The topic of painting with Flake White recently came up in a group, and Celeste asked me about why I like to paint on a lead ground. She also asked about how one prepares a lead ground, but rather than explain the full-meal deal (which would cover how to mix hide glue, applying the lead oil ground, and curing the surface with sunlight) I thought I’d to share a perfectly acceptable short-cut instead.
In my opinion, there no surface more luxurious to paint on than a lead ground, though there are a few things you may want to know about before making your own. First, don’t worry about using lead. The health dangers of it have been overstated for artistic use. People now panic when they see it on the palette. Don’t. You aren’t planning to start gnawing on peeling windowsills, are you? You aren’t going to start sanding old clapboard siding either, Right? So you won’t be eating, ingesting or breathing any dust, and you are certainly going to wash your hands when you are done messing around with lead in the studio. So using flake white is a fairly benign material to work with, considering what it can offer the artist that other whites don’t, and I am going to assume you aren’t dumping your solvents and dissolved paints down the drain into the general ecosystem, right? If so, then read on . . .
The fact of the matter is that Lead White has been a mainstay of oil painting for centuries. since before the 16th century, and in many ways it has yet to be surpassed by more modern whites such as Titanium and Zinc.
But hey, I digress . . . Back to creating a short-cut lead ground to paint on.
The Substrate: A Ready-Made Canvas Panel from Raymar Art
When I apply a lead ground for painting on, I prefer laying it onto a rigid support. Often the support is a panel with canvas or linen glued to it because I like the weave. I also sometimes apply a lead ground onto a sized panel for a more smooth finish — but for landscape work, having a bit of a weave helps facilitate the creation of softer edges. Above is one of my favorite pre-made canvas panels as it comes from the factory, with a acrylic “gesso” already applied. (More on acrylic ‘gesso’ in another post.) You could paint on it as is, and it makes an okay surface to paint on without any modification, but a thin skin of lead makes it more receptive for oil painting on top. It changes everything.
What you need: An Acceptable Applicator
You need a good sized, quality palette knife in good condition. No nicks, warps, dents, cracks, or burs. You want a clean and crisp edge or it will show as you scrape on the lead white. If you’d prefer, you can use a industrial cake froster, or even an old credit card (old Richard Schmid trick), but a nice palette knife with the right amount of flex in the blade makes applying the lead easy.
The Lead White: Old Holland Cremnitz White #2
You also need good quality lead white paint. (Again, we are not applying a true lead oil ground, but a quick alternative.) I prefer Old Holland’s Cremnitz No. 2 for this purpose — for its body, coverage, and the fact it contains absolutely no zinc, a pigment often found in lead white mixtures. (Check the ASTM labeling on the tube. There have been some archival studies that indicate that the inclusion of zinc may be responsible for premature paint film failure. But that topic is beyond the purpose of this post.)
This panel is 9 x 12 inches in size, and I’ve squeezed out about a inch’s worth of paint straight out of the tube. For this kind of surface (canvas) I won’t bother to modify the viscosity. It is perfect as is. For a smooth panel, without linen or canvas, you can mix a little odorless thinner into the paint until it reaches the consistency of sour cream. Sour cream, not milk. Too much solvent will weaken the ground and you don’t want that under your masterpiece.
I usually work outward from the center, varying my strokes, and use a light touch. This is where the quality of your knife shines, or it doesn’t. Sometimes my stroke are circular in nature, sometime they are at an 45 degree angle to the weave of the canvas.
The next image demonstrates the initial paint thickness when spreading the paint out. I’ll end up scraping most of it off in the next step, and leave just the valleys of the weave filled. I strike the excess paint off the peaks of the weave with the edge and flat bottom of the knife.
The panel is now covered. I didn’t actually time myself but it couldn’t have taken longer than two minutes to do. Next, I will set the panel aside to “dry”. (Oxidize, actually, but perhaps we’ll talk about what that means in another post.)
This is how much paint was struck off afer the first coverage. I would guess it is about half of what was originally laid down. This paint will go onto the next panel in the line. I always lay more lead down that I will leave because it makes it easier to spread around.
Here is a close up of the finished surface. The first photo at the top of this post shows the surface before lead was applied. Compare the two images. The panel now has a surface similar to expensive double-primed linen. It will accept paint the same way too. Of course, if you want, you can let the panel dry to the touch and add a second layer.
