Mixed Technique

May 7, 2009

Jan van Eyck mixed technique

Jan van Eyck mixed technique

The term mixed method or mische technique is generally used to refer to the painting technique of Jan Van Eyck, and the Flemish Masters.  The mixed part quite literally refers to the method of intermixing  the usage of both water based and oil based mediums to create a pictorial image.  It requires both patience and sufficient knowledge in order to achieve an attractive result.  Traditionally the resulting image was super realistic, but it certainly does not have to be.  The mixed method contains the possibility of multiple superimposed layers of paint which in themselves create beautiful effects of both light and color: the essence of abstraction.  My own “mische technique” is a bit of a hybrid using the traditional recipes with elements of both alla prima and indirect painting.

Nicolas Wacker
The originator of the modern adaptation of the so called mische technique, is a Russian man named Nicholas Wacker, who taught at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris in the early 80’s.  I’ve received it from a friend who studied there at that time, thus here below are her class notes:

  It is useful for brushability, quickness of drying and glaze layering.  Using this technique one can maximize the use of glaze while simultaneously painting opaque areas into the fresh medium.  The dry brush can be used to blend and unify the surface.  Strong areas can sink into the background while lighter tones can be emphasized.  It seems possible that the yolk of an egg could be substituted for the alcasit, though I have never tried it.

Emulsion:

  • 1- volume alcasit (methyl cellulose glue)
  • 1- volume half of which is pure linseed oil with 1/5 eburit dryer (or sun thickened linseed) and half damar varnish 2:1
  • 1- volume water
  • Put liquids in a jar in the order written ( alcasit first) and with each addition cover the jar and shake it in well. I heard water could be as much as 3 volumes but never tried it. The result looks like mayonaise.

Medium:

  • 1 part damar varnish
  • 1 part turpentine
  • 1 part stand oil (sun thickened is also fine)

Coat panel or canvas with a light coat of glue size.  For canvas, use a recipe for good lean priming (commercial lead white in oil, 1 pound thick paint, diluted with 3 fluid ounces of turpentine).  Add at least 3 coats brushed on in opposite directions, lightly sanded in between.  For gesso grounds on panels it is best to apply at least 10 thin coats painted in alternating directions, always sanding in between coats.

The Design
Find an image from which you wish to work. It can be a reproduction of a painting you admire, or a drawing of your own. You should be able to render it in black and white value studies as well as forsee the addition of color. Transfer the drawing to the primed canvas or prepared panel.  Render it in waterproof india ink. Be sure to erase all pencil lines after the drawing is transposed into ink.  A final glue size is applied on all surfaces after the preliminary drawing but before the imprimatura.

Paints
It is best to mix fresh white for every session.  Use white powdered pigments and emulsion.  Take a glass muller or spatula, pressing, dragging and blending the two together until a consistent texture is achieved.  This helps considerably with quick drying. Pour a small amount of emulsion into a small cup or bowl. Use this to increase the brushability of your oil colors. Remember to always honor the fat over lean principle. If you are able grind up your own colors, you will be able to avoid buttery, oily colors from the manufacturer. In additon, you will learn first hand which pigments require more oil to achieve a workable consistency or in contrast which grind up easily and are therefore ‘lean’.

Imprimatura
The white ground is covered with a translucent middle tone.  I usually use damar varnish diluted with turpentine 3(T):1(D) mixed with Burnt Umber.  Using a wide bristle brush apply over the whole panel to achieve a common medium value for the beginning of the image. Take a clean, dry cotton lint free cloth to wipe off the excess. The surface should be tacky and glistening.  To test for correct dryness, lightly touch the surface with the ball of the palm of your hand . When it is dried enough, it should pull a little on the skin when you lift the hand.  

The imprimatura can also function as the first level of glaze.  Work into this slightly tacky surface white mixed with emulsion for strong light areas and drag them into the background with a dry brush. This produces a soft way to suggest future values. After that come in with the darkest tones, to establish the shadows.  This quickly establishes the values of the painting and you can step back and assess how your idea is working and correct where necessary at an early stage.

