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Oh My Gouache

Post #1623 • September 25, 2013, 10:41 PM • 1 Comment

(In this installment, after the titular post: recent writings, Greenberg on illusionism, and the Department of Skills.)

Next month I'm going to be a visiting artist at Salve Regina University, where I've been asked to lead a color drawing class. We're going to make and paint with our own gouache, so this necessitates some experimentation beforehand.

The simplest recipe around is for acrylic gouache. The binder is good ol' PVA, and Kremer Pigments makes a particularly nice clear PVA for the job. It's gouache by virtue of the addition of an opaque whitener. Whiting - calcium carbonate, better known as chalk - is adequate, and titanium white is sometimes recommended but it's overkill. A little more opaque than calcium carbonate but comparable in price is blanc fixe, or barium sulfate. A one-pound bag will set you back ten dollars.

Note that acrylic gouache won't rewet and will only lift under duress. For traditional gouache one would use gum arabic or gum tragacanth. I have some gum arabic and will run that experiment next week.

The tools needed are a small glass muller (available from Kremer for $48), a glass surface to mull upon, and palette knives for moving pigment and managing the paint. Those, some medium, some pigment, and some chalk, and you're in business.

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Discovery #1: It's much easier to add pigment to the puddle of PVA than vice versa. Poof goes the pigment to one side.

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Otherwise, a minute of mulling does the trick.

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The recipe calls for 3-5% of blanc fixe. Measuring that when mixing such small quantities is impossible. It works just to flick some on the puddle, mull, and flick some more on if you want more opacity.

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Next up: heliogen blue. I'll bet you haven't seen that at the art supply store lately.

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Note the difference between the warm mass tone and the cool drawdowns on the palette.

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Oh, right, containers. Lacking proper ones, I made dumplings out of aluminum foil. You have to mull in a preservative if you want these to keep for long, usually oil of cloves or a synthetic antibacterial (Kremer makes one called Preventol). I've also seen honey or a drop of Lysol suggested. Or, you could just make small batches of paint and use it up.

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Irgazine ruby and heliogen took a little elbow grease (though not much) to mull into paint. Cadmium just creamed right up. I can see why cadmiums became so popular. I note at this point that once I broke out the cadmium, the nitrile gloves went on. It was stupid not to wear them from the beginning.

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Yellow ochre, in comparison to the other pigments, took a surprisingly large quantity of pigment and an unsurprising amount of extra grinding to coax into paint. Good thing it's cheap.

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In fact, this whole operation is cheap relative to commercial acrylic gouaches like the ones Holbein makes. Too, the chemical rainbow is yours to choose from. Want your gouache palette to include smalt? Cochineal? French green earth? Purpurissum? Nothing's standing in your way except your credit limit.

Tantalizingly, a lot of these colors can be made into oil paint as well. Hmm...

Recent Writings

I've been on a publishing roll lately. See my preview of BostonFIG for the WBUR ARTery, Vulgarity With A Vengeance: The Clement Greenberg Myth Machine for Abstract Critical, my review of POUR at Asya Geisenberg and Lesley Heller for artcritical, and my review of Courbet at the McMullen for The Arts Fuse.

"Vulgarity With A Vengeance" blew a word count, badly, so I excised a section that went beyond the scope of the interests of Abstract Critical. Read the full essay first, but if you're hankering for more, I present the following excised section, rescued from the bin, entitled...

