drawing is now rare, it's a challenging way to hone your drawing skills.
Posts about drawing:
Pen and Ink
Drawing Practice

Friday, May 06, 2016


For a large part of my career in painting, I've done few preliminary paintings in preparation for larger works. Over the years I've done studies like notans, drawn compositional and layout preparations with charcoal or graphite, and sometimes I've done studies of individual items. But I haven't done many preliminary color studies in oil or any other medium. Lately though I've done a few, and it's interesting to compare them with the larger, finished work they helped me prepare for. So here are a couple of recent instances where I used studies before starting the final painting.

This is an 8x10 sketch in oil for the larger painting below. It took perhaps 90 minutes, start to finish, and was done from personal references and online images, with considerable invention. This was painted as a daylight scene, but in the larger-scale work, it becomes a night street.

As you can see, this painting, which is 24x18, is considerably different. It's darker and cooler in palette, butr the red over the windows still pops. The figures are smaller in relation to the much bigger windows, and there are more figures as well. The interior of the brewing operation is a bit more distinct. And the larger painting is considerably more "finished"--not so loosely executed.

To the left is another small, quickly-done sketch, this time from an online reference. The two establishments are on a street in the city that's full of clubs and bars where people often hang out Friday nights and weekends. The scene is considerably different from the study, though. For one thing the place on the right was quite a lot bigger, and is no longer there. This is another 8x10 study, probably an hour's work.

And here is the larger work, based on the study above. It's 12x16 on panel, and clearly is considerably different from the small study. The yellow, rolled up umbrellas are gone, and the sign on the restaurant to the left is much brighter. Also, the awnings on the place to the right were actually quite dark, which is absent in both the study and the final image.

Seems to me that you can do studies either as very controlled, very outcome-oriented images intended to be a kind of dress rehearsal for the final painting, or you can do them as ways to experiment with color and sometimes even composition without necessarily committing to an actual final picture until you have the bigger support on the easel. Either way is probably useful; the second way seems more so, or at least more spontaneous and less mechanical.