Friday, February 22, 2013

Some Caseins

My first break into college teaching, many, many years ago was a sabbatical replacement gig at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, VA. One day the phone in "my" office rang. A woman's voice explained that she'd just bought a house in town that had belonged to a German painter who, for some reason, had had to sell quickly and return to Germany. The caller wanted to donate "some art supplies" to the college. I asked the chairperson of the department about it and she said, "Oh, just take the stuff for yourself and consider it a fringe benefit." I imagined arriving at the house to find the typical inventory of the Sunday painter - a cheap box, palette still in the slotted lid, a few paint encrusted brushes and so forth. Instead I walked into a full basement of stuff. Boxes of every sort of media you could imagine. Against the wall, what looked like a rolled up rug turned out to be a 6' x 20 yard roll of heavy linen canvas.

Among the boxes I discovered a collection of casein paints, a medium I'd read about but which I'd never used. Casein is a kind of tempera paint that was often used in illustration before the advent of acrylics. The binder is basically milk, or a milk protein, casein. Cottage cheese is casein protein. Add a little ammonia and cook it and you've got the binder for casein paint. If you've ever tried to wash a glass or dish on which milk has dried you can understand what a durable medium casein paint is.

The paint itself is wonderfully silky to work with, has a pleasant smell, and dries chalky and opaque, like liquid pastel. It dries fairly quickly and becomes nearly unwettable with time, unlike watercolor or gouache. However if re-wetting is desired, a little scrubbing with water and brush and you've got it. It can be built up to oil paint-like impastos, or used transparently. For me casein combines the best qualities of acrylics, the fast drying and potential for overpainting, without the plastic feeling or look.

Like so many other once arcane art media, the art suppliers have obliged us by making these available easily at our local art supply houses, or online. Much as I enjoy playing medieval alchemist in my studio, cooking up strange concoctions of this and that, making things from scratch, I suppose I should be grateful that I don't have to start with the actual cottage cheese in order to make casein paints.

Some recent work in the medium. All the paintings are around twelve inches, on rag paper:



Tobacco Country, Southern Virginia, casein on rag paper, 9" x12," 2013

Northeast of Winchester, Virginia; Winter casein on rag paper, 9" x12," 2013
 
Northeast of Winchester, Virginia; Winter - Single Tree, casein on rag paper, 9" x12," 2013
 
In the Hocking Hills at Sundown; Winter, casein on rag paper, 9" x12," 2013

In the Valdicchiana, Tuscany; Summer,  casein on rag paper, 9" x12," 2013

In the Valdicchiana, Tuscany; Summer - Cropped Hayfields,  casein on rag paper, 7" x12," 2013


Vineyards on the Road to Montepulciano, Tuscany; Summer,  casein on rag paper, 9" x12," 2013