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Tad Spurgeon : the putty mediumTad Spurgeonoil paintings

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the putty medium

Typical questions and answers about the putty medium in
practice come first, a more in-depth text follows. Further technique

information and photos are here. A step-by-step tutorial about the
putty medium is here.
quick start guide

What is the historical origin of the putty medium system?
It has long been known that Velasquez used a medium composed
of sun oil and ground calcite. In reading various publications of
the National Gallery, but especially their book "Rembrandt: Art in
the Making", it became clear that Rembrandt often used a similar
medium based on a somewhat thickened oil and chalk. How these
mediums were incorporated into handmade paint historically remains
unknown. I began to experiment in early 2007 making a putty that
could be mixed with commercial paint and alter its characteristics
to be less slippery and more adhesive. This proved to be a big
technical plus for many reasons which are detailed below.
Developments with the medium have simply gone on, all paintings on
this website since 2007 were made with variations of the putty
medium.
What ingredients are used to make putty?
Basic putty is made from a combination of oil and stone dust.
In order to produce a stronger paint film, the oil used in the putty

should be stronger than the raw oil of commercial paint. This can be

painter-refined organic linseed oil, and/or a semi-heat bodied oil,
and can include the addition of a small percentage of thicker oil
such as sun oil. There are many variations possible within this
deceptively simple recipe, these result in paint with different
rheologies or types of behavior under the brush. It is also possible

to incorporate a small amount of whole egg, egg yolk, or egg white.
All "other" additions must be in small amounts in order for the
inherent strength of the oil-chalk mixture to remain dominant.
What are the advantages of the putty system?
Using a putty allows the painter to capitalize on the
convenience of commercial tube paint but also to overcome or at
least ameliorate its drawbacks. A great many different consistencies

of putty may be used, producing a significant range of techniques
from smooth and detailed to roughly broken impasto. Putties may be
engineered to any level of final saturation and gloss. Finally, the
putty system contains no resin and allows the painter to work in a
completely solvent-free environment. Brushes are kept in oil as has
been documented in older painting practice and cleaned with a rag
before use.
This is so simple. Why haven't I heard of this before?
The research linking this idea to Rembrandt's work is
relatively new. There is also still a prevailing misunderstanding
that resins are universally a part of older painting practice when
resin use has in fact been proven at the molecular level to have had

very limited use by painters such as Raphael, Rembrandt, Van Eyck,
and Vermeer. Also, the putty medium is inexpensive, needs to be
homemade to be fully effective, and significantly extends your paint

supply. What manufacturer would promote an item like that?
In what proportion is the putty mixed with the paint?
You determine this proportion based on the pigments in your
palette, there is no functional limit. One part putty to one part
paint is a good rule of thumb, but for strong pigments such as Mars
Red, Titanium White, or Phthalo Blue this could be increased
significantly.
How does the putty affect the paint optically?
This depends to a certain extent on the type of stone dust and

oil used. Marble dust tends to be whiter but also more opaque than
chalk. Increased saturation can be achieved through a small amount
of thicker oil in the putty. There is often a greater sense of life
or aeration in the pigment because the particles are more separate.
It is also possible to make textured putty "glazes" in the manner of

Rembrandt, which are optically between a transparent glaze and a
scumble.
How does the putty affect the consistency of the paint?
This depends entirely on the consistency of the putty, paint
can be made with any degree of mobility or adhesion. Also, there are

variations based on ingredients. A chalk putty is more thixotropic
and mobile than a marble dust or whiting putty. Putty can be used
quite densely with bristle brushes, or more finely with softer
brushes.
Why should I bother to make the putty myself when there are
commercial alternatives?
Manufacturers are in business to make money. They combine raw
ingredients and resell them at often absurd profit margins in the
case of art materials. Especially in the case of the fundamental
quality of the oil, there has been tremendous degradation over the
years as a result of this system. When you make the material
yourself, you will have access to much greater quality for the same
price by eliminating the middlemen. You are also able to work with a

