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Nature Art: Poppies in Casein Paint

Casein paint is old...very old. The ancient cave paintings in Lascaux, France were painted with casein. Casein paint combines milk with dry pigment (such as iron ore or charcoal in the case of the cave paintings) to make paint. Nowadays, we can find casein paint in all colors, and it is an inexpensive alternative to painting in acrylics or gouache. Casein is water-soluble, so clean-up is easy. After a few weeks, you can buff the surface of a casein painting with a soft cloth to bring up a natural shine. Here's my palette with casein paint -- you can see I used a paper plate to lay out my colors and mix them.

The poppies are out! The summers are too humid here in Maryland to count on poppies returning from year to year, so it's exciting when they do. This year, some returned in time for Mothers' Day. I drew them over and over in my sketchbook. The strange angles of the stems and the flower buds fascinated me, no two the same:

I squeezed out the colors I thought I'd need -- plus white -- onto a paper plate. I could also have used a white glass or ceramic plate, but my plates are all shades of blue. If I were painting over several days, I'd have used a dedicated plastic or glass palette, keeping the paint moist by laying plastic over the palette and taping it closed. I set out a container of water and a clean rag (a paper towel will also work), and I chose a large and a small stiff brush. Casein is a buttery paint, fun to move around on a painting, and I need stiff brushes to do that. Watercolor brushes are too soft.

Casein dries fast, but not as fast as acrylic paint. I had time to blend the paint with water and my brush. When I made a mistake, I let the paint dry and then used full-strength casein (not diluted with water) to paint the correction. Here is the casein painting, about 8 by 6 inches:

Stephen Quiller, in his book Watermedia Painting, does beautiful work in casein. His colorful paintings of the Rocky Mountains inspired me to try this medium, and you can see them on his website. Not many manufacturers make casein; in fact, I've only found the Shiva brand through an online art supply store, such as Dick Blick. But, they are inexpensive and well worth the shipping cost to give them a try. I hope you do!

-- Sue Fierston paints and teaches just outside of Washington, D.C. in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. As a painter, she works in acrylics and watercolor and is in the middle of a series called "100 Flowers." As a teaching artist, she works with teachers to bring art into their classrooms in grades 4-8. Her posts focus on her nature-themed art collaborations. For a look at her paintings or more about her teaching, check out her website at suzannefierston.com.

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