Stepping on Phthalocyanine

A couple of posts ago, we discussed the possibility of cutting Sevres Blue with its complement, to tamp down its explosive tendencies. I tried it this afternoon. A marvelous rack of clouds faced me, descending to an area four or five degrees above the horizon in which the massed clouds beyond the resolution of my eyes turned the area into a band of pale violets and roses. I squeezed out my normal palette: Rose Madder, Cadmium Red Light, Cadmium Yellow Medium, Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Lemon, Cobalt Blue and Ultramarine. in between the Cadmium Lemon and the Cobalt Blue i left a few inches. In this area, I squeezed out Permalba White, Flake White and the Forbidden Mystery Ingredient.

That Mystery ingredient was an experiment. I have no Cerulean worth using. I thought I would try the solution I proposed a few days ago, some Sevres Blue — a phthalocyanine color about as subtle as Napalm — mixed with a little Burnt Sienna. Burnt Sienna is an orange of very low intensity. Ideally, a mixture of the two will tamp down the intensity of the Sevres, enabling it to hit the notes found as the sky descends towards the horizon, but without infecting the entire canvas with its explosive power.

Mr. Tom Dunlay counseled me that others had tried the same solution, without success. He said that one ought to bite the bullet and purchase Old Holland’s Cerulean Blue. I don’t lightly ignore his counsel, but I wanted to try and see if I could get what I wanted out of the materials I already own.

After several months of painting exclusively on kraft paper, coated with shellac, i decided on an 11x14” piece of oil primed linen, glued to a panel, and rubbed with burnt sienna and turpentine to cut the brilliance of the white primed linen, and provide a more sympathetic surface into which i could paint.

it was a lovely experience. Before we look at what i did then, let’s look at what i did earlier that day, on a piece of cheap cotton, glued to a cardboard panel and rubbed in with a little ultramarine.


This was a surface upon which I could draw with a sable brush dipped in a mixture of Ochre and Ultramarine. (The shellacked kraft paper permits no such line drawing; it’s too dark, and too slippery.) the idea was to draw the cloud shapes as clearly and accurately as possible, and then paint into this map-in with a loaded brush. the procedure defeated the problem with shellacked paper, namely its resistance to clear, specific line drawing.

it’s not too bad a sky study. i may bring it out again in a few day, and paint over it the trees, telephone lines, and rooftops which overlapped the cloudscape.

A couple of hours later I headed out again and tried to do homage to a rack of clouds in Newtown, using that 11x14” linen panel.


The lower half of the sky is the area into which Sevres cut with Burnt Sinna was painted. Sevres no longer dominates the scene. Sometimes the term “stepping on” is used for the practice of reducing the brilliance of a color by adding some of its compliment. You “step on” cadmium red by adding a bit of viridian. Here, the idea was to step on the Sevres by adding the Burnt Sienna.

For some time I’ve admired David Leffell’s stiff life work, particularly how he is able to rough in the background passages of his pictures with brushstrokes which summarize, rather than describe. I tried to do the same thing here with the ground plane and the trees.

Achilles' Horses

We examined the history of phthalocyanine pigments a few days ago, focusing in particular on Sevres Blue, which is basically phthalo blue cut with titanium white. Sevres resembles Cerulean, a blue which is quite useful in replicating the color of the sky as it approaches the horizon and is warmed somewhat. The conclusion was that Sevres, while a very lovely hue, infects everything within reach, causing a whole skyscape to take on its acid color.

Just for laughs, I went out and painted three sky sketches this afternoon, but excluding Sevres from my palette. Here they are, along with the one from a week ago, painted with the same colors, plus Sevres.

Can you spot the sketch which was painted with Sevres blue? Yep, the lower right. Much as I tried to quash Sevres’ explosively chromatic hue, it still commands the whole picture, and makes the coloring of subtler passages, such as the clouds hovering near the horizon, ridiculously bland. Think of it this way: if you sang at the Open Mic along with Enrico Caruso, the judges probably wouldn’t remember you.

Can you spot the sketch which was painted with Sevres blue? Yep, the lower right. Much as I tried to quash Sevres’ explosively chromatic hue, it still commands the whole picture, and makes the coloring of subtler passages, such as the clouds hovering near the horizon, ridiculously bland. Think of it this way: if you sang at the Open Mic along with Enrico Caruso, the judges probably wouldn’t remember you.

The exclusion of Sevres allows the whole spectrum to play on a more level field. It makes sense.

Today’s first sketch

Today’s first sketch

When some Greek sentries happened upon a Trojan spy sneaking into their camp, they asked him what could possibly have motivated him to embark on such a suicide mission. “They promised me Achilles’ horses,” replied the spy.

His captors thought that was pretty funny. “Achilles can hardly ride those horses, let alone a wuss like you,” they told him.

And then they killed him.

Sevres blue, like Achilles’ horses, is hard to tame.

Another sketch, painted without Sevres. All the pigments are pretty much in the same league.

Another sketch, painted without Sevres. All the pigments are pretty much in the same league.

