De Mayerne Medium in America

Plein air figure painting.

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.

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

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

MAD_3777

MAD_3778

MAD_3779

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 for 20 x 30 cm panels.

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.  (Professional studio photographers recommend not using the camera’s auto white balance, so I first set my white balance in the camera to 5400K (which is similar to the color temperature of the light given off by my bulbs). I then made a preset in the camera, photographed a group of paintings over and over, and tweaked the color settings until my light balance looked correct when the image first comes out of the camera) .

How to set up to photograph artwork.

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.

Image of the screen for an X-Rite ColorChecker Passport

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.

Tina Under the Olive Tree close up.

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.

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Williamsburg in Florence

Williamsburg Paint Image

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.
il meteo weather forecasting

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.