Friday, April 26, 2013

Casein Experiment

I did this little painting a couple days ago on location in Rhinecliff, New York. The setting sun turned the Hudson River into a path of golden light. 

The painting is 4 x 7 inches on watercolor paper, painted almost entirely with a half inch flat brush. 

The medium is casein. This is my first outing with casein, and I'm already madly in love with it. It is a water-based paint medium with working properties that resemble gouache, cel vinyl, and, in some respects, oil. I've used all of those latter paints quite a bit, but casein has qualities all its own. It can be used transparently, but it has great opacity when you need it, something often lacking in acrylic.

The paint has a delicious, unforgettable aroma that resembles the smell of cosmetics. The milk- based binder seals each layer enough so that they won't pick up with later application.

It lends itself to bold handling and 'finding the image in the paint.' At left is the first stage of the painting above, where I stated the simplest dark/light relationship before going in with the brush to find the details.

Casein is one of the oldest paints, older than oil, but it had its heyday starting in the 1930s, when they figured out how to tube the stuff. It was a favorite through the '40s and 50's, before acrylic came in. Two masters of casein were the illustrators John Berkey and Harry Anderson.

To my knowledge, these days, the only major manufacturer of casein is Jack Richeson, who bought the Shiva name, and keeps it going as a niche business. Here are the colors I have in my paintbox:

Titanium white
Ivory black
Venetian red
Rose red
Cad red scarlet
Cad yellow light
Cad yellow med
Cobalt blue
Ultramarine blue
Raw sienna
Raw umber
Golden ochre

For the painting of the house by the river, I used only white, cobalt blue, golden ochre, venetian red, and a little raw umber. If you want to try casein, I'd recommend getting just a few colors at first and taking them for a spin.
Read more:
You can get a good starter set on Amazon: Jack Richeson 37-Ml Artist Casein Colors, Set of 6
Check out Jim Pinkoski's online portfolio of John Berkey and Harry Anderson
Note: in my book 
, I think I misidentified the painting by Harry Anderson as gouache. I believe it's really casein.


Abigail Platter said...

The first time I ever heard about casein was in the Sleeping Beauty special features. Eyvind Earle made gorgeous pieces with it. In this special, "4 Artists Paint One Tree," you can see him in action with the medium!

Just curious- Was it any harder to work with than other mediums?

I'd love to see more of what you'll do with it- makes me want to try it even more now!

Nick Jainschigg said...

I just made up a batch of casein medium "from scratch" using casein powder and borax. No particular reason, as it's pretty much the same as the bottled stuff from Shiva, but I always like to know my materials. I love the stuff, and I'm thrilled you do too (you'll be posting more inspiration for me).

Keith Parker said...

James I find it ironic that by chance I became the owner of a bag full of fairly old art instruction books today (for example one book is called "The Art of Costume Design by Marilyn Sotto" She apparently designed costumes for old Hollywood movies including The Ten Commandments. But I'm geting off topic... Several of the over 20 books are about art materials, and casein is talked about a bit. Before the discussion that You, Tom, and I had in the comments on your blog about Harry Anderson I had never heard of the stuff. By the way, thanks to you I'm a pretty big fan of Anderson's work. The man was awesome.

So since casein is on my mind do you think you will be doing any large Paintings with the stuff in the future?

The book I'm looking at right now suggests sealing it with damar varnish, which I know from your books you have used on paintings in the past.

Anyway, thanks for sharing the beautiful picture above. I'm glad you found a new medium to explore that you like, and hope to see more soon!

Keith Parker said...

Now that I've followed the links you've provided I think I'm starting to understand why you like casein so much...but the more I understand that, the more I don't understand how it became so niche.

David J. Teter said...

I did not know it was older than oils.
I had an art instructor who talked it up.

I don't know much about it though.
How fast does it dry?
How is it different than water soluble oils?
What are its downsides?

My questions are more about performance from an artists point of view and not so much the technical or chemical characteristics which I can look up.

Mario said...

