Making Verdigris pigment and Copper Resinate (A Comedy of Errors)

Verdigris was a pigment commonly used in oil painting from the 15th to the 18th century, but which fell into disuse after that, when modern green pigments began to be developed that were more dependable and nonfading. Verdigris oil paint is well known to have many drawbacks which the Old Masters certainly suspected: they wrote that it was incompatible with many other pigments, even to the extent of ruining brushes that had been dipped into it once; and more importantly, that it has a tendency to turn brown or black under certain conditions which cannot be predicted reliably. However, even the masters might not have fully realized the extent to which verdigris darkened, since changes may have taken place slowly over a period of centuries. As evidence, there are later paintings of galleries (a popular genre in the 18th and 19th centuries) which show known Renaissance paintings with green landscapes that are now brown!

Not all verdigris glazes have darkened; the grasses and herbs in Van Eyck’s Mystic Lamb remain as bright as day they were painted (see detail below, showing the glorious copper resinate glaze still intact after 500 years).

Mystic Lamb Detail showing copper resinate glaze

But other works, even by the same painters, have darkened, sometimes ruinously. Below, St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, sometimes attributed to Jan van Eyck: 893px-Attributed_to_Jan_van_Eyck,_Netherlandish_(active_Bruges),_c__1395_-_1441_-_Saint_Francis_of_Assisi_Receiving_the_Stigmata_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe grass and trees behind St. Francis were almost certainly not originally painted in such subdued tones. Gothic and most Early Renaissance painters almost never favored a subdued palette. But in this case the faded landscape is quite harmonious with St. Francis’ robes and the warm brown rocks.

Various recipes, from Theophilus onwards, promise an “eternal” verdigris which will not “die,” but these claims were probably overblown. And many of these recipes are now disputed by some modern art historians. The chief question is whether Renaissance painters such as Van Eyck used verdigris ground in cold oil, or whether they cooked the verdigris is a coniferous resin such as Venice Turpentine, dissolving it into a glaze referred to as copper resinate. Some modern art historians claim that recipes for copper resinate glaze were only intended to color metals, not for painting, and that van Eyck and contemporaries never used copper resinate, but instead made glazes out of linseed oil, or oil mixed with cold resin.  The question has not been resolved.

With this controversy in mind, I decided to experiment myself and attempt to make verdigris pigment and then copper resinate glaze. To manufacture the pigment itself, I used a recipe from Theophilus for “Salt Green:” “If you want to make a green pigment, take a piece of oakwood, as long and as wide as you wish, and hollow it into the shape of a little chest. Then take some copper and thin it out into sheets of any desired width but of a length sufficient to span the [inside] width of the chest. After this take a flat pan full of salt, and, pressing the salt down firmly, put the pan in the fire and cover it with [glowing] coals for the night. Next morning grind the salt very carefully on a dry stone. Get some thin twigs and place them in the above-mentioned chest in such a way that two thirds of the cavity are beneath [the twigs] and the other third is above them. Smear the copper sheets on both sides with pure honey and sprinkle the ground salt on them. Then lay them next to each other on the twigs and cover them carefully with another piece of wood, fitted for the purpose, so that no vapors can escape. Next, in the corner of this piece of wood drill a hole through which you can pour in heated vinegar or hot urine until a third of [the chest] is filled; then block up the hole. Put this chest in a place where you can pile dung all over it. After four weeks pry off the lid, scrape off whatever you find on the copper, and keep it. Put [the copper] back again and cover it as above.”


honey and salt with a copper plate


twig scaffolding

I used small glass casseroles with plastic lids for my “little chests.” Otherwise I followed Theophilus pretty closely: after making a porous scaffold of sticks in the casserole and covering the copper sheets with honey and salt, which I ground to a very fine texture (ok, I used a blender) I laid them on the scaffolding, then I heated several different kinds of vinegar (Theophilus didn’t specify what kind of vinegar to use) because I wanted to investigate if the verdigris was different using different types of vinegar.


dipping a copper plate into the honey


salting the honey-coated copper plate


copper plate with honey and salt on twigs in the glass dish

copper plate with honey and salt on twigs in the glass dish


red wine vinegar ready for heating

red wine vinegar ready for heating

With that in mind I used apple cider, red wine, and white wine vinegars, along with urine, since Theophilus mentioned that too. I warmed each of the vinegars and the urine in the microwave, and then poured them each into separate casseroles and labelled them, then added the copper sheets with honey and salt, propping the sheets over the liquid on a scaffolding of sticks. Theophilus didn’t specify what kind of wood to use so I used small sticks from my garden. I then closed the casserole and, instead of putting them under dung (which I assume was intended to heat gently), I put them on my deck in Tennessee’s blazing midsummer sun.

labelled pots with copper plates inside bake in the sun

labelled pots with copper plates inside bake in the sun

After a few weeks, I could see that a green crust was building up on the copper.

lovely verdigris before I looked underneath

lovely verdigris before I looked underneath

However, when I tried to lift out the copper plates, I was appalled to see that in addition to the green crust, a thick, bright red pigment had oozed out of the copper beneath the salt green!