Greenberg and Illusionism

Yau also writes, "In his desire to banish illusionism, which he felt was extraneous, from painting, Greenberg insisted 'upon the real and material plane.'" The problem with this is (at least) twofold. First, Greenberg didn't have the slightest desire to banish illusionism. (Does it honestly not occur to Yau that such a thing would not have been in his power, or anyone's?) Writing for the January 1964 Vogue, he said in so many words: "There are many, many contemporary representational artists whose work I admire - to name only a few close to home: Milton Avery, Arnold Friedman, Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, Paul Granlund, Sidney Laufman, Edwin Dickinson, Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, John Chumley, Lennart Anderson, Goodridge Roberts of Canada." He noted afterward that while the best art in the previous thirty years was abstract, so was the worst. [9]

Hence the second part of the problem: Greenberg's advocacy of art wasn't categorical, it was extended or withdrawn one object at a time. "The real and material plane" was not a prescribed goal, it was a described phenomenon of modernist painting's orientation towards flatness at the time. (This mistaking of description for prescription is a running theme through the misunderstandings of Greenberg and is hardly confined to Yau.) His advocacy of modernist abstraction, particularly dating from the '40s and '50s, was consistent but proscribed. The tone of this is typical in its lack of vehemence: "At the beginning of the 1940s the strongest new impulses of American painting were making themselves felt in the area of abstract art." [10] It was based on quality and formed entirely a posteriori. He was known to revoke such advocacy when the quality fell off: "What turned this constellation of stylistic features [of Abstract Expressionism] into something bad as art was its standardization, its reduction to a set of mannerisms, as a dozen, and then a thousand, artists proceeded to maul the same viscosities of paint, in more or less the same ranges of color, and with the same 'gestures,' into the same kind of picture." [11]

More examples of his delight in better representational art abound. In 1960 he came to the defense of Flemish paintings against the withering judgment of Roger Fry. (A contrasting of Fry's formalism and Greenberg's "formalism" would be worthwhile.) [12] One of the artists he advocated for was Horacio Torres, whom he introduced to Kenworth Moffett; Moffett went on to curate Torres's 1973 exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. [13] "Two months in India have made me an addict of her old sculpture," he reported in 1972. [14] Anyone thinking Greenberg doctrinaire about matters of taste should note this well:

An addiction does not necessarily mean a preference. Preferences in art depend, or should depend, on pure aesthetic judgment. My addiction to Indian sculpture does depend partly on that, but it also depends on a certain suspension or adulteration of aesthetic judgment. I'm fascinated by the very unevenness of Indian sculpture, by its failures as well as its successes - or rather by the spectacle these make, the spectacle of this unevenness in all its profusion. It speaks for a unique vitality.

This, from his series of talks at Bennington, ought to settle the matter:

Let me say I would hail the return of great representational art because if I have a prejudice, it's for photographic realism in art, in painting as well as in photography. If I had my way, the best painting of this time would be close-focus realism. It would fulfill the dreams of the pre-Raphaelites. But you don't have your own way in art, you can't choose what to like and, alas, the best painting of our time isn't like that. Alas, I say. I mean it. And you do have biases and all that in art. You know they're there, but if you let them influence you in any way in your experience of art, you're missing out. It isn't that you're doing violence to the art, you're doing violence to yourself. [15]


["O'Brian" is John O'Brian, ed., Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 4: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969. "Morgan" is Robert C. Morgan, ed., Clement Greenberg: Late Writings, University Of Minnesota Press, 2007.]

9. O'Brian, p. 182. The source is "A Famous Critic's Art Collection," Vogue, January 15, 1964.

10. Ibid., p. 212. The source is "America Takes the Lead, 1945-1965," Art in America, August-September 1965.

11. Ibid., p. 192. The source is the catalogue for "Post Painterly Abstraction" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1964.

12. Ibid., p. 102. The source is "The Early Flemish Masters," Arts Magazine, December 1960.

13. Undated publication from Cecilia De Torres Ltd.‎

14. Morgan, p. 105. The source is "Old India: Her Monuments," Art International 16 (November 1972), p. 19-22.

15. Clement Greenberg, Homemade Esthetics: Observations on Art and Taste, Oxford, 1999, p.141.

The Department of Skills

Bri & Brian start cute and slowly add the difficult.



Ryan McCourt

September 26, 2013, 12:21 PM

Looks like you've got the kernel of a book on Greenberg there.



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