One more entry into last night's meme-fest on the US President's bizarrely unfinished, long-published typo:
As of today, The Flying Trilobite blog celebrates 10 years of surreal scientific illustration!
Please enjoy this embarrassing throwback blog banner.
My sincere thanks to everyone who has popped in and out of my fine art, science communication, social media, and blog writing career so far. It's been appropriately filled with unexpected art and work opportunities, and even more surprising and wonderful friendships. And most of all, thanks to my wife Michelle who has been so supportive of my strange career path.
The majority of the posts on this blog were written in the hours before dawn, and every time I sat down to sketch, or paint, or blog before I went off to whatever job I had at the time, I was a little more buoyant for the rest of the day. A little stronger, and my mind ticking a little faster. Looking forward to what was next.
I'll never regret getting a bat-winged trilobite tattoo on my arm, because this blog marks about a quarter of my life now. And I'm not stopping. Although it may seem like I blog less often, in reality it's even more, just in more places. I owe it all to carving out this space for myself and for others to step into.
THERE WILL BE A CONTEST TO MARK THIS MOMENTOUS OCCASION LATER THIS MONTH AND YOU CAN WIN SOME ORIGINAL ART. It will probably contain a fossil that is not scientifically sound.
Some busy days ahead!
The 3rd Annual #SciArt Tweet Storm starts on March 1st! A whole week of hundreds of artists tweeting art inspired by science with the #SciArt hashtag. The Symbiartic crew (Kalliopi Monoyios, Katie McKissick, and myself) will be retweeting a ton of them from the @Symbiartic account.
In addition, something I'm super excited about: the new symbiartic.com will be launching several hours after I post this. Check it out for some more news. We're launching something I hope will be a huge help to science communication - editors, bloggers, journalists, and of course artists or call kinds; cartoonists, fine artists, scientific illustrators, bioartists and more. Don't miss it.
On a more personal note, I am working on a portrait for a scientist (and friend!) I admire. More on that pretty soon.
AND! This here purty ol' Flying Trilobite blog turns 10 years old on the tail end of the #SciArt Tweet Storm! Watch for a contest announcement and a chance to win an original painting.
When searching for full-time work, it can be a challenge to remember what drives you forward. In my case, every career advancement I've had in the past 10 years, from speaking engagements, to professional writing, to social media management, stems from sharing my art on The Flying Trilobite blog, and experimenting with ways to build the sciart community. I'll have more to say on the actual blogiversary, but for now, thank you to everyone who encourages my work. Professionally I'm in a tough transition right now, and your support means an incredible amount to me.
As hostility towards art mounts, we may have to learn to accept the ephemeral. Call it a coping mechanism, dammit.
Let’s jump right in and learn how to destroy the irreplaceable fruits of human creativity and hard-won skill.
How to Destroy Watercolours
Often the simplest way to destroy watercolours is to simply do nothing. Wood pulp contains acids generated by the enzyme lignin that will over time, cause paper to yellow, become somewhat fuzzy on the surface and easily torn. If you want to speed up the process, simply turn on the lights. It’ll help the lignin break down faster, so it yellows and deteriorates even faster.
The way lignin acidifies and destroys paper was only really identified in the 1930s, so there are plenty of old watercolours you can get rid of. These days watercolour paper comes in multiple levels of quality, the way most art materials do, and they range from papers bathed in a pH-neutral solution to counteract the acids, to ones with the lignin removed altogether. And while tradition methods of fire, ripping and tearing, and being trampled by horses will destroy a watercolour, if you yearn for the yellowy, brittle acidic old days, all you need to do is take some cheap newsprint paper and tuck the watercolour firmly into its folds. The acid from the newsprint will soak into the archival watercolour and begin its demise. For best result, change the newsprint every so often and keep it in the light.
How to Destroy Oil Paintings
Oil paintings are painted on canvas, and again, in some cases the best idea is to let the materials destroy themselves. Before 20th century chemistry, raw cotton or linen canvas was coated with a glue size to protect the surface from moisture. The most common glue size is rabbit-skin glue, a smelly and horrible substance, as I discovered when I had to double-boil some for an art history of materials class. After the rabbit skin glue is applied, some of it was mixed with calcium carbonate to create gesso, the common fine art primer. (Modern jars of acrylic based “gesso” are gesso the way “processed cheese food” is cheese.)
