Archive for May, 2014

Studio Experimentation—A Casein Point, Studio Trial #2 of 3

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

As I wrote about last time, I had heard about casein paints and set out to investigate whether they would provide a good alternative medium for me to use. I learned a lot from my initial studio trial, but I also wanted to see if the paint could be used with watercolor techniques to achieve a freer, more flowing appearance.

Trial #2: My second trial was on 140# watercolor paper. My main interest was to see if the paint could be applied wet into wet, like watercolor. Using a still-life setup similar to the one I had used for the first trial, I blended the red with some burnt sienna on my palette so I wouldn’t be faced with the glazing problems I had incurred previously. I wet the watercolor paper and applied the paint. The wet-into-wet technique did provide a somewhat smoother spread of pigment. But after that initial application, the surface seemed to dry just as quickly as in the initial trial. I realized from this that watercolor techniques would be difficult to use with this kind of paint.

140305c White Pitcher

I had to continually remoisten the paints on my palette to keep them workable, though I found that the pile of titanium white left over from the previous day’s work didn’t absorb the water as easily or as evenly as I had expected. I finally gave up on trying to reuse it and squeezed out a fresh supply.

Having experimented with mixing the colors during the first trial, I felt more confident about finding appropriate blends for the second trial. Mixing on the palette proved more successful than attempting to glaze or blend colors directly on the paper. But I had to achieve soft edges and transitions by scumbling or optical mixing rather than by using wet-into-wet bleeds or by dragging one hue into another. And I found that the dark-to-light approach was more suitable for this medium than watercolor’s light-to-dark approach, which I generally prefer.

Buffing didn’t prove quite as successful on the paper surface as it had on the sealed surface of the canvas-textured paper in the first trial. This may have been because the absorbent paper had left a thinner coating of paint over most of the surface by the end of the second trial than there had been over the first painting. I was also more cautious about buffing areas into which the red pigment might encroach, so didn’t press as firmly, which may have kept it from reaching a higher gloss. Overall, though, I was more satisfied with the results of the second trial (see “White Pitcher,” above).

Next time I’ll try out the casein paints on a canvas panel. Check back to see what difference that surface makes.

Studio Experimentation—A Casein Point, Studio Trial #1 of 3

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

Have you ever worked with casein paints? I hadn’t until recently. Casein paint is based not on gum Arabic, like watercolors, or on oil or acrylic, but on milk protein. It was a popular alternative to oil paints during the first half of the 20th Century, but lost popularity when acrylic paints were developed and popularized in the ‘50s. Now I was able to find only one manufacturer who still makes and distributes this medium in the US—Jack Richeson, under the Shiva brand.

In order to try them out to see if I’d even like using them, I placed an order for a basic set of 6 colors—rose red, ultramarine blue, Naples yellow, Shiva (phthalo) green, carbon black, and titanium white, and supplemented that preselected set with a burnt sienna. I figured that with that palette I could mix just about any color I would need to get a good feel for how the medium behaved. And oh what a surprise they provided!

Trial #1: My first test was to be on a 6” square of canvas-textured paper. Although casein is a water-soluble paint, it did not behave at all like watercolor. But perhaps I shouldn’t have expected it to. The paint beaded up on the non-absorbent canvas paper if I added too much water to it. And its opaque quality caused it to become streaky if I used it straight from the tube. Eventually, I managed to find a better working consistency on my palette. …But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Setting up a simple still life as my subject, I sketched the design onto the paper and squeezed out some of the rose red for the background. What I had supposed would be a slightly cool red (typical of a “primary red” paint for mixing) was a shocking cerise. I checked the other colors. Black and white were standards, so not a problem. The phthalo green and ultramarine blue were what I had expected—strong, rich, and highly saturated; and I was pleased to see that the “Naples” yellow had a considerably higher saturation than I had come to expect of the name. So all the colors were highly saturated. Which I figured was good, because it’s considerably easier to de-saturate a color than to brighten it up.


The logical solution for the searing cerise seemed to be to merely gray it down a little with a bit of green to more closely match my still-life setup. But mixing my only green into the rose-red paint created not a muted rose but a vibrant violet! Obviously, the usual rule of thumb that “red + green = gray” wasn’t working in this situation. I mentally reviewed basic color theory. Both the “primary” red and the “secondary” green had a cool bias. Which meant that, theoretically, I needed to add a warmer influence (such as yellow, the complement of violet) to de-saturate the purple. The yellow helped. A little.

The casein paint dried quickly on the canvas paper—about as quickly as watercolor or acrylics. Fortunately, unlike acrylic, the casein can be reactivated with water, both on the palette and on the paper.

When the initial study was almost done, I still wasn’t happy with the colors. The red was still too intensely cerise. So I tried applying a glaze of burnt sienna to warm the red even further, de-saturating it somewhat in the process. To avoid lifting the underlying paint from the paper, I needed to work quickly, using a single pass of the brush, to apply a glaze on top. That was easier said than done. As the paint dried quickly on the palette, it didn’t spread easily on the painting and created too opaque a coating for a true glaze.

On the other hand, if I added water to the palette, the mixture sometimes became too wet and either virtually disappeared as it was applied over the red or threatened to lift the underlying layer completely off the paper. By allowing separate applications to dry between repeated thin coats, my struggling attempts to get it right eventually at least came close (see “Cream Pitcher,” below).

140304c Cream Pitcher

I’d been told that the matte surface of a dried casein painting could be buffed to a satin gloss. So I tried that and was very pleased with the effect. The only drawback was that the red pigment lifted a bit and carried across the surface. This didn’t have much effect on most of the other colors, but it did pink-down the white highlights enough that they disappeared and had to be reapplied.

Check back next time for Trial #2.