I had to do a bit of time traveling since the emails between myself and Tad Spurgeon go on for many months before my paintbrush even touched the maquette I was painting. The following are entries from February – March 2012. Basic ideas touched on in the following correspondence include: the qualities of oil, random musings, marble dust, chalks, mud, black paint, Tad’s book “Living Craft“, and the importance of keeping an underpainting light and airy.
Before I go on, I want to once again loudly sing the praises of Tad Spurgeon’s book, “Living Craft“. It’s a remarkable book with great information for any painter seeking information which would most likely not be found taught in most universities, or art schools. The book is a reference, companion and an art-making bible. When Tad is busy and isn’t able to get to my emails straight away, I flip open his book. It’s not as good as receiving an email from Tad, but, I find the book a welcome necessity. At any given time, it is either by my palette, or by my bedside.
And, now for some emails.
Feb 13, 2012
SPURGEON: (On oil mediums) The best oil to make sun oil with is one you have refined. Short of this, you can use any cold-pressed oil, walnut or linseed. But, refining the oil first removes the fatty acids, giving you something that dries very quickly and hard as nails, and doesn’t yellow. This oil doesn’t even need to be put in the sun, it makes a thicker oil on its own in an open tray. If you are interested in this, it is not hard to do. A good local source for oil is the dented can store, look for the nutritional flax oil that is out of date: cold-pressed organic linseed oil just waiting to be turned into paintings that last for centuries. You can get cold pressed organic oil in bulk online as well, Azure Standard in Oregon has gallons reasonably. The reason I mention this is, once you process the oil, all the hooey from commerce is behind you. It matters not what they say in the forums. It matters not what they say in the catalogues. It matters not what Professor Snape recommends. Pour qua? Because you have the sine qua non, genuine non-yellowing oil that dries overnight.
SPECTOR: … I know I keep saying this, but thank you very much. Your knowledge is rare, and even more rare, is your readiness to share. The pressure’s on to make some good-lookin’ art!
Could it be possible that by continuing to create well-made, beautiful and thoughtful objects, people will be inspired to appreciate the visual arts again? Or, better yet, become inspired to create their own beauty? The world could use it. Yesterday, Chadwick went in for an interview for an arts education job in an elementary school in Austin. During the interview, the Principal actually asked, “Why do you think teaching art is relevant in classrooms today?” It breaks my heart to think this is even a real question. The thought leading to such an inadequate question is fuel for me to mix paint.
SPURGEON: Dear Laura — Yes, the world is working with a weird frame of reference, we are capable of so much more. I kind of hope that this year begins to change that, but it will have to be slow or people will freak out too much. At the same time, it’s an odd privilege to be working for the new way in the vanguard 🙂
There is really nothing which dries quickly and gives paintings that new car glow… The burnt plate oils from Graphic Chemical work well for the glow, but need to be used in tiny amounts. The Allback boiled oil is a fast drier, but gives a moderate glow. I used to make a damar, beeswax, and stand oil medium that people really liked. 6 parts damar, 2 parts wax, 1 part oil. It should probably be 6-2-2 for use on stretched canvas.
February 15, 2012
SPECTOR: On the Kremer website, the marble dust is in various packages and there are numbers at the top of the description. They seem to range from 0-32 to 150-300. I’m assuming these numbers refer to how coarse the grind of the powder is. My first thought is that I would want to use the finest grind…would that result in the least amount of light reflection? Or, what will the biggest difference be between them? And what do you recommend for fine detailing if I was planning on test-driving out one of these?
Also, if chalk results in slightly dulling the paint, what would be the advantage of using chalk vs. marble dust? I think I remember something about chalk is better for fine details (is this due to the granules being smaller?).
Hypothetically, If I layered a painting starting with Egg Tempera, then worked up to base layers of pigment with chalk…then glazed final layers with pigments mixed with marble dust – would that work? Or, is it just a bad, muddy idea to mix and match marble and chalk in one painting?
I can’t wait to mix some paint and test out these mediums. I’ve got a timeline and I’m still about 3 weeks away from this happening. I’m counting down the days!
SPURGEON: Oh, just to be clear, the colour is Transparent Mars Yellow, this will give you access to all the dark shadow colours transparently. Plain Mars Yellow is opaque, very strong as all Mars colours.
You have a great native feel for colour, great oomph, as Wodehouse would say. I hope this is a way to save you some time getting deeper into it.
SPECTOR: I’m not really understanding their explanation of “imperfect complements”…do you know anything about this…I suppose they’re trying to point out that they may go muddy?
I’ve also been reading a bit about “mud” recently. The pros and cons. I was always taught to stay away from mud – meaning, mixing more than 3 colors together. Or, I had
a teacher in university that said mixing complementary colors also creates mud. This is confusing – when Gamblin says that mixing complements (exact complements), makes chromatic black.
What is your idea on this?