So the cool thing about all this rabbit skin glue if you want to destroy classic oil paintings: it is reactive to humidity. This is why art galleries maintain meticulous climates inside. The rabbit skin glue can expand and contract with humidity levels. Oh oh oh! and so can the wooden support the canvas is stretched on! All that wood to warp, and expanding and contracting glue will cause the oil paintings to crack right the hell up, from fine spiderweb-like wrinkles to vast chasms crosscrossing the portrait or landscape. So take an oil painting into a sauna, then a desert. In the same week.
If you’d instead like to destroy an oil painting and leave a personally incriminating mark on it as well (you cheeky bastard), simply press your thumb or finger into the oil surface. Even with varnishes, the natural oils and acids in your touch can slowly cause your fingerprint to appear, ruining the painting.
Of course with oil paintings there also the whole oil-is-flammable thing. The vegetable oils and turpentine they’re made with are ripe for lighting up. As what seems to have happened to the stolen paintings from the Rotterdam Kunsthal museum in 2012 when thieves took these paintings:
All images of the stolen Rotterdam Kunsthal paintings were distributed by police and are considered open source. Copied from Spiegel Online.
The technique for destroying these works of art is more complicated but not really. First, you are smart enough to plan an art heist that baffles police, but dumb enough to steal priceless works of art you have no hope of selling due to their notoriety. Then, after a year or so, let your mother burn them all in an oven. From Spiegel Online:
How to Destroy Sculpture
Erosion is too slow. Instead try either madness or xenophobia.
For madness, let’s take a look at Michaelangelo’s Pietà.
Michaelangelo’s Pietà is a major work for many reasons, including that no one had ever depicted Mary and her son in this pose before. Typically, Christ was laying across the ground with his head in his mother’s lap. Michaelangelo played with senses of scale to evoke a mother cradling her baby: if Mary were to stand up she would be a massive giant despite her delicate and youthful head. In 1972, a disturbed geologist shouted “I am Jesus Christ” and attacked the massive Pietà with a hammer, managing to knock off a number of marble pieces, many of which were taken and never returned, including Mary’s nose. (It was later re-sculpted out of a portion removed from the back of the statue.)
For xenophobia, we turn to the Buddhas at Bamiyan.
Carved into a cliff face along the Silk Road in Afghanistan in the 6th century, these caught the ire of the Taliban who decided, “the statues were against Islam”. In the late 1990’s, holes were drilled into their faces for dynamite. This actually parallels a Christian practice of transforming pagan Roman temples into churches, and one of the acts was typically to behead or deface (literally ruin the face) of statues of Roman deities, often burying them under the new Church’s foundation.
In March 2001, the Buddhas of Bamiyan were blown up, despite international protest and an offer from India to remove them to that country.
Art that Destroys Itself
Some art is created to decay, to evoke feelings of impermanence and dissolution. The destroyers are ultimately artists in the post-modern tradition who prefer their work to be fleeting. Andy Goldsworthy for example often works with objects found in nature such as icicles, pine cones, clay and coloured earth and bright autumn leaves, sculpting their forms into elaborate, not-quite natural structures. If you haven’t seen his film Rivers and Tides, you owe it to yourself as a human being.
Want to Preserve Some Illustration?
Okay. So that was somehow both enraging and cathartic. I hate to see beautiful and provocative art destroyed without the agency of the artist.
If you do too, and would like to preserve some medical art, I strongly recommend donating to the Vesalius Trust. Medical and life science illustrators can will their work to the Trust after they die for preservation (there is no provision for digital work at the moment). When I met members of the Vesalius Trust at the AMI meeting in Toronto in 2012, I can confirm that they are absolutely passionate about the preservation of artwork. They cannot however, intervene to save artwork being mauled and destroyed by criminal acts. They’re almost super heroes, but not quite.
This list could have been tragically longer. I could have mentioned the destruction of Piss Christ by Andres Serrano at the hands of Christian zealots. My own anecdotes of people touching my still-wet oils. And what new works will be destroyed in America in the next four years? What amazing works will never be created by marginalized people targeted by a government of white supremacists?
Alright, maybe I’m not as calmed down as I thought. Time to go and watch Goldsworthy’s Rivers and Tides again to calm down and accept the ephemeral.
I've been repeating variations of this quote every day for the past couple of weeks for personal reasons. It's from The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott, screenplay by Drew Goddard, starring Matt Damon as astronaut-botanist Mark Watney.
Solve one problem, solve the next.