much greater variety of ingredients and subsequent effects.
Does the putty dry fast?
Calcium carbonate -- chalk, marble dust, whiting, calcite --
is often spoken of as a secondary drier. Used with painter-refined
organic linseed oil refined, this putty can dry overnight. A putty
made with walnut oil takes a bit longer. Putty can be enhanced with
a small amount of stand oil, safflower, or walnut oil for longer
open time, or sun oil for shorter.
How well does the putty medium hold up over time?
The single technical error Rembrandt made was in the use of
smalt as a drier, which ultimately turned brown in many cases due to

the acid in the linseed oil. Once the older mastic varnish is
removed, Rembrandt paintings are in a technical condition which
conservators often remark on as being excellent. The paint film
produced by putty enhanced paint is remarkably resilient and stable.
How should I paint with this medium?
Painting with putty is very flexible in terms of system
because of its proven ultimate stability. Work can be done from
loose to tight on stretched canvas by starting with a loose putty
and dipping the brush from time to time in chalk as the work
progresses. On panels, painting can also be done from tight to loose

as well, including various types of ploughing or carving. For
various putty method slideshows, go here.
What sort of learning curve can I expect after putting this
medium into practice?
The best way to begin with this idea is just to make small
studies using a stone dust and an oil or oil mix on the palette. The

putty enhanced paint is inherently adhesive, so doesn't need to be
as thick as one might think at first. Simply adapt the consistency
of the putty-paint to the way your hand wants to work and learn more

from there, the range of possibilities is endless: work can be done
from loose to tight, tight to loose, or both. For further
information, continue below. You'll also find many images of the
putty itself here if you scroll down a bit.
in depth

An all text handout for a workshop about the simple but
complex putty medium technology I've been working on since early
2007.

overview

There are two distinct ways of painting with oil: one uses
resins, one does not. The permutations of both methods are
essentially endless. The origins of oil paint as a decorative medium

made with boiled oil used outdoors make early recipes containing
resin logical. The resin in this case being a thick cooked oil
varnish such as amber, copal, or sandarac, which would contribute to

the gloss and durability of the paint film. The use of uncooked
resin varnishes --spirit varnishes, resin dissolved in solvent -- in

older painting was generally limited to a spirit varnish being used
to help a specific glaze -- such as madder lake -- to dry, and the
work early painters such as Durer and Leonardo did with a final
varnish of sandarac dissolved in spike lavender. In an era in which
the formal perfection of a work was a sine qua non, technical
simplicity was only logical and wise business practice.
By the early 19th century is was clear that something
valuable had been lost from older painting technique: in England the

many technical issues with Reynolds paintings (1723-1792) as he
struggled to find the answer made this uncomfortably clear. Books
began to appear which speculated about what these older techniques
were. Such a book is Eastlake's famous "Methods and Materials"
(first volume, 1847) but this comes after a book in French by
Merimee, "The Art of Painting in Oil and in Fresco", translated into

English in 1839 . Both of these books conclude -- Eastlake with
significantly more historical evidence and empirical investigation,
Merimee with lots of chemical nomenclature masking an essential lack

of research method -- that a hard resin varnish such as amber or
copal was the foundational component lost from older painting. This
eventually led to a tremendous revival of interest in amber and
copal in later 19th century English painting. But, as is shown in
the tremendously well-researched "The Artist's Assistant" by current

conservator Leslie Carlyle, neither Eastlake, Merimee, nor the more
conservative colorman George Field, author of "Field's
Chromatography" in 1835, could stem the tide of complex medium
formulas designed to make the new tube paint of commerce behave like

the craftsman-made paint of an earlier time. While certain painters
of the period, such as Constable, wrote in favor of simply using
linseed oil, the most common recipes collected by Carlyle from the
19th century English sources are for various gel mediums based on
mastic resin dissolved in turpentine combined with a leaded oil.
This quick setting, easy to use formula, revived by French
researcher Jaques Maroger in "Secret Formulas and Techniques of the
Masters ",1948, is perhaps the single most controversial formula
ever developed. When fortified with copal varnish, as in the
well-known Roberson's medium used by the Pre-Raphaelites, it has
proven at least moderately sound over time. But in spite of the fact

