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Friday, November 17, 2017

Ancient Art Supplies (Part 2)

My easel is much like the one in the middle.
In yesterday's post on ancient art materials (part 1, just below), and in earlier items, I have already gone into some detail in discussing paintbrushes as well as easels. The former dates back to the Paleolithic Period starting about 2,500,000 years ago, the latter going back at least to Greek artists before the time of Christ (below). I have discovered, however, that I've been remiss in delving into that most common utensil of the artist's creative output down through the ages--the lowly pencil. The word pencil comes from the Latin, penicillum, the name for a small, fine-tipped brush used for writing. That, in turn, has a diminutive form in the Latin word for brush, peniculus, which in turn has as a diminutive form of the Latin word, penis, which means “tail” (not what you were expecting, I'll bet). This word was used for these very fine brushes because they were made from tufts of hair from the tails of animals.

Ancient Greek Easels.
The earliest instruments for making marks other than pen was a metal stylus scratching into a wax-coated tablet. Codex, the Latin word for tree trunk, came to be used for the wax-coated wood tablet that became the precursor to the modern book. During the Middle Ages, styluses of metal were used on surfaces coated with chalklike substances, and slate pencils or chalk on slate tablets. (Slate pencils continued to be sold in America into the late 19th-Century.) The mixtures of metals used for the stylus evolved, and eventually alloys of lead with tin, bismuth and mercury were developed. Styluses of two parts lead, one part tin became known as plummets. Plummets also continued to be used into the 19th century in the U.S., alongside pencils, goose-quills, and pens. The earliest known description of a wood-encased lead pencil dates from a 1565 book on fossils. “The made for writing, from a sort of lead which the English call antimony, shaved to a point and inserted into a wooden handle.” Lead, however, dirtied the hand, made a rather faint mark, and required considerable pressure.

Medieval pencil with bread eraser.
Sometime in the 1560’s a chance event became the turning point in the development of the modern pencil. Local lore tells of a fierce storm in the Cumberland, area of England, which uprooted a large ash (or oak) tree. Shepherds discovered a strange black substance clinging to its roots. The shepherds quickly discovered this to be very useful for marking their sheep. Gradually its application for writing was developed. By the end of the 16th-Century graphite was well known throughout Europe for its superior line-making qualities, its eraseability, and the ability to re-draw on top of it with ink, which is not possible with lead or charcoal. By 1610 black lead was sold regularly in the streets in London wrapped in paper, string or twigs. The technique for encasing the graphite in wood emerged from the woodworking craft of joiners, with the original process involving cutting a lengthwise groove into a strip of wood, gluing strips of pure Borrowdale graphite into the groove one against the next until it was filled, sawing off the protruding pieces to flatness, then gluing a piece of wood on top to cover the contents. The wood assembly could then be used in its initial square shape, or shaved to a round form.

The Brandelhow Mine, Borrowdale, England
As the desire for the pencils grew, the graphite mine in England strictly controlled the amounts mined yearly. Thus, populations outside of England had to search for their own alternatives. Deposits of inferior quality and purity elsewhere in Europe, and the need to conserve the pure Borrowdale graphite, led to the development of mixing the graphite with additives. In 1795 Frenchman Nicolas-Jaques Conté was granted a patent for his new formula of mixing clay with graphite, and varying the proportion of clay to graphite leading to pencil leads of different, but uniform, degrees of blackness and hardness, which remains the basis for pencil-making today. In 1847 an American named Joseph Dixon opened a pencil and crucible factory in Jersey City. At first the crucibles were the main profitable business, but in 1866 Dixon patented a wood planing machine capable of producing wood for 132 pencils per minute.

