Blah Blah Blogs

People think I do all of this art research and experimenting to re-discover the “Lost Recipes of the Old Flemish Masters”…not so.  My goal is to learn the rules of craftsmanship and possibly to exceed those before me, as those before me would wish.

The thicker the varnish is applied to a painting, the greater the long-term tension from varnish contraction, causing cracks and cupping.  Thick application of varnish also traps solvents, and if you have turpentine in the varnish it will go dark and tacky.  Thin spirit varnish that does not make use of turpentine is better.  Resin varnish mediums should be used very sparingly in proportion to the other mediums/binders used for painting.  Never use an oil based varnish as your final layer, it can ruin your painting in many ways.  While museums may use plastic poly varnishes, I have no reason to trust them over the long term and I find that they do not saturate the chroma levels like a good quality dammar (and they don’t block out UV radiation as well as dammar).

In Budapest-  I studied Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine”, which is in excellent condition.   To stand in front of her warmed the core of my soul.  The subtlety of her freckles and the curve of her cheekbone I have no words for.  There is a magical moment when I look at a painting long enough without blinking, when the sitter truly comes to life.  Da Vinci made her feel so comfortable and the trust they shared was precious.  You can see that she sat for Da Vinci many, many times to get this painting described to the level it expresses. Both parties were very present.  Da Vinci wanted to truly see her soul and she let him all of the way in.  What a beautiful tribute to the eternal energy that is “Woman” with an ermine.



020 Grinding my own paints
I received a large order of pigments.
The majority of the pigments are Ochres along with more cold-pressed Linseed Oil to purify to my liking.  Radiant Ochres for those subtle transitions in flesh tones…One of the things to keep in mind with ordering dry pigments is moisture content.  Bean-counters increase profit via H2O…  I make sure that the pigments are thoroughly dried prior to using.  I tested a few pigments on the latest figure painting and there is an amazing difference in the colors.  Tube paints really are laden with fillers and impurities, as well as oils that are no where near as light and clear as mine. Here’s some of the Pigments:  Faun Ochre, Brown Ochre, 2 Spanish Red Ochres- Castille (gorgeous), Venitian Red, Sofodor Ochre, Soforouge Ochre, Red Mine Burnt Ochre, Hematite, 3 other French Ochres, Massicot, Red Lead, 3 more True Naples Yellows(Light/Deep/Reddish), Cremnitz Lead White, True Verdigris(amazing) and a few more. My Mastic varnish is looking very good, as are the Sandarac and Dammar varnishes.  The last batches of Copal varnish are going slow, but I expect them to take a full 6 or more years to reach fruition.  The Copal varnishes I made back in 2001 are ready.  The Mahogany is ready to be made into panels.  The Carrara Marble Dust I’ve been making is incredible.  The Lapis Lazuli is ready, and I have 3X the original amount to grind into more True Ultramarine Blue.  I guess I need to go through a “Blue Period”

015 About Cleaning Paint Brushes
I know this sounds dumb….  keep reading, you’ll learn something.
Soap does not clean paintbrushes.  Water cleans paintbrushes.  Soap allows water to penetrate more deeply and lift the particles off of the brush.  With that said, cleaning a paintbrush is similar to washing your hair.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  The first washing removes a large portion of the greases and oils, the second is where the actual cleaning begins. Most manufacturers use some sort of sizing on the hairs of a brush that must be removed prior to using.  The hairs are “glued” together and if the “glue” is not removed, the paint will ensure that the hairs that did not separate will be fused together, making the paintbrush an unfriendly tool. I hate cleaning paintbrushes.  I do it once per week for oils, but immediately for tempera.  Here’s my process: Throughout the week I am using many brushes.  When I am done using them, I put a few drops of linseed oil on the brush and wipe them on a paper towel.  I do this until they show little to no pigment on them.  I have an old jar with water and soap that I dip and swirl them in and set aside until cleaning day.  When I paint into the late night and will be painting early the next day, I don’t soap them, I just oil rinse them and they work even better in the morning.On cleaning day I wet the brushes with warm water and gently exercise the hairs and then I soap them, setting them down to absorb the water and soap for a few minutes.  After all brushes are soaped, I go back to the first brush and start cleaning.  I wear Neoprene gloves, they’re black and far better than latex.  Skin is an absorbent sensory organ and a pruned, water-soaked hand can easily pull in toxins.  The black neoprene makes it easy to see the color of the lathering soap.  Note: hot water can damage your brushes. I do not “squeeze” or wring out brushes, I use a circular motion in the palm of the glove, rinse, soap, set aside, and head to the next brush.  Each brush is given at least three soapings.  A clean brush will produce a pure white lather that is fluffy, a thick lather means it gets another soaping.  Bristle brushes tend to be harder to clean than sable brushes because they have split ends and are hollow.  Never trim the end of your brushes. After a thorough rinsing, I shake the water downward from the ferrule and then rub in a circular motion in the palm for 10 seconds or so to check for any sudsing that needs further rinsing.  Excess soap left in the brush makes its way into the paints and slows their ability to dry and can cause damage over time to the paint layer. I am not a proponent of safflower and other non-drying oils to rinse, clean or store my brushes.  A non-drying oil will “infect” an oil painting, causing it to become sticky to the touch attracting dirt and pollutants.  I have spoken with painters who have gotten different results with the exact same materials and the only difference has been their  use of safflower oil. Having many brushes is a rule of painting. On a totally different note….  SUPER-TOXINS. If you’re a smoker, there is something you should be aware of.  Many solvents change their chemical makeup with exposure to heat, becoming what are referred to as “super-toxins” or “hyper-toxins”.  If you smell anything solvent or chemical-like in the air, avoid smoking there, the burning end of your cigarette is hot enough to create a supertoxin as you inhale. I hope you found this useful.