that varieties of "Maroger Medium" continue to be used by painters
today, it is almost universally deprecated by responsible painters
and often seriously lambasted by modern conservators for the
inevitable instability of the complex paint film it produces. Not in

a year or even a decade, but over the longer time period expected in

the life of a traditional painting.
Throughout in the 20th century, painting professors write
books about painting, including Max Doerner and A.P. Laurie. Doerner

famously suggested that dammar was the "secret" in his The Materials

of the Artist and Their Use in Painting", but this was proven wrong
even during his lifetime. In the other direction, Laurie's later
research becomes almost a parody of cautionary warnings about all
materials in oil painting having inherent grave defects. Ultimately,

the materials and techniques of older painting are either openly
deprecated or ignored by later writers: no plausible modern guide to

older painting technique exists. The modern system of using dammar
varnish and commercial stand oil, promoted by Ralph Mayer in many
editions of The Artist's Handbook, is not based on any known older
practice. Dammar first makes it's appearance in early 19th century
German painting, and a vacuum bodied oil was beyond the technology
of the 17th century. One might think that some sort of analogue of
this system would exist historically: for example, a combination of
sun oil and Olio d'Abezzo (silver fir resin) in 16th century Italy.
But the older texts, while mentioning and extolling Olio d'Abezzo
frequently, mention it as a varnish or as a varnish component. While

this system has merits for specific types of smooth surface
painting, both dammar and stand oil can yellow and one is still
dealing with a paint film made complex and brittle by the addition
of a resin which does not polymerize with the oil, but dries
separately from it.
Enter the modern conservator, armed with gas chromatography,
mass spectrometry, and a host of allied high-tech paint film
analysis techniques which enable the detailed analysis of minute
samples. In Technical Bulletin #15, (1994) London's National Gallery

published an extensive article titled "Rembrandt and his Circle:
Seventeenth-Century Dutch Paint Media Re-examined." The conclusion
was that, while some of Rembrandt's pupils used amber varnish in
isolated cases, Rembrandt himself did not. With the exception of the

occasional glaze using resin, Rembrandt's paintings were made with
linseed oil. The most common additions were chalk and egg. This same

group of conservators and scientists, writing in the Rembrandt
volume of their superb Art in the Making series, makes the same case

with more paintings in more detail. This conclusion proved so
controversial with Rembrandt scholars that in the updated edition of

the book in 2006, the authors go out of their way to point out that
they can and do find resin, it's just not in Rembrandt's paintings.
The same has been true of Van Eyck research: the medium was linseed
oil. The same has been true of Vermeer research, linseed oil with
protein, probably egg, possibly a hide size like rabbit skin glue.
Reading all this for the first time, I found myself also
feeling challenged. I had spent almost six years navigating the
labyrinth of older sources and materials. Having figured out how to
make amber varnish, copal varnish, sandarac varnish, and all kinds
of egg emulsion mediums with them, having worked with Roberson's
medium and done a few studies in the mastic gel mediums, I was
attached to what I had learned. Was it all wrong? More cogently, was

it all totally unnecessary? A few uncomfortable weeks after reading
the Rembrandt book in the Art in the Making series, I decided I had
to give the other side of the coin a fair trial. It was time to try
green eggs and ham.
So, beginning in early in 2007, I worked on two things: how
to make a successful all oil medium with the few traditional
additives, and how to refine linseed oil so that it dry quickly and
not yellow. At this point, in 2008, I'm in the process of putting
those two lines of inquiry together.
I decided to take on linseed oil separately because, like
many modern painters, I had become very suspicious of modern
"alkali-refined" linseed oil, which is sometimes seen oozing from
the corners of a paint tube in all it's dark orange glory. Not
exactly an Old Master product. So all my working experience was with