Yet again, no Sevres.

Yet again, no Sevres.

The real mission here was not so much to banish Sevres, but replace it with Cerulean. But I have no decent Cerulean, and it didn’t seem to make much difference, Ultramarine, along with Crimson Madder, Cadmium Red Light, Cadmium Yellow Medium, Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Lemon, and Ultramarine seemed to get the job done.

But having the whole orchestra play in the same key seems like a better way to go about things, I think.

A Once in a Lifetime Opportunity

Serendipity rears its head in some awfully strange places. If you provide lettering for comic books, you get used to a lot of funky situations which call for sound effects. Planes crash. Jaws get broken. A man was hung at the end of a graphic novel and the writer, much against my own inclinations, insisted that i provide the sound of the condemned man’s bowels and bladder evacuating. You get used to it all.

But I’ll never forget lettering a strip some 16 years ago called “Adventures in the Rifle Brigade”. I think writer Garth Ennis got a little tired of the renewed appreciation for The Greatest Generation which came around the turn of the new millennium, celebrated by Tom Brokaw’s book, and of course Spielburg’s Saving Private Ryan. The Rifle Brigade was Ennis’ antidote to the Baby Boomer Generation’s recognition that our parents pretty much saved mankind. Nothing was sacred to Garth. The Rifle Brigade was a top secret team of commandos, reserved for only the most dangerous missions, invariably behind enemy lines. There was Hank the Yank, a taciturn American. There was Milk, a commando who managed to make it into the Brigade despite his penchant for the love that dare not say its name. There was the brigade leader, a stalwart super soldier with a stiff upper lip, but endearingly blind to the fact that Milk wanted to take their relationship to the next level. And there was the brigade’s secret weapon: The Piper, a surly Scotsman armed only with a set of bagpipes. I guess Garth didn’t like bagpipes. When the chips are down, The Piper is called into action. He need only play his bagpipes and the enemy goes into brain hemorrhage.

When this happened at the climax of the final issue and one of the Gestapo men surrounding our heroes yanked off his own head, I knew that it was unlikely that i’d ever again have an opportunity like this:

aaa_pull off your head.jpg

Looking back, I could do without the rather uninspired KLANG on the final panel. but that RRRTCHH was very important to me. I played with several ways of doing it, and finally settled on the old cliche of the sound effect itself getting ripped in half. i’ll try that one maybe once every five years. When it all went digital, I designed a sound effects font that would make the trick easy. But what you see here was all hand lettered.

I didn’t know until this morning that we’d lost artist Carlos Ezquerra a few months back. In addition to Rifle Brigade, I’d lettered various other projects illustrated by Carlos, most notably a Preacher graphic novel called “The Good Old Boys”, also written by Garth Ennis. I never got to meet Carlos, but he was a consummate pro, and it was always a privilege to get to work on his artwork. I think all of the projects, including Rifle Brigade, were done for DC’s horror imprint Vertigo. This was the Golden Age of Vertigo. It was all terrifically written stuff, if occasionally unnecessarily vulgar. It was always fun.

But it was this yank-off-your-head fight sequence that pretty defined the high point of the experience. My only regret here is that i wish the colorist had allowed the RRRTCHH to pop a little more clearly.

A lot of people have spent a lot of years lettering a lot of sound effects for a lot of comic books. But I may be the only one whose shoulders were touched for this particular motif. The moral of the story is watch out for opportunities when they knock. And if you know what’s good for you, stay the hell away from bagpipes.

The Phthalocyanine Trap

The phthalocyanine family of pigments were first experimented with in the early part of the twentieth century. There are phthalo greens, blues, violets and others. What they all have in common is their intensity, and their almost incredibly powerful tinting strength.

This would be no problem, except that no other pigments i’ve ever heard of can match them. Alizarin crimson is pretty powerful too, but the phthalo pigments blow it off the map. No red or orange or yellow can rival phthalocyanine.

Exactly why this is problematic is that if no other hue can compete with the phthalo pigments, then your palette will be weighted toward your phthalos. do you really want your greens and blues to be punchier than your reds and yellows?

A recent oil sketch which illustrates the trouble a little bit of phthalocyanine blue can bring.

A recent oil sketch which illustrates the trouble a little bit of phthalocyanine blue can bring.

I haven’t used pure phthalo blue in years, but i’ve got a mixture of phthalo blue and white on my palette. it goes by the name Sevres Blue. It’s a lovely hue, and is particularly useful for the lower portions of the sky, where blues tend to veer toward green.

On the other hand, Sevres will dominate the sky, and often the whole picture, if you’re not careful with it. The effect sneaks up on me. All of the sky painted above contains at least a little bit of Sevres blue. Particularly the middle area of the sky. It’s overwhelming, and it does not match what I saw and was trying to record. Worse still, the problem too often doesn’t make itself apparent to me while i’m working.

I will not make the claim that a photograph is an accurate record of hue and value, but here’s a snapshot i took after completing the sketch. Its notes are not accurate, but they’re far more accurate than my sketch.


