Editor's note: The following article was rekeyed and reprinted on October 15, 2008 in Resource Library with permission of Lonnie Pierson Dunbier. The article is an excerpt from Dr. Roger Dunbier's unpublished writing of 601 pages titled WEST IS WEST: Your Money's Worth in Original Painting.  Dated 1982, the original typewriter manuscript is owned by his wife, Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, who edits and submits the chapters to TFAO. If you have questions or comments regarding the article, please contact Lonnie Pierson Dunbier in Scottsdale, AZ, at ldunbier@mac.com.


Painting and their Mediums

By Roger Dunbier, PhD (1934-1998)


The purchaser of an oil painting, watercolor or pastel receives a tangible entity whereby an artist has, through physical and chemical means, produced something which should be durable in the extreme. The 'means' of that durability involve a limited number of painting methods, each one of which is termed a medium. Understanding the most commonly used mediums gives appreciation of process and knowledge for preservation.



"It is a tedious and demanding medium."

The unearthed ruins of ancient Egypt and Crete give mute testimony to the skills of ancient artists working in tempera. A binding colloidal albuminous or gelatinous medium, most often egg, either yolk and white or yolk only, is necessary to make tempera paint. Though soluble in water, it is a very permanent medium, opaque and quick drying. In appearance it is more competitive with oil painting than the more translucent watercolor with which it is generally associated due to their mutual water solubility.

In its 'competition' with oils, which began centuries ago, tempera has been, at least in the theater of Western American painting, almost totally vanquished. Much of this can be attributed to difficulty. Tempera is a tedious and demanding medium; what an oil painter can accomplish in an hour might take a tempera painter all day to complete. Persistence does, however, through the blending and crosshatching of translucent paint on hard surfaces, yield color, which can be at the same time both strong and subtle.



". . .it allows the collector an opportunity to go first class at at a tourist price."

In watercolor each stroke must count. Being the most transparent of mediums, the artist cannot bury his or her errors under thick paint. It is the thinking painter's medium where technique and expertise prevail. For this reason, I believe all admirers of water color fall into two classes: those who admire its subtle beauty prima facie, and those of us who have worked and struggled in the medium and admire not only the art but the artists who have mastered the technique.

With all of this, watercolor has always been something of a second-class citizen. This, I think, is less so today than in generations past, but never mind, even if it is, there is a big plus because it allows the collector an opportunity to go first class at at a tourist price.

Watercolor, unlike oil or tempera, is a two-part medium: (1) the paint and (2) the paper on which it is applied. The paint, being essentially transparent as well as often not covering the entire surface, means that the paper itself joins with the paint as an active partner to 'complete' the painting.

Thus in the 'anatomy' of a watercolor, the paper assumes an importance beyond that of the canvas or board, etc., which forms the underlying 'support' for an oil painting. In other words, you see the paper. It produces the essential luminosity as well as the tactile element provided by the impasto of oil paint. And while watercolors can be executed on a wide range of papers, those especially created for the medium are obviously the most used. Heavy rag papers are normally considered best. One should always look closely at the paper to distinguish these coarse papers as they separate original watercolors from some very cleverly done products of the printing press. These mechanically reproduced watercolor facsimiles are usually rendered on a less textured paper.

Watercolor paints are essentially composed of transparent pigments ground to an extremely fine texture in an aqueous solution of gum (arabic, etc.) in the proper proportion. When this is accomplished, the paint can be enormously diluted with water and still adhere to the paper and be seen. This dilution is the key to success in watercolor. One shade or many can be derived from a single color, depending on the amount of water added to the principal color.

In addition, particular atmospheric effects can be achieved through wetting the paper before beginning work. The texture of water is often achieved naturally enough through this aqueous technique. Most of us, I think, have noted how naturally watercolor lends itself to pictures in which water is prominent such as harbor scenes and wildlife from the duck blind. The greater challenge is presented the artist when using the medium to portray the desiccated landscape that dominates so much of the West. Look for this kind of virtuosity and appreciate the challenge, which the water color artists accepts when undertaking this xeric portrayal.



". . .can be made to 'shout as loud' as any oil paint when put in the hands of a superior painter."

Gouache is a form of watercolor in which most of what has just been said does not apply. Other than the fact that the pigments contain the same ingredients and are soluble in water, little is the same. In gouache, the paper counts for little above its ability to support or hold the paint. The water bases does not give the painting a particular 'wet' feeling, although the proportion of water to pigment is greater in gouache than in water color. Unlike watercolors, which should be executed quickly and in a technically correct and uniform manner, fast drying gouache is an easy medium to handle, if not exactly easy to learn.

All of this is due to the opaque nature of its pigments where the color white, from chalk in the medium, substitutes for the white of the paper. The paint also has a 'thickness' lacking in watercolor. The amount of white paint used and the intensity of color added to the opaque medium determine the liveliness of the color. These can be made to 'shout as loud' as any oil paint when put in the hands of a superior painter such as Henry Farny (1847-1916). These same gouache masters can utilize brush strokes like the oil painter achieving much the same textures and impasto.



Oil painting, like gold, has been for a very long time 'king of the hill'.