Red pigment oozes from underneath the verdigris

Oh noes!!!

Apparently, the Made in China copper sheets I had purchased at Hobby Lobby contained something other than copper, possibly a red pigment. (I even wondered if I had accidentally made Minium! All I know is it stung my fingers when I was foolish enough to touch it barehanded.) At this point, I feared the whole project lay in ruins, and even thought about throwing the whole, probably toxic, mess out. There seemed to be no hope I would ever get the red pigment off the green verdigris. But I was too lazy to haul it to the special city dump for toxic materials, so instead just left the copper sheets lying in the sun to dry out.

cheap copper plates from Hobby Lobby, intended for model trains

don’t buy these

After a few more weeks, I checked the copper sheets, and amazingly, the red pigment that had leached out had almost completely receded back into the copper, leaving the green pigment intact and almost untouched! I also noticed that the different vinegars had produced slightly different greens. The urine had produced less green but it was of a deeper color. But since the fiasco with the red pigment had deterred my enthusiasm somewhat, and there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of difference, I scraped the green off all the copper sheets and mixed it together in a bowl. And I was able to do this without getting any of the residual red pigment, which had dried into flakes, into the mix. It was almost too much to have hoped for.

All the verdigris in a bowl

All the verdigris mixed in a bowl

I ground the fresh verdigris a little bit. Then I put all the green pigment into a glass container and covered it with fresh vinegar, stirred it, and let it settle.

evaporating the vinegar

evaporating the vinegar

As the vinegar evaporated, I stirred it, mashed up lumps, and let it settle more.

Verdigris, slightly ground in a glass dish ready to evaporate more

Verdigris, slightly ground in a glass dish ready to evaporate more

My plan was to let it evaporate and produce the distilled and purified verdigris written about by Merrifield. This process took a lot longer than I expected, a couple of months, but it finally (mostly) evaporated away until I had a smaller bowl of verdigris sludge. I attempted to grind it additionally and, although some reached a fine powdery state, some small clumps remained. There was also a mixture of colors, from paler to dark, although this might have had more to do with the fineness of the grind. The finely ground verdigris seemed to be paler.

When dry, I had about 1/4 cup of verdigris. It was probably a mixture of basic and neutral copper salts, along with copper chloride, but since I didn’t check the chemical composition I don’t know for sure. Probably the verdigris used in the Middle Ages and Renaissance was similarly mixed in composition.

At this point, I attempted to grind the verdigris to use as pigment, which proved more difficult than I expected. I never was able to get all the chunks and lumps out no matter how long I ground it. For grinding I used a glass pestle and a bowl, which didn’t work as well as I’d hoped.  Next time I’ll use a glass muller. Cennini spoke of grinding verdigris in vinegar, which made sense, but that didn’t seem to help much either. The verdigris was surprisingly hard, and the honey I’d used made it somewhat slippery and gooey. Next time, I’m forgetting the honey and salt, since I couldn’t see why it made a better product.

dried verdigris before grinding

dried verdigris before grinding

after grinding

after grinding a bit

Finally, I was ready to grind the verdigris into various media: glair made from egg whites; egg tempera medium made from egg yolk; linseed oil; and Venice Turpentine, a coniferous resin made from the European Larch tree. I painted samples of all these media ground with verdigris on a slightly defective wood panel gessoed with rabbit skin glue and marble dust. The results were varied. Some visible clumps remained in the various media. And it dripped a little.


I was not able to produce a glaze similar to the cooked resinate glaze with either cold resin or linseed oil.The verdigris ground in boiled linseed oil turned dark almost immediately, and remained gritty and opaque. The cold resin also failed to yield a really transparent glaze since the verdigris never really dissolved. It was much paler than the cooked resin glaze.

The glair was surprisingly good, although opaque and pale. I wondered if the honey had improved the verdigris for watercolor. On the other hand, verdigris in egg yolk turned into a translucent mayonnaise that did not appear to be suitable for tempera painting at all, although it was quite pretty.

verdigris mayo

verdigris mayo

I prepared a cooked copper resinate glaze by combining Venice Turpentine and verdigris and heating it gently. This produced a much greener, very transparent glazing medium, although once again, clumps remained. After a day or so, however, I noticed that the cooked Venice Turpentine medium had settled and thickened a lot and the color and texture had improved. Yet another fortuitous accident! Most of the pigment had sunk to the bottom of the bottle, and the resin was now darker, very smooth and glassy with no clumps remaining. When I tried it on the gessoed panel, it produced a beautiful, perfectly transparent, glassy green glaze.