walnut oil: the oil of Leonardo, Raphael and Perugino. Not as fast
to dry, not as strong a paint film, but less yellowing.
The first time I worked with an oil and marble dust putty in
a painting I realized that it was all possible. After six years in
the labyrinth of older painting technique, a large, economy size
Philip Guston light bulb went on over my head. Eureka, this is it.
Many mixtures, a year of trial and error later followed: once again,

simplicity proved inherently complex. What follows is a description
of this technology in action. It flies, quacks, swims, has feathers,

webbed feet and a bill. Is it, then, a duck? This is thankfully not
for the uneducated craftsman to say. Hopefully, in the best 17th
Century tradition, you will simply let your own experience with the
materials be your guide. This is the essence of Rembrandt's advice
to Van Hoogstraten: the authentic craft develops naturally from
one's own experience. So, it seems reasonable to suggest that the
search should not be for the lost secrets, but for one's own
practice. This is in fact easy, you start making things. At first
they might not be perfect, but the information here should provide
you with a running start. And, if you are cut out for this the
learning curve will not be daunting, because you will realize that
you are finally headed in the right direction: towards the living
craft.

medium and system

The ingredients of this medium are simple: an oil or
combination of oils, chalk or marble dust or some combination of
other inert stone powders, a small amount of egg yolk or whole egg.
When working with the medium at first, it's best to keep it simple
so that you can develop a solid understanding of what is doing what.

Putties can be, but do not need to be, complex in order to function
correctly. At first, it is best to make small amounts of a simple
putty on the palette and then mix a specific amount of putty into
each nurdle of paint. My standard amount is one to one, but putty
can be added in any amount. It will lighten the colors, but not in
the manner of white, it's more like adding air or light: Venetian
Red becomes brighter and more orange. Texture can be made wet or
dry, impasto low or high, all controlled on the palette by the
introduction of more oil or more stone dust. It may be logical to
make light colors thicker, dark colors thinner. How much mobility,
how many layers, how much texture, where and when, all can be dialed

in. This is easy to conceive in theory if you've painted a while,
but it does take time to implement in practice.
The use of the putty offers two profound technical advantages.

The first is that it allows the use of commercial tube paint through

the introduction of an element of thixotropy or viscosity or "boing"

that trumps the false "congealed grease" consistency of most tube
paint, the fabled "butteriness" which leads nowhere. The second is
that it allows the painter to dispense with solvent and keep the
brushes horizontally in a tray of oil, as is well documented in Old
Master practice. I use raw walnut oil or safflower oil for this.
Brushes are simply cleaned on a rag before use, clean well if you
use safflower oil: it dries very slowly. Please do not use linseed
oil for this purpose, rags soaked in linseed oil have a long history

of auto-combustion due to the heat released during the
polymerization of the oil.

ingredients

Oil: There are four basic oils I use for putty. First in
volume is Spectrum Naturals Walnut Oil, available in quality grocery

stores or health food markets, about 6 dollars a pint. Second is
Allback Boiled Linseed oil from Sweden, available online here. This
is a traditionally refined organic cold-pressed oil, an unbelievable

product, also about 6 dollars a pint. The third is sun oil, either
linseed or walnut, made the traditional way by exposing a tray of
oil to the sun for a long time in the summer. It needs to be covered

with glass but also breathe. Bugs and debris still get in, you heat
the oil gently and sieve it all out in the end. You can buy Sun Oil,

but it is expensive. You can substitute Stand Oil for this, but sun
oil is better. The last oil is sort of a misnomer, as it is called
Burnt Plate Oil. Only it's not burnt, it's a vacuum bodied linseed
oil used in printmaking to cut the viscosity of the ink. The
volatile parts are sparked off as they rise in the chamber,
resulting in progressively thicker oils which dry slowly but are
non-yellowing and add an unusual increase in pigment saturation.
This oil is very cheap and available from Graphic Chemical here. I
use mostly #5, which is about the consistency of stand oil, although

