Excerpted from International
Issue # 13 June/July 2000
- it's matte, muted and cool
but it's not for the fainthearted.
This little-used medium demands
care and patience, so let
John Molnar introduce you
to its joys."
I show my work, the one question I'm
invariably asked is "What is casein?" And it's
not just from potential buyers,
but from critics,
gallery owners and fellow artists as well.
So for those of you who may not be familiar
with casein, here's a quick overview.
Casein (kay'seen) paint is a aqueous medium
made from the protein of milk. You can apply
it to any ridgid, non-oily surface such as
masonite, wood, plaster, heavy watercolour
paper, paperboard, canvas or linen mounted
on masonite or even stone. Casein dries
quickly to a velvety matte finish and
over time, it becomes resistant to moisture.
Unlike oils, there are no harmful solvents
required for casein, which is particularly
appealing to me during Toronto winters when
the idea of opening a window to ventilate my
studio is both uninviting and impractical.
The fact that casein dries more quickly than
oil is also a bonus because I don't have to
wait several days to go on to the next stage.
(I tend to get obsessive about a painting and
I want to continue with it while the idea
is still fresh in my mind).
I think acrylics are okay,
but I don't find them
as versatile as casein, especially for the way
I paint. With casein I can use a triple zero brush
to get razor sharp detail for highlighting water.
Or I can lay down a diaphanous wash with a
Chinese brush to suggest hills in the distance.
Achieving the same results with acrylic would
be difficult because they dry too quickly or
have a tendency to become gummy and
resinous unless you buy all sorts of
extenders and other media.
One advantage of casein over watercolour is
that it's correctable. If I'm using a gessoed panel
and don't like a particular section of the painting,
I can rub out casein with a damp cloth or eraser.
If it's dried, I remove it with ammonia and water,
although this technique is not recommended when
working on paper (one part ammonia to nine parts
water). In general, casein creates a smooth, flat
finish, but I can create an impasto look by
texturizing my gesso primer and applying
thin layers of casein on top of it.
Besides its amazing versatility, I like the
fun of using a forgotten medium.
The look is matte, muted and cool!
SUBJECTS FROM MY
When choosing subjects for my paintings,
I generally go for what's in "my own backyard"
and seldom paint anything that's not within
three hours driving distance from Toronto.
The motif that seems to run through most
of my work is the passage of time - the
weathered wood of an old cottage or chair,
the ancient rocks of Georgian Bay or transitory
clouds moving across a deserted farm.
I work from photo reference and often shoot
in black and white because I don't want to be
overly influenced by colour, which can
sometimes make me approach a painting
too literally. Generally, I plan out a painting
with compositional sketches and then
transfer them to masonite, watercolour
paper or paperboard.
I used to do all my casein paintings on
Masonite panels, but now I usually paint on canvas
or linen, which I affix to Masonite.
I make the panels by sanding down the Masonite
and sealing it with a 50-50 mixture of Weldbond
PVA glue and water. Then I paste the canvas or
linen on the panel and overlap it on the back, making
neat folds at the corners. The next day I apply gesso,
thin coats of shellac or PVA glue and I usually sand
the linen or canvas to a smooth surface because that's
what I prefer to paint on. I find the weave in canvas
or linen produces a more interesting effect than
Masonite and that I can use the warp and weft to
create beautiful tonal gradations by simply
dragging my brush over the surface.
After I've primed my surface, I lay the
and put down the puddles of earth tone colours over
my underdrawing and let casein's improvisational
qualities do some of the work for me. To encourage
the flow of the paints, I keep them "juicy" using
liberal amounts of water.
I soon begin to see shadows
and textures that
improve the composition of the painting,
yet don't diverge from my original idea.
Fields, trees, hills and structures also
begin to form, which means I don't have
to render everything exactly as I see it.
After that, I apply two or
three glazes of
primary or secondary colour over my
monochromatic underpaintings to bring
out the medium's atmospheric,
I used to paint in a totally
way, but then I'd have to redraw, losing
the original feeling of my painting under
layers of paint. Now I work primarily with
transparent glazes, although I can lighten
very dark areas with heavier, more opaque
layers if I need to. The key to glazing is to
make sure each layer is dry or the painting
will be muddy. If I want to move on quickly,
I use a hair dryer to set each layer.
Because casein colours can lighten or darken
after they dry, I do a test on a small area
of the painting, adding or subtracting water
or paint until I get what I want. Red, oranges
and yellows in particular can appear duller
because of casein's matte nature, so with
these colours, I'll often kick up the intensity
a notch by adding powdered pigments
to the tubed paint.
If I want to use a colour that isn't available
the Shiva line, I mix Shiva Casein Emulsion
with powdered pigments. First, I spray some
water on my palette and scoop out the powdered
pigment with a palette knife. Then I mix the
water and pigments until it forms a paste.
After that I add a couple of drops of Shiva Casein
Emulsion, mix again and I'm ready to paint.
Casein's speedy drying time
lead to problems with colour bleeding,
but stippling or spattering
easily controls tonal gradations.
When I'm happy with the overall
I begin the finishing stage, which brings
"life" into my subjects through fine detail.
These details are essential for recreating
the sensations of the moment - the mood,
feeling and the sound of the scene that
initially inspired me to paint it.
In some cases, I add the detail
a finely pointed brush, but I've also been
know to scratch or incise details by paring
back down to the original surface with an
x-acto knife or sandpaper. A stipple brush,
toothbrush or my fingers make good tools
for adding texture too.
Finally, I ask myself if there's an
overall feeling of harmony, with nothing
out of step or out of tune. If the answer is
yes, I know I'm ready to put down my
paintbrush and move onto something else.
IN SYNC WITH CASEIN
I find that casein is ideal for portraying
atmospheric perspective and visual detail.
I also like casein because of its
improvisational qualities and nuances
which I've learned over the years.
But casein is a challenging
and not for the faint of heart. It demands
special considerations and is not easy to
master. I'm convinced that working
in casein has made me a better painter
because I have to consider every stroke
before I make it - more than I do with
any other media. Casein forces me to
slow down and contemplate.
You can call me crazy, but that's
exactly why I like it.