014 Orpiment, Realgar, Cinnabar, & Naples Yellow
I’ve just acquired some dry pigments that I have been searching for.
Orpiment is an antique yellow crystalline pigment that fell out of use due to toxicity. Orpiment has the ability to kill down to the micro-biological level as does Realgar, which is an orange crystalline pigment. Both are forms of Arsenic.  I’ve also acquired Cinnabar which is the raw material that can be altered to create true Vermilion.  It will hopefully prove to be of good enough quality to use as is without much purification.  Vermilion (mercuric sulfide) is also very toxic.  True Naples Yellow is Lead Antimony which is also toxic.  It is highly prized for creating quality flesh tones and for its workability.  I’ve also acquired more long hair sable brushes that are one and one-half to two inches in length, and one three inch, 5 hair brush for detailed work.

013 observations of art materials
Every paint, medium, varnish etc. that comes through my studio gets sampled on a test slide.  Tonight I was creating new test slides and went through many of the previously created slides.  Most are over 9 years old.  Here are some observations:
Windsor & Newton Cremnitz White- the oil has separated at edges and excessive yellowing has occurred.  Windsor & Newton Raw Linseed Oil has become very cloudy over time, most probably due to impurities in manufacturing.  The raw Linseed that I purchased in Amsterdam and the Old Holland brand are very clear and light in comparison to the Windsor & Newton sample.  I should mention that both of these samples were filtered and cleaned thoroughly.  Old Holland Cremnitz White has proven very stable and yellowed very little.
All Old Holland tube paints have proven very consistent in linoxyn texture and sheen.
Grumbacher- ALL Grumbacher products are failing miserably, with the exception of their Mastic Varnish at this time. ALL BRANDS/ALL SAMPLES of both Poppy Oil and Walnut Oil have failed miserably, even the samples that were further purified from the manufacturer. 3 years on the test slides and they have been stored vertically for the last 4 months.  Samples of each have slumped from gravity after they should have been fully cured.  Dark, tarry globs with still tacky surfaces that are absorbing pollutants.  Linoxyn is only found regarding Linseed Oil.  All manufactured brands of Copal mediums and varnishes continue to darken.  All specimens of my self-produced varnishes (Copal, Sandarac, Damar, Mastic) have continued to become lighter in color and remain very transparent even though they have been stored in a light-proof cabinet.  The Copal varnishes are proving extremely promising.  2 slides had droplet samples that had been damaged previously, one of which had experienced multiple damages.  What had been an optical quality curvature had been fractured twice leaving a “shattered” appearance.  Tonight there was absolutely no evidence of damage under 8X magnification.  In a quick viscocity test, I compared my Copal varnish to Holbein Brand Stand Oil.  My Copal proved to be slightly thicker.  My Damar varnish appears clearer than water.  Several samples of other Watercolor oriented medium additives exhibited extensive cracking and one had actual loss from simple movement of the slide without direct contact.  Sample was, I believe, just over 1 year old.Zinc and Titanium based paints have proven VERY brittle in comparison to higher-quality, traditionally used, pigments.  I have acquired many very old brushes.  I do not find their modern counterpart available on the web.  These Sable brushes are very impressive to work with.  Great score last weekend.  A tin of five very old(pre- 1880s), but very mint condition sables brushes with hairs about 2 to 2 1/2 inches long, bound in large 3 inch long turkey quills, about the thickness of a pencil.  Perfect for Tempera painting.