sometimes a little #7 as well, which is thicker. It is incredibly
concentrated, a little goes a long way, more is less.
The Spectrum Naturals Walnut Oil is further processed by
heating. One of the things that came out of reading the National
Gallery Technical Bulletins was the concept of the semi heat bodied
oil:
"Heat pre-polymerization has several effects on the oil.
Drying properties are improved and are further enhanced by the
addition of metal salts (usually those of lead) during the process.
The refractive index of the oil is increased, thus reducing light
scattering at the pigment-medium interface and thereby increasing
the saturation of the pigment colour; the paint film may also have a

glossier appearance. The pigment is less liable to sink in the oil
film, which itself decreases less in volume than a conventional oil
film, reducing the amount of wrinkling that may occur. White paints
appear less discoloured because, as the polyunsaturated fatty acids
initially present in the paint film are destroyed by the formation
of carbon-carbon single bonds, there is less scope for the formation

of chromophoric and auxochemic groups, the presence of which give
the yellow appearance to the film." From Rembrandt and his Circle:
Seventeenth-Century Dutch Paint Media Re-Examined by Raymond White
and Jo Kirby. National Gallery Technical Bulletin volume 15, 1994.
There are two basic ways to do this. One is to heat the oil to

a high temperature for a short amount of time: thirty minutes, an
hour, two hours will produce an oil which is noticeably thick. The
oil is never actually boiled, and should only be heated just to
below its smoking point: outside. This method is documented
repeatedly in the oldest existing texts on oil painting. The other
method is to mimic the effect of an oil aged for a long time or kept

near a stove during the winter. This involves controlled low heat
for a longer period of time. I've made this oil in the 48 to 96 hour

range, temperature range of 204 to 245 degrees Fahrenheit. At this
point, because of the other oils in the mix, I'm using the 48 hour
oil and the lower end of the temperature range. The simplest way to
accomplish this is with the small "dip heater" Crock Pot, which
heats about a pint of oil to about 245 F. Twenty-four hours would be

a good amount of time for this. You could also get a little more
high tech and use a small Presto deep fryer with a thermostat. If
you are in funds or know someone in a lab, you can use a magnetic
hot plate with a stir bar. This gives great precision and latitude
to the obsessed.
So, in the tube paint, the oil is raw: weaker, more volatile,
more likely to yellow. In the putty NONE of the oil is raw: stronger

paint film on polymerization, more stable drying characteristics.
The putty provides a stronger, higher quality vehicle than any
commercial manufacturer has ever put in their paint.
Stone Dusts: A great variety of inert ingredients can be used,

and some people just have to look under every rock. Having done so,
it seems safe to say that by far the most important ingredients here

are the calcium carbonates: the ground calcite of Velasquez, the
chalk of Rembrandt or Chardin, and the readily available marble
dust. The Venetians used ground silica, but I don't feel it adds
anything special in a putty and fine silica does present a health
hazard. Ground leaded glass was used, but this is never that fine,
adds nothing in the way of "sparkle", and any putty medium dries
well anyway. This leaves blanc fixe. There is currently one
commercial source of blanc fixe, barium sulphate, the traditional
transparent extender of student paints, that I know of, Kama
Pigments in Montreal. But if you come across any it is worth trying
out, not significant rheologically but more transparent than
anything else in oil. A final dry ingredient of possible interest in

small amounts is bentonite, the colloidal clay from which Tix-o-Gel
is made. Not that light, but a small amount produces a great
increase in spring.
Fredrix marble dust is available everywhere and makes a pure
white putty with a deceptive grippiness or drag: it can be made
quite thin and still hold. A chalk putty will absorb more oil and be

more springy under the brush or knife. Rembrandt's late manner is an

example of a chalk putty used in a hopelessly accomplished way.
Chalk putties tend to be beige or gray but this color has no bearing

