Tad Spurgeon oil paintings


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A selection of materials and methods I've found useful, as well as some other thoughts. More detail and complexity in the longer text that follows.

       Sun Oil: Possibly the single most important thing you can get or make, sun oil is the foundation for a great many different mediums which provide both saturation and various degrees of grab or tack. A favorite of mine is based on Sun Oil and Spike Lavender mixed 1 to 1. This has an open time of about half an hour used thinly as a couch, can be adjusted to be tighter with less spike or longer with a bit of thinner oil or a bit of Burnt Plate Oil. Sun oil can also be thinned with raw oil and heated to make a variety of mediums in the "Oil of Delft" family. Expensive to buy, can be made easily in a sunny climate in the summer, but even in Vermont I can make something useful. The best sun oil is made from oil from which all the water-soluble fatty acid break has been removed prior to thickening. Oil can also be thickened inside in the studio in a thin layer. This takes longer but is otherwise more convenient.
       The material marketed by Grumbacher as Sun Oil may have seen the sun at some point in it's process, but is essentially a mixture of much slower drying vacuum bodied oils. Zecchi is unfortunately doing the same thing.

       Unsun Oil: This oil is thickened without heat on lead metal. It has working character very similar to sun oil, although it is not as sticky and has the potential, when using linseed oil, to dry very quickly, overnight. Can be used in all mediums the same way, although it also has some interesting characteristics of its own. Many permutations exist, based on several years of research. For more details on this process, go here.

       Burnt Plate Oil: This is a modern version of the product, sold by Graphic Chemical, a vacuum-bodied linseed oil in which the volatile components are progressively driven off. Not really burned at all, this might be thought of as a more evolved version of Stand Oil. #5 is about as thick as Stand Oil, #7 is like cold molasses, but both of these are pale straw yellow in color and do not yellow on drying. They do take a while to dry and should be used in small amounts. They also give an unusual increase in paint film saturation.

       Heat Bodied Oil: The oldest texts about oil painting all begin with heating the oil. This creates double carbon bonds among the tri-glycerides and results in an oil which dries more quickly and has a more resinous character. About 300 Fahrenheit or 150 Celsius is a good high temperature, eight hours at this temperature day will produce a thicker oil but with no darkening or compromise in film strength. Oil which is heated to a low temperature for a long time is also useful, this makes handmade paint with a great deal of natural body. There are many rheological possibilities to explore here. Heat bodied oil is listed almost exclusively as the oil used by Van Dyck in National Gallery Technical Bulletin Volume 20.

       Putty Mediums: A huge family of mediums with wide-ranging characteristics based on the translucent and adhesive properties of calcium carbonate -- chalk, calcite, marble dust, precipitated chalk, whiting -- mixed with oil of varying viscosities in various proportions. Can be made loose or tight, put in a jar or a tube, or can simply be done on the palette. Chalk has been found in the work of many older painters including Chardin, Rembrandt, and Velásquez. Perhaps most importantly, enables traditional oil painting without using any solvent. For more detail on this family of mediums and their use, you can go here . The text handout for a workshop I give on these mediums, including various formulas, is here.

       Fumed Silica Gel: A great alternative to the conservasionally challenged mastic gel mediums. A simple mixture of the oil of your choice and fumed silica forms a gel of the consistency of your choice. Can be used for expressive alla prima work or thinly over a developed underpainting. Fumed silica should be handled carefully wearing a respirator. Once in the oil, it is not a problem. The gel can be made in quantity and tubed or kept airtight in aluminum foil. Surprisingly versatile, but not the fastest drier. Should be made with pre-heated or otherwise pre-stabilized oil.

       "Strassburg" Method: This is from a manuscript in Strassburg consulted by Eastlake, the method was written down in the 15th century but Eastlake feels it's language indicates an even earlier origin. This method involves adding a drop or two of varnish to the paint on the palette. When done in the period way with a cooked resin varnish such as sandarac, copal, and especially amber, the paint seizes, producing an innate facility of manipulation that is not part of the behavior of commercial tube paint. When done with handmade paint using a heat bodied oil -- the original method -- the results are even more dramatic. It is important to be discreet in the use of any hard resin varnish, as these are so strong -- compared to dammar -- that they are easily capable of producing a surface so glassy that it must be ground down to accept further paint.

       Silver Fir: Of the quality soft resins, Silver Fir, or Olio di Abezzo, has been in the longest use over the centuries. This is also perhaps the single resinous material about which I have never read anything negative in an old or new text. Thick in it's natural state, best used thinned significantly, can be substituted for the more brittle dammar in a medium, dries with a slightly less glassy shine. Unlike it's relative Canada Balsam, dries reliably.

       Egg Emulsion Mediums: Egg yolk is an extremely permanent natural organic emulsion which makes a medium which has a tendency to set quickly and typically dries overnight. An incredible variety of working characteristics can be achieved using an egg yolk as the basis for an emulsion medium. Working on panels, I've been able to explore a wide range of different formulas based on the standard proportion of one part "other" to one part yolk. Kurt Wehlte's excellent book -- see bibliography below -- contains a good discussion of this family of mediums. Not recommended, however, for work on unsupported canvas.

       Titanium White: This modern pigment is about ten times more opaque than Flake White. As such, making subtle tones or values with titanium is about ten times more difficult. Add to this the fact that older painters often used a flake white -- lootwit -- which was further cut by a significant addition of chalk, and you can see why it was easier for them to produce a fully developed value scale with appropriate warm and cool emphasis. While there are modern painters who have adapted their style to working with titanium, beginning with strongly warm darks which can handle the subsequent strongly cool lights produced by titanium, this system cannot produce the older look. If you find yourself feeling that using white is "ruining" your paintings or is presenting the classic titanium chalky value syndrome, you might make a simple oil and marble dust putty, an un-paint of very little covering power, and begin using titanium which has been cut substantially with this.

