Monday, September 13, 2004

Alkyds are bad,m'kay?

One of the few constants in my life has been painting. Not houses so much. You know, pictures. That was one of the activities that I found difficult to keep up with while I was homeless (which explains the credit card, but we'll get around to that a bit later, okay?), and during the last five years or so I've spent what little time and money I've had on things like computers, software and books. (The skills I'd amassed working with Z80s and 6502s did not translate well to Notes and Domino, and the web skills I had were — well, lets just say that the analogy that the guy who hired me was given was a little over-exaggerated.) I've had to teach myself a lot, and that has taken most of my resources. Well, folks, the time has finally arrived when I can start to indulge my other passions.

I've worked in most media that can be described as "painting", including watercolours, egg tempera, encaustic, pastels (I used to roll my own, since nobody seems to want to manufacture good, soft, really dark darks; Talens/Rembrandt uses black in their mix, which is a "colour" I never, ever use), acrylics and oils. Each of these media forces its own personality on me. Watercolours make me a very Victorian flora-and-fauna illustrator; pastels awaken my inner Impressionist. My favorite medium, though, is my first: oils. Oils were the only medium I've ever been schooled in, and my technique is very much anchored in the "old masters". (I somehow doubt that children today would be afforded the training I received as a seven-year-old, what with all of the lead, mercury, cadmium, cobalt, selenium, arsenic and cyanide used in the really good pigments.) Nothing else quite matches the tactile sensuousness of buttery oils on a well-worn #12 hog filbert. Mmmmmm, buttered filberts.....

If there is a problem with oils, it's that some colours can take weeks or even months to dry to the point that you can paint over them. Oils "dry" by polymerization through oxidation. Some pigments catylize the process, others retard it. There have been drying mediums (additives) available for hundreds of years to hurry the process along, notably copal and japan drier, but they almost universally have the deleterious effect of causing the paint layer to shrink and become brittle, guaranteeing cracks. Sometime in the early '80s, I discovered Winsor & Newton's Liquin medium, an oil-modified alkyd resin. It tightened the apparent drying time enough that I could usually overpaint in a week, but left the paint "open" so I could work into the same layer for a couple of days. Best of all, it left the paint layer as flexible as linseed oil would make it and obeyed the fat-over-lean rules. (And I'm just anal enough to have carried out my own accellerated aging tests before using it in any of my serious work.)

Well, I made the mistake of thinking that alkyd-based paints from that same reputable maker would behave in more-or-less the same way. Wrong. The open time can be measured in minutes before the paint begins to tighten (the brush begins to pull off more paint than it puts down), and there is still a week before you can overpaint without harming the underlayer. The worst of both oils (long waits for overpainting) and acrylics (short wet-into-wet time frame). Alkyds may be useful to those who paint alla prima, but that ain't me. Even at a third of the cost of good oils, it was an expensive lesson.

Oh, well, I guess its back to buying real oils. Ouch. Have you priced a tube of real vermilion or cobalt violet light lately? For those of you who don't dabble, it's not unheard of for a one-ounce tube of some pigments to exceed a hundred dollars Canadian (about $US75.00), and most good-quality pigments hover at around $35. And no, the bargain brands are no bargain; they're essentially thinnned down with excess linseed oil and aluminum stearate, and mix horribly with other colours, making weak darks at best.

I'll try to get some of my pictures up here along the way. I promise they'll be worth the wait.

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