A Guide to Painting Medium

A concise guide to archival permanence with art supplies

There are documented cases of paintings darkening and cracking due to the improper usage of any painting medium including straight oil, turpentine, damar, mastic, black oil, lead, megilp, Maroger's, copal and even tube paints themselves. Even the best materials can be improperly applied, stored, etc.

The simple truth is that there is not one material or medium that I cannot use to failure. That includes Prismacolor pencils, pastels and watercolor. I can find a foolish or idiotic thing to do that will cause problems.

The real question is, are there mediums that, even if used properly will cause problems? That means that under most conditions the use of a given material will lead to failure. An example is newsprint. Under most conditions, it will yellow and become brittle within a matter of a few years. Yes, it is possible to store it in a plastic bag with baking soda to keep it from deteriorating, but that's using extraordinary means and outside the purview of this question. What follows is the unvarnished truth about varnishes and mediums.

Damar and mastic are soft resins that can be easily dissolved in solvents such as spirits of turpentine. They are reasonably flexible in thin films, with mastic being the more flexible of the two. As easily dissolved as they are, when mixed into combination with oils, they are prevented from dissolving. There is no truth to the idiocy that small tunnels left by dissolving damar or mastic will form and produce a spongy paint film.

Sun-thickened oils are partially polymerized oils, which have oxygen molecules locked into them. In essence, the oils are partly dried. The sun bleaches them in processing. Upon aging, these oils, as with most bleached oils, darken considerable and become far more brittle than they were before bleaching and thickening.

Stand Oil is heated in a vacuum, away from oxygen. The process completely rearranges the molecules, causing the oil to grow lighter in color and to thicken. Stand oil darkens the least of all oils. Used in thick coats, it will wrinkle upon drying. It is best used diluted with turpentine to the consistency of raw oil. Stand oil does not darken appreciably with age and remains relatively flexible.

Cold-pressed oil greatly overrated except for its ability to resist dichroism when made into paint. Real cold-pressed oil will grow rancid within two to three weeks (that’s why health food stores keep it refrigerated). It is unlikely that you will ever purchased real cold-pressed oil that has not been processed.

Heat-bodied oils rather than using the sun, this class of oils have been heated to various states. The longer the oil is heated, the darker it becomes. Heating oils improves their drying. As a general-purpose oil to keep near the easel, we use the traditional Olio Verde, linseed oil heated with lead and copper to become slightly darker than raw oil and with much improved handling and greater drying powers. Olio Verde is, perhaps the most difficult of all heat bodied oils to produce. With longer heating and higher heat, Black oil is produced. Good black oil is transparent and a deep reddish amber color. It holds a great deal of lead and dries quickly to a flexible and strong paint film. It is one of the components in Maroger’s medium. Both of the above oils lighten considerably upon drying.

Maroger’s/Megilp, etc. black oil stirred into a super-saturated solution of mastic will produce a gel. This gel imparts very special handling qualities to paint. When mixed with tube paint in its gel state, it forms the mixture into a new chemical compound that is flexible and tough upon drying. It appears that all of the failures of Maroger’s can be laid to using improperly made medium, or made with inferior materials. Properly made Maroger’s grows lighter as it dries and results in sparkling colors if used judiciously.

Copal is perhaps the most maligned of all. This is due to Ralph Mayer’s campaign to discredit his rival, Frederick Taubes – a fellow writer* and also maker of copal mediums. Copal resins are so hard that they must be melted before they will combine with oil. They can be dissolved in solvents, but the results are not useful for the easel painter. Copal varnishes dry to a hard glossy finish and they have the tendency to maintain the brushstrokes. To the easel painter that is usually a benefit. They can, however, be mixed to allow the paint film to level. Although still hard, the softest grade of commercially available copal is Manilla (two L’s). The sap is sometimes available. That is called recent copal, and it can be useful to the painter.

Congo copal, a very hard copal is rarely found. It comes from the war-torn regions of Africa. Used properly and in small quantities (very little is needed) the quality of the paint can be greatly enhanced. For the painter, it is superior in every way to amber varnishes.

Canada Balsam, Venice Turpentine, Olio d’Abezzo, etc. are the viscous saps from non-deciduous trees. Venice Turpentine is slow drying, produces a gloss and, because of the slowness, causes the colors to fuse and soften. Venice is the most common of the saps and is available in the same quality as sold in art stores from tack shops and farriers. Various European larches produce somewhat better saps, but the crowning example is Canada Balsam. It is relatively fast drying, flexible and optically pure. Because it dries in a reasonable period of time, the fusing of colors is subtle. Properly used, these saps will level the paint to a smooth enamel-like finish, especially when mixed with Stand oil. They neither yellow nor darken, although they can grow brittle if used to excess.

Amber often lumped together with copal. Amber is a chemically different substance that imparts special handling qualities to paint. Very little is needed to completely alter the handling in a nut of paint. Amber’s best quality is that it allows you to paint into wet paint. This is good because it is a very slow drying medium. While it dries to an extremely brittle paint film, if little is used there is no danger to the paint film.

Any of the foregoing mediums can be used badly. Any of them can be badly made through either incompetence or inferior materials. Making good mediums requires skill and experience. It is a very bad idea to mix and alter mediums unless you have a solid knowledge of organic chemistry and access to laboratory testing equipment. Simply mixing oils is unwise. Some oils do not mix thoroughly. Mixing solvents is equally unwise unless you know what you are doing. Using mineral spirits as a diluent results in weaker paint films and, in the case of natural resins, cloudy varnishes. Use high grade turpentine or Oil of Spike as your paint diluent. Just remember that diluting paint weakens it. If you are the type who is willing to try brain surgery at home, then there will be no dissuading you from mixing things together.

For a more sensible approach, we have published numerous recipes on the Studio Products website. They have been tested and proved effective. Massey’s book of recipes is also a good guide. It’s solid and reliable. Mayer’s book is not nearly as reliable and has several glaring errors. Past that, don’t rush into making mediums before you know what you are doing. Do not ever mix linseed, walnut or safflower oil with alkyd resins. According to the large petrochemical companies that make alkyd resins, it can (and does) cause paint to delaminate and peel away in sheets. It requires specialized industrial equipment to make an oil-modified alkyd.

Use only as much of any medium to produce the effect you want (usually about half of what you think you need) and try to produce your effects with the minimum thickness of paint on the surface. If your paint won’t cover the surface in a thin layer, it’s badly made paint.

Good preparation, solid grounds, proper application of paint and careful storage are the best guarantees of longevity.

*Taubes also stole Mayer's girlfriend. Mayer then determined to destroy Taubes by saying that copal was a sure path to ruined paintings...and lost girlfriends.

Rob Howard wrote The Illustrators Bible and Goauche For Illustration for Watson-Guptill Publishing. He has made his living at art for forty years and operated several busy and lucrative illustration and portrait studios. He lends his knowledge and expertise to Studio Products at their website.

Visit Rob Howard's Website
Tutorial is copyright of Rob Howard


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