30 August 2006


Another photo from Ireland. In many places, walls like this are all over the place. I live in New England, so I'm used to countryside that has a lot of stone walls. But the number of walls in Ireland is simply amazing.

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It's killing me

that I haven't been able to do any painting in the last couple of weeks. I can find bits of time to write, but with a two week old baby in the house and a wife recovering from abdominal surgery it's been virtually impossible to carve out a big enough block of time to paint. Obviously, my priorities are in the right place, but it's like having an itch you can't scratch.

Kirsten is feeling better, though, and tonight I've worked out a deal with her to take care of Brendan while I paint for a couple of hours. I hope it works out that way.

Update: I got two solid hours on the latest in my "stuff hung on a nail on the wall" series. Ahhhhh...

28 August 2006

So you've decided to try oil painting

If you are just starting out with oil paint, I have some advice.

First, be realistic. Don't think you're going to make any masterpieces any time soon, and never think that there are any shortcuts. If you just want to play around and don't care about developing real skill, then just do that and have a good time. But if you are serious about learning to paint well, realize this: while it's not that difficult to learn how to make mediocre paintings that your mom will like (or tell you she likes), making good paintings is hard—really hard. It takes a lot of practice, regardless of talent, to learn how to paint well. You will make many bad paintings before you make your first good one. If you are someone who can't stand to be bad at something, over and over, before you get good, then oil painting isn't for you. Maybe you should try video games. You can find cheat codes for many of them that will make you invincible.

Second, keep it simple. It’s counter-productive to plan complicated projects until you have the skill to pull them off. Your subjects, to start off, should be simple. An egg, a mug, a tree. No people. No copying photos. Your goal, to start out, should be to do some bad paintings that no one will want to look at. If your goal is to make bad paintings, it won't be too hard to get there. After ten of those, you can start to think about paintings that are...less bad. You’ll learn more, in the same amount of time, by making several simple bad paintings than by making one complicated bad painting.

Third, there is no reason to start out by spending a lot of money or getting fancy with materials. Get a few tubes of decent, artist-grade paint. Don't get student grade, don't buy a beginner's painting set, and don't buy water miscibles or other convenience oil paints. A good starter palette would be titanium white, ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, raw sienna, and ivory black (you can get these from Robert Doak for well under $40—but don’t let him sell you anything else). Those pigments are all inexpensive and non-toxic (not that you should eat them). You won't be able to make bright, high chroma paintings with this simple palette, but that's a good thing: until you learn to mix neutral colors, a high chroma pallete would only force you to make luridly nasty paintings. Get some small primed canvases (no more than 8 x 10") or some of those primed canvas pads. Get some brushes—I'd suggest a couple of bristle flats about as wide as your thumb and some synthetic sable (soft) flats about as wide as your pinkie (if you have particularly wide or narrow fingers, adjust accordingly). Also get a pack of cheap plastic palette knives. Get a pad of disposable paper palettes and a big roll of paper towels. For cleaning brushes, either go to the hardware store and buy some odorless mineral spirits, or go to the art store and get some linseed oil. Get a basic easel—a cheap table easel will do. If you continue to paint, you'll be upgrading all of this stuff. If you find that you hate painting, find a niece or nephew to give the stuff to.

Fourth, learn to handle the paint. Set up your easel and a blank canvas. Squirt a little of each paint onto the edges of your palette. Make an abstract painting that doesn't look like anything. Play around. Until you get used to oil paint, you may find that it’s sticky and hard to manage. Don't thin your paint down to make it manageable; never add more than a tiny bit of oil or solvent to the paint. Learn how to load paint onto the brush; not too much, not too little. Learn how to make a flat area of one color that isn't streaky (hint: don’t be afraid to scrub the paint into the canvas with a bristle brush). Learn to make definite strokes; never dab it on. Mix two colors together with a palette knife—try ultramarine and raw sienna. That makes a gray. Add some white. That makes a light gray. Try mixing every combination of paints on your palette to see what colors they make. Learn how to make darks without using black (I’ve done many paintings in which the darkest darks were a mixture of ultramarine and burnt sienna). Black is a good mixing color, but it’s of limited utility for making other colors darker. When you make a mistake, learn how to scrape the paint off with a palette knife, wipe off the remainder with a rag soaked in a little bit of solvent, and start that section over. Learn to blend two colors, laying down two adjacent tones of paint, then using a soft dry brush (cleaned every few strokes) to feather between them, gradually developing a gradation. Use multiple brushes at a time—one for each color, or at least one for darks and another for lights. Learn how to apply light paint over dark paint (or dark over light, which is harder) without having them mix more than you want to and getting all muddy. This last skill takes a very light touch and plenty of practice.

