« Posts under Materials & Technique

Fat over Lean…

One of the most frequently asked questions by students of oil painting is for an explanation to the “fat over lean rule”. The terminology is somewhat antiquated today, but the phrase persists. To put it simply, fat over lean is not a real rule, it’s a ‘rule of thumb’ for painting in layers; alla prima painters need not pay it any attention. The idea is to use a successively higher oil content as the painting progresses (fat = more oil, lean = less oil). And more crucially, to use as little oil as possible in the underlying layers. The point being, more oil means a longer drying time and more flexibility in the paint layer. A slow drying layer underneath a fast drying layer can cause a number of problems, most notably cracking in the dry overlying layers due to microscopic shifts in the underlying layers as they dry.

The trouble with the phrase, and perhaps the reason so much confusion exists today, is that oil alone is a far less common medium than it was when the phrase was coined. Traditionally, oil paint was made up of pigment and oil alone. The choice of mediums was also very limited. Today, many different things come into play which simply did not exist in the past. Is Liquin fat or lean? Is Galkyd leaner than stand oil? Is walnut oil fatter than linseed oil? Despite what some painters will inevitably insist, these questions really don’t have positive answers because the “fat over lean” principal did not take them into account.

In practical terms, “fat over lean” is about permanence. Do it wrong and your layers will be more prone to craquelure, delamination, or some other hazard. But remember, it’s a ‘rule of thumb’, not a real infallible rule. Simple common sense will avoid most of these hazards. Oil paint takes ages to dry completely. A painting dry to the touch may be wet underneath for months. If you’re using dryers (alkyds or other resins), the significance of this concern is somewhat diminished.

Quick drying colors, such as earths (siennas, umbers, ochres…) and lead (lead white principally), will help to combat these problems when used in the underpainting.


Whose “Vermeer”?

There’s a lot of buzz about a new documentary called Tim’s Vermeer. Check out the trailer below. The gist is that it’s a documentary about a guy who sets out to replicate a Vermeer painting because he thinks he “figured out” a “secret” about how Vermeer painted. It’s an interesting premise, certainly, made all the more enticing when we hear that he actually recreated the whole room in order to make the painting. And if that wasn’t enough to pique your interest, did they mention that the guy isn’t even a painter?

It’s easy to forget with the big Hollywood budget, but we aren’t really breaking any new ground here. I’ve touched on some of this before (see Nigel Konstam for a more compelling theory) and we’ve all read Hockney and Steadman on the subject. (An interesting discourse by Steadman can be read here – thanks to Jonathan Janson for the link.)

I haven’t seen Tim’s movie yet, and I intend to, but my early impressions are pretty dodgy. First, lets just get right down to the image; Tim set out to paint a “Vermeer”, so lets take a look at it. Vanity Fair released the image in this teaser interview for the film: Vermeer’s Secret.

Vermeer vs Tim's "Vermeer"

Tim’s painting really isn’t bad, especially for someone who is “not a painter.” But is it as good as a Vermeer? No, of course not. (We must remember that one of these paintings is about three hundred and fifty years old, while the varnish on the other might still be tacky; we have to look past the craqueleur and other signs of time in Vermeer’s painting.) Interested parties should compare the two high resolution images here: The original, on Wikipedia. And Tim’s, on Vanity Fair. But my low-resolution image above will suffice to illustrate the most obvious errors.

Why are there no cast shadows on the floor of Tim’s picture? What’s wrong with the anatomy of his figures? Where’s the light on his viola and chair? And what the hell happened in that picture-within-the-picture on the right?

It’s worth mentioning that Tim painted his picture from a recreation of what in reality may have been a fictional room. It’s no secret that artists have long modified reality to suit their needs (painting something a different color or different shape because it worked better for the composition – not to mention the possibility of pure invention). For all we know, the image seen in Vermeer’s painting might have been a virtual collage of individual parts observed from life separately (this has been common practice among painters for centuries).

Although Tim went to great lengths to recreate the room, he curiously opted to rearrange the figures. His picture isn’t a stroke-for-stroke duplicate, but that wasn’t his intention (despite his actions to the contrary). Instead, he set out to prove that anyone could paint just like Vermeer if they knew about this secret tool or technique which Vermeer relied on to make his pictures. Did he succeed? Well… his painting ‘looks’ like Vermeer’s painting, but that’s due more to the fact that he rebuilt the room than the way he was actually painting. Look how he handled the yellow satin on the blouse – that’s bush league (and it’s the same all over the painting).