I experimented to find modern substitutes for verdigris: I thought thalo green and viridian might be most similar, but they were much brighter to my surprise. I painted samples of both pigments in oil and also mixed with the Venice Turpentine. Viridian and a small amount of yellow ocher in Venice Turpentine was the most like the verdigris copper resinate and might make an acceptable modern substitute, although nothing seemed as transparent and perfectly grassy-green as the verdigris.

At this point, I entered the project in Stella Nova Arts and Sciences Fair (a medieval re-enactment arts event for those readers not in the SCA), and received a number of helpful hints from the judges.

I continue to observe the painted samples to see if they deteriorate. Thus far the verdigris dissolved in hot Venice Turpentine is still bright and glassy, although a bit of Christmas glitter is sticking to it now. Sorry. The verdigris in linseed oil is dark and opaque and seems to have darkened further and spread. The verdigris in glair is surprisingly fresh looking , although quite opaque and lighter than the other samples.

Trying to see if I could improve the ratio of undissolved verdigris in the copper resinate, I re-ground the verdigris in the cooked resin and managed, with a lot of elbow grease, to get the pigment ground into a much finer powder. I then recooked the Venice Turpentine with the pigment and walked away from the hot plate for a minute with almost disastrous results: it boiled up and turned a coppery brown! Ruined yet again, I thought, but keeping my cool, or being lazy, I just put it back into the bottle to let it settle. But my luck held once again. After a day or two, a miracle occurred: the coppery brown (which rather resembles the brownish verdigris on old paintings) settled in a layer between shades of various green and the glaze floating on top returned to its former green glory. Whew! If you look closely, below, you can see the brownish overcooked layer.

re-cooked resinate

re-cooked resinate

But still most of the verdigris remains undissolved, and the transparent copper resinate is really no greener. After re-reading one researcher’s results making copper resinate, I realized that I probably didn’t use nearly enough resin, although I followed the instructions in Merrifield. It’s not a matter of mixing, but of actually dissolving the pure pigment molecules into the resin. One modern researcher used the same recipe and had to add powdered rosin to the mix, and managed to dissolve more of her verdigris. I will try that next time.

Then more reading led me to a new conclusion: Noting the description of Venice Turpentine as a “soft resin,” and remembering that modern research hasn’t pinpointed exactly which resinous substance Van Eyck used anyway, I realized he wouldn’t have used a soft resin like Venice Turpentine. I suspect he used amber varnish to dissolve his verdigris. This might explain his (usually) superior results. Many writers on painting mediums of the masters have long suspected he used amber, anyway.

Per the judges’ recommendations, I’m using the copper resinate I’ve made thus far to paint several little samples of Van Eyck landscapes with underpainting and green glazes to show how it would have been used. Here is a little patch of Heaven from The Mystic Lamb which I plan to try to copy:

a tiny bit of the Mystic Lamb

a tiny bit of the Mystic Lamb

It shouldn’t be too hard but I think I’ve already done it wrong in my first layer:

too dull, right?

too dull and dark, right? Even for underpainting.

Perhaps the underpainting had verdigris mixed into the lead tin yellow, instead of the dull green made from black and lead tin yellow I used. Don’t worry, I’ll figure it out. Sigh. (Note: I’ve been in my studio trying to re-create the scene, and it’s harder than I expected, as usual. I’ve wiped it off twice already. Extra long sigh.)

Plans this summer include making another batch of verdigris using pure copper sheets from Jerry’s Artarama, leaving off the salt and honey and simply using white wine vinegar. After that, I’m making some amber varnish, which ought to be a much harder resin, and dissolving the finely powdered verdigris in that.

The other day I measured an already gessoed panel in my studio, and something made me look up online the exact dimensions of The Arnolfini Wedding. I knew it. My panel is within a quarter of an inch. And the bride’s dress is glorious, copper resinate green. I’ve always loved that painting.