Fifth, pick a simple subject and try to paint it. You may want to start with just a painting in one color, using just shades of black and white, or burnt sienna and white. Try a painting with just ultramarine, raw sienna, and white. You won’t be able to mix every color you see, but, in fact, you can’t do that no matter how many colors you use. Don’t drive yourself nuts with arbitrary limits, but try to make your first few paintings quickly, in an hour or two each. It doesn’t matter if they are any good, and if you are trying hard to make good paintings you’ll be too frustrated to continue. Your goal is to make some bad paintings that no one but you will ever see, learning from each one. Finish a painting, put it away without thinking about quality, and move on to the next one.

Sixth, after you’ve done ten or so small bad paintings, take a look at them. Are the last ones as bad as the first ones? What have you learned to do well? What is still embarassingly bad? What do you need to learn next? Understand that your own perception of your work will tend toward either absolute enchantment or utter loathing (often with rapid swings from one to the other). Learn to appraise your own work realistically. Try looking at it in a mirror—that sometimes helps. Find someone you trust to give you honest but not excessively critical feedback (but decide for yourself whether they are right or wrong).

Seventh, save up some more money and get some more supplies. You probably want some more colors. Add them to your palette one or two at a time after experimenting with how they mix with the other colors you already use. Try some zinc white, which is much less overpowering in mixtures than titanium. Try cadmium red or cadmium yellow. Learn about pigments and choose paints that are made with only one pigment (you don’t need paint companies to do your mixing for you). Get some more brushes. Think about a better easel. Think about better surfaces than acrylic primer. Think about making some panels. Think about more complicated subjects (but not too complicated). Look at good paintings by artists you admire and think about how they might be made. Are there any painting classes you could enroll in? Read the rest of this web log, other web sites, and books to learn more about what you can do with paint.

Good luck.

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23 August 2006


The remains of a small medieval church on Inishmore, an island off the Western cost of Ireland.

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The most influential painter you've never heard of

may be Giovanni Bellini. He lived a very long and productive life, from about 1426 to 1516, during a time of enormous changes in Italian Renaissance painting. Many of his family were excellent painters themselves, including his father Jacopo, his brother Gentile, and his brother in law Andrea de Mantegna. In his early career he painted with the traditional medium of egg tempera, in the early Renaissance tradition. In the 1470's, however, he began to paint in oil. Italians at the time were mostly trying to figure out how the Flemish painters did such amazing things with oil paint; much of their work was derrivative. But Bellini, over time, began to use oil paint as a means of rendering light and shade in a new way. His explorations of light, color, and air were innovative. In essence, he created the Venetian style of painting. It emphasized such “modern” oil painting approaches as a preference for painting on canvas, much larger paintings, the use of toned rather than white grounds, little or no use of egg binders, less use of discrete layering (i.e., more direct, wet into wet painting), the development of the composition in the painting stage rather than painting within the lines defined by an underdrawing, the use of built-up paint (impasto) in combination with glazing to represent texture and form, thick lights and thin darks, the systematic use of hard, soft, and lost edges to describe form, and a generally looser application of paint. The Venetian style became the primary style of oil painting, throughout Europe, for centuries; it encompasses a lot of oil painting even today. He is not the only one who contributed to the development of this style, but his were the core innovations. His students, Titian and Giorgione, continued to develop and expand on the ideas he had invented. It can be said that Rembrandt, Carravagio, Rubens, Velazquez, and pretty much every important painter up until the Impressionists, were painters in the Venetian style, developing and extrapolating on methods first introduced by Giovanni Bellini. And even impressionism could be said to be a logical extension and modification of the Venetian style using a more modern palette of colors. So it's definitely worth checking out his work.

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20 August 2006

73% more convenient than regular oil paint!

There are several types of paint that are designed to be like oil paint, only less bother. All of them handle approximately like oil paint, and paintings made with them look pretty much like oil paintings. They include:

Alkyds: These are paints made with a synthetic resin instead of a natural drying oil. The chief advantage to alkyds is that they dry overnight, and all colors dry at the same rate. The big disadvantage is that (to me) they smell awful. The handling is also inferior to the handling of high quality oil paint. Paintings done in alkyds should be labeled as alkyd paintings, not oil paintings.

There are also alkyd mediums, such as Liquin, Galkyd, and Neo-Meglip, intended to be mixed with regular oil paints. That's not what I'm talking about here.

