Arches Oil Paper

The Arches mill in Northeast France has been producing paper since 1492. Their paper has endured as a standard for artists working with watercolors, drawing, and printmaking. After hundreds of years, they have recently started producing a paper specifically for oil painters.

Superficially, Arches Oil Paper bears a great resemblance to their watercolor paper and it is incredibly absorptive with the application of thinner-laden paint. In my view, the greatest thing about it is you can paint on it immediately, with no preparation or priming necessary. Oil painting on other kinds of paper has always presented the difficulty of either not being very archival because of a lack of a properly-primed surface or primed-paper having issues of brittleness and cracking.

Right now, I'm working almost exclusively with Arches. It is offered in small pads, rolls, and sheets of 22x30in. In the photos below, I am working on a piece that is 22x15in, torn from a 22x30in sheet. In these large sheets, the paper has deckle edges, so I don't like to simply razor cut portions from it, but rather I will score it, and fold the score back and forth until I can carefully tear it in two. 

In my process, I first do a charcoal underdrawing, which I spray with a fixatif before I move into the underpainting stage.

From there, I do a very thin underpainting. The fixatif appears to have no affect on how absorptive the paper is. If you wish to work on a non-asborbent surface you can treat it with an acrylic medium or gesso first, but I have not experimented with this yet.

As you can see in the photos, I use binder clips to hold the paintings in place, affixed to a thin piece of mdf as a sturdy, but portable work surface. The paper stays remarkably flat, even with large amounts of thinner applied. It is only when thicker paint is applied to the surface unevenly that it will warp at all. This can be rectified to some degree by clipping the sides in place as well. In my experience, the paper never warps to any degree that will be of significance when it is framed.

This particular painting, part of a triptych of the filmmaker Werner Herzog, I completed the painting in one nearly continuous 17 hour painting session, taking it from the underpainting all the way to what is pictured above. I painted this primarily with M Graham oil paints, but it was one of the first paintings I used RGH Oil's Cremnitz White. I feel the quality of the flesh was very much elevated by the use of the Cremnitz White. 

When it comes to presenting paintings done on Arches Oil Paper, I'll defer to the literature, which states:

A finished oil painting can be mounted to a backing board or stapled to stretcher bars and framed. If the artist wishes to display the finished piece as a work on paper then then it would be framed in one of two ways under glass: mounted to a backing board and covered with a mat board or float mounted so the edges of the paper are exposed.

While I miss the grain and give of canvas, Arches Oil Paper is a great substitute. It allows me to paint in a frenzy without having storage issues and while I do like to ship work ready-to-hang, transporting works on Arches at least has the benefit of being highly portable and economical. 

Materials

As an artist, the materials you work with are a constant cause of concern, from issues of storage to those of immediacy and (in some cases) those of longevity. Given an infinite budget and storage space, I would without question work almost exclusively on stretched canvases. Oil works on a properly primed canvas are proven to stand the test of time, are reasonably durable, and are incredibly versatile for a painter. But any painter can attest to how easy it can be to bury ones self in their own work and canvases take up a tremendous amount of space. Hell, I worked on relatively small scale 1/2in profile mdf panels for a year and almost buried myself in those. And works on panel are even easier to damage than those on canvas, at least when it comes to surface damage.

And yet, all art gets damaged. It is a part of making art and a part of owning art, whether it is UV damage over decades, someone accidentally thrusting their arm through a painting, or the sad fate of neglected art that ends up on the proverbial Island of Misfit Toys. Or it is reclaimed by a another artist, painted over and re-contextualized.

When it comes to scale, I would prefer to operate with the ideal that a work should be in the medium and the scale that suits it best. And yet I also enjoy the somewhat romantic notion that work should always be as large as you can make it. We relate to art in terms of our on sense of size and when works of art go far beyond the human scale, they become something otherworldly and wonderful. My friend Bill Hoppe used to make paintings that were as large as his studio allowed, to the extent of having a large notch on the top of his paintings to account for the pipes that ran along his studio ceiling.