  1. “Changing Pictures: Discoloration in 15th – 17th –Century Oil Paintings, by Margriet van Eikema Hommes, Archetype Publications, 2004.
  2. “Lost Secrets of Flemish Painting: including the first complete English translation of the De Mayerne Manuscript, B.M. Sloane”, by Theodore Turquet De Mayerne (author), Donald Fels Jr. (author), published by Alchemist, Inc., Floyd, VA, 2001.
  3. “Aspects of Painting Technique in the Use of Verdigris and Copper Resinate,” by Renate Woudhuysen-Keller, from “Historical Painting Techniques, Materials, and Studio Practice,” preprints of a Symposium, University of Leiden, the Netherlands, 26-29 June 1995, Edited by Arie Wallert, Erma Hermens, and Marja Peek, Published by The Getty Conservation Institute.
  4. “The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting,” by Daniel V. Thompson, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1956.
  5. Perspectives on the Painting Technique of Jan Van Eyck: Beyond the Ghent Altarpiece, by Noelle L.W. Streeton, Archetype Publications, London, 2013.
  6. “The Secret Formulas and Techniques of the Masters,” by Jacques Maroger, Hacker Art Books, New York, 1979.
  7. “The Materials of the Artist and Their Use in Painting with Notes on the Techniques of the Old Masters,” by Max Doerner, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1934.
  8. “Artists’ Pigments, Volume 2, edited by Ashok Roy, 1993, National Gallery of Art and Oxford University Press, New York.

10. Medieval and Renaissance Treatises on the Arts of Painting, by Mrs. Mary P. Merrifield, Dover Publications, NY. 1967.

11. Theophilus: On Divers Arts, Translated from the Latin with Introduction and Notes by John G. Hawthorne and Cyril Stanley Smith, Dover Publications, NY, 1963.

12. Methods and Materials of Painting of the Great Schools and Masters, by Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, Dover Publications, NY, 2001.

Evolution of an Art Lady

I’ve been mulling over various random ideas about women and art for a long time, trying to connect the dots. I’ve hesitated for a long time writing about it because it’s very personal. Strange. I’ve always been quite the girly-girl my whole life, except in art, where I’ve often stared wistfully at the boys’ tree house.

I stumbled across The Art of Dora Carrington by Jane Hill at a used book store last year. I was familiar, of course, with the Bloomsbury group, Lytton Strachey, and Dora Carrington (she went by the name Carrington for most of her life) in a general sort of way, but I’d never read as much about them as I had about, say, the Pre-Raphaelites. I bought the book and then let it lie around for quite a while, as I am wont to do, before finally picking it up one day. By that time I’d already watched the movie Carrington, starring Emma Thompson, when it came out in video. Or most of it. It appears I may have fallen asleep on the sofa before it was over.Carrington

Although I rather like Carrington’s portrait of Lytton Strachey on the cover of the book, I’ve never really been passionately drawn to her painting. The Bloomsbury style’s slightly chalky opacity, naivety, and broken brushwork doesn’t immediately appeal in a visceral way. (Of course that means very little. My attractions to various painters are quite irrational!) As I read the book, though, she and her painting began to grow on me, especially as I learned about her shyness and dislike of self-promotion. She painted anything and everything. Her charmingly painted furniture, for instance, has been oddly influential. Even now, almost a hundred years later, you can see similarly decorated and repurposed furniture, almost identical in style, in many shops. She even painted signs for pubs! I felt a kinship with this eclectic side of her, because I’ve done so many different things over the years, often to the point of being extremely scattered.

But I also began to feel exasperated at the woman. First she fell madly in love with a gay man. Nooooo, Carrington, No! I confess, I have very little patience with women who do that, in spite of almost having done it myself once long ago, and catching myself just in time. And then, oh hell, in the last chapter she shot herself — before she was forty! What? I was truly shocked and appalled. How could I have forgotten that part? (See above.)

Finally, there was this zinger Carrington quote I couldn’t get out of my head, which was the last straw: “I should so hate to become one of those stout old ladies painting watercolors.” This is not exact, because after I read that line I threw the book into a corner in a fit of pique and then returned it to the used book store for credit. So I never quite finished it and now I don’t have the book to look up the quote and I didn’t even get very much for it because the cover was bent.

Like Carrington, I always dreaded becoming what I call an Art Lady, a slightly pretentious middle-aged or older woman with minor local reputation as an artist about town. She dresses a bit eccentrically in flowing purple, with lots of hand-crafted jewelry, appears in small gallery shows, goes to gallery openings, takes classes and teaches. I didn’t want to be an Art Lady any more than Carrington did.

Carrington mercifully escaped the shame of becoming a stout old lady painting watercolors. I, however, failed utterly to expire at the appointed time, so here I am, quite stout (Kristy Alley says I should call her friend Jenny Craig, and I think I shall), painting in oils and egg tempera and acrylics. Despite all my protestations official Art Ladydom has overtaken me. Well, it’s not so bad, Carrington!

I can hear some of you saying that there might actually be certain advantages to being an older woman painter. As long as our health cooperates, we get better technically. We have more confidence, or we certainly ought to by now. There is a certain relief in being older and freeing ourselves from our earlier insecurities. And there are certain problems I won’t have to face anymore, like the gaming publisher who wants to see my portfolio, and then in the elevator lets slip about his “open marriage.” Nope, I won’t miss that.

