Aerial Perspective Using Casein
by Bill Hudson
Serendipity - looking for a needle in a haystack and finding the farmer's daughter
I've been using casein paints together with watercolor for the past few years and only wish that I had known about casein much earlier. I will always love the transparency, luminosity, and spontaneity of a wet-on-wet watercolor sky or a breaking wave. But I also like to paint rich, nearly opaque highlights and details that jump forward such as bright foliage against a dark wooded background. And I like the freedom to put these highlights and details in toward the end of a painting without having to pre-plan and allow for their inclusion with masking fluid. Casein accommodates all my wishes and more.
Like many artists of the past (and some very famous ones including: J. W. M. Turner, William Blake, Samuel Palmer, John Ruskin, Arthur Melville, Thomas Moran, James McNeil Whistler, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Charles Burchfield, and John Marin), I consider watercolor, gouache, and casein to be compatible, versatile water media well-suited for painting on paper. Transparent watercolor and gouache both use gum arabic as the binder and gum arabic is readily re-activated and soluble in water. (Hence, we frame these paintings under glass to isolate them from dirt and/or smoke buildup and to eliminate the need to eventually clean them with solvents.) Gouache has a higher concentration of pigment and also contains a chalk-like additive that renders it nearly opaque. As a consequence, when gouache is used in combination with transparent watercolor, the presence of gouache is discernable because of its comparative chalky appearance and its distinct reflective properties. Personally, I like the effects that gouache is able to achieve, but I dislike many of the visual properties.
When I discovered casein, I found serendipity. Casein is also thinned with water, but unlike watercolor and gouache, casein uses milk curds rather than gum arabic as the binder. It is the oldest known painting medium. Human milk was the original binder as used by cave dwellers. It dries quickly and becomes almost insoluble after a couple of days. (Note: It can always be re-activated with a solution of 9-parts water and 1-part ammonia.) It can be applied in very thin transparent washes or in thick impasto layers as in oil painting. It dries to a soft, creamy matte appearance that is nearly identical to watercolor. So, as a water media painter, what additional capabilities does casein provide?
Example #1 Example #2 Example #3
Example #1 Paint a silhouette with casein. Allow it to dry overnight. Then paint directly over it without it reactivating and bleeding into the rest of the painting. I've done this with people, boats, rocks, etc. If the key to the success of a painting is getting an accurate silhouette, do it first with casein. Get it right, then paint transparent watercolor over it (rather than around it) without concern of the casein bleeding.
Example #2 Paint the whites of breaking waves with casein. Then paint over those whites with blue, purple, and gray watercolor to add great shadowing effects while keeping the crispness of the original whites. This cannot be done using white gouache as it will reactivate and bleed.
Example #3 Paint in sharp, opaque details over dark backgrounds. Note the tall grasses in the foreground and the chipped, red-painted doors. Both were done using casein over watercolor. No masking fluid was required.
Watercolor & Casein, 15" x 22"
Example #4 Recently, I used a very thin mix of white and blue-gray casein to recede a coastal background. The thin casein wash did three things simultaneously. It lowered the value of the background, grayed the tone, and softened the edges .... each contributing to a more dramatic and realistic aerial perspective.
The foreground foliage was also done with casein over a dark background-mix of both casein and watercolor.
To give a more complete and honest summary, it is fair to say that casein also has some disadvantages which may explain why there are only a few remaining suppliers of artist quality paint. Jack Richeson & Co. is the primary source for the "Shiva" brand found in squeeze tubes of 32 varied colors. Some of those disadvantages are:
Casein becomes brittle in thick layers. But, I have found no problems using it on 140-lb paper in thin applications.
Colors can lighten or darken while they dry. It depends on the color and requires some familiarity.
Casein can be tough on brushes. I wash my brushes each day with soap and have avoided problems.
Casein lost its public appeal with the arrival and subsequent popularity of acrylics in the 1950's. Although acrylics are also considered to be water media by some, I prefer to treat them separately. My reasoning is that:
Acrylics are thinned with water, but have a polymer resin binder that dries insoluble.
Acrylics are, therefore, cleaned/restored like oils and do not require frames with glass and mats.
Most organizations, galleries, exhibits, etc. distinguish acrylics as a separate medium.
Acrylics are mostly associated with canvas substrates rather than paper. As a result, acrylics are commonly compared to oil paintings.
In short, I believe I've found all that I want with the combination of watercolor and casein. But even though the two have been used together by masters for centuries, I am constantly asked questions by artists and art authorities. Questions such as, "How did I get that effect with watercolor?" When I answer "Casein," I usually get a pause followed by, "So exactly what is casein?" I'm hoping that others find the same enjoyment with these two water media that I've found.
* Julius Comroe, Jr., as quoted in What Does That Mean? : Exploring Mind, Meaning, and Mysteries (2010) by Eldon Taylor, p. 9
Upcoming Events for Bill Hudson
Hope to see you this weekend in Booth # 705
FREE: This Newsletter is a free service. Selected announcements for individual artists and organizations are also free. Share a painting or marketing tip. In exchange Watermen Art will publish the tip, and post at least one of your images, with a short bio and link to your website. Click to send us an email containing a tip or announcement.