Shared it on Twitter, and maybe some other people will find it useful today.
Solve one problem, solve the next.
Here are my public speaking tips when speaking to a roomful of artists who are better than you. Okay, first let's define "better".
- I have an Honours Bachelor of Fine Arts, and tend to paint dead ocean critters with ridiculous wings on them.
- I have spoken to artist groups such as Association of Medical Illustrators and Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, many of whom have graduated from programs like the Biomedical Communications Graduate program at the University of Toronto and know what the thing at the back of your throat is called and how to draw it in cross section as well as animate it wiggling when you sing karaoke. Scientific illustrators create artwork that can save lives, inspire conservation efforts, and visualize trips to space. This post is based on a presentation I gave in front of life-saving medical illustrators. So that's what I mean by "better".
1. Be willing to laugh at yourself. Poke a bit of fun at your own work. Although I think wielding the power of evocative visual metaphors is one of the highest intellectual pursuits of humankind, I have to admit painting wings on trilobites is pretty weird. Hopefully this disarms any audience naysayers who wonder what you are doing there and makes discussing your work easier for others. If you don't treat your own paintings as precious, highly-evolved concepts above the likes of normal mortals, you are easier for people to relate to. For some reason.
2. Don't read from the slides. Slides should be visuals to illustrate your points, not where you keep your points. <--SERIOUSLY, THAT'S THE MOST IMPORTANT TIP ON HERE. This talk was only 20 minutes, so there was a lot of ground to cover. I included this slide (above) near the end as one I could quickly whip through if my time was almost done, or I could linger on if my talk still had extra time due to drinking 5 coffees that morning and talking like a squirrel.
3. Share useful tools. There's a tendency in artists and illustrators to want to always maintain some professional mystique, to keep the aura of Why You Are So Great a bit of a mystery so that no one replicates your success. We all need to fight that and share techniques with each other. During this presentation, I shared why I think Twitter is a great tool for nuanced, complicated arguments by using what's know as the "Twitter essay" (increasingly misidentified as a "tweet storm" these days, whatevs).
Oh, and in case you're wondering about how to write a Twitter essay without looking like a noob:
4. Don't be creepy. You want to share enough about yourself to show how everyone's professional journey is similar, but each has unique twists and turns in the story. But if you throw random personal stories out there without a point, it can come off creepy. That's why I never tell anyone my "broken zipper at a friend's wedding" story. It goes nowhere. Always bring it back around to the work and your drive for why you do what you do.
5. Open doors. When I talk about Symbiartic, I talk about the things that I feel are important to the #sciart community. Copyright and attribution issues. Respect for illustrators as effective science communicators alongside journalists. The power of banding together on issues that matter. Sharing art techniques and ideas. When I speak to professional scientific illustrators, I hope to convince them to get out of their studio-and-peers bubble a bit and share more of their work and expertise with the wider world of science communication. Insight should be shared.
Giving any sort of talk to artists and illustrators should be a call to action, a call to communicate. It's not just self-promotion, it's about participating in a wider community.
A version of this post originally appeared on Symbiartic, the Scientific American art+science blog in July, 2014. It has been lightly edited.
Yesterday, we had our first local frost here in west end Toronto. A little cold breath of winter on the morning of Hallowe'en.
Pics by me.
Been a bit quiet around here the past while. Time to liven it back up again. Thanks for sticking with me, peeps.
What chemical properties give oil paintings their luminous glow and deep darkness?
Why do they crack?
What kind of oil is used?
Is it safe to use the oil painting medium on a fresh dandelion salad?
As an oil painter for the past 20+ years who used to manage at a fine art supply store and notably not a chemist, I’ll do my best to explain. Don’t slip on the floor, and remember to soak your cleaning rags in water before disposing of them in the metal bin. They can spontaneously combust, you see.
Introduction to what paint is and isn’t
All fine art paints share a few properties that make them different from say, dyes. Paints are essentially pigment particles bound in a sticky, transparent medium, whereas dyes or soluble in liquid. So oil paints are pigment bound in oil, acrylic paints are pigments bound in acrylic polymer medium, and watercolours are pigments bound in a water-soluble medium called gum arabic. Fabric dye and fabric paint are therefore not the same thing.
There can be other agents inside a tube of paint these days, that slow down or speed up drying, that lend texture, or help stubborn pigments bind to the medium. (Inexpensive paints often have too much binder in them and can cause discolouration over time — check out this post by artist Jonathan Linton on his blog Theory and Practice for some empirical tests.) But at their root, all paints are pigment+medium.
