If you are doing research on unfamiliar names of pigments, then this is the resource you need:
Some time back in 2012 I read Virgil Elliot’s Traditional Oil Painting. He refers to Burnt Umber as a Problematic Pigment:
The author [Virgil Elliott] has all but dropped burnt umber from his palette, owing to its high degree of absorbency when dry, which causes varnish to sink in, leaving chalky-appearing “dry spots.” It can be useful as a minor ingredient in a paint mixture when faster drying is desired, such as in instances where raw umber would not produce the right color. Both burnt umber and raw umber are essentially clays, which have a natural tendency to shrink when dry and swell when saturated with a fluid. However, since burnt umber undergoes a heating process in its creation, it is the worse of the two in that regard. Raw umber does not seem to be quite as problematic.
Also around that time I was having a series of phone conversations with some of the employees at Kremer in Germany and was advised not to use umbers at all (burnt or raw) in that they tend to creep to the surface (I’m paraphrasing), and unfortunately I didn’t ask for an explanation with regard to the chemistry.
Jump to September of 2013 when my research into alkyd mediums led me to a paint maker named Pip Seymour. Not knowing where to buy his paints in Rome, I called him. I was so pleased to discover that he was both amenable and patient in helping me better understand the chemistry behind painting that he readily became a victim of his kindness; the more answers he provided, the more questions I asked. In a follow-up phone call I decided to get his analysis of burnt umber and, in my effort to keep the question as succinct as possible, I decided to phrase the question with a touch of drama: “Is burnt umber evil?”
In essence, his opinion was to keep it simple (which he wisely applies to most of his analyses). He did suggest the importance of stand oil as a binder/medium with such a color in that it helps to keep the pigment particles even as they dry. He went on to say, “Changes in surface appearance may enhance the aesthetic within a painting – but that understanding can alter over time just as the organic composition of all oil paint layers can change. The most crucial factor is the realization of the image at the moment of creation.”
A couple of days after that phone call, I sent him the following email:
An extraordinarily bizarre thing happened on the evening after our last discussion: I was organizing some of my many, many PDF files on technical analysis, when one in particular caught my eye. It was on Caravaggio’s time in Malta, and, as I had just finished reading a technical analysis on the Beheading of John the Baptist, I chose that one to read before going to bed that night.
Now, you may remember that my second question to you last Friday was, “Is Burnt Umber evil?” Evil seemed the best word to sum up what I had read previously on the pigment, especially in light of Virgil Elliot’s call for its banishment from the palette.
Well, low and behold, that night I read the following from Caravaggio and Paintings of Realism in Malta by Roberta Lapucci:
“The defect of this technique [working over a dark priming] is that, with time, the chromatic balance is altered, reinforcing the shadows and absorbing the half tones. Burnt umber has a unique chemcial characteristic; during the drying process of the pictorial film, its manganese molecules tend to migrate towards the external surface to absorb oxygen (the element also needed by oil when it polymerizes). Therefore, by rising up to the pictorial surface, burnt umber eats out the half tones and reinforces the shadowy areas. However, it does not pass through lead white, thus increasing the contrast even more. Such a dark priming layer is used with a chromatic function ‘but not… en reserve’ rather ‘to intensify the contrasts, to make the pictorial layers vibrate and to absorb lights’; some white strokes ‘hardly can cover the dark ground’.
“In 1681 Filippo Baldinucci defines burnt umber as ‘a natural colour, of dark hair tonality, used to pain and to put in the priming layers of canvas and panel paintings. This is held by the best painters to be an evil color; it has such a desiccative power that is does not work well in the priming layers and in the oil layers also due to the other poor qualities, it makes colours change; which is why it fooled many artists, who used it in their canvases, even those who were very good in colour rendering’.” (Yes, it reads “evil”! It was a Twilight Zone moment.)
So there, fellow painters, is the chemistry behind umber… and even a moral judgement! But is it evil? I am still undecided. But I am trying some new browns with a mixture of yellow earth, red ochre and black.
The Sunken Color of Discontent… and how to remedy the problem. Can a change of medium solve this… or is “oiling out” inevitable?
Yes, I promise, I’m really going to give you the solution.
So, for all of this fuss about paint or medium acting like “beads on a duck’s back,” it turns out the duck knew why all along. So did Max Doerner. Which is a good thing, because if it had been left to my powers of deduction it would have remained a mystery unsolved.
