De Mayerne Medium in America

greguric breg De Mayerne Medium in America

Gregurić Breg (unfinished). 100 x 80 cm, oil on linen. Painted with the new medium from Blue Ridge Oil Colors.

Blue Ridge Oil Colors is going to start pre-making the medium I use and selling it in the US. (For people in Europe who don’t want to make their own, I would recommend getting it from Zecchi). If you want to make your own I also have a youtube video showing the process.

I was trying it out recently on this large plein air figurative piece, and in my sketches from Copenhagen. The Blue Ridge version dries faster than what I’m used to using. I know that’s a plus for a lot of artists and it certainly is for me when I travel. During longer projects though, like the one posted above, I sometimes like to scrape down a fresh painting at the start of the next session, and this medium dries too quickly for that -just a heads up.

The recipe is a variation of the medium developed by Charles Cecil and is originally based, in part, on the writings of Theodore de Mayerne. De Mayerne was a Swiss doctor who was friends with Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony Van Dyck. He wrote one of the rare documents discussing painting materials of the 17th-century, and he appears to have consulted with both Rubens and Van Dyck regularly on their opinions. His writings discuss straw-colored Strasbourg turpentine and thickening oil with lead in the sun, as well as many other art material related topics. You can buy an English translation online De Mayerne Medium in America.

While I much prefer the smell of Strasbourg turpentine to Canada balsam, the Strasbourg turpentine sometimes beads a lot when beginning again on a dry painting. (Looking closely at Isaac Levitan’s paintings you can see the same beading, which makes me wonder what he was using).

At any rate, it’s a great medium for laying-in (add some turpentine), as well as glazing at the end of a project. I’ve been using it for over twenty years now and my early pieces are all in fine condition.

Wet Panel Carrier

MAD 3775 Wet Panel Carrier
Ray Mar Art Supplies makes these great wet panel carriers for plein air painters. Unfortunately they’re only available in inches. I tried to get Sandro at Zecchi to make them with centimeter sizes but no dice. Since I’m about to go painting on a boat for a week I decided to make my own with that hollow plastic sheeting they sell at hardware stores, and I just copied the Ray Mar design (actually my wife figured it out, I discovered I can’t visualize a 3D object as a flat shape).

Here are few pictures of it:

MAD 3776 Wet Panel Carrier

MAD 3777 Wet Panel Carrier

MAD 3778 Wet Panel Carrier

MAD 3779 Wet Panel Carrier

And here is the design, for 20 x 30 cm panels, if anyone wants to make their own. I just sealed it up with electrical tape, and made the slots from slices of the plastic sheets. I would get a medium thickness for the plastic, the one I used was the full-sized one and it’s too thick. Also, next time I would rip up an old CD case for the slots to hold the panels.

wet panel carrier cm Wet Panel Carrier

Wet panel carrier for 20 x 30 cm panels.

Photographing Paintings with a DSLR

When I wrote about photographing paintings last time, I discussed hiring professionals and the equipment they use. In the years since that post, digital camera technology has developed a great deal and in a direction which works well for photographing paintings.

What an artist needs in a photograph of their work are the correct colors, values, and chroma of the piece, with a distortion-free lens, in a very high resolution which can show the detail in the brushwork, as well as the varying sharpness and softness of the edges. For years the best way to do this was with a medium format camera with a digital back. The price for this equipment could run easily into tens of thousands of dollars. The major recent change in consumer digital photography is that the camera companies have engaged in what technology writers derogatorily refer to as the ‘megapixel war’. This race for better sensors with higher pixel counts has pushed the capabilities of DSLR sensors into the range of the low-end digital backs, potentially saving the DIY painter a ton of money.

Obviously hiring a professional photographer will achieve better results. They will have better equipment and the experience to know how to use it. They are also incredibly expensive (in Italy I paid €100 per photo, or about €1000 for an hour’s work). You can buy a whole set up for the price, and since photographing paintings is really a one-trick pony, getting it good enough isn’t that difficult.

To photograph artwork well one needs the following equipment: A tripod, proper lighting covered by polarized film, a color calibration system and gray card, a decent DSLR body which can be tethered to a computer, a computer with tethering software, a good macro (micro) lens with a circular polarizing filter, and software to edit and archive the work.

