A Note on Technique


Most people who will be reading this note will have only seen my paintings on the web, so they wonít likely know first hand what I am talking about here. But many of those who have seen my work in person have asked me why my paintings look different than the paintings of many other realists. They are not talking about my subject matter or my style or any of that. They are talking about the paint quality: the way the paint sits on the canvasóhow it shines, the texture of the canvas, the look of the paint itself. One gallery owner who just started working with me asked me (with a wink) if I painted with cream. Many buyers have said that my paintings have the same sort of paint that old paintings seem to have, whereas contemporary paintings, even when they are very good, donít.

There is a very simple reason for that. I work differently than most modern painters, and that difference starts with my canvas. In my opinion almost all modern materials are garbage, pure and simple. They were created for speed and convenience and price and safety, not for quality. Most professional artists know this and will admit it, and yet most professional artists, even at the top of the field, use inferior pre-stretched canvases. Those who hire professional craftspeople to make canvases for them still end up with only a slightly less inferior product, since most of the time even these canvases are not up to the standards of the past. It is nearly impossible, for instance, to find anyone who will do lead priming, and if they do it they will likely use inferior leadólead with too much oil or additives. I donít know anyone else in the world who uses first quality lead to prime with, as I do. But this is what they did in the past and this is why their canvases look different than modern ones.
      I use Old Holland Cremnitz White to prime with, and I donít add anything to it as an extender except enough turpentine to make it brushable. This is the stiffest white lead in the world, with an extremely low oil content. This insures that no matter what you paint over it, the primer will be the leaner. If you used anything else as a primerótitanium white, for instanceówith an oil content that low, you would have a ground that was too absorbent. It would suck all the oil out of your first film of paint. But white lead is not absorbent, even when it is made very short. It therefore creates the perfect groundóa ground that has never been approached by any of the new gessoes and plastics. Furthermore, it is very elastic. It moves with the weather just like the linen below it and the paint above it. Modern materials donít.
      The reason other painters donít do this is cost. Old Holland is very expensive paint. My using it as a primer is considered to be extravagant. But it is not extravagant, it is absolutely necessary. There is a visible difference, even to amateurs, and this difference cannot be achieved any other way. Successful painters could request that their canvas builders use it, and pay the difference, but the fact is they donít. The builders are already charging a lot for the service, and another extra charge just seems silly to everyone concerned. So they donít bother.

I get around this as I get around a lot of other gaps in the ďserviceĒ industry: I do it myself. I donít like to have to argue with people I have hired, so I just donít hire them. Building canvases isnít difficult, once you know how, and I can vary each canvas to suit the piece I am building it for. I donít have to limit myself to standard sizes, and I can add texture to some canvases and not to others. I can also create a particular color for each ground, to suit the piece that will go on it.

A few realists used to do this when they were younger (according to their literature) but most get lazy and stop doing it when they can afford to hire it out. I have continued to do it into my mid-40ís, since I havenít discovered a good reason to stop. I canít very well hire someone to vary each canvas to suit each piece, so I donít even try. Besides, I enjoy the process. It is like choosing the frameóanother part of the complete project I never want to give up. A bad frame can nearly destroy a good work. In the same way, a bad canvas can doom a painting before it is ever begun. I often tell my students that if I had to paint on their canvases, I couldnít do anything either. It is not a joke. It is the absolute truth.

As with my primer, so with my linen. I still pay extra for good linen, and it shows. Linen prices have gone through the roof in the last 50 years, since heavy linen is a specialty item just for artists, and they know that artistsí materials are a gouge-economy, like photo materials. We are a captive clientele, and anything for artists or photographers will cost double or triple what it would cost a normal person. There are ways around the biggest cheats, however, and I happen to know them. I get heavy, high thread-count linen without getting ripped off too badly. Once again, this makes a real difference in the way the ground is textured and the way the canvas hangs. It does not go limp like a bedsheet or flutter in the wind or have little pinholes or look like an orange peel. It looks more like an old master canvas because it is more like an old master canvas.

My paint layers are different, too. Once again I use the best white lead as my basic white, and this is the main ingredient in all my skin and hair and lighter tones. White lead is warmer and more glowing than other whites. That is why it is sometimes called silver white. It looks prettier right out of the tube, and it makes better skintones. It is the most durable paint with the least oil, and it will last almost forever without cracking, especially alla prima. It is not dangerous to apply thick, and its natural stiffness makes it easy to add texturing toólike with the pointy end of your brush.

A few realists are using lead again, but usually it is not the alla prima painters who are using it. The uber-traditionalists have taken to it, but they do not use it to full effectósince they usually donít have visible brushmarks, thick paint, or lots of visible skin. White lead will do less for a still life than it will do for a face or a nude, in my opinion. For the most part, the alla prima painters have stuck with titanium, which they think is more brushable. They tend to like oily ďbutteryĒ paint, which is easier to push around quickly. But oily paint is dangerous paint, since it is not durable. It will crack. The alla primers have tried to learn everything from Sargent except this. They have refused to learn from his mistakes. He used store-bought grounds and modern whites and they cracked. It is quite easy to make lead brushable, without complex mediums. You can have as speedy a brush as you like using lead. You just have to want to.
      My color palette is as traditional as my white. I have chosen to trust organics over inorganics, against the advice of the scientists. They have a few years of lab analysis to point to, but I have all the paintings in the museum to point to. They have a century of catastrophes to answer for, I have Titian. Titianís colors are good enough for me, that is to say, and the risks of modern science are not worth taking. I donít want or need exponential saturation, I need subtlety. I donít need phthaloís and cadmiums, which hurt my eyes and overwhelm my color mixes. I need red earth and green earth and yellow earth and brown earth and black earth, primarily, because this is what skin is made of. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. Earth and skin and hair and trees are all the same thing, just taken at different stages. Anselm Kiefer finds it poignant to put these things into his paintings directly, but I find it even more poignant to grind them up firstóto use them. An artist should not have to put these relationships on display: it should be implicit to any feeling person that paint and skin are both forms of mud. Best to use the mud to make something, rather than leave it as mud.

A believable skintone can be made from titanium white and cadmium red and so on. But that skintone will have a different quality than one made from white lead and red earth. It will sit on the canvas differently and glow differently and accept a varnish differently. The titanium and cadmium skin will look more like plastic, more like an acrylic paint. It will be brighter and cleaner. But skin is not bright or clean. Use mud to make mud, I say.

And finally, my varnish is different. I donít use modern varnishes. I donít trust them. Donít send me any letters (you wonks) because I have heard all the arguments. I donít need UV blockers or sunscreen in my varnish, I donít need space-age polymers, etc. I need a natural gloss that I can easily manipulate, that stays clear with a little wax, that I can cut with turpentine (the least powerful and least dangerous of the solvents), and that I can remove without other space-age materials. In my opinion, the new artists materials are like the new cars. You canít work on them yourself. You have to hire specialists and send off to Tokyo or Stuttgart for all your parts. You have to pull the engine to replace a sparkplug. To solve one problem with the old varnish, science has created 50 new problems, many of them yet to be discovered. Highest quality damar is removable and it looks great. You can make it yourself for cheap and what you make is superior to anything you can buy (since everything now on the market is tarted up in some way).

That is why my paintings look different. They are different.