Water miscible oil paints: These are oil paints made with a form of linseed oil that has been modified so that, when water is mixed in, it doesn't separate. It is therefore possible to clean brushes in water rather than solvents, clean your palette with water, and so on. It is also possible to thin the paint with water, although manufacturers usually recommend against adding a whole lot of water. When mixed with water, the paint forms an emulsion (tiny droplets of water surrounded by oil), so the refraction index of the paint changes. That means that there is a noticeable shift in value; dark colors become a bit lighter. The paint returns to its normal value when the water evaporates away, making it difficult to judge values when painting (acrylic paint—another sort of emulsion—has the same problem). They take about as long to dry (oxidize) as regular oil paints. Water miscible oil paint can also be thinned with regular solvents, and manufacturers produce various mediums. They can even be mixed with regular oil paints, although no water should be added to such a mixture. Oil painters who try water miscible oils often find them to be kind of "sticky." Because each formulation is different, it can be a bad idea to mix paints from different brands. The big advantage to water miscible paint is that cleanup is easier and, well, cleanup is easier. Because the oil is real oil, I don't consider it unethical to label a painting made with water miscible oil paint as an "oil painting." So you don't have to try to educate buyers about a medium they’ve never heard of. Overall, though, I think water miscible paint is a solution in search of a problem.

Many people on internet art forums mistakenly refer to water miscible oil paint as "water soluble" oil paint: that’s not technically correct, any more than there is such a thing as water soluble olive oil. Many people who use the terms “water soluble” and “water miscible” as if they mean the same thing misspell "soluble" as "soluable." I hate that in the depths of my pedantic little soul. Remember: “soluble” does not have an “a” in it.

Heat set “oil paints:” This is a line of paints marketed by one company: Genesis Artist Colors. I have not tried them. These are not actually oil paints, although the company describes them as “heat set artist oils” on their web site. The paints are instead ground in some sort of synthetic polymer that behaves rather like oil. It does not, however, dry by oxidation, the way oil paints do. In fact, it doesn't ever dry until you heat it to a high temperature, at which point it sets permanently. So you can leave paint on your brushes as long as you want. You don’t ever have to clean your palette—the paint stays wet forever. When you want a painting to be dry, you use a special heat gun (sold by the Genesis company) or a special drying oven (sold by the Genesis company). You can use a regular oven, but eventually, of course, you’re going to get paint on the inside of the oven. You can’t use a hair dryer because it doesn’t get hot enough. The big advantage of heat set paints is that you don’t have to worry about cleanup until you feel like it. When my son was born last week I left some oil paint on my palette: it’s now hard and will be a pain to scrape off. With heat set oils, that wouldn't be a problem. Some artists also like to noodle around with wet oil paint for days. Heat set paints don’t dry until you tell them to. The disadvantage to heat set paints is that they are made by only one company, and they won’t say exactly how they are made. They claim the paint is archival, but you have to take their word for it. Another disadvantage is that when you label one of these paintings, it would be a lie to say they are made with "oil paint." I'm not sure what you should call them—"heat set paint," maybe. I think its unethical for the company to call them “heat set artist oils,” because they are not oil paints, however much the finished product may look like an oil painting.

All of these paints are marketed to hobbyists, who like the idea of oil painting, but want something less inconvenient. Each of them corrects some perceived flaw in oil paints: they take too long to dry, they dry when you don’t want them to, you have to clean up with smelly stuff, and so on. These kinds of “improvements” mostly appeal to hobbyists who want their hobby to be more convenient. That isn’t to say that there aren’t professional artists who use each of these types of paint, or that wonderful paintings aren’t made with them. But any company hoping to make a profit selling what I will call “convenience oils” has to market them to hobbyists. That means they have to be fairly inexpensive, so the quality of most of these paints is about equivalent to student-grade oil paint. In order to keep the price low enough that hobbyists will buy it, alternative pigments, cheaper grades of pigment, and extenders are used, just as with student grade oil paint. Certain pigments that are more toxic, such as lead white and genuine vermillion, aren't manufactured in convenience lines of oil paint for the same reasons you don't find such pigments in student grade paint: most hobbyist painters are afraid of toxic chemicals they don't understand. It would be possible for companies to manufacture convenience oils with very high standards of quality, but that would be a bad business decision. (I am told that the water miscible paint made by Holbein is of fairly high quality, but I prefer not to use a type of paint made by only one company).

For that reason, I won’t use them. I like having access to the best grades of artist-quality oil paint. I like being able to use a wide range of traditional mediums that I can mix myself. I like having access to traditional pigments that have valuable properties but require particular care with regard to safety. And I like being part of a tradition of painting that goes back to the early Renaissance. While real oil paints can be inconvenient, none of the alternatives that have been developed are, to me, worth giving up the real thing.

Update 1: I'd like to note that water miscible oil paint can be useful if you want to travel by air with a set of oil paints. Because they are easier to use without solvents (which they won't let you travel with) water miscibles can be an alternative that is relatively hassle-free. If I were to do that, I would definitely buy the Holbein Duo Aqua oils, which I have heard good things about.