But that brings to mind a secret fear. Sometimes this little voice chips away in my head, and I find myself wondering if now that I am no longer young, I may simply be ignored, just another “Art Lady,” relegated to the stuffy Art Lady sub-basement for aging Carringtons. There’s a bunch of them down there now sculpting dream journals out of coffee grounds and acrylic medium, and they’re calling my name! Well, I won’t go. I’ll just hang around up here, jangling my handcrafted jewelry.

When I went to college I was clueless. I imagined that someone in the art department of a state university could teach me how to paint real-looking people, as if anyone there knew at the time. An attitude of corrosive hostility toward realism, and most especially towards narrative painting, pervaded the department. I should add that a) there were some nice people there, sometimes even “Professor Rothko;” and b) I work at this very same university to this day (in another department, thankfully!); and c) things might be changing over there.

At the time, there was considerable subtle pressure to stop painting realistically (all A’s went to non-figurative work), and if I did insist on trying, I was instructed to make it look as flat as possible. Well, I can be quite the little people-pleaser in other areas, but I had no choice here: I knew exactly what I wanted and nothing else would do. But all the other women students in the art department went either abstract, semi-realistic but non-figurative, or conceptual, and they made better grades than me, except in drawing, where a lone wolf traditionalist professor encouraged me.

I’ve discussed with other women painters the question of whether female art students in departments dominated by abstract and conceptual teachers are pressured to give up ambitions to draw and paint realistically and, because they are feminine and compliant, more often yield to that pressure. After many years of observation, I believe they do. In my case, I experienced a sense of exclusion, an intangible penalty for continuing on my own path. You know what it felt like? It felt like being the bad girl. And it took its toll: for five years after graduation I did not paint. I met another woman years later who had the very same experience at that school and she had the same reaction. She stopped painting and I don’t know if she ever started again.

I still haven’t quite gotten to the bottom of why women artists are pushed into polite, pastel abstraction so often. About twenty years ago, I almost caved, and painted a semi-abstract painting for a local show. It was gray and pink. Everyone loved it! “Why don’t you paint more like this?” they cried in unison. I walked around the show three times before I could find my own painting. It was wallpaper. Invisible.

The following is a confession of sorts.

Not long ago, I met a painter, a very young woman. I had seen her stupendous studio work online, stacked with huge canvases, but when I finally connected her in person with her work, and realized who she was, I was openly stunned, slack-jawed with amazement. “You painted all that?” She was very gracious, but later, I was embarrassed by my reaction and carefully examined my possibly prehistoric attitudes. I couldn’t help wondering if I would have reacted so had she been a young man. Was I really thinking, How could such a very young woman who looks like a model be so talented and accomplished?

As I sat pondering later, I realized that, although my studio is nowhere near as spectacular as hers (in spite of having forty extra years to work on it) and I do not look like a model, people had said similar things to me a few times. On open studio nights someone would walk up to my paintings, look at me with a puzzled expression on their face, then at the wall of paintings again and say, “Did you do that??? It’s flattering, for a minute, but sometimes they kept going: “Did you draw that?” Or even: “Did you trace that?” NO! No, I did not!

But who exactly do people think does that? Well, that’s why I started wearing paint-stained jeans, topped with a Christian Dior jacket bought at Unclaimed Freight in Scottsboro, Alabama, to open studio night! The outfit works wonders, even if Tom Wolfe ridiculed paint-smeared jeans in “The Painted Word.” I may get a beret, too. Sadly, I cannot grow a beard. Yet.

By the way, have any male representational painters out there experienced “Did You do That”? If you have, please comment! I could be completely off base about it being a gender thing.

I used to get nice handwritten notes from fantasy magazines saying, “We like your work, but it’s very romantic. We will keep your portfolio on hand. Thank you.” After I got a few of those, I lined up some prints of my paintings and made up a man’s name (Scott T. Morgan sounds very professional and completely heterosexual which is important to get the Male Gaze thing right), wrote it on a piece of paper like a pretend business card, and put it next to my own work.

Did it look different to me? Yes, it did! It looked, somehow, less “feminine.” Less “romantic.” Strangely, a man’s paintings of ruffles and pretty women looked . . . better! They actually looked better, even when I knew perfectly well I had painted them myself! Damn, I cried, stamping my tiny feet. This Scott T. Morgan fellow could draw better than me! What was wrong with my brain? With my eyes? More importantly, what was wrong with that art director’s eyes?

After my Male Gaze experiment (meaning Male Gaze as both imputed creator and potential observer), I considered sending out a portfolio with this talented upstart Scott T. Morgan’s name on it. That idea foundered when I realized the art director might actually call me on the phone. “Hullo. Scott T. here.” I didn’t think I could carry it off.