Session 1
It is best to to let the imprimatura dry.  A few days to a week.  Touch will tell.  Now cover the entire painting with a fresh coat of clear medium.  Take a clean, dust free cloth and wipe the surface of excess medium.  The surface should be tacky and receptive.  One can begin to work in large blocks of color, alternating glaze or emulsion for transparent or opaque effects.  Values can slowly be adjusted. One proceedes from coarse to fine detail.  Highlights and shadows can be further refined by moving away from the midtones of the imprimatura while still remaining ‘unfocussed’. Later sessions can define fine highlights and precise shadows. Let the image slowly emerge. Don’t fall into the details – yet. 
One lovely advantage of the mixed technique is brushability. You can paint one color next to another area of color, then using a dry brush gently blend one area into the other. The colors softly merge without contaminating each other. Good sable brushes are invaluable for manipulating paint; fine bristle brushes can be used for painting larger areas and dry merging. Each painter needs to find his/her own taste. Remember to keep your colors pure. Unintentional mud is – mud.

The painting needs to dry thoroughly in between sessions. By using the Mixed Technique and one’s own ground up lean colors, drying time can be greatly reduced.  A week is usually enough. In the beginning stage when the painting is less saturated, the drying time can be even a few days. Techniques to insure a lean and thirsty ground are useful to know. For example, using lead white in one’s ground can help, but remember it is poisinous so use it with caution. I prefer 10 to 20 thin coats of chalk gesso on a plywood panel (Masonite, for example, is not as thirsty).

Session 2
Cover the whole painting (or the section on which you intend to work that day) with Medium. Take a clean dry cotton rag and wipe it back off. The surface should remain tacky and glistening. The surface is now ready for fresh paint manipulations. Finer details can begin to be applied using paint mixed with Emulsion for brushability. Remember the dry brush can be used to blend one area into the next. You will quickly see when an area can receive no more paint.

How many sessions does it take to complete an image?  This is best answered by experience. In general, don’t be impatient. This is not a fast results technique. However, it can create lovely possibilites for translucent color effects enhanced in layers of glaze, yet contrasted by areas of solid color. Try it out for yourself.

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16 Responses to “Mixed Technique”

  1. SH Says:

    Ellen,

    I have come across your site during my research of the Technique Mixte/Mische Technique…I’ve been doing indirect oil paintings for several years and am looking to experiment with this technique. Information on this topic appears quite scant, and I have perused your informative blog. Naturally, however, I have several questions – would you mind me asking?

    01. Does the oil/cellulose emulsion thin with water or turpentine/petroleum spirits?
    02. Is it necessary to paint into a wet oil layer each time?
    03. I have come across recipes that eliminate the oil ingredient and use only cellulose and water – do you believe this is advisable?

    I might add that I’ve tried to circumvent the emulsion by using tubed egg tempera titanium white (Sennelier brand) and even Plaka, which is recommended as “modern” substitute. Neither of them, in my experience, have good handling qualities – and the Plaka does indeed bead up upon wet oil paint, causing me to question its compatibility.

    Ps. I find your paintings of Bruges interesting…I am loosely familiar with the city, indirectly, through the paintings of the Symbolist painter Fernand Knhopff…although his depictions were far more morose.


  2. Hi SH,

    Nice to hear from you and your queries.
    No, I don’t mind your asking, in fact, I would like to raise the level of informative experience worldwide on the mixed technique and the internet appears to be one democratic way of doing it.

    01. The oil/cellulose emulsion does thin with water, however my experience is that older batches of it “leak” water which I usually just pour off the top as it separates out quite easily. The quality of the emulsion does not appear to be diminished and remains kinda like mayonnaise. During preparation, it is necessary to shake the jar quite well after the addition of each ingredient and also in older batches before resuming each painting session.
    02. No, however painting into a wet layer provides a tack to an otherwise smooth painting surface and also allows for smooth yet uncontaminated blending possibilities. You will have to experiment with this yourself to see how your own temperament and sensitivity responds.
    03. I haven’t used other recipes, mostly because I would like to master this one before I start mixing in unknowns. But from everything I know, an emulsion that eliminates the oily ingredient is in fact no longer an emulsion, so I wouldn’t really advise it if painting in oils is your goal. If you are interested in extending the tactile qualities of egg tempera, for example, then a cellulose water mixture could be interesting.
    If you have not yet checked out the Society of Tempera painters, I would highly advise that you do so. It is a very informative forum, containing a lot of experience.

    In any case, I wish you well in your explorations and can only encourage you to fuel your patience with an inner passion for the beauty that indirect painting can render.