010 Art Criticism- My perspective
One day while focusing upon the rough texture of a very large rock, I realized I could see my reflection across its surface.  That moment of awareness has greatly impacted my perception of the Universe.  From that time forward I have realized that my reflection is visible on all surfaces.  Keeping that in mind, here is my perspective on criticism, all forms of criticism… but focused upon the Art Critic.  I do not actually respond to the object I am looking at, I am responding to that facet of myself that the object returns to me in it’s reflection.  What I am looking at may make me see less happy events, trauma, peace, joy and so forth.  When I look at something and do not feel comfortable with the emotions being created, I ask myself what it is in me that needs to be dealt with.  Prior to my “awakening” I would dismiss that which I did not like calling it “not art”.  I began spending more time in front of sculptures and paintings that I was not drawn to in hopes of further enlightenment.  I was writing Art Critiques at the time and found that I could focus upon the technical skill level and handling/manipulation of the materials used, but when I allowed the works to fully saturate my thinking, I was able to gain self-awareness that could have otherwise gone untapped.  I began to write about the reaction I felt on an emotional level in depth, bearing my soul as the artwork had intended.  The critiques evolved into what art does to [me] the viewer vs. what art is depicting.  From that point forward, I felt remorse for the Critic who blasted someone’s work in a public venue.  I had come to realize that this Critic did not like themself.  They were projecting it upon someone else’s creation and placing the blame for their shortcomings and denials upon the creator.  My feeling is that the role of the Art Critic is to teach viewers how to fully see themselves, and to evaluate the technical abilities of the work’s creator.  I have not seen an Art Critic reach such achievement at this time.  Instead, I see a person who no longer has the ability to say, “I don’t know, but I can figure it out… Let me get back to you”.  They believe they must have an answer on the spot which is the first step to becoming a fool.  The Critic is responding to the expectations that are being projected upon them by others looking for their own reflection.  The Critics must have the ability to look another person in the eye and see their reflection being returned.  When the Critics can truly appreciate themselves and see it in the eyes of others they can then fully appreciate art, people and living.

004 More on long term durability of the painting
Several things can happen to a painting that would prevent its being viewable in 500 years.  It can be burned in a fire, it can be destroyed by war, it can be decayed by the elements, or even stolen into the underground.  I am helpless against all but the elements, and they will give me a run for the money as they try to return my work to the soil from which it was born, and where it rightly belongs.  But not just yet.  Pictures can be painted upon many surfaces such as canvas, wood, glass, stone, clay, metal and the list goes on.  Each surface has shortcomings and there were people who lived 600 years ago who studied nature’s effects and passed down their learning to the next generation so that they could continue the process and pass it down to their children.  Art was not just a trade or craft in the middle-ages, it was an evolving science. Nuance and epiphany were sacred.  Money was not the goal then, the soul was.  I have spoken with painters who said that they don’t care if their paintings last, once they have their money they’re “outta there”.  To me, this means that they never cared about what they painted and have no right to refer to themselves as “artists”.  My integrity level demands of me that if a patron supports me, I should do everything I possibly can to ensure the quality and durability of the work produced.  If my artwork is handed down through the family of my patron for 500 years, its value as an antiquity will be high and its value as an artistic expression should increase the value further.  My patron has supported a portion of my life and in return I give their future generations collateral wealth.  In the early Flemish and Dutch works the preferred surface for paintings was well seasoned oak panels that were glued together so securely that even today, the only way to remove the insoluble glue from the wood is to cut it away.  In today’s world, glues last 50 -100 years at best if protected from the elements.  The glue of the Flemish was waterproof and shrink proof.  I know that painting upon plywood will have its downfall as the glues that bind the layers are not rated for more than 50 years.  I have seen plywood that has been left out in the elements and it is not a pretty site.  Particle board is bound with the same glue types.  I have made the glue of the Flemish and it is very time consuming and uncomfortable.  I have had people ask me why I don’t just use modern tools to speed up the process.  I cannot respond to such queries because I already know that the person asking will not understand my need to incorporate my energy into my work/life at every opportunity.  There are two important shortcomings of wooden panels:
1. insect/bacterial damage
2. shrinkage of the wood as the cellulose breaks down.  Most people don’t know that insect and bacterial damage is not usually a form of invasion, they were there all along.  The Flemish knew of toxins that would rid the wood of threat down to the bacterial level.  The shrinkage factor of a properly cured wooden panel does not become visible for a hundred years or more and efforts were made to slow this process down as much as possible.  Panels were covered with gesso and allowed to cure for one full year prior to the painting. All materials were as pure as possible and the surfaces of the paintings were smooth.  The faster a painting cures, the more durable it becomes.  The shinier the surface is, the less micro-pores there are for pollutants to become incorporated into the surface and accelerate decay.  The smooth surface reduces possible ledges for dirt and dust to accumulate.  The process of curing a painting was well developed and whether or not they actually knew it, they were discharging static buildup which pulls pollutants to the paintings surface and add to the possible yellowing of the linseed oil as it polymerizes.

