Since ancient times, writing, drawing and paintings have been made using pigments and/or dyes in water, often without any binder as such. These are generically inks, which don’t conform to other media such as watercolours or the temperas. The most common among them is India ink, whose essential ingredients are carbon particles from soot suspended in water. When applied to a suitably-absorbent ground, this has stood the test of centuries.
Hieronymus Bosch’s pen and ink study of The Owl’s Nest from around 1505-1516 is a good example of a work which is starting to transcend into painting.
Washes applied using a brush became common in sketches in front of the motif, such as Egbert van der Poel’s Fire in the Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam, in 1645. Known for his paintings of fires, he used these sketches to paint his famous brandjes in the studio. Landscape artists such as Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain used the same sketching media working en plein air to build image libraries for the idealised landscape in their finished paintings.
By the early nineteenth century, artists like Samuel Palmer were creating works which are to all intents and purposes full-blown paintings using black and coloured inks, such as this atmospheric nocturne of Cornfield and Church by Moonlight from about 1830.
Adding a binder such as shellac to India ink makes it waterproof when it has dried, and this was used in combination with watercolours by illustrators and painters such as the great Arthur Rackham, here in one of his illustrations for an edition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Used without a binder, inks normally rewet and smudge or blur, so have to be applied after any watercolours.
A related medium which also crossed over from its use in drawings and illustrations is casein, a protein-based tempera. It too has a very long history, but didn’t become popular among artists until the late nineteenth century. Casein is a protein which was originally obtained from sour milk, but by the nineteenth century was more usually prepared by the addition of enzymes used in cheese manufacture – rennet – which in turn were extracted from the stomachs of calves.
Casein powder is then turned into paint by dispersion in an alkaline solution, typically made from lime or borax, and pigment is ground in. When lime is used, the paint works best on porous grounds, but must be used fresh. When a little linseed oil is added to borax casein, a shelf-life of several months or more is possible.
Casein paints dry as quickly as egg tempera, but can be reworked for a period until the binder has fully hardened. Once that has taken place, their paint film is quite robust and stable.
The earliest painting that I have seen which is known to have been made in casein paints is William Morris Hunt’s unusual view of Niagara from 1879. Hunt deviated here from his customary use of oils, although he still applied his paint to a prepared canvas support.
One of the most famous and interesting artists to have used casein paint is Gustav Klimt. In 1902, he painted a frieze of 24 metres in length for the fourteenth exhibition of the Vienna Secession, his Beethoven Frieze, of which the above is a section known as The Hostile Powers, and that below is Nagging Grief.
He applied his casein paint directly onto mortar, with added stucco, gold leaf, and other materials. This is known to be a robust form of wall-painting which is much more accommodating than fresco, and just as enduring, but has never become popular.
A few of Colin Campbell Cooper’s skyscraper cityscapes were painted using casein media, including this view of Flatiron Building, Manhattan from about 1908. He was equally proficient in watercolour and oils, and I don’t know why he experimented with casein, nor why he used it so infrequently.
Another Vienna-based artist, Albin Egger-Lienz, also used casein a little, such as in this fourth of several different versions of Totentanz (Dance of Death) from 1915.
During the twentieth century, casein paints never became popular but continued to be used, particularly by those who also made illustrations. Just when they were attracting a following among artists such as Andy Warhol, they were rapidly displaced by acrylics, which I will look at in the next article in this series.
Casein paint is still available today, sold by Pelikan under the brand name of Plaka.