       Price: When something becomes a fine art material, the price tends to go up. Sometimes in a way that is acceptable, sometimes in a way that is egregious. I recently found whiting at 12.00 a pound on a major commercial website, plus shipping. Whiting is basic calcium carbonate, available at not much more than that for a 50 lb bag at a pottery supply outlet. I mention this because, in spite of the fact that progress has been made in the labeling of materials, the endless sense of the middleman that painters are simply pie-eyed idealists ripe for the plucking continues unabated into our time. Look around, there are always alternatives to the great shell game of the catalogs. And please consider making your own materials when possible, this isn't exactly rocket science.


Some formulas here are standard, most are more OM in nature. The 17th century is the place where the craft reached its apogee for me, and experience long ago provided a healthy suspicion of commercial developments such as alkyd medium, alkali refined linseed oil, and acrylic gesso. This research began using Sir Charles Eastlake's "Materials and Methods" and the De Mayerne manuscript as points of departure, but there are several assumptions and conclusions in both of these books that are coming under increasing pressure from the "hard" information in the unique series of National Gallery Technical Bulletins. In addition to the fascinating history of older paintings as seen through the eyes of the conservator, these include extensive pigment and paint film and medium analysis at the molecular level. The strong technical suit of many of the National Gallery regular publications has also proven incredibly useful and more reliable than both the standard modern writing and the older sources. Another interesting source is Dr. Leslie Carlyle's book about painting practice in 19th century England, "The Artist's Assistant": wonderfully well-researched and written, but documenting a technical minefield of discredited later techniques that presents a kind of figure-ground puzzle: great information, sometimes straightforward, but more often in reverse. If you'd like to begin to read more about older methods and materials, there's unfortunately no simple place to start. You can, however, scroll down for a bibliography below of the books I've found helpful.

      The problems encountered in trying to sift the wheat from the chaff in this enterprise are complex. The modern, "scientific" approach will often seek abstract perfection and insists on testing materials out of context when a painting is in fact a kind of living gestalt. The historical sources, on the other hand, have an inherent romance coupled with a lack of anything approaching systemic order. The modern "alchemical" approach has discovered that the materials present many secrets to find, but that does not necessarily mean that they were ever actually in use: one point to keep in mind always about older painting practice is its perennial technical conservatism. This does not, however, mean that these more recent "secrets" are necessarily bad practice, or that they were never used. But there is an unfortunate tendency to look for one Holy Grail material or technique that will somehow sweep through centuries of practice in different climates and cultures and make it all sit down and behave. Even once the older writers have been navigated, there is also disagreement among modern conservators about the validity of certain mediums, especially the complex, not to say notorious, mastic gel family.

       However, in light of the most current research it does seem that most of the manipulation during the 15th to 17th Century period was of the oil. While it may be plausible that this research misses quite minute amounts of hard resin varnish, my own experience has been that the oil -- given an opportunity -- has much more to offer rheologically than is apparent from the often superficial usage of modern consensus painting practice. I've put a selection of systemic and more theoretical material along with detailed material process photos of the all-oil approach at living craft. This concentrates on the system that's been developing since the winter of 2006. It is not necessary to use resins in oil painting except in final varnishing. Solvent use is minimal as brushes are kept on their sides in oil, washed occasionally in soap and water. More information related to the oil can be found here.


Very standard: 3T rabbit skin glue to 2 cups water. For panels hide glue is an okay substitute. Allow the glue to swell for several hours. Heat gently to liquify, don't let it come even close to boiling, use a water bath. Apply to panels to seal them, to linen or canvas on stretchers or panels. Most authorities recommend sanding the first coat and removing any slubs in the linen with a blade, then applying a second coat. Robert Doak recommends a more minimal and absorbent sizing and priming combination with the sealant provided by a tempera underpainting. This approach is perhaps more relevant to canvas than panel. This size will gel firmly at room temperature and should be kept in the refrigerator for any kind of longevity in warm weather. If some of it liquifies in the fridge pour off the liquid, rinse, and use what's still a gel.


Many variations on this theme can be made by capitalizing on the variety of chalk, silica, and marble dust available through Kremer, Natural Pigments, or other sources. A chalk gesso can be silky, a marble dust gesso relatively aggressive depending on the grind. If you're working with any kind of thin layered technique and fine brushes these relatively small differences in tooth can be dramatic. You can also decide how absorbent to make your gesso by adding more water to your size solution: several coats of very absorbent gesso on a panel will make straight paint stick like mortar: very fun for energetic alla prima work, although the tone lowers a bit. (If you don't want an absorbent surface, you can use an isolating varnish, see below). A good practice with glue gesso is to heat it gently in a water bath and to thin it a little as you build the surface.
       A non-absorbent but somewhat toothy formula is: Add 1 cup water to 1 cup size, above, add 2 cups fine marble dust, 1 cup titanium white. (This can be made with less marble dust for finer linen. I've also substitutes cristobalite for half the marble dust with results I liked: please see inert additions, below.) Stir this minimally and gently to avoid incorporating air into it which creates tiny bubbles that wreak havoc on your priming by drying as little craters. Take these seriously, they are a pain. Let it rest to allow any bubbles to escape. Gently apply warm as above to your dried glue sized canvas or panel in thin coats alternating direction. Careful about the heat: if you actually cook this it thickens causing major difficulty. Make sure your coats are thin or you'll have problems; add more water if need be. Pay attention to pinholes, these are not that easy to fill once they dry and should be brushed out gently as the coat dries: it doesn't take long. You can build up coat after coat this way, sanding with fine paper or not depending on your intended final surface and technique. It dries very quickly so unless you're after random texture, several thin coats work better.
      Variations here are extensive. If you build up a thick enough layer on a panel you can incise it or carve it to an extent in relief like Charles Pendergrast: this should be a relatively glue rich gesso. Gesso is not usually recommended for unsupported canvas because it's not flexible, but it has been found on some of the oldest paintings analyzed by the National Gallery in London: often just one very thin coat. For canvas you can experiment with more titanium than stone dust, or see the oil gesso recipes below which were designed for canvas: these are slightly less brilliant, not much. You can apply a thin isolating varnish or use the absorbency in the initial layer of paint but the latter will create some lowering of tone as the oil goes into the ground. If you want to burnish the gesso (on panel) so it shines don't dilute the size above and use all chalk instead of marble dust. An absorbent formula is: 1 cup glue, 2.5 cup water, 2 cups fine marble dust, 1 cup chalk, 1 cup titanium white: I use this on panels with some sanding/burnishing at the end. You can also substitute marble dust for the chalk or use fumed silica (which has replaced the no longer available quartz dust). Both give a toothier or more aggressive surface. What works best will depend on how you paint and what you want from the surface. If you're just getting used to this go slowly and make small batches: if you gesso two dozen giant panels with a certain formula, you might not like how it behaves. (Another suggestion from humbling experience: be careful about changing too many things at once in a formula or you won't be able to interpret the changes accurately in application).

