Monday, October 27, 2014

Caput Mortuum

With All Hallow's Eve nigh upon us, I'm taking a minute to salute a peculiar color with semi-macabre overtones, a pigment I delight in using called "caput mortuum."

caput mortuum
(Other terms for this pigment are cardinal purple and Mars violet)

The translation of the latin caput mortuum is literally "dead head," or "death's head," a term for the symbolic drawing of a skull (hence the famous Death's Head Moth).

The Death's Head Moth. Why have you gone so silent, my Little Lamb?

(Fun fact: I used to think the word "kaput," meaning broken down or dead, came from "caput" but apparently not. Autocorrect nonetheless insists upon a link between them...)

The term caput mortuum comes from alchemy, where it was used to denote the residue at the bottom of a heating flask after the solution's "nobler" elements had "sublimated." (Alchemists thought in symbolic terms, so it's a metaphor for how the soul was thought to ascend into the Aether after death, leaving the body's material remains behind). The alchemical symbol for the discarded residuum was a death's head, a version of which remained in use by chemists through the eighteenth century.

Symbol for caput mortuum (bottom right) from a ms. by Isaac Newton.
It's made from hematite, the common name of which is "blood ore," a form of iron oxide (rust is also a form of iron oxide, and incidentally, transparent red iron oxide is another color in my box).

Hematite (Blood Ore)
Painters used a version of caput mortuum as a substitute for mummy brown. If you've ever seen a real mummy, you may have noted the intriguing ochre and other warm earth tones of the ancient wrappings; Mummy brown was a pigment made from ground-up bits of mummies, both humans and cats. Artists stopped using it once they learned what was in it! Here's a painting that uses it extensively. Color look familiar, museum goers?

Interior of a kitchen by Martin Drolling, a painting made almost entirely of the pulverized remains of dead Egyptians.
Several brands of caput mortuum can be found, but I stopped at the first one I tried: Old Holland. I love how Old Holland colors mix - they make the most sumptuous and complex grays - and caput is one of the less expensive pigments (around $10 for a regular 40 ml tube). It's so packed with pigment that a single small tube can last me about a year.

Out of the tube, the paint looks the color of dried blood. But mixed with white it becomes a beautiful, moody shade of rose-violet
Caput mortuum mixed with WN's Soft Mixing White
and mixed with almost any blue, it makes the most gorgeous violets and mauves.

Caput mortuum mixed with mixed with WN's Ultramarine Blue and Soft Mixing White
It mixes beautifully with anything, actually, but I'm especially fond of blending it into a warm white (a Titanium/Zinc plus Yellow Ochre, say, or Old Holland's Brilliant Yellow). I love the harmonious contrast between the resulting yellowish-pink in proximity to the mauves and violets you get from mixing it with blue.

Closeup of a painting of mine using various mixtures employing caput mortuum
On a related note, I stumbled upon this mixing chart some guy made using Anders Zorn's very limited (three colors!!) palette (ivory black, cadmium red deep, and yellow ochre + white used as a value-adjuster, not a hue). These can be used to make many gorgeous colors including a variety of Mars violet-like tones.

Just a fraction of what ivory black, cad red deep, and yellow ochre can do together.

Ridonculous Anders Zorn painting presumably done with just the three colors above, Sommerabend, 1894

 Incidentally, Zorn's palette forms the basis of celebrated landscapist Scott Christensen's work.

Christensen rocking the Zorn palette with the addition of ultramarine blue.
There's a lot of caput-color in this, though I don't think he uses the pigment. One of the best things about oil painting has got to be the alchemy of mixing colors.

An artist mixing colors in his studio.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Painting in the White Mountains - Field Report

View of Crawford Notch from our base at the AMC Highland Center
The White Mountains, arguably the east coast's most "sublime and picturesque" terrain, have never ceased to fascinate lovers of the outdoors. So it makes sense that some of nature's most rapt admirers - landscape painters - are coming back as they once did to explore the Whites in their art.