Despite the claim to be "American made" this Dixon factory was in Canada. The sign touts "Chancellor Lead Pencils."
By 1873 the Dixon graphite mixing process had improved as well. Clever marketing of the pencil as an American product (verses German pencil manufacturers who were trying to move in and dominate the American market) made Dixon “the birthplace of the world’s first mass-produced pencils. These innovations proved timely, as the demand for pencils grew exponentially with the Civil War. By the end of the 19th-Century, over 240,000 pencils were used each day in the US. Presently, each year, Dixon Ticonderoga produces an estimated 1.5 billion pencils, about two-thirds of which are the yellow No. 2 pencils used by artists (and standardized test-takers) around the world.

The battle between the keyboard and the pencil.
A palette, in the original sense of the word, is a rigid, flat surface on which a painter arranges and mixes paints. Palettes are usually made of wood, plastic, ceramic, or other hard, inert, nonporous material, and can vary greatly in size and shape. Personally, I prefer the "palette pad" (a white, waxy pad of paper in various sizes, which allow each sheet to be torn off and discarded after each painting session). The most commonly known traditional painter's palette is made of a thin wood board designed to be held in the artist's free hand and rest on the arm. Watercolor palettes are generally made of plastic or porcelain with rectangular or wheel format with built-in wells and mixing areas for colors.

Several artists have had their palettes (and thus t
heir color preferences) preserved for posterity.
From the original, literal sense above came a figurative sense by extension, referring to the artist's selection of colors in comprising a visual style or tonal suite. The parallel palette, which in most usages is not really parallel, (invented by David Kassan) to the painting, mounted at a sloping angle adjacent to the painting. This insures that the artist to see colors in the same lighting as on the canvas looking directly back and forth between subject, canvas, and palette.

Modern-day stretched canvases come in virtually any size.
The content, style, and purpose of the painting should always dictate the size...never vice-versa.
And finally, the painter must have something upon which to paint, usually paper, a panel of some sort, or stretched canvas. Canvas panels are made of canvas stretched over and glued to a cardboard backing, then with paper sealed on the backside. The eventual framing provides structure in lieu of canvas stretchers. Gessoed Masonite or plywood can also be used for smaller works. The stretched canvas is typically linen primed for a certain type of paint. Canvas is typically made of cotton or linen stretched across a wooden frame called a stretchers and may be coated with gesso before it is to be used; this is to prevent oil paint from coming into direct contact with the canvas fibers, which will eventually cause the canvas to decay. A traditional and flexible chalk gesso is composed of lead carbonate and linseed oil, applied over a rabbit skin glue ground. Inasmuch as lead-based paint is poisonous, care has to be taken in using it. Various alternative and more flexible canvas primers are commercially available, the most popular being a synthetic latex paint composed of titanium dioxide and calcium carbonate, bound with a thermo-plastic emulsion. Many artists, such as Jackson Pollock, have painted acrylic based paints directly onto unprimed canvas.

The Battle of Grunwald, 1878, Jan Matejko. The stretched canvas is 14 feet by 32 feet. No telling how big his easel was.
Early canvas was made of linen, a sturdy brownish fabric of considerable strength. Linen is particularly suitable in using oil paints. In the early 20th-Century, cotton canvas, often referred to as "cotton duck," came into use. Linen is composed of higher quality material, and remains popular with many professional artists, especially those who work with oil paint. Cotton duck, which stretches more fully and has an even, mechanical weave, offers a more economical alternative. The advent of acrylic paint has greatly increased the popularity and use of cotton duck canvas. Linen and cotton derive from two entirely different plants, the flax plant and the cotton plant, respectively. The greatest difference between modern painting techniques and those of the Flemish and Dutch Masters is in the preparation of the canvas. "Modern" techniques take advantage of both the canvas texture as well as those of the paint itself. However, Renaissance masters took extreme measures to ensure that none of the texture of the canvas came through. This required a painstaking, months-long process of layering the raw canvas with (usually) lead-white paint, then polishing the surface, and then repeating. The final product had little resemblance to fabric, but instead had a glossy, enamel-like finish similar to the wooden panels it replaced.
 A work station for airbrushing.
Do artists airbrush anymore?

other painting
used by artists today
can be found here.


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