oil gesso

There are many recipe variations on the idea of emulsifying some oil into a glue gesso to create a more flexible and less absorbent surface. This is the traditional gesso most often recommended for use on unsupported canvas. I've found that adding a small amount of oil creates a material which has more of a gelatinous body similar to acrylic gesso and can be used to create slightly textured surfaces by dragging, pouncing, sponging, etc. However, this material does yellow somewhat. The proportion is: 12 oz. of gesso with 2 oz. of oil added: I use 1 oz. of fumed (thickened) oil and 1 oz. of Eminent Oil, see recipe below. (This proportion, 1 to 6, is much less than the usual proportion recommended for unsupported canvas. On the other hand, many older paintings were made on unsupported canvas with a thin coat of traditional gesso alone over the sizing). The oil goes in easiest if the gesso is semi-gelled, i.e. not warm enough to use. Add the oil bit by bit and stir, this will cause the gesso to thicken or seize. Then heat gently in hot water and use. This can also be used as a final coat over traditional gesso.

gesso modo mio

Another oil-glue emulsion gesso. I developed it for use on paper, but it works well on linen over panel. The paper -- I use Tiepolo -- is given a coat of size. After the size dries, coat it with this gesso: 7/8 cup size, 1 3/4 cup water, 1 cup titanium white, 2 cups marble dust, 2 oz. oil. For this I used refined walnut oil that's been preheated to 150C for two to four hours to help minimize any long term yellowing. The gesso is thin when warm and the oil doesn't emulsify until the gesso begins to cool. Just be patient and do other stuff. When you stir the gesso and the oil stays in suspension -- doesn't float to the top -- that's when you can use it. Its a bit thick, so the idea is to brush it out very well, as the oil in the gesso allows it to do so and the marble dust allows it to hold a very fine texture. This will take straight paint very nicely for hours with no additional medium or manipulation, without having the unforgiving grab of an absorbent all-glue gesso.

       No.2: This variation substitutes sun oil or stand oil for half the oil amount above and as a result creates more textural possibilities. Its also trickier to work with, the gelatinous quality makes it easy to create accidental bare spots on paper. You can also make this gesso by adding lukewarm glue to the dry ingredients, then the oil, then adding COLD water to make. This will help avoid having to wait for it to cool down enough for the oil to remain in suspension.

      No.3: This is for canvas or linen mounted on stretchers and uses a total of 6 oz. of oil; I used 2 parts thin preheated walnut oil to 1 part thickened walnut oil. This proportion is still significantly less than the 50% of oil in standard recipes. After preparing and curing, I was able to roll this linen at a diameter of two inches or so without it cracking. When folded over itself hard, it cracks.

panels: glue gesso

Small panels can be made from 1/2 inch cabinet grade plywood, up to 12x16, finished in maple or birch, without danger of warping. It is best to 3/4 inch cabinet grade plywood for larger work, this works for panels up to say 18x24 inches. Above that size use 1/4 inch plywood and cradle it with strips of the plywood. If you can find the good mahogany plywood you can use that too. Other surfaces are fine they just cost more. The Baltic birch plywood is great for smaller panels and can usually be special ordered from a lumber yard. At this point I avoid hardboard, although there's an interesting new product called Medite which is resin-impregnated and might solve the major issues of warping and acid.

       Sand the corners and the edges of the best surface and apply a warm and very generous coat of the glue above to the top and sides, it needs to be thick on top so the linen can be burnished flat in the end. Let dry. The back of the panel can be coated with shellac or another spirit varnish to help seal it from moisture, this is most relevant for panels made from 1/2 inch or less. Now cut the linen large enough to wrap the edges over the panel and staple to the back. Cut out the corners leaving about 1/4 inch overlap. Staple the linen to the panel, not at all tight, working from the middle of each edge towards the corners and folding the corners over neatly. If your linen is wrinkled you can spray it now with a little water and it'll shrink flat so you can see if it's tight enough. It doesn't have to be tight at this point, just even. Apply another generous coat of very warm glue to this panel so that the glue soaks through and bonds the linen to the panel. Get the edges. Burnish this hard with a tool like a bone folder while it is wet to bond the linen to the panel evenly and smooth the surface. Burnish again or sand lightly when dry and remove any imperfections with a very sharp blade. Add one more thin coat of glue if you've sanded, let dry. Now brush on two or three thin coats of traditional gesso, alternating brushing direction and allowing to dry between coats. If you use gesso modo mio above, you can use two well-brushed out coats.