003 Durability of artwork
Many years ago I began a self-education and research into what makes a painting last for centuries and what makes them fail.  Something that I have come to learn is that most of the science of craftsmanship has been lost due in part, I believe, by the University system.  In order to create an arts program, a University needed educated artists.  A fully educated artist in those days had reached the level of “Master” after being approved by a board of their peers.  The majority of information obtained by the master was not free for the taking to just anyone.  A level of respect, trust and confidence was required prior to “trade-secrets” being passed down.  A master had his own workshop with a staff of apprentices and assistants producing commissioned works for their patrons.  Apprenticeships generally lasted many years longer than a 4-year University program.  Young apprentices were taught lessons verbally and repeatedly until the information was firmly lodged in their minds.  This was not a time of mass-literacy and the idea of creating a manual that revealed all of a Masters secrets for all to steal was unheard of.  Many Master’s studios created “manuals” that contained only enough information to cause the apprentice to recall their teachings.  Cennino Cennini, an Italian, went to various tradesmen and wrote down the processes they described to him.  For anyone, then or now, to honestly believe that the craftsmen of the time would give away their secrets to their competition is unrealistic.  In doing extensive conservation research I have come to believe that many of the descriptions given by Cennini are in fact booby-traps for possible competitors.  Unfortunately, many people believe that everything they read is true and today Cennini is regarded as an authority.  Part of the process I have incorporated into my thinking is, “reverse the bean-counter” to discover a great deal of success. What ingredients were phased out due to a cheaper alternative?  What time consuming processes were short-cut to increase productivity?  What dangerous materials have been abandoned because the University could not teach proper handling methods?  Bear in mind that highly toxic materials were used safely for hundreds of years by apprentices who did not have the technology available today.  Cennini does not mention safety in materials handling.  To find a “Master” willing to give up the sacred information, risking retaliation from their peers, to an institution designed to babysit children of the wealthy would be impossible, so apprentices who could not make the grade in the master’s studio would have to do.  Over many years, the already incomplete information was “dumbed-down” for those not able to find a Master to apprentice under.  The old saying, “Never try to teach a pig to sing, it wastes your time and it annoys the pig.” applies to anyone at any level of education.  If a student or apprentice has the intelligence to comprehend and apply the given information they may earn a living.  If they have the passion for their work and are of genius capacity, they can experience levels of enlightenment beyond verbal communication and obtain the level of “Master”.  I am my own apprentice experiencing the enlightenment hoping to one day reach the level of “Master”.