Update 2: One other characteristic of alkyd paints that I forgot to mention is this: alkyds need more binder to a given amount of pigment than oil paints do. That means paint manufacturers can't use as much pigment when making alkyd paints, so some colors don't have the saturation and intensity of their oil equivalents. That's not a failure on the part of manufacturers, but a characteristic of the alkyd medium.

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16 August 2006

Work in progress

This is my son, Brendan. He was born on Monday, August 14th.

Lots of photos here.

12 August 2006

May be some time

My wife is now eight days overdue with our first kid (a boy). He's a stubborn little guy. So don't be surprised if there is a gap in posts at some point in the near future.

In the meantime, I'd like to open comments to suggestions about any painting questions you feel confused about and would love to see a post (or series of posts) about. I may or may not be able to accomodate you (there's a heck of a lot about painting I'm clueless about). But if you post suggestions I'll try to come up with an answer. Just give me a bit of time before you complain that I haven't responded, OK?

Update: Brendan Connor Rourke was born at 6:08 PM on Monday, August 14th. He and the mother are both healthy. More later.


A photo taken near my mom's house in Lincoln, Rhode Island.

10 August 2006


The word turpentine orignally meant sap from certain conniferous trees (nowadays we refer to these saps as balsams). So Venice turpentine, for example, is a thick, sticky sap from larch trees. If you distill a turpentine, you get a thin substance that makes an excellent solvent: spirits of turpentine. Over time, as real turpentines fell into disuse and spirits of turpentine became a common household item, people started using the word "turpentine" incorrectly to refer to the solvent, not the sap.

That's confusing when you are trying to talk about artist's materials, however, because balsams such as Venice turpentine, Strasbourg turpentine, and Canada balsam are still in use. And, of course, spirits of turpentine are commonly used to thin paint. I try to use "spirits of turpentine" or "turps" to refer to the solvent.

Venice turpentine, by the way, isn't named after the city. It's a corruption of "vernice turpentine." "Vernice" is an old way of spelling "varnish." So Venice turpentine is a balsam that was commonly used in varnishes.

The Venice turpentine you can get in art stores is very expensive. It's also used in the care of horse's hooves, and you can get it much more cheaply from a tack shop.

Aren't I full of marginally useful information?

Studio safety and oil painting

Oil painting is about as dangerous as cleaning your bathtub. Both involve using a few chemicals that, with reasonable precautions, any intelligent adult can handle without hazard. Artists, however, get a little excitable sometimes and either way overstate the dangers involved or ignore them.

First, the oil in oil paint is natural and non-toxic. I've seen people on internet forums say that they are switching to acrylic because they're concerned about the toxicity of oils. That's funny, because oil is less toxic than the acrylic polymer emulsion used to bind acrylic paint. All of the different kinds of oils (linseed, walnut, poppyseed, safflower) can be found in health food stores (linseed oil is also called flax seed oil). They are edible and have a pleasant, mild odor.

Pigments are, with a few exceptions, the same from one kind of paint to another. Some of them are mildly or moderately hazardous to ingest and some of them are, basically, dirt. Cadmium colors are used in most varieties of paint, including acrylic and watercolor—they're very bad to eat. You can, if you choose, get a few pigments in oil that are particularly bad to ingest, but you have to seek those out. They include flake white, genuine vermillion, genuine Naples yellow, and lead tin yellow. However, the same resonable precautions that you should use with other paints—which I'll describe shortly—will also keep you safe if you choose to use these specialty pigments. There are also some paint additives, such as cobalt drier, black oil, Maroger's medium, and lead napthenate, that contain substances that are hazardous to consume.

I'd like to particularly mention lead, because some artists may be confused by what they see on the local TV news. The problems that arise with leaded interior house paint are not relevant to making art unless you plan to let children eat your paintings (I would strongly recommend against this). Lead is hazardous if it enters your bloodstream, but if you are careful, that’s very unlikely. It doesn’t penetrate skin. It won’t hurt you unless you eat it, breathe lead powder, rub it in your eyes, or fail to duck if someone tries to shoot you with lead bullets. Paint containing lead doesn't give off toxic fumes. Although it may be wise to avoid powdered lead pigment (as well as other hazardous pigments in powder form), prepared materials containing lead can be quite useful.

I do recommend that pregnant and nursing women have nothing to do with materials containing lead, cadmium, or mercury. That doesn't mean there is any reason to give up oil painting, just that you should avoid certain pigments.

The colorless pigments added to oil paint as extenders, such as alumina stearate or blanc fixe, are not something I'd put on my breakfast cereal, but neither are they particularly toxic. Nor are the resins or waxes a few companies include in their paint formulations.