Also, I was told to stay away from “mud” because it destroys/dulls painting. Then I saw there was a company a few years back, that specifically cleaned out all their paint making drums and mixed all the leftover paints together to create a grey-purple “mud” – which was given away like vintage wine… I collected a bunch of leftover paint in a baby jar once and stirred it all together to get a purply-pinky-gray…I used it as an underpainting for a portrait. It was pretty cool…It didn’t end up muddy looking- but instead, rather fluorescent. It wasn’t “clear”, but it certainly glowed.
Any thoughts on all of this? Mud and mixing complements? I find a different explanation from every painter… And, I’m hoping to clarify what I can use which thing for.
SPURGEON: If people don’t know how to use black, it causes trouble. But, if you know how to use it then it’s not a problem. There is a chapter in the book called The Art of Black. There are lots of people who used black very well, of course, but you might look at late Manet paintings, he got really masterful at it in a different way. Black is a colour, like white, a shade of blue. When it is used that way, it all begins to make sense.
I like the opposite approach to the Gamblin chromatic black, which is making a triad of shadow colours using a neutral or black to tone down the red, yellow, and blue. This way, the shadows can be balanced more naturally, it doesn’t look like a formula based on shadows from a tube.
There are two main causes of mud. The first is titanium making everything opaque, ie uniformly cool. The second is people not understanding how to use contrast to map form. Any colour that we mix has a complement. It doesn’t matter how grayed out the colour is. Therefore, any colour can be made to NOT be mud, even if, on the palette, it is mud. This is because all colour in a painting exists in context. This is a huge paradox that makes people’s heads spin: there is an absolute colour in the tube, but there is no absolute colour on the painting. People often get into situations where they have way too much uncut midtone colour trying to keep it clean or bright. This results in the beauty contest type of painting, where the colours are in competition, basically breaking the composition into fragments. Now, if you’re Bonnard, you can actually play with this, but that’s another level entirely. So, when teachers give rules for not making mud, it’s sort of a shortcut, a way to avoid explaining the actual principles for one reason or another. A good person to look at for this is Chardin, also Willem Claesz Heda, he made light and form from very neutral colour.
Your experience with the lavender gray is logical because this is a general daylight shadow tone, only raised in value. So, the lighter value gave you a way of toning the midtones down naturally, from behind, so to speak. A great many paintings have been down on pale gray grounds for this same reason. Modern colour is as bright as possible, but this doesn’t mean it makes light more easily.
The things that helped me the most in this was using titanium only if cut a lot with chalk, and realizing that any colour has a compliment that will make it sing. Once you are playing in the right colour key, it doesn’t matter if the colours are bright or dull, they will make light, and feel clean. It becomes harder to find the light with duller colour, because there is less wiggle room chromatically. But, it’s there, it has to be.
Does that make sense?
SPECTOR: I love the act of just holding a book that I know has taken the author a chunk of their lifetime to compile. It must feel like your child. It looks beautiful so far – I’ve just opened it to a few pages to see the paper and font…and a sneak peek at a couple of recipes. I’m sure I’m going to love it! It looks incredibly thoughtful and in-depth.
As I go through it, I’m sure I’ll have a bunch of questions.
This evening I’m booked to start the casting process with Chadwick – our first cast in months – actually, since February 2011. Today is all alginate casting – we’ll be pouring plaster in the next couple of days. Wish me luck!
Thank you so, so much for your kindness! The book is totally awesome and incredibly useful!
SPECTOR: Dear Tad, Just wanted to get in touch and tell you that I’m enjoying your book quite a lot. It’s very inspiring.
I bought my first bag of marble dust today along with a few Gamblin colors. I’m eager to start a fun experimental painting…no pressure…just testing out some materials. I also bought a panel for a surface. I have to prime it. I started that process today.
The first test cast is almost dry. Did I already send you a photo of it? If not, I will. It’ll be nice to keep you in the loop of progress.
SPURGEON: Well, it depends what you want the underpainting to accomplish. A very nice technique is to use a red earth thinly then follow this with veils of white. You can get lots of warm-cool variation and lots of value this way, but using only two colours. You can map the whole thing, but because there’s no actual colour on it, the colour part is still exciting. Be wary of making the underpainting dark, keep it airy. One thing you can count on is that oil paintings do not get lighter over time. Although the starch addition seems to lighten things, as a form of tempera, but that’s a story in progress. Anyway, keep your brush dry, so you can move quickly with it. This is the paradox of tempera, less paint makes for a faster process. Sorry if you know this, but I taught tempera for a while and this was always the crux, especially for watercolourists!
The following image is documentation of the first layer of warm glazing on top of the Verdaccio underpainting. At this point, I started experimenting with creating brushes that would reach into the crevices between the plaster and the panel.
Thank you for taking the time to read this process blog. If you have any questions about this process or artwork that Chadwick and I create, please feel free to ask below. Hopefully, I’ll have an answer for you!