Solvent free painting

We admire masterworks in museums for, among other things, their brilliant colouring, their longevity due to the painter's technical expertise and for the evidence of the artist's hand in the brushwork. Many paint effects from the past seem nearly unattainable with modern materials and this has lead artists to try to rediscover secret formulas or find additives that emulate historical processes. Resins, wax, and complex chemical mixtures have all been tried. Research done by the National Gallery in London however has revealed that linseed oil, coloured pigment and additions of calcium carbonate are the sole ingredients in many master works before the 20th century. 

Though we are seduced by the ubiquitous presence of modern materials, traditional methods are intriguing and wonderful to investigate.  Egg tempera and encaustic have both had a renaissance in the last twenty years. The fundamental substance of oil painting however, which is the oil itself, has been accepted as standard by most artists.  Modern linseed oil is alkali cleaned and heated, it is no longer manually pressed and sun thickened as it was. Some artists with curious minds have now reexamined the refining of the flax oil.  Louis Velasquez and Tad Spurgeon both have websites dedicated to methods of hand refining oil to produce a non yellowing, flexible, fast drying oil which completely transforms the painting process. What they have uncovered in their investigations is a remarkable way to access an old and very successful formula.
My involvement in this exciting investigation began when I assigned Velazquez, the 17th century painter, as the topic of my advanced painters seminar.  We looked into the addition of marble dust, a form of calcium carbonate, to his paint.  I stumbled on the information about hand refining oils then but felt it was too intensive to delve into at the time.  It took me several more years and further seminars on Rubens and Rembrandt before I took the plunge and followed procedures I had read about online. The results are quite amazing to me, the difference from the handling of modern tube oils is significant.  The hand refined oil makes many things possible which I had read about and seen but had not been able to obtain.  I always felt tube oils were too slippery, too thin, too flat once dry. I also found the suede effect annoying and could not build up impasto areas without needing many days of drying time. The hand refined oil has none of these defects.
This semester I introduced the new oil to students and we worked together to understand its potential.  It is more flexible, shinier and forms a tougher film than the tube oils. The viscosity of the paint allows one to paint wet into wet without loosing brushstroke integrity and colour purity.  It is far more transparent, the glazes are deep and clean, it dries evenly and quickly and doesn't seem to darken as much.  Impasto areas can dry overnight, depending on the weather, and keep their sharp edges and texture.
The best part of all of this is that solvent has been banished from the studio.  We clean our brushes in vegetable oil and never thin paint with solvent.  The smell of the new oil is something like fresh grass or fields of flowers.  Because we mix it 1:3 with chalk and then use that 2:1 with tube paint our paint supply goes much further. It is hard on brushes though, they wear down quickly. One wonderful advantage is the ability to wipe off the paint completely from a dry underlayer making changes in plan easy to execute. 
There has been a complete change in my approach to paint and the student work is richer and more colourful. We are able to work into surfaces more quickly which speeds our process. The studios are no longer redolent with turpentine and  the improved environment is beneficial for all who share our space. 
The viscous chalk and oil mixture

The viscous chalk and oil mixture

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Drawing vs Color

Drawing vs Color
by Jane Morris Pack

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Still life by Margaret Daley

The advanced painters this semester are examining the famous division between the merits of drawing versus color.  We have done some reading on the subject and are working on portraits using the two different methodologies. The drawing approach favors a study of form and a clear use of line and shading techniques to depict the geometry of the face. The coloristic approach seeks patches of color which border other colors to turn form and to show light. This requires a clear understanding of color mixing:  warm vs cool, light vs dark and pure vs neutral.
The debate between the merits of drawing versus color has been a long standing one. The most famous proponents of drawing were Florentines in the 16th century who disdained the colorists of Venice. Titian’s broken colorful brushstroke was to them evidence of poor draughtsmanship.   This debate was forwarded to each successive generation and finds such artists as Poussin and Rubens on opposing sides.  Ingres and Delacroix fought a similar battle.