First place the painting on an easel with two bright, full-spectrum, lighting sources at 45 degree angles to the artwork, put the camera on a tripod so the lens is parallel to the surface of the painting, as shown below. Lights, painting and camera should be at the same height. There should be no other light sources, and anything white that can cause a glare on the painting should be covered.

Photograph artwork Photographing Paintings with a DSLR

My set-up for photographing paintings.

Put your calibration card in front of the painting, photograph it, then run it through the included software (if needed convert RAW to DNG with Adobe’s free DNG converter). The software finds the color squares, measures them and makes a preset for your camera. Save the preset. Remove the calibration card and put a gray card next to the painting.

X Rite Passport1 Photographing Paintings with a DSLR

X-Rite ColorChecker Passport software screen.

Photograph the painting by first putting the camera in mirror-up mode (or set the remote connection to use mirror-up mode). Set ISO to the lowest number, usually 100, and operational mode should be aperture priority or manual (program mode will work too if you can change the aperture setting). Set image type to RAW. Set the lens to manual focus mode. Turn the polarizer on the lens until the glare on the painting is gone.

Next turn on live-view monitoring in the tethering software on your computer, put the tethered image in full-screen mode, zoom in to the maximum and manually focus the shot by hand. If your tethering software can take the photo in mirror-up mode, shoot from the computer screen, otherwise use a shutter-release cable or remote. Do not use the shutter-release button on the camera as it can move slightly and blur the shot. Experiment with various f-stops to find the sharpest for your lens, normally with a macro lens the middle range from f/4 to f/11 will be best.

Import the photo into your editing software and apply the calibration preset (click the eyedropper on the grey card if the white balance is off). Make any other corrections, i.e. rotation, crop, lens profile adjustment, etc… I then tag the paintings with the year, location and subject, so I can find them easily later. I’ve also made export presets for all the possible uses I’ll have for the photos. It makes preparing images trivial.

dalessio 1 4 Photographing Paintings with a DSLR

Some tips for larger paintings: If you don’t have polarizing sheets, the lights can be at angles greater than 45 degrees to reduce glare. If there are problems with getting an even light across a large painting, find an area with even lighting and take multiple photographs, moving the painting on a flat plane at the same distance from the camera until you have photographs of sections of the whole painting. Then use stitching software such as Adobe Photoshop,  PTGui or the free Microsoft ICE to put the individual images together. This method can also be used to get ultra-high resolution images of larger paintings while using a low-megapixel camera. With a bit of work you can capture an amount of detail which would give medium format cameras a run for their money. Subtle HDR is another idea if the value range is too great for the camera.

Continue reading

Williamsburg in Florence

williamsburg Williamsburg in Florence

Williamsburg makes some of the best tube paints (in my opinion). And finally, after years of my badgering, Zecchi in Florence is selling some of Williamsburg’s better colors.

Their cadmium colors are as good as anything I ever ground myself. Their cadmium red light, for example, is the best warm vermilion substitute I’ve found. It reminds me of the older, real vermilion pigments I learned to grind paint with. Their other cadmiums (red medium, yellow light and medium, and orange) are all staples on my palette. They have beautiful hues and, because of their great tinting strength, one tube will last a long time. Cheaper paints usually have a lot of filler in them, so you go through the tubes much quicker as changing a color will require much more paint.

Their cerulean is beautiful -not Old Holland beautiful, but half the price. Their cobalt blue is also good, though it seems hard to botch a cobalt blue, I’ve never used a bad one.

Not all of their colors are great. For ochres I prefer Old Holland’s golden ochre or Zecchi’s own Roman ocher.  I also find the Williamsburg ultramarine totally unusable, Old Holland’s ultramarine dark is much, much better.

Williamsburg’s ivory black is the closest to hand-ground that I have found, though it is still a touch lighter. They sell a flake white too, but hand-ground lead white is really essential to good studio painting.

In 2010 Williamsburg was bought by Golden, the acrylic paint company, hopefully nothing will change.

Il Meteo (.it)

Knowing what the weather will do is always very important for the plein air painter, so I thought I would throw out a quick plug for my favorite meteorology website: Il meteo.