pre-gessoed linen

Sometimes its good to have unmounted prepared linen: the composition can be adjusted if the edges are expandable. This can be done over large, heavy weight stretchers -- the linen is sized, gessoed or primed, then cut into pieces when dry. The linen can also be stretched not too tightly over a piece of plywood or a hollow core door covered with plastic -- sheeting for weather-proofing, or a cut open garbage can liner, taped tight -- then sized it and gessoed it when dry. This takes a little longer to dry as the glue and gesso can only evaporate in one direction, and it sometimes bubbles a bit, but these go away. The advantage of this method is the ability to burnish the linen when the size is applied so that I've got a more regular surface. There's still plenty of texture and the glue gesso recipes here are also quite grippy, but the surface is more even, making the initial layer of paint easier to apply.

panels: lead ground

A lead ground has great working qualities. Once you've put the glue on the panels above you can go directly to white lead or you can put a coat of glue gesso on and then go to lead. If you use lead over the glue try applying it the traditional way with a spatula not a brush. Wait at least a week between coats and then at least two weeks before painting on it. Longer is better; some people wait much longer in order to be sure the ground is truly dry. For a leaner coating you can thin the lead a bit with turpentine and then add marble dust to bring the consistency back. I've used one coat of this lean lead over glue gesso with good results. White lead is toxic, please use all normal safety precautions when dealing with it. I'd also have to say that, if you're persnickety about brilliance, I have noticed a certain lowering of tone with a white lead ground. I'd call it artistic rather than defective, but its there. At this point, given a preference for panels and the fact that the gesso ground precedes the white lead ground historically, I'm using various gesso grounds exclusively. Don't have to wait.


Paint can be made using a glass or stone muller on a glass or stone surface, both must be roughened with silicon carbide grit, 100 works well. Marble is too soft to use but you can find harder imported "marble" tile that's 12x12: the reverse of the polished side works well. The traditional stone in Italy was porphyry, an often purplish igneous rock also used for paving, but what this was and is may well be different as porphyry is a textural designation now: there are many types. The idea in making paint is to fuse the identity of pigment and oil via shearing action; you don't need to press down, just swirl, this will be aerobic enough. Some pigments require extensive grinding to lower the particle size and bring out the color: earth pigments especially. Manufactured mineral pigments and organic pigments tend to work best simply mixed with a spatula: ultramarine, vermilion and cobalt blue would be examples. Some pigments -- vine black, viridian -- are harder to get into oil. Pigments which are good driers like cobalt should be mixed in smaller amounts. You'll find many pigments available which the manufacturers haven't tubed: the famous Kremer Cobalt Blue Pale and RGH Trans Mars Maroon among them. There are also many historical pigments becoming available, both earths and manufactured. Pigments can also be mixed: I find myself doing this often with a blue for landscape. With earth colors, I'd advise a certain caution in terms of quantity, as there are lots of second rate pigments out there. Its getting better, the Rublev/Natural Pigments line is generally very high quality, as is the Williamsburg line of Italian Earths although these are way too costly, with Kremer get small amounts or a color chart: Limonite may be the lightest yellow ochre but not in oil. My benchmarks here are the Blockx and Maimeri Puro earths; mostly Blockx but Maimeri makes a wonderful Raw Sienna, Light and Dark. Bit by bit I've been able to duplicate the warm, rich hues of these earths, sometimes with a small enhancement from a transparent Mars color. I tend to use walnut oil that's been heated to around 250 Farenheit for two or three days to make paint, but have slightly thicker -- six days -- oil available. I'm doing some research now using the completely colorless sunflower oil for blues and whites.

tube paint

Handmade paint made with cold-pressed, painter-refined oil is naturally long, tube paint made from modern oil, stabilizers and additives is naturally short. Handmade paint also dries more quickly than tube paint: the last thing a manufacturer wants is limited shelf-life. The slickness of tube paint can to some extent be overcome when necessary by various combinations of OM materials in a medium. The various Groves mediums are all designed with enough resin strength to do this easily. In making mediums myself, I've been most successful using various hard resin and leaded oil combinations, various putties made from leaded oil and stone dust, as well as the egg emulsions, although the latter needs to be used on a panel. For broken applications, the oil would be in the form of sun oil, thickened Eminent oil, or a combination. For smooth ones, in the form of Eminent Oil mixed with some slightly heat bodied oil.

       So, while tube paint offers many conveniences, the most fundamental decision about the medium, the oil, has been made based on factors that relate more to the mass mind and convenience than to the development of the most responsive material under the brush. This became really apparent to me when I began making paint with oil that had been slightly heat-bodied as in many of the oldest recipes. Paint made this way is the exact opposite of modern tube paint: it is slumpy, resistant, elastic, stringy, and, once thinned for working, holds its place tightly on the canvas. Whether this is better or not depends of course on what one is involved with in terms of technique: in my system it became apparent right away that paint made with heat-bodied oil was many times more responsive to a hard resin varnish than tube paint, enabling much less resin to accomplish the same task. It also responds favorably to the more recent stone dust putty mediums I've been working with. So, for smooth surface styles, tube paint doesn't present drawbacks technically that can't be overcome, but for a broken surface style it might be worth making more of your own paint.

inert additions

There are several inert substances that have been added to paint historically, most commonly ground leaded glass and calcite, although chalk and ground quartz have been used as well. Quartz, leaded glass, and calcite are translucent but not transparent, they don't add sparkle. Used with commercial paint, all these in moderation help to counteract its mayonnaise-like slickness. Leaded glass has gotten lots of recent press, and has a decided siccative quality: Eastlake mentions its use by the Venetians. Not that fine, I've found it most applicable to underpaintings, giving the paint a definite tooth for the next layer, and as part of an impasto medium for broken surfaces. Kremer has a quartz variety called cristobalite which makes a very interesting paste when mixed with oil, rheologically complex, sort of like what cornstarch does in water. I've found small additions of this helpful in increasing movement while maintaining density, also very useful in underpainting.