Quick History Lesson
Within Western Art History, oils overtook fresco painting and egg tempera painting in popularity relatively quickly. The Master of Flemaille is sometimes credited with beginning the practice of using oil paint for fine art purposes, though more often the credit is erroneously given to the Van Eyckbrothers. In reality, craftspeople and artisans were already using oil for some time previously. We also now know that oil paints were in existence even earlier in Asia, thanks to paintings found behind statues blown up by the Taliban at Bamiyan.
The superior qualities of oil make it easy to understand why it took over from other mediums. Fresco, such as Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Ceiling, are essentially pigment bound in plaster. You had to mix just enough of the correct colours for one “go” or “pass” at a section, and estimate how much detail you could achieve with it before it dried before your eyes. So something like the subtle blending of God’s robes or tones and shadows of Adam’s skin in The Creation of Adam had to be estimated in multiple swatches, each with its paint mixed just before application. A difficult task. Oil paint on the other hand, may not fully dry for weeks: you can play with it, correct its tones and even erase missteps from the canvas and start again on a section. Blending becomes open for experimentation.
Types of Oil
Even in the Renaissance when oils first inspired artists to delve wholeheartedly as a medium, a number of oils were tried as vehicles for pigments. And their properties differ.
- Linseed Oil — made from flax, linseed is the most popular due to its flexibility and resistance to cracking. It does have a strong tendency to yellow with age, however.
- Walnut Oil, Poppy Oil and Safflower Oil — much less likely to yellow, these thin, clear watery oils are much more prone to cracking.
With these different properties, how do they come into play when actually painting? Well one of the Ninja Turtle Old Masters had it right: analysis of Raphael’s The Mond Crucifixion (1502–3) shows that the ground, figures and green robes were painted using linseed, and the blue sky painted with nut oil. This way, the yellowing of the figures and ground were an acceptable trade-off due to their subject, but the blue sky was considered better off being cracked and bright blue than yellowed and smooth. Painting below:
Watching Paint “Dry”
Watercolour and acrylic paints have water as part of their medium — they dry by evaporation. But oil paints don’t. They dry by what’s called a siccative quality. That is they absorb oxygen from the air. This has the undescriptive definition of:
(Chemistry / Elements & Compounds) a substance added to a liquid to promote drying: used in paints and some medicines
[from Late Latin siccātīvus, from Latin siccāre to dry up, from siccus dry]
Essentially, oils have a rate of autooxidation from the air, they absorb oxygen and harden. I’ve often described this as putting Jell-o into an enclosed container and adding tons of pineapple chunks to it: the oil is the Jell-o and the air is the pineapple — you can only add so much to the enclosed bowl and it will stop jiggling. Perhaps I haven’t got this analogy quite right. But now I want Jell-o.
As oils harden, there’s an interesting problem: oxygen is absorbed through the paint surface, meaning if the paint is very thick, you can see a different “drying” rate on the paint’s film than on the first layer’s applied on the canvas. The surface could be hard and the oils underneath still squishy like yummy lemon Jell-o. (Warning: oils processed as art supplies are not cleared for human consumption.)
Fat Over Lean
One of the main appealing properties of oil painting are the glazes. By adding a small amount of pigment to the relatively clear oil medium, you can very subtly tint an image. This is called glazing. Most Renaissance Old Masters (think the Ninja Turtles and their peeps — Artemisia Gentileschi not April O’Neil) used a toned underpainting and then built up several of these thin glazes of colour on top to create astonishingly realistic figures and scenes. The translucence of the paint film allows for sophisticated ranges of flesh tones. But then we hit the problem of the upper layers of oil glazes drying before the lower (first) ones do — and this is where cracking comes from.
Okay, another analogy: imagine the top (newest) layer of oil is stretching as it dries out hardens, and it stretches to the max. Its surface is expanding because it is absorbing oxygen (not evaporating water). Now, they oxygen eventually begins to hit the layer below. And it stretches and expands to the max. But they layer above is already dry, how can it expand any more with the one below pulling it!? >crack<
Like a big cookie on a pan. Slide an uncooked cookie under a cooked cookie, a bigger one and stretch and heat up that dough: as the bottom cookie dries and expands its surface, it will crack the smaller cookie it is now stretching on its surface. >crack< Nomnomnom.