From what I can extrapolate (again, I haven’t seen the movie yet), Tim posits that Vermeer used a mirror in such a way as to immediately check his color and drawing against the source. The “tool” reminds us of that Carder thing a few years back – which was essentially a stick you would paint and hold out in front of you to check your mixture against the local color. The “Carder Method” was the subject of much skepticism but it really did the same thing Tim’s “new” device seems to do. It creates a mechanical means to replicate what you see in paint. Just as Carder is flawed, so too is Tim (and for exactly the same reasons). This doesn’t create “art”, it creates a hand made facsimile – for want of a better term. An excellent means for the novice to impress their ignorant friends, but is it anything more? I don’t think so.

I’m also troubled by some of Tim’s comments. One of the best examples can be heard in the trailer linked above. Referring to a section of Vermeer’s painting, Tim says “…this falloff of light is something that an artist really cannot see.” …What?! In a couple earlier interviews (link, link) he even went as far as to say it’s impossible to train one’s eye to see such things, which is just absurd. It makes me wonder if Tom Hanks will be playing “Vermeer” in this movie… no, wait, that was something else.

My impression is that Jonathan Jones from The Guardian really nailed it with this review: DIY Vermeer documentary utterly misses the point about old masters. “Tim’s Vermeer is the equivalent of someone hanging a painting-by-numbers version of a masterpiece over the mantelpiece and claiming it’s as good as the real thing.” My fears exactly.

We shall see. Check here for upcoming showtimes in your area.

Different brands of paint…

I use many different brands of paint; I enjoy trying new colors and comparing the differences between manufacturers. But I know several painters who stick with just one brand of paint. We see brand loyalty such as this in all kinds of consumer markets; you find something you like and you stick with it. While there’s nothing wrong with this mindset, limiting yourself this way when it comes to paint really does take away some very worthwhile possibilities (it’s limiting, after-all). Now… before getting ahead of myself, it bares mentioning that it’s not the products which are important, it’s what you do with them (which is to say, you can make wonderful paintings with very modest materials, and you can also make terrible paintings with extravagant materials; in the end it’s the painter which is important, not the products they use).

my paint drawer...

Lower quality paints, commonly referred to as “student grade”, tend to regulate paint consistency across their lineup with any number of additives. Paint manufacturers, like modern food-makers, add numerous foreign ingredients which are often unseen (and unconsidered) by the consumer. Aluminum stearate, hydrogenated castor oil, bentonite clay, calcium naphthenate, silica gel… the list goes on. These are common additives used to manipulate the state of the pigment as it sits in the tube and the way it pours onto your palette. Unlike foods, paint manufacturers are not required to disclose any information about the contents of the tube. As a rule, you can bet some additives are present in your paints. (Aside from those used as filler in low-quality paints, additives are most commonly used as preservatives, to extend the shelf-life of the paint by preventing oil/pigment separation in the tube.)

The first thing a student will notice when sampling higher quality paints (“professional grade” vs. “student grade”) is the variance which exists between pigments. All pigments are different; they aren’t supposed to squeeze out of the tube in exactly the same toothpaste consistency as the last. Sienna should not feel like cadmium. Also, cadmium should not dry as quickly as sienna. Back when paints were made by hand in the artist’s studio, it was understood that different colors had different properties. One may be gritty while another is buttery. One may be very light and transparent while another is heavy and opaque.

Unfortunately these differences are compounded when looking across different manufacturers. Some brands are more heavily pigmented than others. Some are generally thick and stiff while others are creamy and soft. Some of these differences are due to the way the paint was milled, some are due to additives, and some are just a mystery. Many manufacturers disclose a great deal about their practices, while others consider it a trade secret. Most manufacturers list the pigment content on the tube, but we have to do some research on our own to figure out what kind of binder they’re using (the type of oil) and what kinds of additives, if any, are disclosed. (If you care to look for it, most of this information can be found on the manufacturer’s websites, and that which is not is often given on request in response to a friendly inquiry to their customer service department.)