002 Linseed Oil, hard to find supplies, and panel preparation
While traveling through Europe my goal was to acquire art materials that are difficult or impossible to obtain in the USA.  At most of the museums I visited I was able to find books regarding fine art conservation and traditional studio practices of artists of each particular region.  Materials I returned with were:
Cold-Pressed Linseed Oil- Available in the USA for $85 per liter, but only $11.50 in Amsterdam.
True Carmine pigment(powder)- Chroma levels like you’ve never seen before (high purity), looks and dries like blood, which is perfect for lower layers of flesh in paintings.  When used properly, True Carmine can be a permanent pigment.
Madder Root(powder) extremely pure
White petroleum Spirit
Exceptional paintbrushes
Tragacanth gum
parafin wax
carnauba wax
and way too much more…
To focus upon Linseed Oil for a bit…
I have gone to extensive lengths to purify my own Cold-Pressed Linseed Oil and have experienced tremendous results.  My linseed oil does not yellow or cloud on drying after 10 years on the test slide as well as various panels and canvases.  It develops a linoxyn extremely quickly.  After one week of drying, I wanted to remove an area of burnt umber in an underpainting and applied spike oil.  If you’ve ever worked with a good quality spike oil, you can attest to the aggressive nature it possesses regarding an uncured linoxyn.  The spike had no effect on the oil after only one week.  In most instances, the linoxyn is cured in 1-2 days and ready for the next paint layer.
In simple observation I have come to believe that it is the impurities in linseed oil which slow the drying process, (I have also observed this regarding my varnishes), as well as any yellowing.  One of my areas of experimentation is the wooden panel for the painting surface.  I have observed that the majority of Flemish and Dutch paintings on oak panels have really only suffered from shrinkage of the wood over a 600 year period.  Many of these paintings have gone under the hands of numerous restorers (most paintings are cleaned every 50-100 years), who scrubbed the lifted ridges until they lost their paint and the white of the gesso was exposed.  I recently conserved a painting of a flower that was dated around 1630 or earlier and found the paint to be in excellent condition with very little previous scuffing from restorers.  Under hundreds of years of grime was a painting in perfect condition with the exception of the ridges created when the panel shrunk.  So the question I was left with was, “How can I minimize or prevent the contraction of the wood over the course of 600 or more years?” Cellulose in the wood absorbs and gives off moisture in a slow breathing fashion, each time it “inhales” and “exhales” the cellulose becomes smaller.  Early experiments on 1/8 inch thick Mahogany panels resulted in an inflexible, water-proof surface that I was hoping to achieve.  I now have several hundred square feet of 1/8 inch thick mahogany measuring 10-12 inches in width by 4-5 feet in length curing undisturbed and have had no warpage or cupping.  The mahogany was previously air dried for 15 years.

001 Varnishes and Lapis Lazuli

This is a space to focus on the technical sciences of art.  It will bore most people and be filled with the term “blah, blah, blah…”
I am hoping to exchange information with those people attempting to create artwork that can survive hundreds of years.  My focus is on production of art materials (for my personal use), going further into quality levels than commercial manufacturers can possibly afford to create.  I have been creating my own copal, sandarac, mastic and dammar varnishes for years now and have recently been producing my own lapis lazuli ultramarine from rock as well as Malachite.  One of the most important things I’ve learned up to this point is that purity matters most in varnish-making.  By picking out all visible debris from the resins prior to suspension/solution, the varnish can be improved upon.  I have made copal varnish that is thicker than honey, yet is incredibly pale and clear.  I currently have a batch going made from copal samples acquired from shipwrecks of the 1500’s where the droplets of resin were big enough to not close my hand around them.  I am not producing this varnish in the manner of the 16th Century furniture makers, my recipe dates earlier to the 15th C. Flemish alchemists.
In doing extensive research throughout European Museums I have noted a transition point in varnish quality that appears shortly after the introduction of Capitalism in the 1490s.  By 1525 to 1530 the lowering of quality, increasing production and lower quality materials appears to have become the norm.  I did notice a few later masters who obviously had the money and political connection to alchemist varnish-makers (or made their own), but for the most part it appears the transition in quality was permanent and earlier recipes/processes were lost.  The earlier copal varnishes were visibly more elastic and non-yellowing as they aged. Purity of pigments and oils also appear to have fallen.

I picked up two samples of Lapis Lazuli, one in Florence, Italy and the other in Amsterdam. The two samples were markedly different. The sample from Florence was much higher in chroma level than that from Amsterdam, but as I have discovered in actually grinding my own lapis, the Italian sample appears to be tainted with synthetic ultramarine (about 80%).  Not a good thing when the cost is $150 for 10 grams (about the volume of 5 stacked quarters). The sample from Amsterdam is solely lapis from stone but has some impurities from the stone remaining and was inconsistent in particle size. Cost was about the same as the Italian lapis. I have discovered that as impurities are removed from my Lapis Lazuli the chroma level dramatically increases… I am not using the Italian technique using balsam/wax etc., but am instead using only water and ingenuity to purify.


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