So I started avoiding painting my beloved satin, ruffles, and flowers at all cost in an attempt to “man up” artistically. At one point this involved painting my next-door neighbor with flies coming out of his mouth. I also bought a doll at the Goodwill, burned holes it, and photographed it under a tree in my yard as photo reference. I got my husband to pose tied up in his fencing shirt like a straitjacket and then painted him with blood dripping out of his mouth. I ended up painting some pictures I could not even look at, much less hang up in my house or studio, although they did get me into a juried show sponsored by Heavy Metal Magazine.

Happily for my family and the neighbors, I finally decided that avoiding everything cute and feminine was counterproductive, and stopped making them pose for me as hideous vampires and zombies. Women should be able to paint feminine confections if they want. Oh heck, I may paint another kitten with wings! And fairies. Fairies with gauzy wings.

Well, those are my random thoughts. If I were eighteen again, I’m quite sure I would be heading to some atelier to study. But I had never heard of such a thing, and neither had my parents. So here I am, a “stout old lady” painting as best I can. I’m thrilled to see that girls are now climbing into the boys’ painting tree house in droves, paintbrushes thrust rakishly into their belts, and even building their own tree houses, too. Good for them! Meanwhile, I’m just trying not to trip over my purple caftan and fall into the workshop down there in the Art Lady sub-basement. The music is loud and they are drinking wine whilst gluing bits of cat hair and glitter onto used greeting cards. I intend to persevere as I always have. And call Jenny Craig on Monday! Sixty is the new Forty!

Carrington, you would have made a great Art Lady, too.



Donato Giancola at the Huntsville Museum of Art

Walking into a big science fiction convention in 1978 was just about the only place on earth where you could find living artists, otherwise known as professional science fiction and fantasy illustrators, who made big narrative paintings, paintings as fantastic as Bosch, full of people (and aliens!) who looked real. Seeing these paintings up close was a transformative experience for me. It took my breath away! Sometimes from across the room they seemed as slick as glass, but as I approached them, they dissolved into a multitude of translucent brushstrokes. They were (and are) beautiful and amazing to look at.

I would have loved to take classes from one of these painters but I never got a chance or even heard that any of them taught (most of them, I learned, worked 10 – 12 hours a day nonstop), not that I could have afforded it at the time. But luckily many of these amazing illustrators were willing to share knowledge, so I picked up tidbits of skill here and there. Then I went back to school, got a degree in art, and taught myself as much as I could. I ended up going to a lot of science fiction conventions and showing my art myself, and who knows, I might do it again. I never made tons of money, and working twelve hours a day was out when my kids were small, but when I could I stayed up all night painting. (I remember making a pot of coffee one night and painting pictures of hands over and over until I got it right). I did some novel covers, some card art and sold my prints at conventions. I met my wonderful husband, and made a wide circle of friends. I still feel a very deep affinity for the world of science fiction and fantasy painting.

Donato Giancola has been one of the superstars in the field for while. Here is the cover he did for the SF Book Club edition of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings :


So when I heard in late 2013 that he was having a one-man show at the Huntsville Museum of Art, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Huntsville’s only a couple of hours from home and my sister and her family live there, so we made it a side trip during a holiday visit. I couldn’t remember seeing a museum like this showcasing the work of one illustrator since the Hunter Museum in Chattanooga had had a Norman Rockwell show in the their downstairs gallery thirty years before.

Over the last decade, Donato has pioneered the ever-so-delicate crossover between “fine art” and “illustration,” breaking down that largely imaginary wall, a wall that never really existed until a hundred years ago. He’s been a finalist or prizewinner several times in the Art Renewal Center’s  painting competition, along with a number of other illustrators in the field. The Huntsville show demonstrated that these once-immutable walls are dissolving fast, and fastest for painters in the fantasy illustration field, where the skillset bar has long been set very high. I’m glad that these doors are finally opening, because they deserve it, and it’s about time.

Donato’s show was really big, several rooms full, and superb. “Joan of Arc” was the first thing I remember seeing at the entrance of the show:


I was especially entranced by a series of Merman paintings – this one is “The Golden Rose.” They might be illustrations for a novel. I’m not sure. Does it even matter?


You can’t quite see the subtle, iridescent skin tones in this photograph of the painting, but take my word for it, they are there. The mermen’s flesh is cold, but pearly, as if reflecting moonlight. The painting is really big, too, bigger than you can tell from this reproduction.