    Cheers,
    Ellen

  3. SH Says:

    Hello again Ellen,

    I’ve got some methylcellulose powder now (bloody backorders). Do you recommend a certain ratio of water to powder? The bottle (Lineco brand) says 1 teaspoon to 1 pint of water. I’ve seen other recipes that include only a quarter of that amount, and Wacker’s recipe lacks specifics.


  4. Hi SH,

    I have the remains of a package of methyl-cellulose glue from a product called Alcasit (that’s the brand name). The instruction on the package are 1:25 by volume glue to water. Shake very vigorously during the first few minutes. Then continue shaking a few more times. After about 15-20 minutes, shake vigorously one more time. The the material should be ready to use. It should be viscous and slightly transparent.

    I have followed those instructions for a long time and never had a problem, though it does seem important to always use freshly made Alcasit when mixing up a new batch of emulsion. In any case, always put a date label on your potions.

  5. SH Says:

    Ellen,

    The 1:25 proportions seem to have worked – it has the semi-transparent appearance you describe, and is quite fluid. I’d hate to think how diluted it would be if I followed the bottle’s instructions; thanks for your response. The frothy appearance was worrisome but it became clear after a few hours.

    It’s interesting to work with, though my sample of ground titanium white became rock-solid on the palette within a span of 30 minutes. Is there an average drying time for the emulsion when used in the actual painting? I’ve went light on the drier since I’m wary of the side-effects (darkening and cracking with overuse).

    As a side note, have you ever read Kurt Wehlte’s book on painting techniques and materials? I was pleased to find subsections about the mixed technique which echoed the posts you’ve made about Wacker and your own technique in the alternating of tempera and oil layers. Interestingly, he ascribes its popularity in Germany to Max Doerner, and cites Otto Dix as one of its adherents.


  6. Hi SH,

    Glad you got the methyl cellulose mixed up. Then proceeded to mix up the emulsion? Did it end up looking like a barely fluid mayonnaise? (That’s what I usually get) (Don’t eat it!!)

    About the Titanium White drying so quickly. Yes, I tried that once myself and had a similar result. For my speed and interests, it simply dried too fast. So, I “cheat”. I use a big tube (the highest quality I can get) of pure lead white(oil). Even that has some residual oil when I squeeze it out, so I just blot that off with absorbent paper towels. Then I use the emulsion kinda like a painting medium just to increase the fluidity, brushability of the paint itself. Working this way gives me a session window range of about 4 to 8 hours max, which is usually more than enough. Both the glaze medium and the oil paint are still wet enough to allow for soft, sensuous blending.

    I’ve never used the eburite dryer, but always the sun-thickened linseed oil in the emulsion recipe. Usually the painting is dry to the touch the following day, though as the levels proceed the drying time seems to increase. I presume that is because the support is slowly becoming saturated? In any case, I usually wait a few days or up to a week before recommencing with the following layer.

    No, I have not heard of Kurt Wehlte though I am very familiar with Max Doerner. I keep his volume The Materials of the Artist, near to my studio table. Wacker did the same, though Wacker seemed to have a rich array of influences.

  7. SH Says:

    Ellen,

    I did mix up the emulsion thought it’s very fluid (runny) rather than barely. It does have the appearance of mayonnaise. Is it supposed to be fairly thick?

    Thanks for the tip about tube paints, though I feel a bit foolish now for springing for the big jar of titanium white pigment :O

    My test painting is tacky after one day but on the second it still isn’t fully dry – the tempera no longer rubs off on the finger, but it’s tacky nonetheless. It might be the medium I’m painting into (stand oil, venice turp, and drier), which was never quick to begin with.


  8. SH,
    Well, yes, the emulsion shouldn’t be that fluid. From what you describe, your emulsion sounds more like yoghurt or even Kefir, but it may still work, I only know what I have experienced, which is that it should be fairly thick. You might try mixing up the methyl cellulose glue according to your manufacturer’s instructions? Then remixing the emulsion (be sure to shake well with each addition of ingredient)?

    The medium should be wiped off very well before you begin to paint into it. Don’t worry it does leave a slight tack, but you don’t want to saturate your support too quickly. (I’ve done that more times than you would think)

    If it is not dry by the second day, after your first working session on the painting, then I would guess the medium was laid on a little too thick? If that is the case, don’t worry you haven’t trashed the painting, but it just may not absorb as many layers as you anticipate?

  9. SH Says:

    Ellen,

    I can only guess that I measured incorrectly at some step. From this point I guess I’ll just have to experiment – thank you for your patient advice and answers; I would have been stumbling for a much longer time without your help.