Archival concerns are a very real thing in making art, as the usage of non-archival media can result in an artwork disintegrating within the artists lifetime. From a geologic perspective, almost everything manmade is ephemeral, so what is the difference between 50 years and 250 years? An enormous one when it comes to the value of art. Admittedly, the vast majority of art created is of likely of little consequence. But true or not, one cannot earnestly create art with that devastating reality in mind. All of the shitty art is worth it for the great art that endures. The art that lasts generations becomes re-contextualized like the aforementioned abandoned art, but it also participates in an ever-enduring dialogue and that is a beautiful thing. My thoughts about art enduring through time are scattered and unfocused, so I will leave it at that for now.

Being an artist that has operated outside of the gallery system for years, shipping art all over the world, I find myself often working on a scale that accounts for the ability to ship and store paintings economically. This is somewhat regrettable at times, but I do my best to work within the limitations. And this is where the oil paper made by the centuries old paper manufacturer, Arches, factors into all of this... and I suppose I'll have to write about the paper itself in another upcoming post. 

Cremnitz White

In the years I've worked as an oil painter, I must admit that I have viewed white pigments in a fairly superficial way. I knew that the vast majority of modern paint companies only produced titanium and zinc (or some combination thereof) and I knew that zinc white was a bit more transparent and a bit cooler than titanium. I have rarely worked with zinc white and I have always struggled with handling and mixing with titanium white. And that is just about all I knew about whites. 

Being a fan of the great English painter Lucian Freud, I had long ago read about how his preferred kind of white was to be discontinued, causing him to frantically purchase a massive quantity of it. This white pigment so essential to Freud was a form of lead white known as Cremnitz white.

We all know lead is dangerous. At least now we do - it has been regulated and has seriously fallen out of usage since the 1970's. And it makes plenty of sense to heavily regulate its use in any kind of paints, certainly household paints and paints used on children's toys and the like. But in artists pigments? I feel that is a wholly different matter. I already use pigments with cadmiums, cobalts, and iron oxides and those are plenty dangerous. But was lead ever banned in artist's pigments? Near as I can tell, they were not, but rather lead whites gradually fell out of use and fell out of production. I would imagine this was due to the rising popularity of synthetic pigments and mediums in the art world, along with with the decimation of the lead industry that came with the regulation of lead in most products (but again, not necessarily in artist's pigments).

Working with Cremnitz White

Working with Cremnitz White


I recently spoke to an art conservator on Reddit and she informed me that in her experience, zinc whites have terrible longevity, with intense flaking and crumbling. Apparently titanium whites are somewhat susceptible to darkening in the presence of certain environmental pollutants. Lead whites? They tend to last. 

What I've also recently come to understand about whites in painting is that titanium white has only been in common use since 1921. Zinc came use a bit before that over the course of the 19th century. Prior to that, the two whites used in the long history of painting were the calcium-carbonated-based lime white and the lead-carbonate-based lead white. 

Armed with this new information about whites and my frustration with titanium white, I started looking for a company that produces a true lead white. When you look for lead whites in the art supply stores on the internet, you will find that there are a few companies that produce faux lead whites, but that is about it. My initial thought was that lead whites must be just as scarce as they became after that Freud anecdote, but then I dug a bit deeper. I read scores of articles and forum threads on the virtues of lead whites and lamenting the lack of proper commercially-available lead whites or at least ones that are remotely affordable. Some really serious painters have taken to making their own lead white. One of these artists happens to own a paint company, RGH Artists Oil Paints and they now produce a few different variations of lead white, including the famed Cremnitz. While I've long been a devout supporter of the great Oregon paint company, M. Graham, I had to give lead white a try so I ordered their Cremnitz White in walnut oil.

The thing I first noticed about the cremnitz white from RGH Oils was that it has a far heavier body than the M Graham titanium white I have always used. It is stringy, almost ropey. It is warmer in tone and It mixes beautifully, retaining the purity of color far better than any white I've seen. Living in the high desert, paintings tend to dry relatively fast, but this cremnitz white dries absurdly fast. Too fast, really. Even through the crusty bits of paint, cremnitz white behaves how I want paint to behave. I am beginning to see what Freud saw in it and I can see why he valued it so, though I have no real way of knowing how the RGH cremnitz compares in composition to the cremnitz Freud used. 

For my money, cremnitz white isn't just different - it is better in every way that matters to me.