      For an expansion of this information into the realm of putty mediums, please go to living craft.

putty mediums

Beginning in the winter of 2007, based on information in "Rembrandt: Art in the Making" by the National Gallery staff, I began to work exclusively with a putty medium made from various combinations of oil and stone dust. This proved to be a path out of the technical labyrinth. The associated information is too long for this page and has moved to living craft and the putty medium.

fumed silica gel

When oil is combined with industrial fumed silica it forms a gel. Various viscosities of oil can be used and various ultimate viscosities of gel can be achieved. Works well for both lively alla prima work and as a couch in later layers in more formal painting. The key here is knowing the behavior of your oils well and using as little of this medium as will do the job effectively. Vastly preferable to the fragile mastic gel mediums, can be made to perform in a similar way. Fumed silica is very light and needs to be handled with care using a respirator. The gel can be made in bulk and stored in tubes or wrapped airtight in aluminum foil. If you get into this, try some small studies and tests first to get an idea of how it handles before making larger amounts.

silver fir

This material is similar in consistency to Canada Balsam, the Olio d'Abezzo extolled by Eastlake, and everyone who has ever written about it. It doesn't smell as nice as Canada Balsam, but it performs better. It dries, quickly and always. I use it in mediums diluted with two or three parts solvent by warming the resin first in a waterbath until its quite liquid. A thin coat of this is dry to the touch in a few hours under almost all conditions. Eastlake quotes several older Italian writers who say to use this as a final varnish, but he also quotes de Mayerne quoting Rubens to the effect that some thickened oil should be added. In any event, a material with centuries of use that dries reliably, but the hard to get at this point, only available to my knowledge through Zecchi. Canada Balsam is fine too if you are close enough to a source with good turn-around and use it quickly.

fir medium

A basic smooth painting medium using the ingredients I've found most reliable. The stock solution of this is: 4 parts Fir 1:2 with solvent, 1 part solvent, 1 part Sun Walnut Oil, 1 part Eminent Oil. At 20 ml each, this fits into a standard amber glass vitamin bottle. Mix ingredients and place in a waterbath, cap on bottle loosely, bring to a boil for ten minutes. This proportion allows a reasonable amount of fusion and is dry in a moderate layer the next day. Can be further thinned with Fir 1:2 for more hold, or more thickened oil in later layers for more fusion. Can also be used as a couch. Can be made without Eminent Oil, but the Eminent Oil gives it a thixotropic quality.

Roberson-type Mediums

This was used by the Pre-Raphaelites, purchased from the London colorman. The formula was a secret but was discovered with Roberson's papers after his death. It's a mastic gel with the addition of copal, and can be used both for tight and looser painting; holds a good edge but the edge also moves well, sets progressively as the turpentine evaporates from the mastic. The proportion is 2 parts double mastic (1 part resin, 2 parts turpentine, best dissolved without heat), one part drying (leaded) oil, one part drying (leaded) copal, and 1/8 part spike lavender. Roberson made a large batch and whipped it for a long period of time to create as much connection between the ingredients as he could without heating, which would darken the mastic. I've made variations of this using thicker and thinner Eminent Oil, and substituting amber for the copal: they gel slightly differently, the more lead, the thicker the oil/hard resin varnish, the firmer the gel, but all are facile, easy to use, and make brilliant paint sealed in resin. Taking a closer look at the various Roberson formulas, I'd say his version had a lot more lead in it than any I've made. According to the Tate book on the Pre-Raphaelites, this medium doesn't degrade or yellow: it was also used by Lord Leighton, arguably one of the more fastidious painters ever. So, if you're making a Maroger-type medium, this is an easy development that offers the added protection of a hard resin varnish and can be used both in a careful or more abandoned manner. This should be used sparingly, on panels, and with the understanding that it will yellow somewhat over time. However, especially when used in a freer manner, it is quite charismatic.

strasbourg method
      On page 130 of "Methods and Materials", see bibliography below, Eastlake gives an extensive quote from a fifteenth century manuscript from the library of "Strassburg", Germany. The instructions are to boil the oil with driers and then use it to make paint, which is to be ground thickly, then made thinner with oil. The paint is then modified on the palette with a small quantity of varnish. I've adapted this method as follows: the paint is made with 72 hour oil, no additional driers, and tubed. A small amount of amber or other resin hard resin varnish is added to the paint on the palette, causing the paint to seize: one drop per 1/4 teaspoon of paint does this. Amber is not added to the white, see below. The paint is then thinned with solvent for opening layers, then a bit of Eminent Oil, then a bit of Eminent oil and sun oil, etc., moving progressively from lean to fat.


A technique recommended by a surprising number of different sources is to sand your painting between layers. This is very helpful and sometimes crucial when working with the hard resin varnishes. And while it's not as easy to do on unsupported canvas it can be done safely if you think about it a bit. The technique is to oil the work lightly, then go over it with a piece of 400 or 600 wet/dry sandpaper on a flat block of wood. You'll get a messy slurry, which you wipe off with a clean rag. Then go over the surface with some turpentine on a rag to clean it. The resulting surface is very paint-receptive.