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Cristina by Aleksey Schmidt, Sophie Linscott, and Margaret Daley


The muscles and bones of the Florentine male nudes are perfect subjects for a drawn approach. Vasari rightly praised Michelangelo as the supreme master of this art. In Venice the preference for the female form in landscape was better suited to a coloristic handling. One thinks of the Giorgione nudes in the soft enveloping color of evening.  Subject matter may influence the choice of one method over another but it may simply be personal outlook or the type of training an artist receives which determines the way to proceed. The finite correct world of drawing appeals to the intellectual mind.  A line which describes a form is either correct or it is not. The color approach on the other hand captures a more fleeting, emotional, infinite world, one which shifts moment to moment with the changing light.
These two renderings of an eye show the different mindsets. On the left Sargent finds color swatches to depict the folds around the ball of the eye.  The painting by Christain Seybold on the right gives us a linear understanding of every part of the eye.  Although they both use color the priority given to line or to color is evident.

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 A paragraph from the story “The Unknown Masterpiece” by Balzac summarizes the confusion which arises when an artist is hovering between form and color. The master painter, Frenhofer, is critiquing a work by the painter, Porbus.
“Ah!” said the old man, “it is this! You have halted between two manners. You have hesitated between drawing and color, between the dogged attention to detail, the stiff precision of the German masters and the dazzling glow, the joyous exuberance of Italian painters. You have set yourself to imitate Hans Holbein and Titian, Albrecht Durer and Paul Veronese in a single picture. A magnificent ambition truly, but what has come of it? Your work has neither the severe charm of a dry execution nor the magical illusion of Italian chiaroscuro. Titian’s rich golden coloring poured into Albrecht Durer’s austere outlines has shattered them, like molten bronze bursting through the mold that is not strong enough to hold it. In other places the outlines have held firm, imprisoning and obscuring the magnificent, glowing flood of Venetian color. The drawing of the face is not perfect, the coloring is not perfect; traces of that unlucky indecision are to be seen everywhere. Unless you felt strong enough to fuse the two opposed manners in the fire of your own genius, you should have cast in your lot boldly with the one or the other, and so have obtained the unity which simulates one of the conditions of life itself. Your work is only true in the centres; your outlines are false, they project nothing, there is no hint of anything behind them. There is truth here,” said the old man, pointing to the breast of the Saint, “and again here,” he went on, indicating the rounded shoulder. “But there,” once more returning to the column of the throat, “everything is false. Let us go no further into detail, you would be disheartened.”
This charming story goes on to explore many aspects of the painter’s world. Balzac seems to have been a close listener to his painter friends and gives us this glimpse into studio practices.
Whether a contemporary painter favors color or drawing to construct an image is immaterial.  The debate about their relative merits is interesting to art historians and art connoisseurs.  But the art student is less confused about choices to be made when the two issues are separated and defined so that, unlike the young painter in Balzac’s story, one is not hesitating between the two worlds.

 

Flaxseed oil, psyllium husk, a bit of chalk, oil paint, and a pinch of risk

 

I wrote a few notes to myself at the beginning of this semester about what I expect from students in my classes. These include a desire that they engage deeply with their work, that they find ways to discuss their progress and their process. I want them to take more responsibility for their learning, to risk more and to be able to play with the material to allow spontaneity. I place similar demands on myself as an artist and an educator. This semester is no exception. I am introducing a new painting method which involves hand refined linseed oil and chalk. This method is somewhat complex at the beginning to explain but allows for more freedom and energy in the paint handling. I wondered what details I need to add and when and how they would adopt the information I was giving them. Would they be able to handle the complexities of the system?  All my energies are devoted to communicating clearly the nuances and the particulars. 

I take a risk altering my teaching methods each semester. There are some moments that feel as though I were on a high wire without a net.  I prepare my lessons but go off in various directions as the moment takes me. I throw away the script and sometimes improvise wholesale.   I suppose all teachers with years of experience can do this but I have often felt that vertiginous drop in the lower stomach when you realize you are in free fall. But I am willing to take the chances and the students benefit. I'm not bored and hopefully neither are they.

Hand refined oil and chalk as additions to painting have been researched by Louis Velasquez and Tad Spurgeon, each of whom have valuable insights into this historical method. It involves purifying the organic flax seed oil with alcohol and using psyllium husks to hold and retain the mucilage which is released from the oil. I have been playing with it for just about a year and I find it redefines oil painting.  It requires some investment in time for the preparation of the oil but speeds up the painting process considerably as the oil dries quickly and with great body and gloss. It creates effects which resemble early master works which I have been unable to achieve with modern manufactured paint.  I felt it was worth the extra work and effort to introduce this new paint to students.   As it is my first semester doing so, I await their results before I can judge. The risk will probably pay off, but at any rate allowing the students to watch me take the risk could be just as instructive.