Not long ago I bumped into a Navajo silversmith who had moved to Phoenix and was turning out some very fine pieces in gold. The conversation went very quickly to this change he was making in his use of mediums. He said, in effect, that putting aside his Navajo tradition and certain aesthetic qualities, gold was "just a joy" to behold. Next to silver, it was like "working in butter". It didn't tarnish, had a terrific 'feel', and you could hammer it infinitely flat, etc. He liked its warm color and the fact that people recognized it without fail. It lasted forever. He spent quite awhile talking about gold before he ever mentioned what the Anglo would have put right up front. "It's too bad it costs so much."

This conversation, like so many others, in which cultures meet provides that instant dividend. It should no long surprise. It always does.

When I was outlining this writing, it occurred to me that what my Navajo friend was saying about gold was in many respects true for oil painting, both taken independently and as the medium related to its competitors. Aside from the fact that you can't 'hammer it flat', oil painting fits the Navajo's description of gold quite well, at least from the point of view of the artist who works with it. What he said also manifests itself through analogy in the relationships that gold has with silver and other materials that jewelers utilize.

Oil painting, like gold, has been for a very long time 'king of the hill'. And like gold, there appears little chance of it slipping to second place at any time in the near future. Finally, one could conclude as our jeweler did, that "it's too bad it costs so much".

Oil painting originated in fine art when linseed oil replaced the egg as medium in tempera. There was no 'invention' in the normal sense of this term, although historian Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Artists credits the innovation to the Flemish Van Eyck painters Hubert (1366-1426) and Jan (1390-1441). This may or may not be true. However, in its early development, the positive qualities of oil were quickly realized, and within fifty years artists from the North Sea to the Mediterranean were substituting the crushed seed of the flax for that of that of the hen. The process has changed little from that time except that linseed oil, derived from flax, has been improved through refinement and a good number of the coloring materials have been substituted for many of the less permanent vegetable metalic and other mineral pigments commonly used in the Fifteenth Century.

The positive qualities that in combination have given oil painting its position of primacy include the following:

1) The particular quality of light seen reflected within the pigment, which can assume a shining or brilliant tone.
2) Great flexibility and ease of manipulation, which can produce a wide variety of effects.
3) Lack of change of colors to any great extent upon drying.
4) The dispatch with which a number of effects can be obtained by uncomplicated technique.
5) Freedom to combine opaque and transparent effects in full range in the same painting.
6) Ease of handling in that large pictures can be done on portable light-weight, sturdy canvas mounted on stretcher bars.
7) Universal acceptance of oil painting by artists and the public.

There are, of course, defects found in the medium, the principal one being some eventual darkening or yellowing of the oil. Additionally, in the less than perfect climate wherein the painting may spend its lifetime, the damage inflicted by heat, cold and damp and other weather-related factors will work 'their' gradual way.

It is to our advantage to touch on the subject of canvas or other types of support for the 'ground', which requires time-honored attention, meaning that much transpires prior to the first application of color.

I will give personal testimony to this as some of the worst moments of my youth came on those annual dreaded mornings when I saw my father carrying out to the yard the long frames which he utilized in the readying of his own canvases. This meant that off and on for several days I would be dragooned into the tedium of stretching and un-stretching giant swaths of linen before and after the application of sizing and ground. This activity reluctantly engaged in was accompanied by his wide-ranging lectures in a mixed bag of languages on various subjects, the principal one being the disinclination of the younger generation to pay attention to detail and the failure of ten year olds to appreciate the good hard work and educational opportunities yet afforded them in a society going soft.

This leads me to a paragraph in The Artists Handbook by Ralph Mayer where a check mark in the margin of my father's copy, which he purchased in 1940, points to the following paragraph concerning canvas-boards:

Canvas boards are pasteboard to which prepared cloth has been glued or pasted. Although they are made to be painted upon, they are thoroughly unreliable for permanent professional painting on account of the doubtful quality of the materials generally used.

These words, which reached paper in the late 1930s, have been reiterated without change in every new printing of this popular book right down to the 1981 reprint. And now taken into consideration are words also by Mayer in the same section that "recently there has appeared on the market all purpose boards, coated with a casein or glue mixture, which contains tinting or tooth-imparting pigment. The support is usually common thin pasteboard which disqualifies the material for permanent works."

However, my assertion is that Ralph Mayer is wrong in his ongoing denigration of canvas boards. Over 80 years have now passed since my father found the reference in his book, and judging by my father's frequent use of canvas board, there is no evidence that it is more subject to deterioration and canvas mounted on stretchers. There are potential problems with both, but to my mind there is, with each passing year, less evidence for the wholesale condemnation reprinted so faithfully by Mr. Mayer's publishers. Passing time challenges Mr. Mayer. A doubter, I challenge dealers and collectors who have read negatives about canvas board not to accept them as gospel.



...among the most permanent of art mediums

This medium occupies a unique position among those which will concern us here as it is both painting and drawing. To comprehend this seemingly contradictory definition, one must understand first that all painting mediums consist of pigment and binder.