on the resulting pigment color. The best natural chalk I've found is

from Graphic Chemical, French Chalk, six dollars for four pounds,
available here .
Egg: Adding even a small amount of egg to a paint or a putty
makes it begin to seize, creating the possibility for more control
or layering, possibly at the expense of vivacity or oomph but not
always. Egg also accelerates the setting and the drying times, and
can ultimately contribute brittleness in larger amounts. Working on
panels, this is not an issue. Working on unsupported canvases,
especially if large, egg should be used minimally. It is such a
strong element in the mix that it can still contribute. Egg yolk
results in a putty which is more glutinous, beaten whole egg results

in a putty with a strange combination of some initial flow but a
quick set as well. Many avenues of enquiry here, just be safe and
make sure the oil predominates. The more complex a formula is
chemically, the greater the possibility for problems later on down
the line.

sample putty formulas

Although there are some examples of set recipes below, the
system is very amorphous, protean in fact: I'm about to start
looking for the optimal mixture of chalk and marble dust, possibly
3/4 chalk to 1/4 marble dust, but one never knows. The best way to
work with the putty at first is in small amounts made to order,
using the oil and chalk separately on the palette as well to make
adjustments. This will develop your understanding of how the system
works much more quickly. Once you get comfortable that a given
formula is what you like, you can make a larger amount: the recipes
below are for 100ml tubes. You can also just put the putty in
aluminum foil, make sure to get all the air out. Wrapping this in
Duct tape and inserting a pin or small nail in the end produces a
sturdy way to get very fine control over how much putty goes where.
Chalk Putty
1 cup chalk
2T 72 hour walnut oil
4T 48 hour walnut oil
2T Allback boiled linseed oil
1t sun oil
A nice combination of oils for general work, good boing,
dries well. Chalk putties absorb more oil but also will break if
stored. This is not an issue in practice, comes back together by
simple mixing.
Marble Dust Putty with BPO
1 cup Marble Dust
1t BPO #5
1T sun oil
3T+1t 72 hour walnut oil
A little loose, a little gluey, dries with an increase in
depth from the BPO.
Smidge of Egg Putty
1 cup Marble Dust
4T 72 hour walnut oil
1T sun oil
1t BPO#5
1t whole egg
More set from even this amount of egg, tight detail, clean
line. More egg would cause more seizure, the need for more oil to
make it move. This type of putty can get a little rococo in
practice, fun outside or for loose work. Can be tubed without going
bad.
Prehensile Putty Underpainting
Make a dense putty with some thicker oil such as boiled or
sun oil, add a small amount of a chosen color, perhaps raw sienna.
Put this thinly and evenly on a panel with a large knife, carve into

it to draw. Very layerable surface results. Can also be thinned with

a little solvent for more control.

summary

After working exclusively with this putty family of mediums
for three years, I'm happy with the cumulative technical impetus
they've provided. Now I'm looking forward to the living alembic
aspect of the work settling down at long last, and just making
paintings.
As you become familiar with this system and group of
ingredients, remember to let the energy of your hand be your guide.
Asking "What wants to happen here?" always gets an answer that moves

things forward. The medium is that adaptable. The more you pay
attention to the materials, the more their behavior will tell you
what to do. Keep a small container of chalk on the palette, it stays

clean if you dip into it with a wet brush and will tighten up a
passage. Too tight, try a little extra oil. Remember also to tune
your brushes to the consistency of the paint: fine brushes, soft
putty, firm brushes, firm putty. Fine brushes can do firm putty, but

make sure they're synthetic. You can also set up a system of firmer
underlayers to softer overlayers and carve back into the firmer
underlayers. On it goes. Hopefully it will provide you with the same

sense of finally being in a grounded yet versatile place with the
paint that it's given me.
The relevant reading about the conservation research that led