In his excellent general manual The Materials and Techniques of Painting Kurt Wehlte gives the best description I've read of the chemistry of emusion mediums, and if you've been doing much technical reading you know that there's often a protein spike in those spectrographic analyses of Rembrandt paint layers indicating the possible presence of egg in the paint. You can emulsify a whole egg before using it or just use the yolk. A general proportion when beginning with the yolk is one part yolk, half part oil, half part resin, beginning with the oily part. A bit more of each can be worked in, its best with room temperature organic yolks. A good way to make small amounts of emulsion is to shake them up hard in a small glass bottle.

egg yolk and white

A small amount of egg yolk added to lead white paint made with a slightly heat bodied oil will seize very tightly. For a complete illustration of this process, please go here and scroll down a bit.

resin-egg emulsions

This is more a family of mediums than just one. This type of tempera grassa medium is versatile and permanent on panel but was not used in older painting: the evidence seems to be that, while egg tempera and oil were mixed in thin layers in paintings during the transitional period, very little if any tempera grassa was used. Both oils and resins can be emulsified with egg yolk, so the combinations are endless. One feature of most of these combinations is a quick set and relatively fast drying time, creating an ability to do a great deal in an initial sitting. They can also be engineered to be many levels of gloss from dead flat to saturated to reasonably shiny. One potential minus is the need to work a medium like this on a panel, as egg ultimately dries quite hard and inflexible. The usual proportion for a medium like this is one part egg yolk to one part other ingredients, but by using amber and combining in a specific order, more "other" can be achieved. An example recipe would be: To two parts egg yolk add two parts Eminent Oil, stir or shake to emulsify. Then add 2 parts isolating varnish -- I use balsam or fir, cut with three parts turpentine -- and emulsify. Then add 3/4 part amber varnish, stir, it will seize. This should be further thinned with turpentine as needed, in the beginning of the painting especially. Slightly more resin and oil could be added towards the end of the work.

heat-enhanced emulsions

Another way of making an egg emulsion medium involves combining all the "other ingredients", heating ten minutes in a boiling water bath, and then whisking this right away into the egg yolk, the method used to make a zabaglione. This creates different handling characteristics than cold emulsifying, is fluffier but also more firmly bound, and enables even more volume of "other" to be incorporated without breaking the emulsion: about 4 to 1. In this case, I leave out any spike or turpentine, so that the hot fluid added to the egg yolk is as viscous as it can be. The yolks should still be room temperature, add the hot fluid slowly at first. I've made versions of this with various proportions of amber, Eminent Oil, and fir fused into oil as the "other", and it seems like a technical step forward from the cold method above although involving another level of effort. If you've worked with egg emulsions and like them you'll enjoy this method, just don't spoon it on top of alpine strawberries for dessert. On the plus side, I've been able to store this type of medium over several months in a tube. It can be used as an initial addition to tube paint on the palette with wide latitude. I'd again stess that this type of medium, while in my view incredibly permanent, needs to be used on panels because its ultimate hardness is also inflexible. It can be given a variety of different personalities depending on the proportion and identity of resinous and oily components.


It's simple to make your own white with lead carbonate and oil; it doesn't need to be ground and becomes "paint" pretty much instantly just by mixing on a piece of glass with a knife. You then have control over what oil, how much, how dry to make it, what else to add. If you're interested in 17th century technique you can try experimenting with additions of calcite for transparency, or ground leaded glass to get the famous Rembrandt drizzle effect. A formula I've used for a more transparent veiling or finishing white is 2 parts lead carbonate, 1 part calcite, and 1 part zinc white. However, zinc white does become brittle and should only be used on panels. In a careful layered system -- Perugino, Raphael -- the texture or viscosity of the white isn't a factor, but in the later Flemish system -- Rubens, Rembrandt -- or in the unique system of Velazquez, the rheology of the white paint becomes focal. The white of older painting is white lead made by the stack process, this contained mostly lead carbonate, some lead hydroxide, and a small amount of lead acetate. The relative opacity and rheology of this paint could also be varied by additions of inert ingredients such as calcite, marble dust, leaded glass, silica, and mica. Each ingredient imparts specific characteristics to the paint: leaded glass has a tendency to make the paint more elastic or stringy, mica makes it more slippery, silica and the calcium minerals tend to make it denser and more adhesive. In the 19th century, lead white was available with several different proportions of marble dust added, resulting in more transparency and more adhesion as the proportion of calcium increased.

       In the area of developing a specific texture and personal handling characteristics,an amazing amount can be done with white. There are many interesting varieties of white that can be made with zinc oxide as an addition to lead carbonate. But the whites I've made most are based on the addition of ground leaded glass to lead carbonate and heat-bodied oil, and the addition of marble dust to lead carbonate and heat-bodied oil. A very small amount of ground leaded glass will create a more mobile and stringy paint. Marble dust, or calcite, acts more as an adhesive or immobilizer. In one system that's evolved, these whites are used as is on the palette, while the other paints are modified with a bit of hard-resin varnish -- usually amber -- and a bit of thickened oil. While the whites has a viscous mobility in its original state, any contact with amber makes it set firmly, allowing for a significant amount of broken-surface development in a given layer, including a thin glaze over dense paint which has set but isn't yet dry. (Please note that lead carbonate is TOXIC when ingested or inhaled and take all standard appropriate precautions when using this material: wear a particle mask, wear gloves, wash well before eating, observe rigorous studio hygiene for rags and any stray pigment. Repeated exposure to small amounts of lead can lead to poisoning).

a different white

An experiment with the technique of coating pigment particles with protein to protect them from the oil. This technique has been re-pioneered by Michael Price in a very interesting article available on his site. Donald Fels, referencing this technique in his great "Lost Secrets of Flemish Painting", points out that an addition of a binder may well have been part of the cones in which lead white was sold to hold down its toxic dust.
      First, I washed the lead carbonate three times, removed the dense foam each time, and then added a solution of one egg yolk to six ounces of water. Let this settle thoroughly, decanted the solution off, and spread the paste in the sun on glass to dry. This was loosely bound, but quite friable. When ground with unrefined walnut oil, this paint exhibited completely different characteristcs than any lead white I've ever used or made. It was short, light, and facile, not dense, or sticky. It had no ropiness yet had body and made texture well with or without amber and a bit of thickened oil. In the parlance of my former profession, it held stiff peaks. The pigment is protected from the oil by the coating of yolk so it cannot transparentize over time.
      So if you try this please observe all the precautions necessary when dealing with a TOXIC substance like lead carbonate. The particular dust hazard here is in the first wetting of the pigment which should be done gently wearing a mask.