Unfortunately casein is not available here in Europe... buying on amazon is an option, of course, but it's not handy for everyday use. Anyway, I hope to learn more on casein from you.
One question: does casein shift in value as much as gouache when drying?

San Diego, CA said...

Hi James
When I was a theater major studying scenic art and design we used casein to paint theatrical productions. Our "old school" scenic artist/instructor loved it. This was back in the mid eighties and in all my years since as a scenic artist since I have not encountered a theater that uses casein paint. I do remember my fascination with it, the way it layed on opaquely and transparently, how it spattered and scumbled, etc. Mixing and matching colors took a little more time as the paint would dry lighter in value. And the smell... I can still remember the smell of unspoiled and fresh casein. Our shipments would arrive in plastic one gallons buckets and we dreaded opening the ones that were bloated because that was a sign the paint was starting to spoil due to its milk binder. We used Lysol in liquid form to cut the strong odor and extend its life a bit. To this day the smell of Lysol catapults me back to those days. It was also very thick, like paste, so a gallon went a long way. I am not sure if it's still used in the theater world. Back then Rosco, a theater arts supplier, supplied it. I have not tried it out in the field but your post has me thinking about it. I saw a Sam Hyde Harris show a few years ago in Pasadena. Along with his landscape paintings there were also his illustrations he did for the railroad that he did in casein. I really enjoy your blog and thanks for the post.
Danny Griego

Tom Hart said...

Fascinating post. I was wondering the same thing as Keith: how could a medium with so many good traits become so obscure?

Have you encountered any drawbacks to the medium?

Thanks for another informative and inspiring post. Great light in that painting, by the way.

Daroo said...

Didn't Rockwell mix casein with oils to get them to dry faster?

nystudios said...

Just as a word of warning James, make sure you wash your brushes thoroughly. I find synthetics last longer. Bristles have a way of disintegrating. Casein also works well with emulsion mediums, and as great underpainting for oils.

JonInFrance said...

I heard of it back in the 80s - Steven Quiller books were everywhere (here in France!!) and he used it and talked about - he combines it with acrylics and watercolor - water media. I wonder why he didn't use gouache? Maybe he did/does, can't rememember...

James Gurney said...

Thanks for all these interesting perspectives on casein, and the good questions. Please let me beg off on answers just yet because I'm such a newbie at using the medium, definitely no expert. But I did talk with Jack Richeson today, and I've got a lot more experiments that I'd like to try.

John VanHouten said...

What a coincidence that you are also interested in casein paint. I started experimenting with it about a month ago. I only have some sample colors right now as I haven't decided if I'd like to do more of it.

I was turned onto casein paint by Stephen Quiller in one of his books. I recently read a casein painting book too. I reviewed that on my website if you're curious about it:

whyaturp said...

Rosco still makes a full line of concentrated casein scene paint. It is the standby of scenic artists.

Roberto said...

Nice sketch! I have not used casein on paper or canvas (unless mounted on a panel) because of its potential for brittleness and cracking as the layers builds up or when used impasto. I suppose it should be o.k. in thin layers on a heavy paper for sketches, but I would caution against a flexible support for more permanent pieces or when using it as an under-painting for oils. When working in layers over layers… the top layer re-activates the lower layer and makes one thick layer, instead of several discreet layers, that resists compression or stretching. I notice in the link to ‘Rosco’ (Thanx whyaturp) they describe casein as ‘flexible’ and recommend it for use on scrim, muslin, or canvas. I suppose that in thin layers and for temporary work such as sets and staging pieces that may be true, but for more permanent and/or archival pieces I would be cautious and err on the side of stability. Also because of its susceptibility to moisture, sealing the painting w a protective varnish should be considered.
Probably the biggest drawback to casein is its short shelf-life. If you are using it on a regular bases this isn’t an issue, but if you use it intermittently from time to time, it will spoil, so only buy what you think you will use over a few months time. The small tubes are a good solution. You can also add the Lysol, and refrigerate it for short periods (but don’t freeze it!).
I look forward to your further adventures w Casein. -RQ

Marco Jeurissen said...