me to this way of working is relatively small, and listed below. A
more extensive bibliography is at the end of the formulas section.
Rembrandt (Art in the Making Series). David Bomford, Jo
Kirby, Ashok Roy, Axel Ruger, Raymond White. National Gallery
Company, London. 2006
National Gallery Technical Bulletins: Volume 15, 1994,
article on Rembrandt and his Circle. Volume 20, 1999, extensive
cover article on 17th Century painting in Antwerp and London,
technique of Rubens and Van Dyck.
direct painting
Another text handout from a workshop using the putty medium in

the manner explained by Hoogstraten.
overview

Older painters were often faced with complex issues regarding
pigments that we are not. Pigments could be toxic, fugitive,
incompatible with specific other pigments, in short supply and/or
tremendously expensive. When painters were working for the church,
cost was typically not as issue, but as an apprentice or student it
would be logical to learn using a palette of inexpensive and readily

available pigments. The natural earth pigments -- yellow, brown,
orange, red, and green -- plus black and white provided this with
the added bonus of being permanent. A system evolved which made the
most of the lower chroma of these pigments by using them
transparently and whenever possible without white. Value was often
emphasized -- strong nearly white lights, strong nearly black darks
-- and within this stark monochromatic envelope the earth colors are

perceived by the eye as being more lively. In the hands of skilled
practitioners -- painters as diverse as Giulio Romano, Velasquez,
Rembrandt, Hammershoi, and Morandi have specialized in earth
pigments -- it is possible to see the many variations of color-style

possible.
An important contribution of this palette was the development
of a way of using color abstractly. Older painters did not copy
colors, because often their palette did not provide that ability.
Instead, they came to an understanding of the way a triad of
red-yellow-blue can be used to create the illusion of dimension on a

flat surface. Even if the yellow is ochre, the red is burnt sienna,
and the blue is black, a convincing 3D reality can be made. So,
older painters were often interpreting color, but were copying color

relationships themselves more exactly. This worked because all color

in a painting exists in a relational way to the eye.
In any painting system white operates as the lightest shade of

blue. When we add white to a color, we make it lighter, but also
cooler. The earlier systems took advantage of the blueness of white
by using a warm dark transparent brown for the shadows. The
relatively orange shadows and the relatively blue highlights easily
made for a convincing depiction of space in spite of the fact that
light is rarely white and shadows are rarely brown.
Another logical outgrowth of this system is the idea of not
mixing the color on the palette, but on the painting itself. Whether

the painting was begun on a midtone ground or white, the darks were
laid in transparently first, with the lighter colors coming next.
Color using white was last. The sequence of colors was always from
dark and transparent, to translucent midtones,to cool and opaque
lights. Spatially this is logical because the light is literally "on

top of" the dark.
Although the earth colors lend themselves well to this way of
working, it can be done with any set of two triads of color: one
dark and transparent, the other lighter and more opaque. It can of
course be done with one triad as well, and this might be a good way
to start if you have a favorite set of three primaries, but the dual

triad method gives more possibilities.
This way of working can be inferred from the very small
palettes which older painters used, and is written about by Samuel
von Hoogstraten, a 17th Century pupil of Rembrandt. As a method it
takes getting used to because you are beginning by making something
relatively strong and chromatically jumpy -- on purpose. The
brighter the colors, the jumpier things can get. This leads to
brighter color accents in the end via the overbold beginning. So in
working this way it's good to keep in mind that a painting only has
to look good once: when it's done. A typical dark triad would be raw

sienna dark, a modern crimson lake, and ultramarine blue, put on in
that order. The consistency of the paint is determined by how much
you want to accomplish in one sitting. Looser paint allows for more
blending but less layering, would be good for developing lots of
mood in a first layer on something to be more detailed over time.
Tighter paint -- more chalk -- can be used on panels to create areas

of color which are more discreet, to the point of being able to be
carved. This paint can then be loosened bit by bit -- more oil -- in

subsequent passes until the correct paint viscosity for finishing
the painting is achieved.
By becoming familiar with various consistencies of putty, by
using small additions of a denser oil such as sun oil or stand oil,
by adding a very small amount of egg white to the putty, an almost
unlimited number of variations in texture and paint rheology --
viscosity, handling characteristics -- can be achieved. The putty
also allows pigments which are tremendously strong -- such as the
phthalos, or titanium white -- to be cut in such a way that they are

easier to work with. The putty can be used with a very dense pigment

such as Mars Red to help aerate it visually. The white of older
painting -- lead carbonate -- is 10 percent as opaque as titanium
white. And this was often cut further with chalk, especially in the
beginning of the painting. Putty with a very small amount of pigment

can be used to make a translucent veil over dry paint, different in
feeling than a scumble or a glaze.
system