No matter what pigments you work with, you need to make sure that you don't ingest paint. That means that you must develop safe and consistent work habits. Never put brushes in your mouth. Never touch your face or hair while painting. Don't eat, drink, or smoke while painting. Use disposable gloves if you have cuts on your hands. Make sure your workspace has good ventilation. Wash your hands (including under your fingernails) and all of your tools thoroughly after painting. Clean up your work area when you are done. And always make sure that painting materials are inaccessible to children and pets.

Solvents such as spirits of turpentine, mineral spirits, denatured alcohol, and oil of spike should be used with some care. Because they are volatile and evaporate quickly, use them in areas with good ventilation. They are potentially flammable, so don't allow open flames where solvents are being used. Some people are very sensitive to the smell of spirits of turpentine. Good quality artist's turps (I like the stuff from Winsor-Newton) are more expensive, but smell a lot better than the awful stuff you get in hardware stores. Keep any container with solvents covered when not in use—don't have jars of medium or brush washing solvent just sitting open when you paint. Instead, keep the jar closed when you're not using it and don't leave brushes sitting in solvent—it's not good for them anyway. Mineral spirits and other odorless thinners don't have a noticeable smell, but don't be careless with those, either. They can cause headaches (which you might not ascribe to a substance without a smell) and some people (including me) have skin sensitivities to them.

If you are sensitive to solvents, it is possible to use oil paint without them. You can buy a jug of cheap linseed oil and clean up with that. You can use it to wipe your brushes as well (wash with soap and water afterward). You can avoid thinning your paint, or just add a touch of oil.

One rare but potentially severe hazard with oil painting is spontaneous combustion. Drying oils, under rare circumstances, can generate enough heat when drying (oxidizing) to catch on fire. That's not a concern on the surface of a painting or in a closed container, but in a closed space that allows oxygen to enter, such as a trash bin, a pile of rags or paper towels soaked in oil or oil paint can combust. It is best to either have a fire retardent trash can, or throw rags into a container half full of water. I sometimes allow painting rags to collect in in the open on a counter. When it's time to throw them away I put them into a plastic grocery bag, soak them in water, and put them into the trash for pickup the next day.

If you are one of those rare artists who makes their own paint by working with powdered pigments, then always use a dust mask, even with pigments that are only powdered earths. You only ever get one set of lungs.

I think that's it. Use reasonable and sensible precautions, and don't worry.

09 August 2006

Eiffel flashing

This is the Eiffel Tower, seen at night from the first of three stages in the journey to the top. Every fifteen minutes (I think) there is a small light show across tower, and I managed to catch this shot with the lights going.

This photo had a lot of digital noise. To correct this in Photoshop, I copied the image to a new layer, set the blending mode to Color, and applied a gaussian blur. This removed the noise without removing detail.

08 August 2006

Making gesso, part 2

First part of article is here.

Making gesso

Measure the volume of the remaining glue and pour it back into the double boiler. You will be adding 1.5 times this volume of chalk or gypsum to make gesso. Do this gradually, gently dropping each spoonful into the liquid to avoid making any bubbles. Distribute the chalk/gypsum around the pan so that it the glue soaks into it. Once all of the chalk/gypsum is in the pot, give it 10 minutes to soak. Now take a brush and gently stir the mixture, again trying to avoid making any bubbles.

Applying gesso

For the first layer, spread it thinly over the surface of the panel, stroking back and forth in one direction. It's not very opaque when wet. Let it dry' this takes 10-30 minutes, depending on humidity and temperature (dry days are best for gessoing panels). You'll know it's dry when it feels dry to the touch and any grayish areas have disappeared.

If the gesso is getting thick, it means that it's cooling off. Replace the water in the double boiler with new hot tapwater.

You will apply 6-8 layers of gesso. Brushstrokes in each layer should be applied at right angles to those of the previous layer. Each layer is best applied shortly after the previous layer has become dry. It's best to apply all layers in one day, so that they will bond with each other. If you get cracking, that means that you're applying the gesso before the previous layer has dried. More layers will fix this. If you get little pits in the gesso, then you're painting with gesso that has bubbles in it. Let the gesso stand for a half hour before applying any more, then rub the next layer in with your hand.

Once you've applied all the gesso, let the panel dry for at least three days. You can clean the brush, pan, and anything else that got gesso on it in warm water.

Smoothing the panel

Start by using a metal file to chamfer all of the edges of the gesso, so that they are at a beveled angle inward. This protects against cracking, should the panel strike something (I've had this happen, and it's very irritating).