This is an interesting topic.

We painted all the bedrooms in our house with casein paints because of the fact that they don't contain aggressive solvents and leave the walls' pores open to breath.
Anyway, it's not directly artists paint, but may still be useful:
Kreidezeit and Aquamarijn both sell these. Kreidezeit also has an impressive assortiment of pigments.


ericparrot said...

For those in Europe who, according to Mario, don´t have casein paints available, Schmincke has a ready-made casein binding medium (see )
You can mix it with water and powdered pigments just as you would when doing egg tempera painting (substituting one medium for the other.)
I would say that the Schmincke medium has a fairly long shelf life and it´s far more practical than the alternative (that is, for those of us who don´t have casein paints in tubes available), making your casein from skim milk cottage cheese.
And, as Roberto warned, paper - or even canvas! - is not the proper support for casein painting. You should use, again, the same gessoed board you would for egg tempera painting, if permanence is an issue.

j.p. said...

A bit late to this party, but I was wondering if anyone had tried the Plaka casein paint from Pelikan? It's sold in those funny, impractical jars but still seems like an interesting alternative to those of us living in Europe.

James Gurney said...

J.P. I haven't tried it yet. On a quick search, I discovered we can get it in the US at Jerry's:

but I wonder if it's intended more as a paint for the theater or craft business rather than as a pictorial painting medium?

feeb said...

So, I've found a drawback to casein, but it's my own fault for being ...naive? I got all excited, as I do with new things, after reading a few of James' posts on casein... compounded for my new excitement over plein air painting, and bought up a lot of stuff... I think I got every color of casein, an expensive metal palette with all the little half and full snap-in color trays. I'm setting this up too much.
I got casein mainly because James had mentioned portability in one of his posts, as a quality not afforded to oils. I assumed this meant I could load up my little trays with color and go. Even after letting the colors sit overnight in their new tray, the colors ran all over the place in my palette. I was operating under the assumption that they were useable after they dried, like watercolors. I used a hairdryer to dry them up a bit before my plein air trip! Ha! Well, they worked that day, but they're pretty much useless now, dried up as they are. So here's a note of warning to the kinda dumb like myself... don't assume they work like watercolors.
I'm bummed I have to tote the tubes around, which is less portable than I was hoping- but I can see where casein is more portable than oils, assuming this means you don't have to pack the additional thinning and cleaning supplies? Can you share how you set up? If you already have on a previous post, disregard. I'll likely find it.

James Gurney said...

Feeb, sorry you had a less than great experience. I should have given more information. The idea with casein is to take a reasonably small number of tubes of colors, maybe 5-8 or so. When you're on site, you can squeeze out what you need on a damp paper towel laid on your mixing tray. That damp paper should keep most of the colors workable for a two hour session, but if not you can squeeze out some more. At the end of the session, you can throw out what you don't use. The brushes can and should be washed out at the end of the session, and brushes you're not actually using that have paint on them should be kept in water so that the paint doesn't dry in them. That's the basics, but I'll explain more of this when I get to doing the casein video.

Cynthia Kukla said...

This is a wonderful description. I bought Pelican Plaka casein on sale decades ago and all are still in good form in the bottle. So I will experiment thanks to your fine technical notes. Also sharing with my students at ISU.

Casimir P said...

You can make casein medium with milk, vinegar and baking soda.

Wikipedia mentions it can be made quickly from cottage cheese with ammonium carbonate.

I believe borax would make casein archival quality.

Casimir P said...

You can make casein medium with milk, vinegar and baking soda.

Wikipedia mentions it can be made quickly from cottage cheese with ammonium carbonate.

I believe borax would make casein archival quality.

Andrew Romanowitz said...

It seems that you have been doing Gouache more lately than Casein. I have painted mostly in oils up to this point, but have been thinking that either Gouache or Casein would make plein air painting a bit more enjoyable.

