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Art geekery


When I was a teenager, I was the spergiest art geek EVER. Art lends itself to geekery. It has so many moving parts.

One of the coolest is pigments and colors. All that ancient boogidy-boogidy alchemy survived as (among other things) paint chemistry – some of the experiments they did on the way to the philosopher’s stone resulted in paints and dyes that we still use.

In art terms, at least, a paint is made up of little particles of colored pigment, often mineral, that don’t dissolve in the medium. A dye is made of a colored stuff, often vegetable, that does dissolve in its medium. So, proper oil paints are a paint but most ink is dye. Dye is inherently fugitive (but often gorgeously colorful).

Between the two are the lake pigments, which are organic dyes that are stained onto an inert material making them kinda sorta pigments, more stable than most dyes. The best are just acceptable to use in an artist’s palette. My favorite color, Alizarin crimson, is a lake; it was the very first natural pigment (madder) to be synthesized in a lab in the 19th C. It’s usually regarded as the least permanent of the acceptably permanent pigments.

Folks, I could burble like this for hours.

Anyway, I made my own oil paints for a few years. They refer to this as “grinding” paint, but it’s a misnomer — you don’t grind the pigment particles into smaller pigment particles, you spread them out as thinly as possible to make sure each little particle is surrounded by oil. To do this, you use a sheet of glass and the thing in the picture, a muller (that’s a purty one, available here). A little pigment, a drop of oil, and you go round and round and round and round. It was the shitty job given to the newest apprentice in the studio.

Over and over again, you’ll read that modern paints are far better than this. That machine methods ‘grind’ paint better than any snot-nosed apprentice ever could. That the old masters would die for the kind of paint we have now.

I read it for years before it dawned on me what they were clearly, obviously, blatantly saying — modern paint is TOTALLY DIFFERENT from the stuff the masters used.

Okay, maybe that doesn’t sound like an all-caps moment to you, but I assure you it was one of the stonking thinks of my lifetime. I felt like flinging off my clothes and running down the road yelling “URETHRA!”

And it’s true: you have a better chance of reproducing some of the masters’ techniques with paint that is slightly less well ground. In fact, some of that beautiful, globby lace that Rembrandt painted wasn’t even ground at all, it was just pigment lightly folded with a drop of oil. Turns out, though, that it only really matters in the bright opaque colors, particularly white.

I’m not going anywhere with this. I’m just happy to be playing with my paint box again.

Good weekend, all!

February 17, 2017 — 9:07 pm
Comments: 21