Colorful Fridays-Berry, Berry Grass Green

“Green is the prime color of the world, and that from which its loveliness arises.” Pedro Calderon de la Barca  (from the

The perfect green for the leaves of the trees and the grass of the fields has a name that misleads.  Sap Green was not made from the sap of trees or leaves or grass.   Berry green would have been a more appropriate name.  More precisely, sap green was made from buckthorn berries and stored in animal bladders.  Why animal bladders?  Beats me!  For some reason, bladders seemed better than jars to these early makers of sap green, perhaps because at the time this green was known as verde de vescica.  (Since my knowledge of animal bladders and what they have to do with paint, is limited, we will move on.)  It is an old paint color and early painters of illuminated manuscripts considered it part of the four primary colors needed in their work.  Red, yellow, blue and green were the primary colors of these artists.  Sap green was the primary green.  Unfortunately, the early sap greens were not lightfast as they are now.

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If you would like to make your own sap green, the blog, Medieval Whimsies, takes us through the process of identifying the different varieties of buckthorn plants growing in North America, Europe and Asia today.  The writer is planning to make a personal supply of sap green and is gathering berries from different buckthorn shrubs to make a determination as to which shrub’s berries make the best sap greens.  So far step one is all that is posted and we will have to stay tuned to find out what the outcome was.  In the meantime, you’re on your own with the berries but the blog has nice pictures (shown right) of the plant and the various berries to help you identify each.  There is no mention of where to find the animal bladders.  I guess you are on your own with that, too! describes Winslow Homer’s use of Hooker’s green and sap green in his wonderful landscapes.  Homer’s The Blue Boat is a great example of the lovely green grass that can be made with mixtures of sap green. claims to have found the perfect “luscious” mix of sap green using Schmincke sap green and Schmincke translucent orange for richgrass and moss.  Gamblin states sap green warms nicely when mixed with Hansa Yellow and cools nicely with any of the blues.

Daniel Smith’s website describes techniques for using sap green’s staining ability in paintings.  Removing sap green from a painting, whether in oil or watercolor, leaves a green stain behind that creates many different wonderful effects.  This staining ability is the main reason sap green is favored in the layers needed for glazes in botanical painting.  Daniel Smith’s description goes on to point out which color mixes will make the best deep shadowy forest greens or the more olive tones of mossy greens.

Sap green is a must have in all paint boxes, especially for landscape painters.  Whether or not you make your own pigment, sap green is essential for wonderful lovely green mixes.  The adventurous may try gathering and boiling down the berries to see what happens.  Since buckthorn is wild and grows profusely, it should be easy to find.  Animal bladders may not be so easy.  Good luck finding them.

Artist Martine L’Etoile, at demonstrates a beautiful step-by-step use of sap green in a landscape painting here.

Winsor-Newton demonstrates sap green washes in the following You Tube video.

The Union of Art and Science

Castles, oil on canvas

Leonardo Da Vinci is likely the first and unquestionably the most famous artist to seriously study science and bring what he learned to his art. Leonardo had more than a passing interest in science as his inventions prove, but which came first, science or art? Experts on Da Vinci can probably answer that but what the average art lover can see is his masterful use of perspective in one of his most famous works, The Last Supper. Most other well known artists of The Renaissance brought science into their art too by means of perspective, foreshortening and other techniques.

Cypress Trees, pencil on paper

Science made a comeback in the 20th Century in Cubism with Picasso, Braque and others, according to Jonah Lehrer. (I wrote about Lehrer’s arguments Here.) However, another argument can be made that science never left art, it just moved into different realms. Science is evident in Vermeer’s use of the Camera Obscura and the evolution of that tool that are still in use to this day. The science of paint color invention moved from earth materials to the chemistry lab in the 19th century. Scientific illustration in the 18th and 19th century was vital before photography took over. And the list goes on.

Albert Einstein is not known as an artist but he was quite a prolific one. He considered art one important source for his inspiration in science. Thomas Edison made numerous sketches of his inventions and even botanical drawings and sketches. Though Leonardo Da Vinci remains most famous as an artist, take the time to check out his scientific illustrations in his sketchbooks. These three known geniuses used both art and science in their works. Hmmm…

Reelfoot-Late Summer, oil on canvas

While you are contemplating the importance of the union of art and science, take a look at the writings of the late Professor Emeritus of Art Education at Stanford University, Dr. Eliot Eisner. Dr. Eisner was a pioneer in his belief that the arts are a valuable tool to teach all other subjects. Not a fan of standardized testing, Dr. Eisner believed arts were another means of expression of knowledge that is missed in written testing. Check out Dr. Eisner’s book, “The Arts and the Creation of the Mind,” for more on how art can teach science, especially with children.

