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About Being Transparent

It never ceases to amaze me the amount of new information I learn about painting, everyday. Maybe, because, I’m teaching or just self-taught, I have have my ear more to the ground, so to speak. Maybe if I had graduated art school, I would already know this stuff (doubtfully). I just got finished teaching a painting lesson and looked in on Facebook into a group called Traditional Oil Painting (TOP) to see a post about Indian Yellow.

I was availed of the existence of Indian Yellow by none other than Mary Bentz Gilkerson who teaches art, has a blog and website, and teaches art marketing. She is a knife painter and exalts the color Indian Yellow. It’s a transparent pigment that really comes up in chroma (intensity) with the addition of white... it looks like baby shit straight out of the tube or maybe raw sienna in more PC terms.

Anyway, Virgil Elliot (TOP) had mentioned that he had tested various Indian Yellows for light fastness (fading) in the Facebook group post comment, and that the only one that didn’t fade terribly was a paint made by Archival Oils. I had never heard of that brand so I googled it and found that Dick Blick sold it. I looked up the pigment data for the paint and found that it was a mix of synthetic iron oxide and Hansa yellow.

Now mixes or “hue” paints are not considered the bomb. Pure pigments are considered the real deal and hues are considered student grade, although, lots of fancy paint manufacturers make signature mixed colors like King’s Blue. Real single pigment paints have names like quinacridone, chromium oxide, manganese violet, cobalt teal or Pthalocyanine, Dioxazine... etc. Most are synthetics these days, made industrially, even the iron oxides; however, some pigments are still mined like the ochres and umbers known as the earth colors (although most of those are opaque). The transparent pigments are usually synthetic and darker like Pthalo Green, Ultramarine Blue, and Alizarin Crimson.

I won’t get into the chemistry of Indian Yellow. Suffice it to say it has Manganese in it. It also has some folklore around it being made from cow pee by cows fed mango leaves in Calcutta, but there were tests run to determine it was actually a vegetable dye. I forget which plant. I would like to point out that there was an original single pigment, it is transparent, and as a dye pigment it is probably not lightfast, oh!, and it is probably a lake pigment, meaning some other transparent mineral like calcium carbonate or magnesium carbonate (that turns clear in oil) was coated with the dye and then ground or milled into paint with, say, linseed oil.

Needless to say, I looked up Indian Yellow and found a great art blog... Art Blog of David Myers if you are interested in finding out more about Indian Yellow. But, this blog post is not about Indian Yellow, per se, and is supposed to be about transparent colors.

I won’t get into the physics of light, refraction, reflection, and diffusion; however, I will say that transparent painting allows light to go through the color layer on top, reflect off of the color surface below, and create a nuanced lighting or coloring that is not possible with opaque paint. Thus we have the amazingly realistic skin tones of Bouguereau’s figures with translucent skin and blue veins under the surface. The opaque paints, were used in the beginning as ground or block-in in what would be called “dead coloring” and again at the end of the painting for the highest highlights and “catch lights” in the eyes (reflection).

Recently, I was watching a Streamline Publishing video of artist Albert Handel through the series on YouTube and he takes semi opaque mixes of transparent colors mixed with white and scrubs them into the canvas until the white of the canvas shows through transparently. He paints anything but the local color first, focusing on temperature (warm and cool). He might use a lot of mixed pigment paints like rose grey and midtone grey to create mauve and underpaint a green forest with Van Dyke brown modified with ultramarine blue. He likes Viridian green, neutralized or or brightened with a red or yellow. Most of nature is very dull and neutral, but I thought it was interesting that he created transparent paint from whatever, by scrubbing it on dry until it became transparent. He must destroy brushes though.

I, also, recently watched a Johnnie Lilliedahl video on YouTube where she started a painting with transparent colors scrubbing them on so the canvas acts as a brightened lightener of the darker value transparent colors like Alizarin Crimson, Pthalo green, and Ultramarine blue. She used Indian Yellow; because, it’s transparent and she didn‘t even put white paint paint on her palette, until she is ready for the opaque highlights. I thought it was fascinating and just the opposite of glazing, starting out transparently. Up until this point, I just painted whatever... often muddying up or chalking up my paintings, and had recently tried my hand at transparently glazing over opaque grisaille (grey or monochromatic under paintings), disastrously.

In a previous blog, I talked about the different painting techniques, direct and indirect, but this new insight of painting transparently, initially, and then using opaque for the high chroma highlights only, has escaped me for 25 years. I mean I knew about painting the highlights impasto (thickly) in pure or tinted white, but this is, subtly, different, like the whole tree is dark transparent green and red (to neutralize the green) and then the bright high chroma greens are bolted on top on the sunny side of the tree with opaques. Something very different than starting in with chromium oxide green or viridian, opaquely, trying to hit the color, value, chroma (intensity), and temperature of tree, if that makes sense.

I tried to do the topic justice, and hope I haven’t failed, miserably. On a more positive note, a hand made frame came in for a painting that just sold. I’m awaiting a second frame to come in so that I can compare which I like better, and then mount the painting and ship it to the collector. $100 for the painting: $400 in frames. Clearly not a sustainable business model, but I love it when a painting sells, it’s like a child going out into the universe to create value in the world.

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