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Rembrandt: "The Late Works". Some thoughts on visiting the exhibition with two poets and a photographer.

Rembrandt. "The Late Works",  an exhibition at the National Gallery in London

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Knowing the exhibition would be crowded we organised our tickets for the last two hours of the day.  Even so the smallness of the rooms and the number of people jammed into them did not make for comfortable viewing. A similar crush occurred during the Da Vinci show.  It's time the National Gallery allocated a bigger space for its major shows.

The first room of the exhibition held four self portraits from the last ten years of Rembrandt's life. Entering from the grey damp London weather directly into the vivid charcoal reds and resinous blacks of the paintings we experienced a quick intake of breath. The powerful self portraits each capture a memento of passing time on his face and form, his flesh more grey, his eyes growing more opaque with the years.  Those who know any of the other nearly one hundred self portraits can see his loss of energy, humour and confidence. We believe the paintings to reflect the veracity of his physiognomy and yet we are not looking for attributes that would identify him.  We feel he is revealing his inner depth.  Knowing that he died bankrupt having turned away from the lucrative commissions which would have kept him in the public eye, suffering the death of lover and children, we feel we are witnessing his sorrowful soul.

The exhibition continues with a journey into the oeuvre of the great Rembrandt as he experimented and pushed his technical skill to express his tender view of humanity. The paint itself captured us as it pulsed and swirled, thin as silk one moment and heavy with turbid weight the next. The transparent darks pushed back into unspecified backdrops while the lead white clumped or embroidered the edge of collars or highlights on nose and eyelid. We were particularly taken by these warm and textured whites. They were a character of their own, playing a part as varied and eloquent as a Shakespearian actor. Rembrandt  placed the white with palpable energy, using a stick, a brush, perhaps a rag. It hovered under glazes and emerged like waves breaking.  His limited palette, with little or no blues and limited earth greens did not keep him from expressing nature while his concentration on capturing faces was best served with the "tetrachromy" of the Ancient Greeks: white, black, yellow and red. 

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A portrait of Lucretia whose blood leaves her white gown stained red, trembles with sadness and dishonour as she plunges the knife into her side.  Perhaps it is a tribute to his mistress, Hendrickje, who was hounded by society to confess her sin of living out of wedlock with Rembrandt. The subject from Roman history expresses a woman's deeply conflicted emotion.  The emotion is the theme again with the magnificent painting of Bathsheba as she contemplates the letter from David, her King. The somewhat damaged surface of this work does not distract from the subtle current of anguish she expresses.

There are many etchings and drawings interspersed with the paintings in this exhibition. Rembrandt's etchings are a miraculous tangle of haunting lines.  With bravado and verve he depicts so much information with so little effort.  These pieces greatly added to our understanding of his vision and method.  The vivacious brushwork is equivalent to the handling of the etching needle, the supremacy of white is equal to the vibrant unmarked white of the paper.  Light is the subject and everything else falls to its authority. We see his thought process more clearly in the etchings but the large textural paintings dominated the show.

This exhibition travels to Amsterdam in February so there will still be an opportunity to see these great and inspiring works.

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Nature is the Source

 

John Pack knows the topography of Paros and his Friday hikes are an important part of the program at The Aegean Center.  They have been a tradition for countless years and introduce the students to the beauty and variety of landscape of the island.  After several hours of walking in the hills amongst the olive trees or clambering the stone pathways the participants always return refreshed in body and spirit. As important as it is to experience Paros in this way there is something deeper happening for the visual artist.  The immersion in landscape is a fundamental human experience. All color begins in nature, all sense of volume, depth, texture and light.  Whereas the city environment surrounds us with angular monochromatic walls and hard vertical facets the natural environment is varied and nuanced. Bright flat surfaces are uncommon in nature, nearly every color is graded and shifts in one direction or another. The color changes that sweep over hills and sea elevate our awareness and can take our breath away.  Natural landscape echoes our emotions with drama or calm serenity. We feel a surge of something like love in a beautiful scene. The painter needs to steep in this colored world, to imbue the mind with harmonies and relationships, to cleanse the eye of the artificial colors of advertisements which manipulate our lowest instincts.   