In my art, I switch back and forth between botanical-style illustration and an impressionist style of oil painting. Even though my oil paintings are a loose form of Impressionist style, the botanical-style nature drawing trains my eye to see details in form and color. Every time I draw a flower, I see some nuance I haven’t noticed before that I can take back to oil painting.

One of the most important ideas Dr. Eisner taught was that art is from the heart while science is from the brain. We all know what happens when the heart and brain are separated. Not a pretty picture!

Tuesday Morning Bird-Sparrow

House Sparrow, oil on canvas

As a child, whenever I was troubled about some worry or other, my grandmother’s standard comeback was, “If His eye is on the sparrow, He watches over me.” That was her way of telling my child self not to worry. Many of her answers to my troubles came from the bible and many responses were about birds. She’s been gone since I was 16, but her admonishings remain. The sparrow response was always puzzling because I could never see anything particularly special about these abundant backyard guys fluttering around my grandmother’s garden. She would throw out the toast crusts from breakfast to feed the sparrows every morning before doing the dishes.

Little did I know about the lowly little brown sparrow until I began to read up on these frequent visitors beneath my bird feeders in the winter. Its hard to pay attention to these drab fellows when constantly distracted by the bright green of hummingbirds or the brilliant yellow of goldfinches. The hummers are all gone south now and the bright yellow goldfinches have turned dull winter green. Cardinals are remain distracting with their bright red, but it becomes easier to spot the little chirping sparrows without the presence of all the eye catchers.

LBJ’s are what sparrows are known as to birders, according to The Spruce. LBJ’s, code for Little Brown Jobs, got that designation because of how notoriously hard to identify they are. Birds and Blooms, in a wonderful article by Sally Roth, says there are over 33 species of sparrows. Oh my! No wonder birders call them LBJ’s! House Sparrows like the one I painted are the most abundant according to All About Birds and have lived around humans for centuries. Audubon says House Sparrows live in military-like units with an identifiable male leader marked by the most distinct black head markings. Now I’m going to be out searching for him!

Sparrow in a tree

Sparrows come up in multiple stories from folklore. Owl cation has a great round up of the details of sparrow legend in many cultures. Ancient Greeks felt sparrows were associated with the goddess of love while Indonesians believed a sparrow meant coming marriage or the birth of a baby. In China, sparrows are harbingers of good luck. The Celts thought sparrows kept ancestral knowledge. To Egyptians, sparrows carried the souls of the deceased to heaven. The Bible and other ancient writings believed sparrows were symbols of God’s presence and His love for everything. When examining a sparrow on someone’s tattoo. the meaning could be any one of the above. Or at one time, sparrows were common tattoos for sailors who believed if they died at sea, a sparrow would carry their soul to heaven.

When seeing a representation of a sparrow, now you will have to stop and think what the intended meaning is. Is it good luck? Somebody’s pregnant? Could be any one of several meanings. To my grandmother, there was one meaning and one meaning only. God was watching over us all so worry was useless. She was evidently on to something because Audubon says the House Sparrow is one of the most abundant songbirds in North America for one reason: it associates with humans. Hmmm…

Sally Roth has a great book titled An Eye on The Sparrow that can be purchased from Amazon, (mine is on the way!) and you can read more about the book at: Goodreads

As for me, I think I’ll paint some more of these LBJs while I listen to their sweet singing in the shrubs outside my front window!

Colorful Fridays-Rich Man’s Blue

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When the color achieves richness, the form attains its fullness, also.” Paul Cezanne (from The Painter’s Keys)

From King Tut’s tomb to 14thcentury illuminated manuscripts to the luxurious robes of the Byzantine Madonnas, ultramarine blue has been used to illustrate the importance of the person or object depicted. Ultramarine blue earned this place in art from the high cost of its chief ingredient, lapis lazuli.  The introduction of the semi-precious mineral into Europe likely came from Marco Polo through Venice, say some accounts.

According to the website of The University of Hull (UK), Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) painted only with true ultramarine.  Vermeer’s pure whites were achieved by the mixing of ultramarine with lead white.  Hull reports that due to the high cost of ultramarine blue most artists had chosen to use a less expensive blue made with azurite.  However, this did not have the brilliance of the true ultramarine.  Vermeer chose only the pure form.  And his “Woman with a Water Pitcher” beautifully exemplifies this choice in the woman’s white head covering and her rich blue gown.  Hull’s in-depth description of ultramarine is a fascinating read.