The phthalocyanine pigment in the Sevres blue completely overwhelms the painted sky. What actually attracted me to this motif were the pale violet cloud shadows hovering over the horizon, and the pink lights of those clouds. All of this is lost in the oil sketch, because these delicate little passages have to compete against the explosive phthalocyanine pigments.

Sevres on your palette is like someone doing Primal Scream Therapy in your local encounter group. Maybe it’s a decent way for the screamer to get his head together, but nobody else is going to get much out of the experience.

The rise of Sevres blue corresponds to the fall of Cerulean blue, which is the pigment which Sevres was almost certainly designed to replace. Cerulean has perennially been the go-to color for the lower regions of the sky. The problem is that for some reason, in recent years Cerulean has become garbage. It looks nice when you squeeze it from the tube, but mix a little bit of white in it and the stuff becomes a chalky gray. Rembrandt, which is generally a dependable mid-level manufacturer, sells their 40 ml tube of Cerulean for $47.55. It’s currently on special at Jerry’s Artarama for only $28.53. They couldn’t lower it enough to make it worth using. Maybe it tastes good on a Ritz cracker, but it’s unusable for painting skies, or much of anything else.

For the truly budget-conscious, Jerry’s offers Gamblin’s 37ml tube of Cerulean Blue Hue for $7.95. Rod Serling might have found a way to use the stuff as a Twilight Zone punchline. Remember Burgess Meredith’s bookworm character, the sole survivor of nuclear catastrophe? At last he’s got enough time to read. Then his glasses break. Today Meredith would be a landscape painter, but instead of breaking his glasses, he’s left with only Gamblin’s Cerulean Blue Hue for the sky’s lower region. It’s an unpleasant thought. “Cerulean Blue Hue?”. Word to the wise: the word “hue” in the name of any paint at all is a red flag.

For those who are willing to do what must be done, Cheap Joe’s Art Stuff offers Old Holland Cerulean at $85.50 for a 40ml tube. Jerry’s Artarama and Blick sell the same tube of paint for $56.51. My friends tell me it’s far better than the Rembrandt version. Hell, it better be. Other manufacturers offer Cerulean at prices ranging from $49.21 for Michael Harding to $30.87 for Williamsburg. These are not outrageous prices, if the stuff will do the job, but it’s a crapshoot. I’ve tried the Williamsburg, and am not much impressed. Somebody call Consumer’s Union.

A solution might be to simply reduce the intensity of Sevres before allowing it on one’s palette. I should experiment with this. Maybe mixing it with a bit of Burnt Sienna, more or less Sevres’ complement, could get the job done. If Sevres cannot be excluded, perhaps it can at least be put on a short leash.

John Ruskin, who knew a little something about painting, counseled us, “There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man's lawful prey.” Cheapo materials are undoubtedly as old as art itself; John Carlson’s early 20th century book on landscape painting gets a few laughs at the expense of then-current “academy boards”, sold to students as an inexpensive alternative to canvas. One doesn’t see too many examples of such compromise in the museums; pictures made with third-rate materials don’t last very long to begin with, and those who use such tools are unlikely to produce work that would ever wind up in a museum.

But when it comes to paint Ruskin was, if anything, an optimist. The concept of “student grade” paint in general is worth its own discussion. One might profitably economize on everything in the course of one’s training, and a vast range of price can be paid for different grades of brushes, canvas, mediums, solvents, and paint. In his authoritative handbook on materials and techniques, Ralph Meyer urged that a painter can economize on anything except brushes. But some fine painters have made a career using student grade brushes. Third-rate canvas is going to retard both one’s technique and the permanence of anything you might happen to paint that could be worth saving, or selling. Its sole merit lies in the student’s need to do a huge number of starts, so as to acquire the confidence and judgment to eventually produce good work.

But student grade paint? Its raison d’être eludes me. The stuff’s cheap for a reason, so loaded down with fillers that in the end you’re using much more paint than you’d otherwise have to. And this compounds the problem: twice as much paint means twice as much medium, and a manufacturer willing to compromise the quality of pigment is unlikely to hold out for good quality oils and varnishes. And in general, the less stuff you add to pigment, the better. Student grade paint, piled on thick to compensate for its paucity of pigment, will be loaded with cheap binders. It’ll take longer to dry. And in the end, you have no idea what the results will look like in five years. If all you can afford is student grade paint, maybe you simply can’t afford to paint.

You could make a case for using cheaper kinds of color, such as earths. The old masters had little else, earths plus horrifically expensive Vermillion and Lapis Lazuli, from which ultramarine was extracted at great price. But if impressionism is your game, you’ve got no choice but to load your palette with a series of pigments corresponding to the spectrum, and able to hit whatever note you seek. In the lower sky, that note is a pale, ethereal blue veering toward the green end of the spectrum, a blue which no mixture of ultramarine or cobalt can match. Can Sevres’ nuclear chroma be dampened sufficiently to make it usable? Time will tell. If not, I guess Jerry’s will hear from me, if I can cobble together the $56.51.