    Also, I thought you (and some of your readers) might be interested in Wehlte’s description of the mixed technique (on page 528). It’s likely nothing you don’t know, but it is another piece of the puzzle:

    ———————————————-

    DOERNER’S MIXED TECHNIQUE

    The combination of alternating tempera and oil painting advocated mainly by Max Doerner is really a glaze painting on a monochrome tempera underpainting, except that painting in tempera is continued after the glazes have been applied. The lights are then intensified with tempera colors, which are in turn covered by glazes. One can alternate in this way without the colors become lifeless and dirty. Quite a few modern painters have used this technique to produce works of significance. One of the most interesting examples is surely the great, moving triptych The War by Otto Dix in which all technical possibilities have been exploited with consummate skill. The predella of this work displays a masterly virtuosity in this technique.


  10. Hi SH,

    You are welcome. For myself, I stumbled around for years and created this site to reduce that time period for others. Thanks for the info from Doerner.

    What I understand, and should give you as fair warning, is that my use of the “mixed technique” is not exactly traditional. My egg tempera underpaintings are not monochromatic. Though I regard a value study as critical, I am equally driven (in my use of the mixed technique) by color and color relations. My years in the color separation printing business fuels that.

    And color is a huge and complex area full of emotional/vibrational nuances. Using the mixed technique is a soft and controlled way to explore those nuances.

    As ever, good luck to you…


  11. Hi Ellen
    Thanks for this great post. Could you perhaps recommend me some citations where actual painting analysis has identified the presence of egg tempera underneath oil glazes in the Flemish masters? I’m looking for references for a research project thankyou !


    • Hi Daniel,
      No, not really, I just use my eyes. That is more for the arena of painting conservationists. You could sniff around the Society of Tempera Painters or AMIENS (a site run by art conservationists) both have a well moderated forum witha good search function. Good luck!


  12. its exciting to cmoe across this process online! thank you for the posting, I am actually studying the technique mixte at graduate school. I have a similar recipe. I do start a mono chromatic drawing, then add imprimatura and begin to add umbers and whites to create the painting layers.. once I do that I add the color glazes to achieve the liveliness i desire. its a long process and super fun..if anyone has questions let me know, my recipe was given to me by my professor and its dead one great one.. passed from other teachers from france.

    P.s Love yuor website!!

    best regards.

  13. Amy Says:

    Hello Ellen,
    I stumbled upon your blog as I was searching the internet for what I could use between my layer of egg tempera and oil glazes/oil paint layers. I was looking for varnishes or what ever I could find that would work.

    What I really want to do is use egg tempera as an underpainting. My next layer would be a bit of texture from oil paint and then some final glazes over some of the texture.

    The biggest issue I have is discovering what to seal or protect the egg tempera from the next layer of oil paint.
    Are you saying that I could simply apply rabbit skin glue and that would protect my egg tempera layer and then the next oil paint layer will adhere to the rabbit shin glue? I can apply layers of oil paint over this foundation? The oil paint won’t remove the rabbit skin glue size and the egg tempera?

    Ellen, I would so appreciate any feedback as to your experience!
    I hope to hear back from you ~
    Thank you kindly,


    • Hi Amy,

      If you are using egg tempera as an underpainting, probably the most important thing to watch for is the curing time.
      Because egg yolk is a natural emulsion of oil and water, it both dries and cures. The water dries, the oil part cures.
      If you try to paint over egg tempera in oil before it has sufficiently cured, you can harm your ET level.
      But if you wait long enough, it will be hard and quite durable. How long is long enough?
      A week is minimum, longer is always better. Also, if you can give your ET some sunlight, the UV will help the curing process.
      But of course, be careful not to scorch it.

      In my experience, an intervening layer of rabbitskin glue will provide some protection but not that much.
      I have also tried using retouch varnish but of course you have to be careful to not saturate the absorbency of your substrate too quickly.
      In the mixed technique, that saturation issue can be very important. You can reach a point where the oil no longer “takes” to the ground.
      Then it is time to start over. 😦
      Try reading Max Dorner’s book. He has a section on the mixed technique.
      I hope this is helpful to you.
      Good luck!
      Ellen


  14. […] probably used lead) ground up in a very lean egg/oil emulsion. The emulsion I use comes from the mixed technique but one could just as easily substitute an egg yolk for the methyl-cellulose glue component. I have […]


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