It seems to me that the biggest differences between Casein and Gouache are that Gouache can be "rewetted" and used on the palette even after it dries, and Casein cannot, while Gouache is more expensive and has a broader range of manufacturers and colors to choose from than Casein.

If you had to choose between Casein and Gouache and could not do both, which would you go with?

James Gurney said...

Andrew, your analysis of the two mediums is about right.

I'm using gouache for my super portable rig—just black and white gouache in my drawing kit. And I like using gouache when I want to combine it with watercolor pencils or watercolors. But I'm using casein a lot for more full-bodied painting, when I really want to pour on the paint in a juicier way. I think of gouache as more delicate, better for detail, more like a harpsichord, with casein more like a piano. Do I really have to choose? I love them both!

Patrick Brown said...

Hi James,

I've been using casein for a few months and it's a wonderful medium, my second favourite after oil, but there are a few things about it that bug me. Hoping you can help me out.

Because of how casein dries to a matte surface, the value range isn't very wide compared to other media. My applications dry quite a bit lighter than when they're put down wet, and it tends to throw me when I'm comparing values. I've also noticed that adding white greys the colours tremendously without even giving a significant increase in value... and so it's forced me to work in a subtractive process, like watercolour, which I'm not too fond of. Lastly, the paint layers seem to lift pretty easily when I paint overtop, but I think it's because I'm adding too much water to the subsequent layers.

I'm wondering if I might be doing something wrong, if you've had similar experiences, and if you have any workarounds to these issues.

Thanks so much!

- Patrick

James Gurney said...

Hi, Patrick,
A couple of things: You can push the values darker with black on the palette, of course, or by using casein varnish as a final gloss coat. But the matte surface is one of the charms of the medium, and I've actually stayed away from full black anyway, just to give color character to the darks. Finally, when you shoot your artwork, you can always use the Photoshop slider to get the full value range if you want.

Yes, white will gray (and usually cool) the color in most any painting medium. So if you have high chroma versions of those hues you can boost the chroma at a given value.

About the painting layers lifting up. Acrylic has a stronger emulsion strength -- casein has some strength, but not much. It's more like gouache. The thing I try to do is to use the wettest, most watery layers early on in the process, and get progressively drier as you go. Also, don't scrub with the brush. Just prepare a stroke, lay it down, and leave it.

Hope that helps!

David Hoehn said...

Hi James,

I am deep into indirect painting methods, like the Old Masters, in oil. The issue is, I'm not interested in waiting so long for each layer to set before applying the next. I've found alkyd resins (Gamblin's line) to be of great use for drying speed. However, I am very curious about using casein to paint in the underlying colors on the gessoed surface first to help speed the process. After rendering and laying in a few thin layers of casein, I wanted to continue the painting with oil layers to refine the form, then scumble and glaze.

Would you happen to know:

1) How long I would have to wait for the casein to dry before laying down a dissimilar medium like oils?
2) Is there a preferred or needed medium to apply as an isolation or seal coat over casein before starting oils, if any?
3) Does the casein paint have a strong enough bond to the ground as an archival medium for this method, or would cracking or delamination eventually occur?
4) Is this method of painting recommended and was this a common practice at one time?
5) I've heard casein and oil can be mixed. Is this a good idea?

Thank you in advance James, you're the best!


James Gurney said...

David, quick answers:
1. I'd give it a day or two next to a sunny window or near a fireplace, until it's bone dry.
2. I believe you can paint oil directly over casein; that's the usual way.
3. The paint layer is only as strong as the weakest layer, so I wouldn't build up too much impasto. If you want texture, use a texturing compound in acrylic, which has more emulsion strength.
4. Yes, casein is a traditional underpainting color. By the way, it's older than oils, going all the way back to the Egyptians -- and in fact to upper Paleolithic humans. I think I did a post about the world's oldest's casein.
5. No, I wouldn't mix oil and casein, nor would I work with casein over oil. Casein first, let it dry, then oil over is OK.

More info at the Richeson site: