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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!


Comment from S. Weasel
Time: February 17, 2017, 9:22 pm

Oh, hey, I meant to say — if you can spare a few moments, do watch at least a bit of the Q&A from Trump’s press conference yesterday. The press is going NUTS describing it as an unhinged rant (which, by the way, is exactly how he said they’d report it).

You owe it to yourself to witness the difference between reality and reportage. C-Span version here.

Comment from Nina
Time: February 17, 2017, 10:19 pm

Trump is playing the media like lute, and it’s deliciously fun to watch. 😜

I just love the texture of paint. It makes me want to make something beautiful with it, even though I can’t. Alas!

Comment from kwan3217
Time: February 17, 2017, 10:29 pm

And yet your site has not a speck of pigment on it…

Comment from Deborah HH
Time: February 17, 2017, 11:57 pm

What a perfect murder weapon. (“I found this large flat spot on the side of his head,” said the pathologist, “and traces of pigment.”) I’m always looking for a new way to kill someone—on paper, err, computer. 🙂

Maybe 30 years ago I sat in my car in my driveway listening to Paul Harvey’s noon radio show. He was talking about one of the great artists who used great, thick masses of paint—Paul Gauguin maybe—but now the paintings had faded. All that brilliant color was just below thin layer of oxidized paint and there was no way to get at it without damaging the painting. Why I remember this event is because I was pounding on the steering wheel and shouting at the radio: “Lasers! Use a laser to remove the top layer of oxidized paint.”

And I don’t know that oxidized is even the right word for what happened to the paint, but I was pretty certain that lasers could remove it and then we could see all the colors again as they were in the beginning.

So my question is—are lasers being used in art restoration now? If not, we should invent it.

Comment from Niña
Time: February 18, 2017, 2:03 am

A hundred pounds for a ten centimeter muller???


Comment from tomfrompv
Time: February 18, 2017, 6:03 am

So I loved that press conference. Very Fake News.

So I get up this morning. First report – Trump to nationalize 100,000 Natl Guardsmen to round up Mexicans. Minutes later, the White House says NO, false news. But the media has been running with it all day. Sometimes they even say The White House denies it! But on they go with fake news story.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: February 18, 2017, 11:11 am

Oxidize is exactly the right word, Deborah. When linseed or other drying oil dries, it absorbs oxygen and expands slightly. It is a chemical change — you can’t reverse it (unlike watercolor, where drying is a physical change and more or less infinitely re-wettable).

The oxygen absorption happens mostly in the first month, but it never completely stops. Rembrandt’s paintings aren’t completely dry 🙂

I don’t know about lasers, though. You’d have to have serious balls to suggest burning a molecule’s worth of paint off an umpty-million-dollar painting with a laser. Bet it would work, though.

Comment from durnedyankee
Time: February 18, 2017, 11:39 am

More things learned from a site that pretends it’s not worthy!

Today? In addition to learning what Alizarin Crimson looks like, plus some interesting science behind pigments, dyes, etc.
There’s a color called LUST! Weee Oooooo!

Now imagine what Sister Little-Hitler-Grace at St. Mary’s Star of the Sea school for tikes would have done had THAT color been used on my stick figure artworkery! Bwaahahahahahahah!

The entire southern border wall, once built, will be painted LUST!

Comment from Some Vegetable
Time: February 18, 2017, 2:37 pm

” 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!”


I kind of wondered what that thing in the picture is used for, but now I don’t want to know….


Comment from Fritzworth
Time: February 18, 2017, 2:56 pm

“Alizarin crimson”

I read that and instantly heard Donovan singing, “Wear your love like heaven…Wear your love like heaven…” What can I say, I’m a child of the 60s.

Comment from Deborah HH
Time: February 18, 2017, 5:59 pm

Maybe we can practice vaporizing the paint on a Not-a-Master. There must be some old paintings that aren’t so hot stacked in the back of the Louvre. 😉

Comment from Ric Fan
Time: February 18, 2017, 8:46 pm

I saw some program on how they made white paint. They had rolls of lead, covered it in urine, let it set. It would oxidize and they wd scrape the white paint off the rolls. They then put more urine on the rolls of lead and did it again.

Comment from Nina
Time: February 18, 2017, 9:34 pm

It’s a wonder any of those craftsmen lived past 30!

Comment from Ric Fan
Time: February 18, 2017, 10:55 pm

Looked up white lead paint on youtube. Couldnt find the video I saw but plenty of others covering olden and modern times. One even used that glass thingamajig.

Now for something completely different —
A history of London’s back passages: http://buff.ly/2kZYIXr

Comment from durnedyankee
Time: February 19, 2017, 9:27 am

New paint chips just don’t taste the same. There’s something missing.

Comment from QuasiModo
Time: February 19, 2017, 2:02 pm

@SWeasel: I saw this and thought of you:


Comment from S. Weasel
Time: February 19, 2017, 9:15 pm

Oh, that terrifying think, Quasi! I think I even posted about it once. Brrrrr.

Comment from dissent
Time: February 19, 2017, 11:29 pm

One of the many reasons I come here. Can’t find this info so entertainingly presented anywhere else on the ‘net.

Comment from Steve Skubinna
Time: February 20, 2017, 8:49 pm

As for oxidized linseed oil, that’s what linoleum is. Or was anyway, no idea if it’s still in use anywhere. I do know somebody who kept calling the vinyl flooring in the bathroom linoleum and when I said that isn’t what it was she looked at me funny.

To her, it was a generic word that her family had used forever. And she’s probably not alone, I expect there are people calling their kitchen or bathroom flooring linoleum who have never seen any of the actual stuff.

Comment from QuasiModo
Time: February 20, 2017, 10:19 pm

@SWeasel: I *thought* it looked familiar! :+)

Comment from J.S.Bridges
Time: February 23, 2017, 12:54 pm

…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!”

The mental image I rather-instantaneously derived from that shall, I assure you, be seared…seared! forever in my memory, even unto death…plus, I had to expend some moderate effort and time properly-cleansing my laptop’s screen and keyboard, due to the extreme onset of excessive, somewhat-explosive merriment the whole passage provoked for me.

As to actual, genuine linoleum as floor-covering: I was once recruited by a friend to assist in the re-covering of his homestead’s kitchen floor (said homestead having been recently-inherited from his then-deceased father), using an elderly roll of “battleship” linoleum that had rested, rolled into a moderately-small tube, in the loft of an outbuilding. Stout stuff, that lino – even with four of us directly-engaged, it needed judicious application(s) of a small blow-torch to persuade it to uncoil and stretch out flat. Last time I was over there, it was still seamlessly protecting the kitchen floorboards, and showing no serious signs of excessive wear, despite having been trimmed to fit and securely masticked down nearly 20 years ago.

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