Methods and Materials of Painting - Sir Charles Eastlake

       Originally published in 1847, this is a great if complex book. Eastlake was a painter, restorer, president of the Royal Academy, and first director of England's National Gallery: in the first page of his introduction he states that his aim is to help create methods of painting which are more durable based on the older systems. Full of anecdotes, technical innuendo, and well-chosen excerpts from the De Mayerne and other older recipe manuscripts, this book is crucial for anyone who wants to understand what became lost, why it became important, and how it began to be discovered once again: in the deepest sense, it is about the once and future truth of painting. Eastlake was not right about everything, and recent scholars occasionally seem overjoyed to point this out, but he did take on a colossal task (which no one since has even attempted) with very little in the way of scientific method, and came out with a book that has, my opinion, a great deal to offer the painter with an interest in the historical materials and techniques puzzle. Eastlake's style of prose and organization may take some getting used to: it's strangely oblique: the more important the point, the less the build-up. Technically, Eastlake hands out much more in the way of concepts and hints than actual recipes, perhaps because Merimee's book had recently been translated into English and was quite popular. Also, Eastlake is speaking to an audience whose sense of painting is different than ours: while he might seem to ramble or be inconclusive, he is just pointing out the many options that modern authors often ignore. The more I read this, the more it makes sense and has proved helpful, but it's taken a few years to penetrate. Interestingly, De Mayerne's approach is much more direct and "modern" in comparison: he simply records what he heard, what he did, and whether it worked..

Medieval and Renaissance Treatises on the Art of Painting - Mrs. Mary P. Merrifield

       Published originally in 1849, Mrs. Merrifield is easier to navigate than Eastlake, and is again actively involved in going back in time to recover pieces of the puzzle. The book begins with a three hundred page catalogue of materials and technical information, much of which was gathered from current Italian sources and is Italian and full of contradictory bravado to the point of comedy, but the pages of Mrs. Merrifield's own observations at the end of this section are quite cogent and perceptive. The subsequent manuscripts are tenth to seventeenth century and contain endless recipes in the old manner -- which often assumes that you already know exactly what you're doing - much of the content of which is actually related to arts other than painting. But, in each of them -- the Bolognese Manuscript (fifteenth century), the Marciana Manuscript (sixteenth century), Paduan Manuscript (seventeenth century), and Brussels Manuscript (1635, by Le Brun) -- there are some good recipes to note, especially recipes for varnish. Along with Eastlake, Mrs. Merrifield is very interested in painting systems, drying oils, and amber varnish. Not the most condensed practical book, requires lots of patient perusing, but an important part of the story whose historical sources confirm the main tenets of the system.

National Gallery Technical Bulletins - Various

      Published yearly, featuring articles by the conservation staff at London's National Gallery, these are full of very hard and detailed information. Highly recommended if you find an article about a painter, period, or school of interest.

Rembrandt: The Painter at Work - Ernst Van de Wetering

       An example of modern art historical scholarship at its best. Van de Wetering uses scientific and historical research to gently debunk lots of romantic speculation and develop a compelling model for how older painters actually operated. The reader is led subtly to how Rembrandt thought, and how this process was enacted in painting during the various phases of his development. Although the external emphasis is on analysis, I found this book very helpful technically. As a painter you'll need to read between the scholarly lines.

Lost Secrets of Flemish Painting - Donald Fels

       This book includes two parts: Fels own system and recommendations with regard to old master painting and the first full English translation of the very important De Mayerne manuscript (1620) in the British Museum. Fels produces the Alchemist line of painting mediums and presents many very useful observations about older techniques, as well as many quality technical tips for painters. From my perspective his system correctly intuits many specific technical processes and is very in tune with the alchemical mind-set of older painters. There are lots of quality recipes; the commentary seems a bit academic but it's logical and meaningful. If you want to paint like Rubens, say, or Van Dyck, the system is concise and accurate. At the same time, it's necessary for this knowledge to be applied by living painters in new and original ways, rather than having it presented as a de facto solution: the "new Bible" to quote painter Frank Mason on the jacket. The Fels system, for example, does not address any of the concepts inherent in the techniques of Chardin, Velasquez, or the later Rembrandt. This is fine in theory because of the title of the book, but once you get into the text the term "old masters" is used to describe one thing and one thing only: the Flemish painters who painted the way Fels has reconstructed. So to me this is the same old, age old problem of someone telling painters how to paint and backing themselves up with a particular big name from the past. The ironic thing about all this is that this book contains some very high quality information for working painters but by very conciously donning the starched ruff and velvet doublet it's liable to put a lot of less conciously conservative readers off.
      The De Mayerne manuscript, on the other hand, is an immense jumbled goldmine for anyone interested in old techniques. This book is ALIVE. The actual formulas range from somewhat loony to really important, but I've found the mindset of another time to be very helpful: these guys were very hands-on and very curious in an alchemical way: if it didn't work, they tried again! (On the other hand, I see DeMayerne's domestic staff as in a state of permanent chaos). Fels points out that to paint like a 17th century painter you have to be able to think like one. Short of setting the Wayback for the year 1620, this is the answer. If you've read Eastlake and want more, at least get this from the library for a bit.