It’s also important to point out that color names are completely arbitrary. One manufacturer’s “sky blue” may be another manufacturer’s “primary blue” which is the same as another manufacturer’s “cerulean blue”. This is an unfortunate obstacle painters must overcome. We can get around it a little by looking to the pigment content, but that’s more an indicator of how the paint will behave than to what it actually looks like. (For example, the pigment contents will help us to estimate the tinting strength, opacity, etc, but the actual color of any of these pigments varies a great deal.) And what’s worse, those colors which should be most predictable are often the most varied. Take something like Burnt Sienna, a staple earth red on any painter’s palette. Not only does the color vary from one manufacturer to another, but some don’t even use burnt sienna (PBr7); many use red iron oxide (PR101), which is usually more transparent than natural sienna.

You’ll have to decide for yourself if one is better than another; it really comes down to personal opinion and how it affects your particular working practices. I personally love Williamsburg’s Burnt Sienna. It’s a little redder than most and for me, the consistency just feels right. But Williamsburg is not my favorite for every color. Next time you run out of one of your staples, try a new brand. You never know until you try it… Plus, with earth colors, the cost difference is not overwhelming (compared to cadmiums, where the price varies from $15 to $50 between brands). Take a look at this selection of Burnt Sienna’s from popular manufacturers:

Burnt Sienna, various manufacturers @ Dick Blick
Old Holland, PBr7.........$12.11
Blockx, PBr7..............$11.26
Williamsburg, PBr7........$10.36
Schmincke Mussini, PBr7....$9.20
Holbein, PBr7..............$9.19
Rembrandt, PR101...........$7.79
Michael Harding, PBr7......$7.76
Sennelier, PBk11 + PR101...$7.13
M. Graham, PBr7............$6.24
Winsor & Newton, PR101.....$6.00
Gamblin, PBr7..............$5.97
Da Vinci, PBr7.............$5.88
Grumbacher, PR101 + PBr7...$5.36

Detailed paint information…

I think paint is a fascinating thing. I’m a very technically minded person and I am always interested in discussing materials with fellow artists. To that end, I wanted to share a couple resources for those interested in more information about their paints.

First, dickblick.com is a terrific online supply store. They’re constantly running promotions and various discounts which usually make their already hard-to-beat prices better than most of the competition. They have the best selection under one roof (or one domain, in this case), and unparalleled customer service. It’s a great company and I can’t recommend them enough. But beyond all that, their website is a goldmine for painters looking for detailed information about their colors.

From the long list of colors on your chosen manufacturer’s page, click the magnifying glass icon to the left of any color… Old Holland Classic Oil ColorsThis brings you to the following page:blick-pigmentinfo(Note the tabs at the top: “Description” – “Color Swatch” – “Pigment Info”) Here, you find a complete list of the pigments contained in your chosen color, a large color swatch for a look at the actual paint, and a wealth of information about the pigments therein. This is especially useful when looking at mixtures (colors containing multiple pigments) and for brand-to-brand comparisons of similar colors. How does Williamsburg’s Brilliant Yellow compare to Winsor & Newton’s? Want to compare that new color you saw in the store to something you already own? (And so on…)

And if you want to get really crazy, check out the “Art Is Creation Art Pigment Database” for historical information, chemical composition, toxicity and more. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by this site, but when you’re looking for something specific, or trying to identify a color you haven’t seen before, this database is an excellent resource.

Is one paint better than another? It really comes down to personal preference. But with all this information at our fingertips, it’s easy to make informed decisions.



A word on palette care

I think it’s a bit silly when I see painters methodically cleaning their palettes with solvents after painting. Far better results come from simply scraping excess paint with a knife, and then buffing the remainder with a rag. That is to say, don’t try to remove all the paint from the mixing surface; scrape off all that you can, but rub the rest in.

This creates a wonderful “neutral” ground and over time, a surface like glass. (I say “neutral” in quotes because it’s not chromatically neutral, far from it in fact, but it’s literally an average of all the colors you use – what better starting point for a mixing surface? I also favor this color as a painting ground for the same reasons.) And of course leave the piles alone, they won’t likely form a skin for several days.