The AMC Highland Center at Crawford Notch.
A couple of weeks ago, six men and women joined me for a three-day beginners-welcome workshop at the AMC Highland Center, a wonderful, hotel-like lodge at the base of Crawford Notch in the White Mountain National Forest. . From Sunday till Tuesday all we did was get up in the morning, have an all-you-can-eat breakfast, and walk out the door, set up, and start painting. There were easy hikes to elevated viewpoints and a van at our disposal to take us anywhere in the Whites, but who needs them when everywhere you look there's a painting to be made? We'd break for lunch, paint until 4, and then we'd all meet at 6 for the gourmet dinners served family style complete with beer, wine, and freshly baked bread. 

Painting at the edge of Saco Lake, across the street from the Highland Center.

After dinner the first night I gave a slide talk on the history of White Mountain painting. The next day we painted from a different side of the lodge and that evening we watched Brush and Pen, Artists and Writers of the White Mountains, a documentary on White Mountain history, art, and literature.

The inaugural AMC Highland Center Crawford Notch Artist in Residency was an unqualified success. In a wonderful circularity, two of the participants in the first revival of the Crawford Notch residency - Lisa Shapliegh-Koepke and her mother Elizabeth - were actually descendants of the same Shapleigh family as was the site's original artist-in-residence Frank Henry Shapleigh. 

Frank Henry Shapleigh

Frank Henry Shapleigh's restored 19th century studio building, part of the Highland Center.

Frank Shapleigh was artist-in-residence for 16 years from 1877-1893 at the Crawford House, one of the grandest of the grand hotels, the abandoned hulk of which burned to the ground in 1977. 

Early engraving of the original Crawford House

The Crawford House in its heyday.

Crawford House in 1977, the summer before the fire.

At the age of 86, Elizabeth was an inspiration to us - despite using a walker to get around, she wasn't held back at all and painted with us in all of the locations (it's that easy to find spectacular scenery to paint within easy walking distance of the lodge).

The unstoppable Elizabeth Shapleigh (age 86).

My rendering of the gate of the Notch from Saco Lake.
On Tuesday afternoon, after the official close of the workshop, I hiked up 2,864' Mount Willard (the trailhead is right there). I invited folks from the workshop to join me and three took me up on it. I brought my paint kit so I could sketch the same view that Shapleigh famously painted.

Shapleigh's view from Mount Willard

My photo from roughly the same spot as Shapleigh's painting.

 The view was unbelievable and more than worth the effort of the hike, which wasn't all that bad actually, even with a 30-pound paint kit on my back. The sketch doesn't look like much, but it's got the information I need to build a study and then I can work from there on something larger.

My sketch of the valley of the Notch.

I was fascinated by this peak, and I still want to paint it.

This was nearby but we didn't end up painting it. Next time!
Burning Off, an 8" x 10" I painted from outside the Highland Center

I'm hoping the AMC Crawford Notch residency will become an institution of American plein air painting. The idea is to invite artists from all over the country - plein air painters, mostly - to spend a week in residence at the Highland Center. Each artist will conduct a painting workshop for a set portion of the week and is also encouraged to present an evening program, a talk or presentation, of some kind.

A White Mountain landscape, c. 2013, by contemporary painter Eric Koeppel. 

I think it's great that plein air painting is surging in popularity. The secret is out: oil painting is no longer the difficult, smelly, esoteric, highly specialized art it once seemed. With terabytes of free how-to videos and web texts online, getting started and learning the basics is the easiest it's ever been in the history of the world. It is only a matter of time before the rich history of American landscape painting again becomes common knowledge.

Who knows but a new era of White Mountain painting may even now be on its way?

THE CREW: (L-R) Volpe,  Carrie Masci, Ann Marie Corbett, Lisa Koepke, Elizabeth Shapleigh, Catherine Bickford, David Kimball