To get around this, painters developed the Fat Over Lean rule. With each layer of glaze, add an increased amount of oil paint to the layer. (Less pigment, more oil.) This way, the rate of oxygen begin absorbed by an oily (fat) top layer will be slower than the hidden lower, less oily (lean) layers, and hopefully they will saturate with oxygen and harden at approximately the same time.
This leads to other tricks and techniques too. If you use too little oil in an early glaze, it can obliterate the drawing or painting underneath that you want to show through all the thin transparent glazes. It also can make the paint too pasty and thick, which is unworkable for fine detail. So, in the early, lower glazes, sometimes solvents such as turpentines are added. The loosen the paint, disprese the pigment particles, and then kindly evaporate in a big hurry leaving the old that’s left to be covered by another turp+pigment+oil layer that has a little less turp and a little more oil. And so on.
To answer the question above about the dandelion salad, oils themselves are not harmful (though not processed to be safe for food). An open container of say, safflower oil on the table will do no more harm to breathe in than some extra-virgin olive oil with Balsamic vinegar and a few chili flakes on your table for bread. It’s the solvents you have to be especially wary of. Even some of the odorless ones have harmful vapors, although it’s possible nowadays to buy non-toxic alternatives. I’d be happy to recommend some I’ve tried if anyone has email requests (this is not an infomercial).
Patron Saint of Pigments
In Renaissance Italy, the patron saint of painters was St Luke — who was also the patron saint of doctors. Painters didn’t have a Guild of their own, they belonged to the same as doctors. Why? Besides the mythology of the saint himself, it was for the practical reason of painters and doctors both frequenting apothecaries for medicinal and artistic ingredients.
The pigments in oil glazes add another property and challenge to the artist who up until about 150 years ago, had to mix each batch of paint by hand. The pigment particles are not all the same size, and do not all disperse at the same rate within the oil medium. What this means is some colours will have more oil, and others less. Yeah you see it coming: the glazes following the fat over lean rule are best applied in certain orders to reduce cracking upon hardening.
As an example, let’s say you’re painting a red rose, with all it’s subtle shadows and highlights. To get ideal results in your glazes, you may want to apply the glazes in this order: manganese blue, cadmium red, quinacradone red, alizarin crimson. Mostly this will not matter to modern oil painters, but it can still have an effect even today. Most true alizarin crimsons will have up to twice as much oil content as a lead-based white.
What’s the point in all these complicated glazes? Just to mix colour? Not just — they add luminosity to the painting. You see, when light enters the hardened oil paint film, it passes through several distinct layers of mostly transparent paint. And sometimes, before being reflected back out to the surface, it bounces off of one of the colourful pigments, and back down to the layers below, and then out. Sometimes it will bounce on the boundaries of the separate glazes before bouncing out to meet your eye. And this is what gives oil paintings their glow and their deep deep blacks. The dancing behaviour of the light in the complicated multiple layers and their colour pigments.
The New Oil
Consider this little afterword the start of another conversation for another day.
Oil painting gave artists the tools necessary to create images that can be corrected easily due to their long drying times and that seem to glow due to their layers. As an oil painter myself, these are highly prized qualities. And the last several years, we’re seeing another technology that prizes these same qualities of easy correction and luminosity. Digital painting has exploded in popularity with programs like ArtRage (used to create the simple image above), Photoshop, Corel Painter, and the shareware Gimp. Ctrl-z is the new solvent, and pixels the new luminous colours. And I don’t think it’s an accident. What would pioneers like The Master of Flemaille or the Jan Van Eyck have done with current technology?
If they’re like me, they’d want to experiment with the ease of the new tools but still stick their fingers in the sticky paint, smell the soft odor of the oil, and play with their pigments.
I’m not a chemist — I could be wrong. Feel free to offer corrections and tips of your own in the comments. When this post was originally published in 2011, some lively discussion ensued in the comments on both Symbiarticand Lines and Colors and I think they’re worth checking out.
1. History of Art, Fourth Edition. H.W. Jansen, revised and expanded by Anthony F. Jansen, 1991 Harry Abrams Inc. p.425–426. (Link leads to newer edition)
2. The Artists Handbook. Ray Smith, 2000 Alfred A Knopf. p.180
3. The Artists Handbook. Ray Smith, 2000 Alfred A Knopf. p.182
Originally published on Symbiartic on Scientific American at blogs.scientificamerican.com on August 2, 2011. I have made some light edits.