A Side Note: Texturing the Ground
Here is the same surface using more lead and having been texturized slightly with the knife. You can create some interesting and immediate effects this way but if longevity is important to you then don’t go too crazy with the amount of paint. There is one notable difference between lead paint applied in this manner, and the use of an oil ground, and you can see it clearly in this close up. In my experience, most lead (or titanium) oil grounds will slump a bit after they have been applied. You lose a lot of the nicely defined peaks you can see here. This texture can integrate with thicker paint placed on top in stunning ways. (But please, I have not used as much paint in this image as you may think!)
You can also wait for the lead paint to set more firmly, and then strike off the top of the peaks to create yet another lovely surface to paint on. All of these lead-enabled effects have been exploited by oil painters for centuries — to create lace, brocade, or to emulate the textures of foliage, rocks, and rushing water.
I could go on and on about texturizing alone but this should be enough for now. I encourage you to experiment with the way lead white can hold a textural quality. Perhaps you will find a way of manipulating it to your own advantage. Rembrandt and Velasquez certainly did.
Back to a Smoother Surface:
But these days I tend to start my plein air paintings off with a fairly flat surface and build up the strokes in my paintings in a controlled manner. So I strike off any excess paint by laying the knife down flat (or almost flat) against the canvas and drawing it across the surface, varying the direction of my stroke and periodically wiping the blade of excess paint onto my palette, reserving it for the next panel. Again, a quality knife helps this greatly.
This is the final step. I check for any odd blemishes the knife work may have left by holding the panel up to a raking light. Look for things like patchy coverage, knife stutter, errant strokes, or anything which seems out of context. The raking light reveals all of that and there is plenty of time to correct any nigglies or blemishes since there are no solvents or alkyds involved.
The Big Finish:
And the best thing of all . . . ?
The easy clean up! Just wipe the knife and I am done! No messy brushes, rags, or solvents!
Some Additional Comments:
a) This is not a size or true “ground”. You still must to lay an oil-impermeable size between your canvas, linen, or wood support and this ‘ground’ or rot will set it from the acids in the linseed oil. With the commercially prepared panel used for this demonstration, the acrylic ‘gesso’ applied by Raymar Art is already performing the function of a size so noe was needed. And always remember you are applying a paint, not a ground. Most grounds contain bulking additives such as calcite, or other ingredients, with the intent to control oil-absorbency and drying rate. So applying too much lead paint for your ground can cause trouble for your painting if you are too excessive with the practice.
b) Lead white darkens and yellows a bit with time. Not a lot, but some. By how much, and when it will stop depends upon the paint itself, which is why you want to choose quality over price. The yellowing is largely caused by the linseed oil in the paint and is unavoidable. In most cases the change contributes to the “Gallery Glow” of the Old Masters, and it is considered a desirable thing, unless you economized by re-using an old painting, and pentimento occurs down the road. Lead White will become increasingly transparent with age. Also contributing to gallery glow. Laying the lead on top of a permanent white acrylic ‘gesso’ likely mitigates any darkening.
c) If longevity is your overriding goal then this should only be done on a rigid support. Lead carbonate, aka as Flake White, creates one of the strongest paint films we know of, and it strengthens any other color it is mixed into, but all drying oils will become brittle with age. This transformation is inevitable. After 50 years or so the linseed oil has changed enough to become susceptible to cracking, and the issue is compounded when a flexible support has been used. But then, a little judicious craquelure can add to the “Gallery Glow” too, eh?
d) If you try this out it is a good idea to wait 5 to 7 days before starting a painting on top. You can paint on it before then but you may find the oil or solvent you use to paint with may dissolve or etch into the ground to an extent. (In the manner of the Pre-Raphaelites, for example.) If you don’t use the ground within 4 to 5 weeks then I’ve been told it is better to wait another 6 to 12 months so it may cure, because the surface may be in an in-between state, and not allow a strong bond to form between itself and any fresh paint you lay on top. I can’t say if the second point is a legitimate concern because it has always been delivered to me by ultra-purists speculating with little supporting evidence. And by the kind of person who seems more concerned about the rules than about making art. But I think if you keep the layer of lead thin that will mitigate the concern. When it comes to creating a long-lived painting with oil there are a number of other more pressing things to focus upon.
e) Never ever, ever, sand a lead round to make it smoother. Just don’t do it. Not even wet sanding with a face mask. If you want an ultra-smooth surface to paint on then you want a true gesso, not a lead ground. Breathing lead dust is the worst way to ingest it. The second worst is via hand-to-mouth from snacking or eating in the studio. So don’t do either and you’ll be fine.
I hope you find this tip to be of interest. I encourage you to try a lead ground yourself. And if you do please let me know how it works for you.