Why does water run off a Duck’s back? Rumor has it (i.e., Yahoo! Answers) that ducks have something called a “preen gland” that produces a waterproof mixture of waxes and oils.
So guess why your paint or medium (when you “oil in”)–or even varnish–sometimes forms beads on an already-painted surface? Yep, oil.
The solution? I’ll pass this on to Max…
My friend and colleague, the Classicist Paul Gwynne, called my attention to this documentary just a couple of weeks ago: he had it on VHS, but I would have to wait to see it.
Not known for my patience, I immediately searched YouTube… but didn’t find anything.
Well, nothing can cure mediocre research skills like a good case of insomnia. Tonight (this morning), I found it:
Drying time is something that I’ve rarely had to worry about over the years, mainly because I had the time I needed. But lately I’ve found it necessary to know more about drying times and, in particular, sometimes speed them up.
This white was mentioned in an earlier post on Caravaggio as an “extender white” for oil painting. However, on a manufacturer’s website it indicates the following:
Bianco di San Giovanni is considered the white pigment par excellence for fresco painting. It is used also in tempera and grounds while it is not advised in oil and encaustic painting techniques.
Clearly there is some confusion. I will research further…
I just spoke with the Michael Harding himself. First impression: a most affable and generous gentleman. Here’s what I asked… and what I’ve learned. Note: I’m paraphrasing our conversation. I would hate to try and quote him only to have someone call him and say “but I read some where that you said the following blah, blah, blah.” He actually says quite a lot on his own website, so go there to get the words direct from the horse’s mouth.
Q: How quick will smudging the Vermilion kill me?
A: As with anything toxic, avoid contact. The key thing with Vermilion (Mercuric Sulphide) is to avoid ingestion. Skin MIGHT be enough of a barrier… but I’m thinking of using what I’m inclined to call a “finger condom” to see if the reduction of touch greatly affects my manipulation of edge.
Q: What to do about “beading”? (This is what happens when you try and apply paint with your medium and it doesn’t stick… but instead looks like beads of water on a duck’s back.)
A: Try cutting an onion and rubbing it on the surface. Will do! This response amused me as I have lately been using a potato. The potato has seemed to work, but I am as yet undecided on the quality of surface it leaves. (Note to self: just used it on the early stages of “Delfina.”) If the onion doesn’t do it, Mr. Harding suggests the application of an egg yolk, only the yellow part; pass from hand to hand in order to remove the white part of the yolk.
Q: Is there a genuine odorless turp that I can use?
A: He mentioned W&N Sansodor, but by no means was it a mark of approval. He noted that anytime you depart from the real thing, you’ve compromised the substance. I have Sansodor… but no little about it. Will research further.
Our discussion ended on color. For flesh tones he suggested I try the Vermilion with a Yellow Ochre Deep (a semi-transparent color), and any lead white. He also mentioned his Trans Red Oxide. Final note on Vermilion: he says despite rumors, he has not had any success in “blackening” the Vermilion, i.e., it is his belief that it is a stable color.
Much to my delight, it arrived yesterday: Michael Harding’s “Genuine Chinese Vermilion”. I never knew a 40 ml tube could be so heavy.
First Question: just how poisonous is Mercuric Sulphide?
More reports to follow…
Listed in alphabetical order by the author’s last name.
On Art Process, Techniques and Materials
- Aristides, Juliette. Classical Drawing Atelier. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2006
- Aristides, Juliette. Classical Painting Atelier. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2008
- De Boisbaudran, Lecoq. The Training of the Memory in Art | The Education of the Artist. London: Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1911
- Eastlake, Sir Charles Lock. Methods and Materials of Painting of the Great Schools and Masters. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2001
- Speed, Harold. Oil Painting Techniques and Materials. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1987
On Artists, Art and History
- Alpers, Svetlana. The Vexations of Art, Velazquez and Others. London: Yale University Press, 2007
- Clark, Kenneth. The Nude.
- Holland, Tom. Rubicon.
- King, Ross. Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2003
- Parenti, Michael. The Assassination of Julius Caesar. New York: The New Press, 2004
On Deck – The Books On My Reading List
- Farington, Joseph. Memoirs of Sir Joshua Reynolds.
- Sir Joshua Reynolds. Discourses on Art.
Books to Look For:
- George Cooke and T.L. Busby. The Cartoons of Raphael d’Urbino.
- Leon Batista Alberti. On Painting.