The first step in the painting program at the Center is to break the hold that the primary colors have on the students by experiencing the subtlety of the earth palette: yellow ochre, burnt sienna, ivory black and titanium white. In Greece this is the original tetrachromy of ancient painters and comes from pigments extracted from the land. The warm red and yellow balanced by the cooling white and black create every possible permutation which color can undergo: value, temperature and intensity. With clean handling the blues and greens are easily obtained by mixing.  This palette often feels too limited to the beginner but opens a new world once experienced. No other colors are necessary for landscape and portraiture.

Closeness to the land revives knowledge which may lie dormant in the artist.  The combination of walking in nature and painting with earth tones gives the beginning painter a chance to expand vision and skill, and rediscover beauty.

 

Sycamore Trees   By Jane Morris Pack

Sycamore Trees   By Jane Morris Pack

 

 

Slow Art Day

To celebrate Slow Art Day I give my reactions to the Bruegel painting, 'Hunters in the Snow".

 

Stendhal, the French author, fainted the first time he laid eyes on Santa Croce in Florence. The  "Stendhal Syndrome"  as it is now referred to, is an overwhelming emotional reaction which sometimes accompanies the viewing of great art. The opposite reaction might be called "The Mona Lisa Syndrome" which is the disappointment many feel in front of this small dark portrait about which they have such great expectations.

Several years ago I went to see my favorite work of art, 'The Hunters in the Snow' by Bruegel now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. I had known it only from reproduction. In anticipating my response I wondered whether I would be like Stendhal and faint in front of the masterpiece. My son promised to stand behind me when I first encountered the work, should he need to catch me. Of all the possible reactions I imagined, I didn't expect to experience the one I had. I entered the room, found the painting, noticed it was larger than I had thought and then... I couldn't see it. It felt like there was a curtain between my eyes and the painting.  It communicated nothing to me, I felt no relationship to its story or its characters. I almost couldn't see the colors or surface as though I was wearing dark glasses.  Other Bruegel's in the room  were powerful and compelling.  "The Gloomy Day" seemed to smell of loamy soil and an approaching storm. The yellow coat of a man in "The Conversion of Saul" made my heart thump, but "The Hunters in the Snow" was invisible to me. After six hours in the museum we left with no change in my response. The next day I returned to the museum and at last, the painting opened to me, the surface receded and the distance mountains shivered in the winter light.

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The whine of tired dogs, the pitchy smell of wood smoke and the crunch of brittle snow fill the air. Dark trees etch into the grey green sky as ice skaters group and scurry across the frozen river. The hunters tramp through the crusted snow, pushing their exhausted legs toward home and warmth. Outside a nearby inn a glowing fire melts the ground snow as peasants singe boar bristles in the flames. Nostalgia pulls on my memory, but for what place and what time? The scene is timeless and could be anywhere. It is said to be one of the earliest depictions of  pure nature without religious overtones nor moralizing principals. Bruegel's love of life, his catalog of human events and emotions, are here before us.  How does this painting make me feel so much that is so hard to put into words? 

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The second day I was finally able to see the painting as paint. The snow is not white but a warm grey brown. The figures are dark and mysterious, mostly silhouette, rounded though few details show. The yellowed branches in the foreground are far more important in the true painting than I had thought as they establish the plane on which the viewer stands, everything else sliding down the hill into deep perspective.  The figures on the ice become progressively more transparent as they recede. Black birds rend the air, creating motion. The geometric shapes of snow topped roofs lend abstraction.  But all of these elements do not explain the hold this painting has on my soul. 

 

Hunters in the Snow by Bruegel

Hunters in the Snow by Bruegel

Refining Flax Oil

Using the camera obscura has changed and challenged my painting skills. Previously I used a looser more drawn quality of paint, with fast brush work and thin paint. But to obtain the deeper colors and  glossier paint quality which I see in Vermeer  I needed to slow my process and have complete control over the application.  I have always used solvents and alkyd medium but in the last months I have been investigating the use of home refined linseed oil.  Two websites have complete information about this process and I am following their recommendations. I purchased organic cold pressed flax seed oil, refined one quantity with sand and hot salt water and the other with vodka and psyllium husks.  The smell in my studio is fabulous from this process, somewhere between cut grass and flowers.   I have replaced the solvent with walnut oil, dipping the brushes in the oil and wiping them on rags. I have used a small quantity of the sun bleached linseed oil and it dries overnight with a slight gloss, it makes the colors appear richer and creates glazes easily.  I haven't gone further with it, but I hope to start a new painting with it soon.

