Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Casein Questions

My friend Jim asked:

"We’re headed off on vacation next week. And I’m mulling over my options for what art supplies to bring. I had eliminated oils, as there’s rarely time to really paint on a family trip. So I was leaning towards watercolor, but I find transparent media somewhat limiting, so maybe I’d bring along a few tubes of gouache, too.

Then I was just touching up a frame here and the light bulb flashed on in my brain: casein! You seem to be pleased with the medium as a full-service plein air sketch medium. I’ve never used it except on frames. But I have a full array of tube colors. Have you taken casein on a trip as your prime medium? When you travel with casein, do you work on watercolor paper? Or just in a sketchbook? And what have you used for a travel palette for casein? I guess the big issue I’d be concerned with is losing quantity of dry paint on the palette. (whereas gouache can kind of be re-wet)."

What do you think? I’d really appreciate your thoughts and experience with the medium.

Hi, Jim,

Like you, I don’t take my oils traveling as much as I used to, mainly because of TSA hassles and solvent, stains, and drying-time issues. I always take watercolor and water-soluble colored pencils in my most basic belt-pouch kit (I take this kit EVERYWHERE including the opera and the ballet!), but I add gouache or casein when I want to get more involved in opaques. I like the fact that I can ramp up from drawing to drawing-and-watercolor and then to watercolor-plus-opaque. This completely bridges the gap between drawing and painting.

Casein is an older medium than oil, and I'm told Egyptians used it, and that it actually conserves better than oil--no yellowing for one thing.

I usually work in hardbound watercolor-paper sketchbooks. The paper is beefy enough to handle full wet washes. Casein emulsion isn't that strong in impastos, so if you want to work with a lot of texture you need to either preload the whites with acrylic modeling paste or thick gesso or paint on a very solid surface. Unless you really gob on the impastos, there shouldn’t be any issues with cracking or adhesion. Of course you could work on stretched watercolor paper, board, or panel.

Gouache is probably better than casein for fine detail. I think casein lends itself best to bold opaque direct handling, as with the illustrators John Berkey and Harry Anderson. Some people don’t particularly like casein because of the “chalkiness,” the shift in drying colors, the matte surface, or the general lightness of the darks, but I love all those qualities.

Casein is also a good underpainting medium for oil. If you want a more oil-like surface with casein alone, you can varnish it. You can get casein emulsion and casein varnish. I've tried varnishing it, but I think the velvety matte surface has an attraction all its own.

There’s no way to rewet the dry paint on the palette, but you can keep it wet longer if you put it on a damp paper towel. I wouldn’t want to keep it wet on the palette for more than a few hours because of the risk of mold forming.

Other issues: it kills brushes, and has some ammonia in it, so you shouldn't use natural bristles or sables, but synthetics instead.

I use a variety of limited palettes, and usually only take out about five tubes at a time, just to keep life simpler. The last time I went out I took one similar to Stobart’s palette (Titanium white, ultramarine blue, pyrrole (Winsor) red, burnt sienna, cadmium yellow light, and permanent green). Are you familiar with that one?

One last thing: it has an unusual smell which you either like or don't like, but I've discovered that the smell attracts animals. Maybe it's the milk-based binder. 

All the best.
Here's more about the tools I was using:
I was using Richeson / Shiva casein
1/4 inch flat brush 
Moleskine watercolor notebook
Waterman Phileas red fountain pen 
Lots of info on casein at Richeson's FAQ about casein


Tom Hart said...

Thanks for this great summary of working with casein, James. I was happy to see your reference to John Stobart. He was one of my early heroes when it comes to oil painting in the field. (I love his palette too. It's so simple and adaptable.) His Worldscape videos are among my favorites.

Keith Parker said...

I remember people were asking similar questions a year ago, when you had just started using the medium. Glad to see what you've discovered about casien in that time. Maybe you should add a section about that in a special edition of Color and Light...

Frank Gabriel said...

What I like to do is put my casein colors on a piece of kitchen parchment paper, over a couple layers of damp paper towel. That's lined up on one side of my butcher tray, and then I mix paint on the rest of the tray. When I'm finished, I cover the tray with a piece of cling film, which keeps the paint wet for days. I haven't had any issues with mold.

Dan said...

Hi James,

Thanks for the info. I've only experimented with casein a couple of times since learning about it from your blog, but it was interesting and enjoyable.

Question: I notice you use both gouache and casein. Is there some general basis that you use for choosing between them?


Anonymous said...

Speaking of mediums for plein air sketching... what about acrylics? Why is it that they're so rarely chosen as a plein-air medium? They dry just as fast as gouache and I like how they can't be rewet once dry.

Since I'm a student on a budget I'm thinking of dropping gouache competely in favor of acrylics (so I can use them for both sketches and actual paintings) but I don't know the medium well enough to decide. Where's the catch?

James Whitehurst said...

Little off topic I know but I am now the proud owner of The artist guide to sketching by Gurney and kinkade.