I wanted to know — How did he get that pale coloring of the flesh? What color is that hightlight? That shadow? One thing I have always liked about fantasy illustration is its use of dramatic warm-and-cool lighting contrasts and bright glazes of color. But when looking at Donato’s paintings close up it’s obvious that although there is plenty of bright color (in the jewel-like older paintings especially) he also uses a lot of earth colors and muted tones in his more recent work. He skillfully manages values to achieve a look of crystalline brilliance. His work reminds me of something I read once describing Jan Van Eyck’s painting as possessing “that startling clarity that exists only in dreams.” That reminds me so much of Donato’s work, and of some other science fiction painters I have seen.

I admit, when I see Donato’s work I want to possess it! I don’t mean steal it off the wall; I mean I want to do something like that. I’ve often felt that way when I walked into an art show at a big science fiction con – the best illustrators have such a mastery of color and value and narrative. They are doing more than just painting a picture of a bowl of fruit, a drapery, a human figure. They are constructing a world out of their imagination and making it exist as a film of paint, full of light.

Speaking of crystalline brilliance, I turned a corner and there on the wall was this wonderful painting, “Construct of Time”!  constructoftimeIt won every prize in the book when he first showed it. It was in the early 90’s and Donato was just getting started as an illustrator in the field. I distinctly remember seeing it for the first time, but can no longer remember where! It might have been in one of the Spectrum books, but it’s possible I saw it in person at a WorldCon or some other science fiction convention. I spent forever looking at it wondering how did he do that?  Because at the time it seemed absolutely beyond belief.

I wonder if now our eyes have become desensitized to such beautiful work because of computer graphics, but I hope not. Computer paintshop graphics can never quite achieve this dazzling level of craft, this union of handicraft and the human spirit, although I have great respect for many illustrators who have switched over to painting programs. The big gaming companies need rapid turnover and it’s just not possible to finish an oil painting that quickly. But with computer graphics there’s no spectacular original painting to look at after the work is published. And without that, the fine art crossover can’t happen.

I also spent a lot of time looking at this Ironman, trying to understand how he achieved the rich reds set off by the blue-green verdigris metal: ironman

Oh, and when I first saw his astronaut paintings up close, I noticed that he employs some extremely subtle color gradations over the white astronaut’s suit. You can’t really see them in the photograph here, except for a few hints here and there. It is just too delicate an effect. This one is called “Lifeseeker.” lifeseekerI might be wrong, but I think he did a number of these astronaut-themed paintings especially for the Huntsville show (Huntsville being home to the famed Rocket Center). As the “white” suit curves away into shadow (and I put white in quotes because, of course, nothing is really white), instead of simply turning into gray, the light goes through a delicate spectrum of pinks, mauve and green into blue.  I spent a very long time looking and trying to figure out exactly how he had done that. When I saw that effect in Donato’s work I remembered something Richard Thomas Scott had told me about the way Odd Nerdrum uses a more expressionistic language of color in his flesh shadows. Nerdrum takes the flesh color back through the spectrum into the shadow, going through red, purple and green, and I hadn’t understood it at the time. Once again, the effect is very difficult to see in a reproduction.  But when I saw Donato’s astronaut I understood a little better.

My husband and I spent a long time wandering through the show and I went back to my favorites several times. I stood in front of each painting for a very long time looking at the brushstrokes and the colors. In my imagination, I asked Donato questions about how he did this or that. I wish I could remember more, but as is usual at shows like this, my brain finally went into Beauty Overload. Finally we checked out the other shows in the museum and started to leave.

But then as we were walking out of the front door — Oh Joy! I saw a flyer for a painting workshop in January to be taught by Donato Giancola! This was too much to hope for. So I popped out my cell phone, called my sister to see if I could stay with her, and plunked down my deposit right then and there.

Right after New Year, I got my painting kit together and set off for Huntsville. Donato, an energetic, cheerful, friendly guy, came up to the door of the classroom space and let me in himself. The workshop lasted three days and we started out with a talk and slide show. Donato emphasized the role of imagination and storytelling in the creation of narrative paintings. He spoke of the painter as magician. He wanted us to take our paintings that extra step beyond simply putting images on canvas. In addition to thinking of storytelling, Donato told us to think in terms of composition, or “an interesting picture.” I knew this workshop would be really good for me.

He started with a demonstration in which he showed us how he starts an underpainting. He paints very thin and loose. I realized as he worked how much of this loose underpainting is still visible in the finished works if you look closely. His paintings are never tight.

He also talked about his technique for preparing the board for painting. I had heard a lot about this and was eager to learn more. Donato works out his composition and makes a detailed drawing, which he then takes to a print shop and enlarges on acid-free paper to whatever size he wishes. He then glues it down on board with matte acrylic medium and paints over it after he seals it with matte medium. This technique appeals to me for several reasons. I like the idea of starting with a fully-developed drawing because it allows more compositional control. Also, the acrylic underpainting he employs ends the need for thin washes of oil paint with solvents, and I’m trying to get away from solvents as much as possible. Finally, Donato pointed out that his technique allows him to keep his original detailed drawing (and sell it later!) It’s all good.

