Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Hard Copal Mediums

When it comes to oil painting mediums, one of the best, for special purpose, is copal. Traditional copal oil painting mediums were made from several hard copals found in Africa, and thus were unknown in European painting, prior to the time that Africa was colonized. Many of the former resources have dried up (having been used extensively in a variety of products), and or the areas were these materials were found, have presently become far to politically unstable to visit.

One of the very best copal mediums formerly available, was made by Frederick Taubes, and sold through Permanent Pigments out of Cincinnati, Ohio. That company later became Liquitex, and subsequently discontinued oil painting materials. Taubes used a very hard copal, which came from the Congo region of Africa, and produced a very light varnish. Again, these products are no longer easy to find, and thus difficult to hold as a general material, in the tool box.

Presently there are soft copal mediums available, but in my opinion, having made them, and having used them, I do not think that they perform the same as hard copal versions. When we say hard, vs. soft copal, does this imply that one version is actually harder than another? Well, yes it does seem to imply this. However, when we look at these materials in terms of actual hardness, using a tool such as Moh's hardness scale, we find that the hard versions of copal are no harder than the softer versions. Therefore, I don't think that  "hard" or "soft" is a good descriptive measure. Rather, we should look at copals in terms of polymerization. What we consider to be hard copal, is generally polymerized to a much greater degree. These materials may be centuries, if not millennium in age. Of course, the copals are no where near the state of the several amber materials (which are tens of millions of years old), but what we commonly call hard copal is polymerized to a much greater degree, than the so called soft copals we see today. In addition, what we know as hard copal, comes from entirely different botanical sources, and regions of the earth. Copal is such a generic word, and connotes a particular type of resin. However, in reality it is akin to saying the word "vehicle." What is meant by this? Boat, car, airplane? In fact, copals are as different from one another as a boat is from a bicycle. They are of different ages, from different regions, different botanical origin, different chemical makeup, and of course, have vastly different properties from one another.

The use of mediums which contain highly polymerized copals of African origin, does permit special effects that no other medium will provide. It allows one to lay a brush stroke down, and have that stroke remain just as it was laid down, without any fusion of edges, or migration. It also creates a stringiness to paint, when used in just the right concentrations. Some people have come to use mediums which contain damar, as a substitute, and in fact, even Taubes did this, but these mediums do not create the same effect, and it is my belief that they are not as durable. Old copals of African origin will not dissolve in turpentine, but damar will. The recent copals will also often readily dissolve in some solvents. I have also observed multiple oil paint films, which contained damar as a medium, to crack in a relatively short time.

When it comes to making copal mediums, as stated earlier, some copals will readily dissolve in solvent, and can then be added to a drying oil. However, those old highly polymerized copals of African origin were not dissolved in solvent, but rather heat fused with drying oil. That process was formerly completed in industrial production facilities, but when undertaken by the individual, can be a very difficult and dangerous task. Not to be the bearer of bad news, but it is my belief that there is no product available today, which will produce the same results as the old copal mediums, from the past. Of course, this is my opinion, and as with everything else, it is a debatable subject. This is not to say that artists can not paint without copal, or that there are no good oil painting mediums. There are many. However, in my opinion, there is nothing around that will presently provide the same results. It is also my opinion, that artists should spend their time painting, and experimenting with mediums that are available, for the purposes they seek, rather than undertake the dangerous task of making highly polymerized copal, into a usable medium. Considering the cost of materials such as Congo copal, or copal from Sierra Leone, most people will destroy a great deal of material in the attempt to produce a usable medium, and there simply is not enough material presently available to support the learning curve (of most people), necessary to drive this material into a drying oil.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Why Use Baltic Amber Varnish In Oil Painting?

Amber has been used in oil painting for centuries. Although it was certainly not the predominate medium of the Renaissance, much evidence does exist to ascertain that it was used. Many artists upon hearing of old mediums such as those containing amber, will often wonder if it imparts some special property, or quality to paint. My answer to this is opinion, based on my own experience. Having made quite a bit of amber varnish from the raw materials (a process that I would not recommend) I have been able to adjust the resin to oil ratios, in many versions, and have found that at certain percentages of resin to oil (linseed), the material does create a medium that will effect oil paint in ways that no other substance, including the various copal mediums, will accomplish. 

I have found that the addition of a single drop of amber medium, to a pea sized paint nut will dramatically alter the properties of the paint. If one mixes one drop into the paint nut, and then waits one hour, the paint will stiffen up, and perform more like a jewel paste, than a loose oil paint. This will permit many impasto effects, as well as multi-layered techniques, all on the same day. The strokes will tend to remain exactly as they are laid down, with no slumping, fusing, leveling or changes of any type. Some copals permit this, but in a slightly different manner, and I know of no balsams and certainly no dammar containing mediums that will perform this way. Drying oil alone will absolutely not permit these effects.

At lower resin to oil ratios, the medium will permit some effects that are very similar to the glass like, or enamel appearing effects that one may observe in the works of the Flemish masters. 

Is amber the best of all oil painting additives? Quite frankly, I would say that there is no one medium that is the best. The better question is which medium is best for which special effect. In that regard, there are certain special effects that amber will permit that would be exceedingly difficult, using any other medium. Does it duplicate the effects of mediums containing larch turpentine, or Canada balsam? Absolutely not. It is important to ask what one is trying to accomplish. Many artists take up oil painting, and then go looking for a medium to help them out, without knowing what it is that they even want to accomplish, or what special effect they are after. This is a flawed, and costly method of progressing. 

If oil paint alone, or with the addition of a small amount of drying oil, is all that is necessary for an artist to carry out their work, then certainly there is no need to throw amber, or any other medium into the mix. If on the other hand one is looking for effects as stated above, it may be a nice addition. I don't recommend any particular medium, but after having recently made and used a batch of Maroger medium, if I could only use one medium, in addition to linseed oil, it would be Maroger. Although it doesn't perform the same as amber, it has a quality that is hard to describe with words, other than to say one has to try it for themselves, in order to understand. Still not saying that any one medium is the best.  

Saturday, December 22, 2012


I started this painting last week. It is 24 by 36 inches, oil on shellac primed cradled wood panel. The paint is Winsor and Newton, artist grade, Liquitex oil paint, Williamsburg, and my own hand made titanium white, genuine ivory black, and Venetian red.

Getting close to covering the panel with the first layer. After I cover the girls left arm, I will start working to refine the painting. A huge number of details to complete. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Portrait of a Sculptor

This is an oil painting of artist Dave Thomas (Now Deceased). It is 24x24 inches, and is being completed in layers, using a variety of paints. The medium that I have used on this, consists of cold pressed linseed oil, in a palette cup, to loosen the strokes. The paint has a small addition of a medium that I made recently, consisting of Venice turpentine, stand oil, and gum spirits of turpentine. This medium is a slower drying oil, balsam, essential oil medium, and permits some effects that I was seeking. At this point, I have applied an isolating layer of very thin amber varnish. It is now dry, and ready for overpainting. 

This image is significant to me, as having been cremated, Dave no longer exists. However, in my mind he does, and the day that is depicted does as well. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Looking Forward to Autumn

This summer has been very hot and very humid. Although the warmth, and the light have been very good, I sure am looking forward to a cool dry breeze.