The Process and the Pea: Exploring the Handmade Craft of Oil Painting -- Part Two


After having painted for fifteen years, the official methods and ingredients of the 20th century had begun to seem like a flat-earth version of the craft. My goal was to shift the visual language back further in time, keeping the element of spontaneity, but enhancing the plastic quality of the paint, thus creating the potential for a more thorough, or deeper, execution. This seemed to revolve around a rich, at least somewhat broken surface, and access to optical depth, therefore chromatic complexity, in the paint itself. While not that difficult to envision -- it was clearly evident in older paintings -- having always been a well-behaved technical painter provided no idea about where to begin.

This puzzle first led to involvement with the world of specialized or boutique painting materials, an exciting new arena that dared to scoff at the conservative methods the modern painting professors. But in this context, functional information about the craft quickly proved elusive. This attitude, while of course traditional, was surprising, suggesting that, while older practice may have been lost, its original cloak-and-dagger atmosphere remained alive and well. Over time, more attention to the theories behind the materials themselves began to suggest that the reasoning itself did not quite add up. If this was older painting, where was the functional simplicity that must be at the heart of work of such complexity?

Searching for more reliable answers through a deeper relationship with the raw materials themselves, I focused on the medium, thinking that something special or secret in this department this must be the answer. The first technical notebook I kept began in 2001 and ended in 2006. It documents a time of active flailing by a modern mind with little sense of proportion. I kept trying different keys, but in fact was trying to open the wrong door. Development occured in the way of grounds and egg emulsion technique on panel, and the understanding of hard-resin varnish making. But this notebook also contains the most extensive snipe hunt I went on, at the urging of a fellow-researcher no less, a disastrous excursion of several years into the so-called "Leonardo Medium" in Maroger's Secret Formulas and Techniques of the Masters (1948), arguably the most specious book about older painting technique ever written.

However, this experience did eliminate the sense that anyone alive might have accurate directions to my destination. If the search involved becoming lost, better by far to be lost on one's own terms. The next notebook -- October 2006 to June 2008 -- contains a similar but shorter revolving door in the search for a thixotropic medium using a hard and soft resin combination. These mediums produced complex surfaces that were attractive, but the paint itself still didn't have the correct look, the overall sense of the paintings somehow didn't have the right optical quality. By this point, however, the process of experimentation itself had become increasingly reliable, proving to be a matter of discipline and a more developed sense of proportion. I began to comprehend what Professor Doerner meant by "a very small amount" in The Materials of the Artist (1934). Being able to think more fully in the materials was rewarding. Work could be finished in a variety ways that were interesting. The project was still without a breakthrough, or a sense of conclusion, but it felt like the worst was over.

The second notebook also mentions a material that proved to be a gateway, an oil polymerized over a long period of time in a lead tray that created rheological changes in the paint without the addition of resin. This oil was an accident, left over from another process, and I was about to throw it out when a voice in my head said, clearly, "They never threw anything out." Audible commentary like this was certainly not an everyday occurrence. Many different types of oil were being generated at this point, and began to need names instead of descriptions. I called this one ecks. The first thing I learned about ecks was that a very small addition of it caused lead white paint to seize, creating a dense impasto white via an intriguing, non-Newtonian reaction. While this was useful, and highly entertaining, I subsequently learned that ecks was capable of more. Using handmade oil paint, ecks would make all the colors seize: the first experiential clue that the use of resin might not be necessary to the creation of inherently thixotropic paint.

As the results of the ecks experience registered, I began to pay closer attention to the intuitive aspect of the research. Was this just luck, or a broader suggestion about how to proceed? While logical avenues to pursue could be set up based on a combination of older formulas and mounting empirical evidence, I already knew that one lifetime was too short to explore it all. Mortality had raised its ugly head; to reach a final system in time to paint with it at a reasonable level, I needed to extrapolate. Relying more on instinct, development slowly became more efficient.

The issue of most interest for me was the creation of a versatile thixotropic or gelatinous paint that allowed for the seemingly effortless creation of a complex broken surface. By this point, I was able to do this using a homemade hard resin varnish -- amber, copal, or sandarac -- in the 14th or 15th century Strasbourg method discussed by Eastlake in his Methods and Materials (1847). In this technique, a drop of varnish is mixed into the paint on the palette before painting, giving the paint a more thixotropic character that creates an internal glow and charismatic low relief impasto. I was proud of having figured all this out: getting the lightest possible amber pieces from Latvia, using a laboratory hotplate with a magnetic stirbar and long, slow cooking times to eventually make a lighter varnish. In agreement with 19th century authors such as Eastlake and Mérimée, I felt this material must have been a basic part of older technique. However, this sense of certainty, even complacency, was soon to be firmly challenged.

To be continued...