He makes no bones about using photographic reference for his paintings, and brought a big pile of enlarged, highly detailed reference photos he’d taken of models in his own studio. We also had a lovely model pose for us for sketching and were allowed to photograph the model ourselves in various poses with props.

Of course, we all know that paintings done entirely from photos can be flat, distorted, and ugly if the painter does not have a firm grounding in life drawing. I draw preliminary sketches from life, and go to life-drawing class when I can, but still often rely on my own photos for painting. When I am around my atelier friends, I feel a little embarrassed about it. But I admit, sometimes a gallery wall of sleepy nudes can put me in mind of an endless series of five-finger studies instead of a concerto — not that the exercises aren’t necessary and skill-building. But come on, make those naked people do something! Dress them up! Make them fly! Or if they’re going to lie there like they’re dead, for Pete’s sake turn them into mermen!

The class had a good number of middle-aged and older painters (we are legion), but there were also a good number of young painters, one of whom was a student at the Angel Academy in Florence. The young girl sitting next to me was in high school. I painted like a demon for two and a half days on a painting that sort of evolved from one of Donato’s photos. Of course, Donato came around several times a session and gave us helpful critiques of our work. I wish I had thought to bring my own reference photos, of which I have hundreds, and my little notebook of ideas. (Hint: add that to the supply list!) We did have a chance during the workshop to access and print out some of photo files from iPhones and laptops.

I never did get a good handle on any imaginative narrative; for some reason it just wouldn’t gel in my mind. Usually my imagination is going full blast, but I was working so hard on the painting process itself I couldn’t think of anything else. During a lunch break one day, I went outside, picked up some oak leaves and painted them white and started playing around with them, and this suggested the beginnings of a narrative. I had in mind Grimm’s fairy tale of “The Snow Queen.” But what I ended up with was sort of flatly realistic and devoid of magic. I’m pretty sure I worried too much over the exact likeness, a leftover from drawing portraits from life out in the hot sun in front of the Tennessee Aquarium. Plus add my scientific illustrator pickiness and I can get bogged down. So anyway, it needs work.

One of the highlights of the whole weekend was when Donato gave us a private tour of the show. I got to ask him all the questions I’d wanted to ask before! To get that dead cold skin tone on the mermen he puts the photo reference in Photoshop and fiddles with the color levels. To get that amazing red on Iron Man he underpainted in red and orange and then glazed Alizarin Crimson. And he used a mirrored ball to figure out the reflections on the amazing Mirrored Robot painting. I can now look at the mirrored robot and feel my way through it. You can’t see me, but I am jumping up and down like a little schoolgirl!

The workshop was worth every penny, and was lots of fun too. Here’s a photo of the whole class at the end of the workshop: DGiancola1We were all working so hard that I barely had time to talk to anyone until the last day, when we all went out to eat together. I met several interesting people from the Huntsville area and got to talk to Donato for quite a while too which was a treat. I was amazed to learn that he had started out majoring in engineering in college! And one of the women in the class had also been an engineer at the Rocket Center before she switched to art after a layoff.

Huntsville being such a big science town, I wasn’t at all surprised that their museum got this show. We talked a bit about why realistic painters would be so interested in science, because we all were. Donato mentioned that realistic painters tend to be analytical types. I would add a little bit nerdy in a good way, and they are usually people who read a lot about everything. I’m reminded of this quote from the English painter, John Constable: “Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, then, may not a landscape be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but experiments?”

Lest my readers think I am on my way to becoming one of those people who do nothing but take classes, that’s all the classes I’ll be taking for now, unless Jan Van Eyck appears in town for a weekend workshop, like the dream I had one time. (He wore a tunic fastened up the front and was a tall and rangy man, not like I’d imagined him at all. He was conducting very businesslike portfolio reviews. I was not prepared.)

Some of my friends have said, “Julie, what is this business with pretending you don’t know how to paint? You’re whining is getting ridiculous!” Well, it’s like this: I can draw pretty well, hey, sometimes I can draw and talk at the same time, and I know all about water media like acrylics and watercolor. I can gesso my own wood panels and make egg tempera from scratch.

Oils are different somehow. The Old Masters painted in oils, they invented oils, and oil painting retains an aura of the mysterious, as if the technique were some arcane alchemy which can only be learned from a master. They aren’t instant, in fact they go against all of our modern obsession with speed. Painting in oils is smelly, messy, and wasteful, a bit like life itself. But in spite of their slowness, oil painting incorporates danger and excitement: you can poison yourself and burn down your studio! What more can I say?