I don’t know where they get their data from, but it has worked great for me in Italy, Croatia, Holland, Ireland and California over the past few years. I check it always before deciding what and where to paint.
ilmeteoit Il Meteo (.it)

They say little children who lie grow up to be meteorologists, but twice I’ve won bets when fellow painters didn’t believe my weather prediction source could be so accurate.

It can be set to various languages, and clicking on the times on the left will give an hour by hour prediction, which can be very useful.

I’d be curious what other websites artists use as well.

Traveling with Wet Paintings Using a Wine Cork

This is the lightweight, and dirt cheap method I use for traveling with wet oil paintings on panel. I find the specifically designed wet-painting carriers add too much weight, especially if you have 20 or more freshly painted panels to pack, plus no one in Europe makes them for panels cut in centimeters. Like my cigar-box, it’s not my idea, and I can’t remember where I learned it.
wet painting Traveling with Wet Paintings Using a Wine Cork

You’ll need a wine cork, a knife or x-acto blade, masking or sellotape, and two or more panels of the same size. (Sometimes finding a wine cork isn’t as easy as it sounds. In Myanmar for example it took us forever to find decent wine, luckily there is a German producing some great stuff in the hills north of Inle lake).

wet painting and cork Traveling with Wet Paintings Using a Wine Cork

First, I cut the cork into slices about the width of a toothpick, then cut those into halves (if I don’t have a lot of cork, slicing into quarters will work too). I put those into the corners of one wet panel, then put a second panel on top, with the two wet paintings facing each other. If the panels are flexible or I’m worried they’ll get pushed together, I’ll put another small piece of cork in the middle of the paintings – trying to make sure it wont ruin something important. Cork works great as it’s soft enough to not damage the board, but hard enough to keep the panels separate. Metal objects (coins or metal washers) can leave an indent in the panel.

cork with paintings Traveling with Wet Paintings Using a Wine Cork
I then tape the corners of the panels together as tightly as possible so the cork doesn’t slide around. If I have an odd number of boards, three can be taped together as the last group.

Obviously for this system I need multiple boards of the same size. I also have to repaint the corners after the cork is removed, but there shouldn’t be anything important painted in the corners anyways.

At any rate it’s a cheap and easy way to move around with wet paintings without adding weight to your set-up.

Backpacks and Jackets

Two things plein air painters use a lot are a backpack and a good jacket. I personally get very attached to my few possessions, and I like it when they last a long time.

reload Backpacks and Jackets

My set-up in Telemark, Norway

Reload Bags.

The backpacks and messenger bags I’ve been using over the years have fallen apart pretty quickly, so after the last one went I decided to spend a bit more for a brand recommended on reddit’s ‘buy-it-for-life’ subreddit. I went with the Small Flight Pack from Reload Bags in Philadelphia. They are expensive, but as someone who also creates hand-made works of art to be sold at a premium, I don’t mind paying for quality.

reload bag Backpacks and Jackets

My cigar box in the outside pocket.

It’s a beautiful bag to look at. By far the nicest one I’ve ever used. If anyone out there uses a Partagás cigar box for their palette as I do, the box fits perfectly in the outside pocket. One side pocket works great for my brushes, held at the top by a strap for a yoga mat. The other side pocket holds my medium and turpentine bottles, as well as pencils and palette knives. I like having it all open and easy to reach when it’s hung from my easel. A metal tripod easel can also be held with the strap from the side with the bottles if I’m hiking.

reload bag in norway Backpacks and Jackets

Another plein air location in Norway.

Overall it’s a great bag so far. My only complaint is the inside pocket could be a bit bigger. It will barely hold my small moleskin sketchbook. I assume it’s for a cellphone?

Next I need to make a wet-painting holder to put inside. Something with foam – cheap and simple. I saw Marc Hanson had a clever looking one he posted to Facebook earlier this year.

Patagonia Jackets.

patagonia london Backpacks and Jackets

Painting in the rain in London.