To get the panel smooth, I like to use a sanding block, starting with 400 grit sandpaper and moving to finer grits at the end. This produces a beautiful, eggshell-smooth finish that is almost too beautiful to paint on.

If I'm going to be painting with oil, I like to apply a final layer of hide glue to the smoothed surface of the panel. Without that, the gesso is a bit too absorbent. For egg tempera or tempera grassa, plain gesso works great.

07 August 2006

Oil on copper

I've never painted on copper, but I've wanted to for a long time. Copper is, historically, one of the most stable supports to paint on with oil. I recently purchased some small 5 x 7" sheets of copper from the hardware store. I mounted this one on hardboard with Gorilla Glue. I then cleaned it with denatured alcohol and scuffed it with sandpaper. While painters back in the day primed with lead white, I'm going to paint directly on the surface of the copper and leave some of it showing. The panel looks beautiful and I really want to see how it takes the paint. I'll let you know how it turns out.


Another photo taken in Waltham, Massachusetts, near the Charles river.

06 August 2006


A photo taken in Waltham, Massachusetts, on the Charles river.

Making gesso, part 1

As I've noted before, the acrylic primer on prepared canvases or available in stores is usually labelled "gesso." It's not actually gesso and shouldn't be labeled as such. For oil painting, I find real gesso to be a much better surface than acrylic primer. Egg tempera and tempera grassa should be used only with real gesso panels. Gesso should only be used on inflexible supports (i.e., panels), because it is too brittle for canvas and will crack.

Gessoing is easy and almost foolproof, but time-consuming. It takes an afternoon to gesso a panel. On the other hand, it takes an afternoon to gesso five, ten, or twenty panels, so it pays to produce them in volume. I generally invest three or four afternoons a year in making enough panels to provide me with a steady supply.

Here's how to make and apply gesso:


Hide glue (often labeled "rabbitskin glue" whether it contains any rabbit or not). Most major art suppliers have this.

Inert white pigment. This is powdered chalk or gypsum. The marble dust you can buy in art stores is chalk. Plaster of Paris is cooked (anhydrous) gypsum, but I have found it too gritty to make good gesso. (The word "gesso" means "gypsum" in Italian, since that's what Italians made gesso from. In Northern Europe, chalk was the traditional material). You can buy good-quality powdered gypsum from specialty suppliers like Kremer.

Titanium white pigment. This is optional. Some people like to substitute up to 20% of the intert white pigment in the recipe below with titanium white, for brightness. I haven't found it worth the bother.

Panel. There are various materials you can use for panel painting. One good option is to buy hardboard at the home improvement or hardware store. You can buy it cheaply in 4 foot by 8 foot sheets. Get tempered hardboard 1/4 inch thick. The staff at the store will probably cut it to size for you if you ask. Other materials you can use for panel include medium density fiberboard (MDF) and actual wood planks. Wood panels of any size, however, is best seasoned for 1-3 years, with planing to size if it warps, after it has been cut.

Wide flat brush. A good housepainting brush will do.

A double boiler. Or use one pan that can fit inside a larger pan.

Measuring spoons, mixing spoons.

Sandpaper. Several grits.

Preparing hide glue

Make the hide glue the day before you plan to gesso the panel. Hide glue normally comes in powder or granular form. Mix one part hide glue with 11 parts warm tap water. One cup makes about enough to size and gesso two 8 x 10" panels, depending on how many layers of gesso you apply. Stir the water/glue mixture for about five minutes, then let it sit for 6-24 hours or so. It will form a thick gelatin. If the weather is very hot (95 degrees farenheight+), it might not gel properly unless you put it in the refrigerator.

Preparing and sizing the panel

The edges of the panel should be smoothed with sandpaper or a rasp. Clean the panel with denatured alcohol to remove any trace of oil or other guck.

Now you want to coat the panel in a layer of hide glue. This is called sizing the panel because another word for hide glue is "size." You'll start by warming the glue to make it fluid. If you heat the glue too much, it will weaken the glue. As it turns out, hot tap water is about the right temperature to liquefy glue without damaging it. So fill the outer pan of your double boiler and put the glue into the inner pan. In about ten minutes, it will be about the consistency of milk (whole milk, not that low fat stuff). Brush the glue over the front, back, and sides of the panel. Give it a half hour to dry.

I generally add more layers of glue to the back. The reason is that the glue in the gesso on the front will be applying force to the panel. If the panel is large, this will noticeably warp the panel. So I generally add about four layers of glue to the back in order to counteract the warping effect that the gesso will apply to the front. This seems to help a lot.