Straight Lines and Ellipses

Representational painting can be pretty tough; I could talk about the difficulties ad nauseam. Instead, I wanted to offer advice in overcoming two very common problems faced by painters: Straight Lines, and Ellipses.

Of course the knee-jerk reaction to straight lines is to use a ruler or some other straight-edge. However, once you try to follow a ruler with a brush full of paint you’ll realize how impractical this device is for our purposes. Another option is taping or masking areas to create straight lines. Again this works, but the results are far from perfect. Taped lines will give you a very hard edge (better suited for the trim in your bedroom than a piece of fine art).  Both a ruler and a mask may give you a straight line, but not without a lot of extra work to make it what you want.

The answer is even simpler. Just look down the painting at an extreme angle. It’s tough to represent this in photographs, but see the following images of a still life in progress at two different angles.

One need only put themselves at this position to observe the line in an extreme compression (foreshortening). Blemishes and deviations will become immediately clear. Make an adjustment, recheck, repeat. You’ll have a satisfactory straight line in no time, without the hassle of restating the edges as if you used tape or a ruler.

And it’s not just straight lines that will reveal themselves here; those dreadful ellipses will jump out at you too. As is known, the ellipse should never look like a football (with pointed ends), and it shouldn’t necessarily be an oval either. It’s supposed to look like a perfect circle viewed at an angle. The effect of this extreme compression on your ellipse will reveal issues pertaining to symmetry. If it’s working, your object will take on a more cylindrical appearance. The opening of the vase here (work in progress) gives a good example. This ellipse is pretty good (not perfect yet…), but it only arrived here after lots of angled viewing and correcting.

Just like checking your painting in a mirror, looking at it upside down, using a dark-mirror, squinting, standing on one foot (…), looking down the painting at an angle is a helpful and organic way of checking your work. By all means, use whatever devices you have at your disposal, but I find it’s often the simplest approach which lends the best results.

Brushes (a retraction)

I previously recommended two brushes, Blick’s Master Kolinsky Sable and Dynasty’s Mongolian Sable. While I still very much enjoy Blick’s Master series, the Dynasty brushes are not what they appeared to be.

Dynasty Mongolian Sable

Dynasty Mongolian Sable: New vs. Two months of use

Dynasty’s Mongolian Sables are nowhere near the quality of Blick’s Master series both in terms of longevity and consistency. The Dynasty brushes began to shed pretty severely after only a few weeks of use. Because the brushes performed well initially, I ordered more (before they started falling apart). The new shipment, five brushes of the same size, was wildly irregular. Each brush was a different length– both in terms of hair and handle –and some of them were slightly bent at the ferrule in such a way that they that they were only usable on one side.

Fortunately, Dick Blick‘s customer service being what it is (amazing), they replaced the whole order. Unfortunately, the new brushes were no different.

I apologize to anyone who may have purchased these brushes on my recommendation, hopefully you have better luck with them than I did. But I’m happy to report continued satisfaction with Blick’s Master Series. I have several of the sables, which are excellent, and I picked up a few of their synthetics which quickly replaced the Dynastys.

Cupid, in progress

Trompe L'oeil in progress by Thomas ConwayThis is a small 12 x 12″ trompe l’oeil of Caravaggio’s ‘Sleeping Cupid.’ These pictures were taken on two consecutive days. The first picture (with the full painting and the reference photo above), shows the warm base color for the flesh. Once dry, abbreviated lights are laid, as seen in the second picture. The next session will be glazing (correcting color) and restating the lights. A few corrections remain (I forgot the bellybutton) but that’s the gist of the technique I’ve been using for the Caravaggio paintings. I find it to be pretty effective at capturing something close to the luminous effect of the originals.

Trompe L'oeil painting (in progress) by Thomas Kenneth ConwaySpeaking of the original painting… When I was searching for a good reproduction I came across this painting (link) from the Indianapolis Museum of Art. At first I thought it to be a clearer photograph of the other, housed in the Pitti Palace (in Florence), but upon closer inspection it’s a completely different painting. A lot of the differences are subtle (likely to be overlooked if only casually viewing), but the big changes such as the lower hand and the contour of the upper wing obviously can’t be attributed to different lighting. Plus, if you have any experience with Caravaggio, the paint handling just doesn’t feel right. But– I don’t pretend to know better than the museum housing it (they attribute it to Caravaggio and date it about ten years before the other one). It’s a curiosity. For what it’s worth, I think the location solves the mystery; I don’t mean to be unpatriotic but seeing that one is housed in Italy, and the other in Indiana, the Italian version somehow seems authentic by default.