Fourteen years ago I bought a Patagonia jacket in New York. I’ve worn it pretty much every day in the Spring and Fall ever since. It’s been a fantastic jacket for traveling as it breaths beautifully when it’s hot out, but keeps me really warm when it cools down, and I’ve slept comfortably in it on a few occasions. Once in India we had to take a night train in a windowless third class compartment through the desert in Northern Rajasthan at night. I slept like a baby in the wind and cold while my painting companions were freezing.

patagonia big sur Backpacks and Jackets

Painting in the sun and wind in Big Sur, California.

Patagonia Jackets also have a lifetime guarantee. This year when I went into a store and asked about getting the worn collar replaced they said they no longer had that material but they would give me the full 1999 retail value of my jacket off of anything in the store. Pretty good deal.

It’s a company that takes it’s commitment to environmental issues seriously, and I try to support that when I can.

Portrait Painting from Video

I dislike working from photographs. I was trained over many years working exclusively from life and my work from photos is often weak. I find there is too little information in a photograph compared to life, and I can’t trust a photo for values, shapes or colors. While I have pulled out a decent painting or two from photos, it was mostly a case of luck.

Occasionally for commissioned portraits the clients wont give me enough sittings and I’m forced to use a photograph. A problem specific to painting portraits from photographs is that you only get one expression from the sitter. The beauty of working from life, for me, is that you can change the subject’s expression as you work. A portrait painted from life ends up as a composite of many aspects of the sitter’s personality. One painted eye can say one thing about their personality, the other eye can say something else.

An idea I’ve had over the years as a means of resolving this problem is to paint from a looped video of the sitter, rather than a static photograph. That way I would be able to study the changes in expression and pick the best moments to use for the features of the sitter, thus creating a more complete portrait of the subject’s personality.

An advantage of a looped video over even a live model is that portrait models often get bored while sitting. I find it difficult to keep them entertained with conversation and concentrated on the portrait at the same time. Below is a short looped gif of my wife posing for a portrait I’ve been working on, showing the moment she lights up and laughs. By playing the loop on a television next to the canvas I could, in theory, choose various frames to study for a more animated expression.

ifZyIAfTjHaqP Portrait Painting from VideoTina sat the whole time for this particular portrait. I did play around with the shapes and studied the muscle movements from a looped video on the tv (since neither of us watches tv, I’ve moved it to the studio to experiment with). Below is the result.

tina in a kimono Portrait Painting from Video

Tina in a Kimono. 70 x 60 cm, oil on linen

The best DSLRs on the market for video at the moment are the GH series from Panasonic. I have two old GH1s I got for next to nothing when the GH2s came out. Both the GH1 and GH2 can be hacked to greatly improve the amount of information that the camera records. This, for anyone attempting to paint from video, is a big advantage.

I think video could be a good addition to the arsenal of any professional portrait painter who works from photographs.

Minute Painting Video #6: Grinding Lead White

Here is the sixth installment of my Minute Painting Videos. It’s about how to grind your own lead white.

Hand-ground lead white handles differently than tube paints, much more so than any other color. It’s the only color I still grind myself as I find there are many impasto effects a painter can not achieve with machine-ground lead white. Unfortunately lead white in powder is getting harder and harder to find.

Be very careful in handling lead white. Wear gloves and a mask and work in a space with proper ventilation. Lead white in power is very toxic.

You can see all the Minute Painting Videos here on Youtube. My previous post with the videos embedded is here.

 

Brushes

A short post on brushes.

brushes Brushes

My arsenal.

Cornelissen in London makes the best bristle brushes I’ve ever owned. They finally have an online store which is great, as getting to central London is a pain and their staff aren’t particularly friendly (I got in trouble there once for checking unfamiliar turpentine brands for mineral spirits and the clerk thought I was getting high). The series 44 are the ones I use. They are more expensive than other brands but they are built like tanks and last forever. Mine usually get worn down to a triangle shape after years of use.

For sables, Zecchi has the best quality brushes I’ve found. The red-handled ‘cat-tongue’ sables are very useful for drawing with your paint. They are also pricey (though cheaper than much of the competition), but will last a long time if properly looked after.

I get asked a lot about brush care. I clean mine about once a week with soap and cold water. In the meantime I keep them in the freezer at night so they wont dry out.

Bristle brushes I wrap individually with a little piece of paper towel to pull out the water and keep the shape. Sables I leave a bit of soap in and make a point with the hairs so they dry with a sharp tip.