The Artist's Assistant - Leslie Carlyle

       This is a doctoral dissertation on the materials and methods of 19th century painting in England as seen through catalogues such as Windsor and Newton, inventories of famous colormen like Roberson, and excerpts from many 19th century English painting manuals. What emerges is an intriguing picture of a culture trying to develop a better way to paint without very certain underpinnings. Dozens of different recipes for meglip, drying oils, and asphaltum are documented: all of course highly discredited materials at this point. As this is a research project everything is simply documented: as a painter you are on your own about whether any formula is viable. I mention this because this book is perhaps being marketed as something that it's not. On its own terms it's wonderful, but the essential empathy for painting as a vocation that is a major part of Eastlake or Van deWetering's Rembrandt book is less in evidence. The complex story of amber varnish is marginalized: while the De Mayerne manuscript is mentioned, it is never in connection with amber, for which the manuscript contains many references and half a dozen recipes, and Eastlake is given responsibility for creating the amber revival, when Merimee came to the same conclusions and was much more popular as a text. From my perspective this book is fascinating historically as a testament to what happens when the sorcerer's apprentice is in charge of the spell. I recommend it as a source of history and further research into period authors such as Field and Merimee but not as a source for formulas unless you have been navigating these waters for quite some time.

The Materials and Techniques of Painting-Kurt Wehlte.

       To me the best single resource available on the craft of painting, written from a perspective that is both scholarly and accessible, but singularly lacking in the type of material De Mayerne and Eastlake worked with. Covers not just oil painting but tempera, casein, complex emulsions, pigments, grounds, and my favorite, cera colla, the water soluble beeswax of the medieval monks of Mt. Athos. A pupil of Max Doerner, Wehlte is careful not to speculate about Old Master (OM) methods and materials but tells you what he knows from experience. This was reprinted years ago by Daniel Smith but is now available again through Kremer. (See below).

Oil Painting Techniques and Materials-Harold Speed

       Written in England in the 20's, this is the only book I've ever read which actually explains how color becomes light, in addition to offering some very interesting observations about modern art and the painter's process. It has a certain poignancy, in that Speed saw that painting and western culture were devolving in the face of negative intellectual modernism. Both interesting and useful. Available as a Dover paperback.

Pre-Raphaelite Painting Techniques - Joyce Townsend, Jaqueline Ridge, and Stephen Hackney

       Contains an immense amount of technical information about the materials used by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the technical climate of the time period. Extremely well done and highly informative.

Artist's Pigments c. 1600-1835 - R.D. Harley

      A great book, the least dry and most readable, most genuinely informed work of scholarly research I've encountered. Full of lore and great period quotations, Dr. Harley also has a great and gentle sense of humor about the many contradictions and inconsistencies of historical sources.

Velazquez - The Technique of Genius - Jonathan Brown, Carmen Garrido

      Contains a small but highly informative technical section and great close-up photos, as well as a well-done historical text.

The Craft of Old Master Drawings - James Watrous

      This is from the Fifties, and is a very good source of practical information for metalpoint, reed pens, old ink and Conte-type crayon recipes. Much of the same information is in Wehlte, above, but this is more detailed.

Fifty Secrets of Magical Craftsmanship-Salvador Dali

       This is a kind of Chinese puzzle box in which Dali both obscures and reveals at once some technical aspects of traditional painting in a set of fifty secrets. There's lots of stylish esoterica and verbal pirouetting but it's from the Thirties and is surprisingly negotiable. I wouldn't read this first but if you've been painting a while (and you can deal with a mad genius for an author) it's an intriguing book and provides lots of insight into how Dali approached older techniques and materials. Of the Fifty Secrets, my favorite is the last one.

The Art Forger's Handbook - Eric Hebborn

      Contains a great deal of interesting information about period methods and materials from the somewhat unfortunate perspective of producing accurate fakes. Cocky, bitter, in some places downright ugly, but somehow worth it, a glimpse at the artworld's very dirty laundry. Not as complete as it might be: although written in 1997 Hebborn doesn't mention Lead Tin Yellow in his Forger's Palette: it would certainly be in mine!

out of print, available online

A tremendous number of older, out-of-print texts are available here, really well done by excellent painter Danny Van Ryswyk.

Secret Formulas and Techniques of the Masters - Jaques Maroger

The notorious text published in 1948 by a former technical director of the Louvre. Maroger taught at Parsons in New York beginning in 1939 and had some well known students, including Fairfield Porter. There's a Wikipedia article on him here . Aspects of this are useful but it's also full of massive errors which are even more puzzling since Maroger clearly had access to the older documents. Why did he concentrate so much on the medium and ignore the paint itself? Why did he attempt to document a systematic development of the medium across centuries of isolated practice? A desire for logical order dominates this book in spite of everything available about historical practice at the time. But, it's part of the story, especially showing how someone well intentioned can still go far afield in their conclusions: how easy it is for secrets to be invented. Most of this book is available online here .       

The Art of Painting in Oil and in Fresco - M. J. F. L. Merimee

      The 1839 London translation of Merimee's book published in French in 1830. The standard technical recipe text of the mid-19th century, referred to by both Eastlake and Merrifield in this manner. There are many quotes and recipes from Merimee in Carlyle's book, above. Not all that scientific or reliable, shows where things were at that point, contains much of historic or period interest with regard to pigments. The actual text is available as a PDF if you do a book search on Google.

Chromatography - George Field

      First published in 1835, there are several later editions of this by different editors. Field was a highly respected colorman in the earlier part of 19th century London who improved the manufacture of madder pigments and produced other pigments of interest such as Field's orange vermilion. His writing is no nonsense, pithy and perceptive. A PDF of the text is available if you do a book search on Google.


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