Self Portrait (cont.) 13th sitting

This photo is from the 13th sitting. Thirteen seems like a lot, but it’s moving quickly now. Part of the reason this painting has taken so long is the number of changes I made in the beginning. So… I’m not really as slow as I seem, I’m just really indecisive… especially in the beginning. I have a little project planned to help me overcome this (more on that later). Since the composition and drawing is pretty sound at this point, real painting is taking place (I’d call most of the stuff from before ‘drawing’ instead of ‘painting’). While the surface is wet, it’s very difficult to photograph. The best way to show the color accurately at this point is to use the flash and take the picture at an angle (hence the distortion in this image). As a bonus, paint texture reads very well this way– which is a quality of painting that is lost in most reproductions, sadly. Click the thumbnail for a high-res image (700kb).

In other news… I purchased a new palette from Green & Stone in London. It’s beautiful and functions very well. My only complaint is, as with all mass produced palettes, I find the thumb hole far too small. I enlarged mine already– but with use I’ve discovered that I need it to be even larger. Even so– If you’re in the market for a new palette, I recommend it. Mine is the ‘Diaz’ palette No. 1, it’s lead-balanced and double-stacked at the bottom. I also ordered a couple of their small oval palettes… which were shipped separately and are currently lost in the mail. The man at the post office ensures me that they’re here somewhere, he just can’t locate the package. I’ve got my fingers crossed. (My crossed fingers may be another reason I needed to make the thumb-hole bigger… Did you know I’m also a comedian?)


NOTE: There is an update to this post. Please see: Brushes (a retraction)


Not unlike any other painter, I own far too many paint brushes. I’m a sucker for fancy in-store brush-displays and sales and I have used dozens of different kinds of brushes. So, obviously, I’m a brush expert (…pause for laughter).

I use two kinds of brushes. Broad bristle brushes for the initial layout and scrubbing in large masses (underpainting), and fine pointed rounds for just about everything else. With regard to the rounds, I want to tell you about a couple new favorites.

First, Blick’s “Master” series, Kolinsky Sable. These are fantastic detail brushes. I’m partial to size #2 and #4 and usually have three or four of these out at a time when painting. They’re great. The hairs are very soft and hold a great shape with a surprising amount of spring. I also find these to be incredibly versatile. Depending on how you gather your paint on the palette (or how you pick it up with the brush), the shape can range from a long flat to a needle point round. (This is true with any good pointed round, and one of the reasons I find no need for any other brush shapes.) The brushes keep such a great point that there’s rarely a need for anything smaller. And it gets better…

Blick Master Series brushes are guaranteed for life. If at any time you are dissatisfied with the materials or craftsmanship of any Master Series brush, return it to Blick for a replacement.

A lifetime warranty on a paintbrush is just… insane. Brushes wear out, I don’t care who you are or what you do to your brushes, they age like everything else. I called and spoke with one of the customer service reps for Dick Blick and asked them a series of specific brush-wear questions. The verdict: If ever the brush performs at a lesser quality than that which it performed initially, it is considered defective and will be replaced. It’s crazy. There’s a review on their website from someone claiming to have returned an 8-year old brush for replacement. And… This policy spans their whole “Master” line of brushes. They offer a bristle and a synthetic in addition to the sable. I have a few bristles, and not surprisingly, they’re wearing out (that’s just what bristle brushes do). I haven’t tried returning them yet, but I’ll report back when I do.

The Dynasty Sable doesn’t come with the warranty, but it’s another great brush. (I feel guilty saying less about this one, because it’s an excellent brush, but Blick’s lifetime warranty steals the spotlight.) Because the Dynasty brush is less pointed and mops more, I think these two brushes make a great team. I find myself using the Dynasty for larger form modeling and darks, and Blick’s Sable for fine detail and lights.

And I have to say that I am not being compensated in any way for this endorsement. They’re just good brushes.