Colors on the palette are all cut with putty. The white should

be cut in several increments, the work with white is from the more
extended (transparent) to the less extended paint. The colors are
organized around two triads, one of which is composed of dark and
transparent colors, the other of colors which are lighter, brighter,

and more opaque. Colors can be chosen for the maximum
warm-translucent/cool-opaque difference or for their ability to
create a certain situation in daylight. It is up to you whether to
work from a beginning which is fluid -- loose putty, moves easily --

or a beginning using more chalk and thicker paint. It's a good idea
to become conversant with both methods since, while they give
different results, they both work and can with practice be mixed
within a painting. Paint which is too loose may run or preclude
layering, paint which is too tight may give results which seem
frozen or stiff. The key here is to learn to move slowly away from
your initial viscosity: if thin towards thick, if thick towards
thin.
Example Dark Triad: Raw Sienna Dark, Crimson Lake, Ultramarine

Blue Dark.
Example Light Triad: Yellow Ochre, Golden Ochre or Venetian
Red, Cobalt or Manganese Blue.
A typical beginning color on a white ground would be a raw
sienna or raw sienna dark. The same brush can be cleaned with a rag
or not and then be used to make a pass with the Crimson Lake where
things are darker -- red as part of a shadow -- or red as the local
color . Then a pass with the ultramarine can be made, working first
from the darker shadows towards the lighter areas which are most
truly blue: the brush will become less purple and more blue as it is

used. The idea is not to blend the colors at this stage, but to
leave them in a more pure and patchy state: the blending comes
later. The general feeling of the painting is worked out at this
stage with the dark triad and no white.
For a larger or more detailed painting the work can be stopped

once this stage is complete and reviewed the next day while the
paint is still somewhat wet but capable of more subtle manipulation.

In the next pass with the lighter triad, some blending will
occur unless you use softer paint with softer brushes or have made
the earlier paint quite tight. I tend to work from the darker colors

to the lighter: for example putting manganese blue where I'll want
bright green, then coming back on top of that with yellow ochre
later to make the "actual" color.
After the pass with the lighter triad, the painting should
seem a little more normal looking although still on the dark side in

terms of value, on the vivid side in terms of color.
With this method the blending takes place naturally as more
paint goes on. This is where the mobile set of chalk putty helps
greatly, allowing paint to be laid on top or mixed with pressure.
Underpaint can be excavated, the tip of the brush can be used to
restate contours. At first while getting used to this system you may

overshoot the mark and end up with something which goes too far into

blending or finish, and simply looks realistic. But as you gain
experience you'll begin to see and feel where and how to leave
fragments of color behind as traces of where you've been in the
layers. The longer you can stand for it to look "unfinished", the
better chance it has of showing you something new.
Another set of triads that were often used has earth colors
for the first triad, and vivid primaries for the second. Painters
such as Fra Angelico, Vermeer, and Constable in his studies used
this type of palette.
Dark Triad: Raw sienna or Trans Yellow Oxide, Mars Red, Burnt
Siena, or Trans Red Oxide, and Black for the blue. The bluest black
I've used is the Blockx Ivory black.
Lighter Triad: Primary yellow or similar, Cadmium Red or
similar, Cobalt blue or Ultramarine.
For further information on technique or a specific painting please contact

tadspurgeon@comcast.net
copyright 2002-2009 by Tad Spurgeon. All rights reserved.
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