Another website, has a more in-depth description of the process Vermeer utilized in the painting, “Woman with a Water Pitcher” and others.  Essential Vermeer has detailed and enlarged portions of Vermeer’s paintings where the artist has used ultramarine in the shadows of pure white objects to maintain the luminosity of object.  The more famous Vermeer painting, “Woman with a Pearl Earring,” also had the characteristic use of ultramarine.

Gamblin states ultramarine is a great glazing color and calls it one of the few mineral colors to be “completely transparent.”  Golden Paints gives ultramarine blue an excellent permanency rating and a lightfastness of one (very lightfast). Synthetic ultramarine is what is now produced by both companies, as well as most other art suppliers.

Synthetic versions of ultramarine didn’t arrive until the early 1900’s when the cost came down markedly.  If you want to make your own ultramarine blue, the pure pigment can be purchased from the Dutch company, Kremer Pigmente.  Kremer specializes in reproducing, as close to exact as possible, pigments of the original Old Master’s paint formulas.  Kremer’s pigments are widely used in the restoration process of Old Master’s paintings.  A word of warning though, if you are planning to purchase original formula Ultramarine Blue pigment, you will quickly see why it isthe rich man’s blue.

Purchase Kremer pigments here

The painting “Woman with a Water Pitcher” is in the original collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Tuesday Morning Bird-Pelicans

White Pelican, oil on canvas

The white pelicans are arriving in my part of the US on a daily basis. They will hang out here for the winter. Large numbers of them come to Kentucky Lake and Reelfoot Lake every year. The numbers of winter arrivals have been increasing in recent years. The white pelicans are mostly people-shy and stay well away from populated areas, hanging out in large flocks. It hasn’t been easy to get decent photos to paint from. It will take a longer lens to catch up to these shy guys. There are comparisons between the white ones arriving for the winter and the brown ones more associated with the Gulf coastal areas. The brown pelicans I have encountered in coastal areas are not nearly as camera and people shy as their white counterparts. Some brown pelicans appear to actually pose for the camera. While the white ones remain on the far side of the lake shore the brown ones will sit around on the docks and and the water’s edge begging for scraps.

Brown Pelican, Marco Island, FL

Pelicans have always appeared to me to be a bit prehistoric in their look. Turns out they may actually be prehistoric as fossils have turned up that are almost 30 million years old. Of course the ones we are now familiar with have evolved a bit over the last 30 million years but are similar enough to the fossilized version to be easily identified. That’s pretty old! Maybe that is part of the reason that make these birds fascinating survivors. Quite adept at fishing, the brown ones are also good at hanging around the docks when the local fishermen bring in their daily catch patiently waiting for the fish cleaning process to leave bits for them to quickly pick up.

White Pelican, miniature oil on canvas

As an ancient bird, pelicans have figured in folklore for many centuries. It was believed that a mother pelican, lacking food for her young would actually pierce her chest with her beak so that the babies could drink her blood. That myth was eventually proven false but remains a legend still. It is believed that the pelican is a symbol for the passion of Jesus as she spills her blood for the survival of her children. Saint Thomas Aquinas even adds the pelican to his hymn, “Humbly We Adore Thee.” Queen Elizabeth I in medieval times is said to have taken on the symbology of the pelican and is seen in one portrait wearing a pelican broach. The pelican is the national bird of Romania and the state bird of Louisiana. Louisiana is known as the Pelican State. Several countries in the Caribbean have also adopted the pelican as their symbol. The pelican is quite revered as a symbol of self sacrifice, in spite of its rather awkward and ancient appearance.

Juvenile Pelican coming in for a Landing, Alligator Point, FL

Even with all the noble history and folklore surrounding the pelican, I tend to think of them as more comical. In this photo, a juvenile brown pelican was trying to perfect the art of landing on the water and having a bit of a struggle. He eventually mastered it and made for good entertainment as he repeatedly practiced. It was a great moment when he landed without so much splashing and thrashing. I wanted to cheer him on!

Pelicans were the subject of a witty limerick that has several variations. The original was written by fellow Tennessean, Dixon Lanier Merritt in 1910:

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican,
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week,
But I’m damned if I see how the helican.

Cheers to the wonderful pelican!

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