The two websites are: 

www.tadspurgeon.com

www.calcitesunoil.com

 

View of the oil bleaching in the sun in my studio.

View of the oil bleaching in the sun in my studio.


Stereogram

Creating the illusion of depth with simple line drawing requires knowledge of linear perspective which was codified in 1420 by Brunelleschi in Florence, Italy.  This technique, which was widely accepted and spread throughout the western world, requires a fixed eye level and an understanding of vanishing points: the place where parallel lines meet on the horizon line. But the lines remain on the surface of the paper, it is the brain that creates the sense of recession.  Another intriguing way to create dimension involves crossing your eyes and focusing on two nearly identical images allowing the brain to combine them into a third seemingly dimensional image.  Human eyes are set about 7 cm apart.  They each record a different angle of an object and then the brain recombines these divergent views into three dimensional space.  When teaching students I realize that they are often unaware of this and can get confused unless they close one eye to defeat their depth perception.

 

I enjoy looking at stereoscopic images and wondered if I could draw one.  In the example below I kept the large box in the center identical in both drawings.  You will notice I shifted the objects behind the box to the left and the ball in front to the right.  I experimented with placement and can't really explain how much movement was necessary.  Two out of four people I tested this on could not see it well or hold the image steady in their eyes.  The two others saw it easily.  To try it yourself just cross your eyes until you see a third image appear between the other two.  Then relax your eyes somewhat and the image will come into focus. It helps to have the computer screen about a forearm's length away. 

Grey or Gray?

In putting together my article on the camera obscura I found myself using the terms grey and gray interchangeably. I discovered a website appropriately named greyorgray.com and it had the following information: 

According to a very comprehensive color charted provided by Clorford.com (a trusted resource on color swatches) grey and gray are actually two different "color swatches". According to a survey conducted both in the U.S. and England, many people believe grey is an actual color perceived as the hue of "silver", and gray is a sliding scale of values from black to white.

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It also included this helpful mnemonic device:  that grAy is used in America and that grEy is generally used in England.  My computer, which uses British spelling by preference of my family members with close association to England, always shows "gray" as a misspelling. 

Seeing these terms associated with separate colours was new to me. Recently I have come to a new respect for grey working with the camera obscura which reduces chroma and brings neutrality into the image. The human eye is very sensitive to nuances of temperature; a warm grey and a cool grey are easily distinguished even if they are identical in tone. Unfortunately the film camera is not so sensitive and rendered all my greys identically thereby making my photographed work look quite dull.  

I was taught not to mix colour with black pigment, a remnant of the Impressionist era when new bright colours were being manufactured and the prismatic palette was used by the majority of painters. My investigations into techniques of past masters led me to use black as part of the earth palette and as a glazing pigment. Black is used in place of blue in the simple four colour palette (yellow ochre, red oxide, white and black) as well as a way to bring down the intensity of the warm colours.

With a broader palette of colours controlling intensity can be brought about in two ways; mixing across the colour wheel using complementary colours, or by mixing colour with grey made from black and white. On the website The Dimensions of Color we find this helpful advice;

Mixing with grey paint is a commonly used strategy for reducing chroma without changing value; when applied to high chroma paints some adjustment is needed to counter the small darkening that occurs. Mixing with grey is commonly also accompanied by a shift in hue, generally in the same direction as that seen in mixing with white paint. These shifts are accentuated if the grey is somewhat bluish, as results from mixing most black paints with white. A perfectly neutral grey (made for example using raw umber plus a black as the darkener) will eliminate this latter component of the shifts, but not the hue shifts that are due to the undertones of the coloured paints. Using a grey to reduce chroma is an important tool that keeps the painter in control of the value of the mixture, whereas the traditional recipe of mixing with the complementary tends to surrender control of the value to the paint.

 

I have been making a tonal scale of neutral greys and mixing them with my colour.  If you need a neutral yellow and a neutral pink for instance to sit side by side in a visual plane this is easily accomplished by mixing them with the same value of grey to bring them into close approximation.  Mixing them with their complementary colour means darkening the yellow with purple and bringing the red toward brown with green.  It is much less efficient than simply mixing with grey.