As mentioned before, pigment can be derived from a multitude of sources. It can be a mineral such as one of the earth colors. It can be vegetable in origin derived from a tropical wood or flower. Even animals such as beetles and cuttlefish contribute. On the other hand, pigments may not be natural in origin at all as new ones are being created every year in chemical laboratories. Wherever these pigments stem from, they serve one purpose: to provide the color for all painting mediums. The same pigment in powder form is used for tempera, watercolor, gouache, oil, acrylics and pastel. The only difference is in the substance used for two various mediums. This is the binder, which as the name implies, holds the raw pigment in such a way that it becomes workable in a painting medium. Its purpose is to weld the pigment granules into some sort of shape---liquid, semi-liquid or solid---where brush, knife or hands can carry the color to the canvas or paper.

In oil paints, the raw pigment is, as we have seen, combined with a linseed oil binder to form a fluid paint. Even more fluid in application is watercolor where the same pigment is combined with a gum binder. In pastel, a pure, finely ground raw and dry pigment is combined with a substance such as gum tragacanth to form a pastel stick or crayon. Since it is a dry medium rather than a liquid one, only a minimum of binder is used, and just enough to hold the pigment particles together. For this reason, it has been maintained that pastel is technically the purest 'painting' medium since it uses the least binder and the maximum pure pigment. I emphasize the word 'pure' keeping in mind what Joe Singer writes in his book, How to Paint Portraits in Pastel: "it is often the binder and not the pigment that is the main cause for the deterioration of paintings, especially oil. "

However, the problem is that all mediums are not equal in the way they mix with binders and also grounds. Pastels never adhere permanently to the surface of the paper. For this reason, they must always be handled with extreme care. Fixatives may provide a partial solution, but here again adverse chemical reactions may change the original tones of the pastel. Many inferior papers will fade. Glass is usually considered the best solution for the smudging problems, but as most collectors know, its use presents another set of negatives: glare, breakage, visual obscurity, etc.

All in all, pastel presents a fine and probably underutilized medium in Western American painting. It is, nevertheless, a neglected medium. A recent exhibition and sale of miniature paintings held in Tucson (early 1980s) gave objective proof of this. All paintings were limited to no more than twelve inches along their greatest dimension. It would seem that for this kind of diminutive effort quite a few of the seventy-five painters who entered works would opt for pastel.

Fifty-four opted for oil, nine for watercolor, six for acrylic, two for tempera-casein, three for mixed-media, one for charcoal, and only one for pastel.

-- Edited and Submitted by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier who holds the copyright


About the Author:

From 1982, Dr. Roger Dunbier (1934-1998) combined his professional economics training, research skills, and love of art to develop an easily accessed, 'all-in-one-place' repository of factual information so that buyers and sellers of American art could make decisions based on hard-core data rather than just marketing hype.  With ever-more sophisticated computers, programmed by Charles Lefebvre, his long-time associate, Dunbier built an artist record database, which by the time he died 16 years later, had 21,357 names linked to their respective auction prices, literature and biographies.  Today the result of his dedication lives on as the foundation of AskART.com, an internet site since 2000.  

Dunbier's innovation of computer systems began in 1963, when he pioneered computer mapping on what were then relatively primitive computers.  In 1967, he utilized concepts of 'arbitrage' and 'comparables' in designing the first real estate Multiple Listing System.  Its direct descendent remains in use by realtors across the United States, and he later applied the same underlying principles in building his artist database.  (right: Roger Dunbier, photo courtesy Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, derived from a larger image at http://tfaoi.org/am/16am/16am17.jpg)

Dunbier was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska.  His interest in American art was natural because his father, Augustus Dunbier, (1888-1977) was a prominent landscape, still life and portrait painter and art teacher, whose studio and classroom were in the family home.   Although Roger showed few 'right brained' skills, he did have other talents.  He graduated first in his class and Summa Cum Laude from the University of Omaha in 1955 with majors in economics and history.   He then received a Marshall Scholarship, which led to enrollment at Oxford University in England from 1955 to 1959.  During that time, he was on the Oxford University basketball and track teams, and was a member of the British National Basketball Team.  In 1961, he received a Doctorate of Philosophy, Economic Geography from Oxford.  His dissertation, The Sonoran Desert, Its Geography, Economy, and People, was published by the University of Arizona Press in 1960, and subsequently used as a text book for college geography courses.

After formal education, Dunbier held full-time professorial positions for several years at the University of Omaha and the University of California-Irvine.  He lived most of the remainder of his life in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona, and had economic-geography related jobs including CEO of his management consulting firm that prepared demographic and locational studies; and President of Metro Press, Inc., publisher of over 100 computer generated area directories for Metro Phoenix.  In 1991, he married Lonnie Pierson of Lincoln, Nebraska.

-- By Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, 2008


About this article's editor

Lonnie Pierson Dunbier of Scottsdale, Arizona and originally from Nebraska, married Dr. Roger Dunbier in 1991. From then, she worked full time on his artist database. After his death, she co-founded AskART.com, for which she was Research Director from 2000 to 2007. Ms. Dunbier is also the editor of all other excerpts from Dr. Roger Dunbier's unpublished writing of 601 pages titled WEST IS WEST: Your Money's Worth in Original Painting

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