05 August 2006

Studio Products

is a small art materials company that makes a variety of high quality art supplies. They don't try to be a one-stop shop, but instead concentrate on the niche of the best, most difficult to find stuff. They make a variety of oil painting mediums, such as Maroger's, Roberson's, copal, wax medium, a glazing medium, and underpainting medium. They also provide materials for making mediums, such as oil of spike, Canada balsam, clove oil, and black oil. They have a line of oil paint, ground in linseed oil, that is at least as good as any other brand I've tried. Some of their prices are high, but not unreasonable when you consider that they are, in fact, using the best materials available.

Here are a few of the products from their catalog that I've tried.

Lead primer in black oil: this is a perfect lead white primer. It doesn't dry to a brilliant white, but rather to a pleasant warm tone.

Black oil: This is linseed oil cooked with lead. Black oil is slippery and dries very quickly; it is an excellent component in painting mediums.

Glazing medium: Use this by spreading a thin layer onto the dried surface of your painting, then applying paint thinly into it. Thick and slippery.

Special aged oil: This is a particular grade of linseed oil, excellent for grinding your own paint and for making egg-oil emulsions.

Oil paint: as I said, I have not encountered anything better. It has the kind of consistency you get with freshly ground, homemade oil paint. It is expensive, but note that their standard tube is 50 ml while most of their competitors use 40 ml tubes, so it's not quite as costly as it looks.

Oil of spike: This is a solvent, similar to spirits of turpentine. Compared to turps, it evaporates more slowly and is more slippery. It has a strong, pleasant smell.

Maroger's medium: This is black oil and thick mastic varnish. You can buy a pre-made version or one that you mix up yourself (it takes 20 minutes to gel). Added in very small quantities to paint, Maroger's noticeably improves the handling quality of oil paint.

The company also hosts the Cennini Forum, a place where painting topics are discussed with a knowledgeable and lively group of artists. The moderator is Rob Howard, whose sometimes acerbic style of forum management does not agree with everyone. If you stick around, you'll learn lots about painting and painting materials.

Wet sanding

When you paint with oils, the surface doesn't naturally come out flat. There are normally little bumps and streaks formed by application and manipulation of the paint. Some artists deliberately use this tendency to create a textural or sculptural effect; this is called impasto. However, in multilayered painting, surface texture is often not desired. If you are going to add further layers, you often want to add them to a flat surface. This is especially true with glazing, since texture will create places where extra paint pools, creating a mottled effect. You can reduce surface texture in wet paint by gently feathering with a clean dry brush after you're done painting. That tends to blur edges slightly, however, which may not be desired. And sometimes you miss a spot.

Once the paint has dried thoroughly, it is sometimes advantageous to sand the surface down slightly. In order sand very smoothly, and in order to avoid breathing pigment dust, it is best to use a wet sanding technique. Lay the painting down on a flat surface. Spray some water on the surface, or wipe it down with a wet cloth (adding a few drops of dish detergent is helpful for lubrication). Now use a wet green kitchen scrubee pad to gently sand the surface. Unless you want to remove some mistake, the idea is to lightly rub the pad around, without applying significant downward pressure. Some paint will come up and the water will change color; that's OK. Do this over the whole surface until it feels smooth. Now, before any evaporation occurs, wipe all of the dirty water off of the surface with a paper towel. That way, you don't have to worry about pigment dust. Let the painting dry before painting on it again; often an additional day is a good idea to allow any tacky paint revealed by sanding to dry out.

Wet sanding removes unwanted impasto, removes surface gloss and creates a uniform satin texture, and produces a surface that is easy for the next layer of paint to adhere to. It's often a good idea for indirect painting. Wet sanding creates an inviting surface that really feels good to paint on.


A photo from county Connemara, Ireland.

04 August 2006

Work in progress

And on day three.

Student grade paint

A number of the larger paint companies have a line of "student grade" oil paint. Student grade paints are made with cheaper substitute pigments and inexpensive extenders. This allows them to be sold for significantly less than "artist-quality" paint.

If you are just starting to learn oil painting, don't buy the student grade paint. It's hard enough to learn how to work with good oil paint, let alone handicapping yourself with the cheap stuff. Student grade paint doesn't handle very well and the substitute pigments are of much lower quality. Because they use extenders and fillers, the paint doesn't go as far.

If you don't have a lot of money, buy fewer different colors of good quality paint. Get earth colors, ultramarine, and other pigments that are inexpensive. You can do a lot with just five or six tubes of paint. Add more colors as you can afford them.

Robert Doak makes very high quality paint that is quite affordable, by the way.

03 August 2006

Comment spam

Some !#^%&% jerk, or rather a computer program run by some !#^%&% jerk, has been posting comment spam here. Comment spam is when comments with links to other sites are placed on a web log as a means of increasing the search engine ranking of those sites. Normally, that's done by an automated computer program so that hundreds or thousands of blogs can be easily spammed many times per day.

