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

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.

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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.

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