I'd rather not have to manually delete comment spam. I could (1) turn on comment moderation, so that comments don't appear until I approve them; or (2) turn on comment verification, so that someone who wants to post a comment needs to type in a string of numbers and letters in order to post a comment. Both of these options are annoying.

Anyone have an opinion?

Update 8/5/06: I've enabled comment moderation.

Update: 8/7/06: I was wondering how long it would take for this post to get comment spam. Four days.

Work in progress

Here's where it's at a day later. Because I used flake white for the background yesterday, it is touch dry and can be painted upon without any tackiness (oil painting with flake white is a noticeably different experience than using any other white).

I'm now working up the foreground, developing the boot on the left. For the most part, I'm attempting to finish each section completely and move on to the next, rather than follow the more common oil painting strategy of painting in big shapes throughout and then refining in later stages (not that I won't go back and fix something if needed). I can see now that a few of the lines and curves need to be slightly adjusted for perspective.

As I noted earlier, I'm not using black. The base color consists of a mixture of pyrol ruby and viridian, lightened with flake white and toned with varying amounts of ultramarine blue, burnt umber, and burnt sienna.

02 August 2006

Work in progress

I started this today while waiting for a couple of other pieces to dry (slow drying is the joy and the curse of oil painting). It's similar to my earlier painting of blue jeans, in that it's stuff hung on my wall in strong raking light. If I keep this up, I'll have a series.

This is 12 x 16", oil on 1/4" lead primed hardboard panel. I sketched in the basic forms with burnt umber mixed with ultramarine blue (thinned a bit with turps and a touch of linseed oil), then laid in a first layer for the background and main shadows with various combinations of flake white, burnt umber, raw sienna, and Doak's wonderful Alger blue (a variation on cobalt blue). Next I'll start to work up the general forms of the boots. My plan is to do this without black. (Not because I'm one of those "I never use black" kinds of artists, but because that much black would be deadening. Plus, it'll be a fun challenge.)

Real gesso

If you go into an art or craft store, you can buy pre-stretched canvases and (sometimes) primed panels. You can also buy the stuff they use to prime them, which is usually labelled "gesso." It's not actually gesso in the technical sense; it's really acrylic primer. Acrylic primer is excellent as a ground for acrylic painting. As a ground for oil painting, some people like it, but many find that it's rough on brushes and "chattery." By that I mean that paint doesn't spread very well.

Actual gesso has been used since the Middle Ages as a ground for painting. It's made from hide glue and an inert white pigment such as chalk or gypsum (it may also have a stronger white pigment such as titanium white added for brightness). Traditional gesso is a good alternative to acrylic primer if you are painting on panels (it's too brittle for use on canvas). You can make it yourself, but if you'd rather not go through the trouble, the best commercial gesso panels I know of are made by these guys:


Their panels are excellent for oil, egg tempera, or tempera grassa. They are made with 1/4" tempered hardboard spray-coated with gesso made from hide glue, powdered chalk, and titanium white. A 16 x 20" panel currently costs $20.80 USD, which is quite reasonable. They sell a variety of sizes and will custom cut for no additional fee. Smaller "plein air" panels on thinner hardboard are also available, as well as oil-primed linen glued to hardboard.

They will send you a sample for free if you ask. If you've been painting on generic primed canvas or making your own supports with acrylic primer, this is a real step up.

In a later post, I'll provide instructions for making your own gesso panels.

Rooster bar

Another image from Inishmore, in the Aran Islands, off the West coast of Ireland.

01 August 2006

Pthalo pigments

The family of pthalocyanine pigments, commonly called pthalos or thalos, come in a number of blue and green shades. They are beautiful, lightfast, transparent, and high in chroma. But I don't use them.

The reason is that they are too bloody strong. Pthalo blue is something like 40 times as strong a tinter as ultramarine blue. That means, for example, that in order to change the color of titanium white by 10%, you would add 40 times as much ultramarine blue as pthalo blue. That sounds like a good thing (efficient!), but in fact it's infuriating. In mixing, it is extraordinarily difficult to add a small enough amount of a pthalo color to get the effect you're looking for. Paint manufacturers reduce this problem somewhat by adding colorless extenders to some pthalo paints, but that only goes so far. Some artists learn to manage with pthalos (they are, in fact, quite popular artist's colors), but I hate trying to work with infinitesimal amounts of paint when trying to make subtle changes to mixtures, so they drive me nuts.

Fortunately, there are good substitutes. Prussian blue is almost exactly the same hue and transparency as a neutral (not green or violet) shade of pthalo blue, but a lot less strong. And viridian is very similar to a neutral pthalo green. So if you have trouble mixing with pthalo colors, try those instead.