Stack Lead White the Reincarnation of Rembrandt’s Lead White? By Michael Harding

Materials History ,

Stack Lead White the Reincarnation of Rembrandt’s Lead White? 

Imagine for a moment that we are in Rembrandt’s studio. What would we learn, what would we see? Obviously genius in the making! To some he may be on a human scale of a god in his domain. On a more grounded level what can we glean from his studio practices? His materials for me would unlock many secrets to magnificent oil painting.

Artist’s are constantly in search of methods, materials, shortcuts and even some “legitimate tricks” with which to improve ones painting, I think our eyes would dart around Rembrandt’s studio trying to find a clue as to how he produced the extraordinary paint strokes he rendered. When I study Rembrandts very closely, I examine his brush strokes and I try to imagine what he was thinking, not just about his subject, which was often himself. I feel he knew exactly where and how every dab should be placed. As is so often the case with geniuses they make it look incredibly simple.

Rembrandt close

Many scholars have noticed there is something different in the nature of Rembrandt’s oil paints, particularly his whites that cannot be simulated with any white today. There are many writings about this and I do not intend to claim to be the first to notice this or to regail you with the same observations. The realities are that the method by which whites, and in this case lead whites, were made has changed. Until the industrial revolution lead whites were made roughly in the same way, suspending lead over vinegar in a container and then burying under horse dung, yes that’s right its not a typo! The chemistry that takes place is well understood and quite simple in broad terms. First, vapors of acetic acid from the vinegar attacks the lead then, the carbonic acid from the warm horse dung converts the white corrosion into lead carbonate. This is a method traced back well before the time of Christ. The Dutch literally scaled up this process and built huge stacks of vinegar, lead and horse dung filled containers, which to this day is still referred to as the ‘old Dutch stack process’. For me to be able to recreate the actual white pigment that would have been familiar to Rembrandt and masters of this pre-industrial process is something of a hunt for the holy grail. I have been researching Rembrandt’s lead whites and the old Dutch stack process for many years. So how does it vary from other man made lead whites?

I believe when nature comes into play, as with snowflakes, every molecule is randomly different, and then every conglomeration of pigment particles on a nano scale is different. With industrially made pigments every particle tends to be uniform, every bit of colour is deliberately made to be consistent. In our modern world we are “trained” to want bright white things, paper, bleached loaves of bread, white chicken meat, the list goes on. Consistency matters in the modern world for example, imagine frustration if wall papering a wall to find the colour varied from one roll of paper to the next. How many bright white acrylic primed canvases can you see in the art stores around the world? For me this is crazy not only is bright white completely unnecessary it is difficult to paint upon because of the extreme contrast. Most experienced artists start by obliterating this crisp white surface to a more neutral sympathetic hue as a first step.

So, what looks different in the Rembrandt whites? They have a unique texture almost a goopy, syrupy quality. I try and imagine what he was thinking about when painting his paint. Did he like it? Did he have to fight to get it to do what he wanted? I think not. I think he knew exactly how to make his paint behave.

Many artists of the pre-industrial age appear to have been able to throw wonderful passages of white light as if it magically flowed from the brush. An example is the wonderful painting of ‘woman bathing’ in London’s National gallery. (photo 1)

 

Making stack lead white has been a 25-year mission for me. How am I doing it? I start by deliberately hunting the horse fields to gather the freshest horse poop I can. The warm steaming type is best, because it’s the most active biologically. I also visit the horse dung piles that are mixed with straw which been cleaned out of the stables by the people who lovingly take care of these generous animals. Straw is a good addition because it helps aerate the mixture. I then take strips of roofing lead cut it to strips, 6 inches by 24, and roll it in a spiral and then place this in a small clay container over a small amount of vinegar settled at the bottom. I then bury the pots in the horse dung. After a number of weeks magically nature runs its course producing the most beautiful white flakes resembling something more along the lines of the paper one finds in a wasp nest or something made by an insect. The process in itself I find beautiful! This process takes approximately eight weeks depending on time of year and other weather variables.

What does the pigment look like once it is washed of impurities, ground by hand with pestle and mort and then ground in linseed oil? Firstly, the colour is that of a soft gentle non-brilliant white more like the colour of parchment, soft and subtle. The other fascinating observation compared to an industrially made lead white is in the handling quality. When the paint has been left standing and one takes a pallet knife to it and starts to manipulate the paint, at first it is very short and produces only abrupt wisps of paint.

Stack lead knife

 

 

Here you can see the stack lead white, which has been standing is thick enough to support the weight of the pallet knife.

 

 

 

Stack Lead white jpg

 

 

If you manipulate the stack lead white further for a few seconds the paint starts to become what seasoned oil artists refer to as “ropier” and produces long dragged wisps of paint below.

 

 

It even has what could be described as “flow” for a moment. From a more scientific point of view its whats known as “thixotropic” or put briefly for the lay person a material that become more fluid when agitated or stirred.

I am very proud of my stack lead white as it is what I envision Rembrandt to have used as his white oil paint. My output at the moment is very limited due the labor intense process.

Michael Harding

 

In addition I am very proud to include these quotes by the well known American artist David Leffel

In all these many years I have been painting, which is synonymous for me as studying the art of painting, brushstrokes and paint quality have been essential concerns. David Leffel portrait

The quality of Rembrandt’s white has always been a source of fascination. As Mr. Michael Harding has already stated, “his whites cannot be simulated with any white commercially manufactured today.”

Try as I might—adding various mediums to my tubes of lead white, as well as grinding my own lead paint—I could never produce a white which would enable me to achieve the paint quality I sought. And now a new door is opened—stack white! This white allows an artist—any artist—long limpid descriptive brushwork, brushstrokes that reveal the workings and understandings of the mind behind the hand. The long supple quality of stack white that allowed Rembrandt the freedom and expressiveness that enthralls us to this day is, at last, at hand.

As with all of Michael’s colours, quality and integrity are in every tube.

David Leffel

 

15 Responses to “Stack Lead White the Reincarnation of Rembrandt’s Lead White? By Michael Harding”

March 20, 2016 at 10:31 pm, Donovan Clegg said:

The different natures of lead whites have fascinated me for 35 years. From matt brie rind of chardin to velasquez lick and spittle curls and quips of paint – never the arctic chill of titanium. I read rembrandt may have used printers linseed oil held up with glass particles from mulling – part of the essential muscularity of masters lead white perhaps. What was essential was the 2 types first cut with chalk for the underlay lootwit? And then a thick muscular sculptwit ? for the bas relief highlights which were bathed in glaze colour

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March 29, 2016 at 12:26 pm, Ben. Winspear said:

Fascinating!
I have a tube of your stack lead white Michael…looking forward to using it.

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December 29, 2016 at 8:33 pm, Thomas Edetun said:

Hi. Interesting to read about “Stack lead white” I am myself interested in the way Velazquez and Rembrandt used oil paint and linseed oil. I have together with another fellow artist for a longer period made tests and discussed this matter. I am not so interested to paint in old style myself i like more to be contemporary but surely it can be useful know more about the paint material. Now i am making my own “stack lead white pigment” in small scale. Just to understand how it works. And i am not using “horse dung” but baking soda. It works but i have to wash the pigment to clean it later. By the way i am using your lead white and other oil paints. Regards
Thomas E

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January 18, 2018 at 6:02 pm, Michael said:

Dear Thomas,

I wish other all artists would experiment as you do, I am sure you have become a better artist for it. Washing although tedious is essential I have read that rain water since it contains carbonic acid was prefered in the old days. Standing in this water also seems to help. This link to part of our website might interest you.
http://www.michaelharding.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/MichaelHardingLeadWhiteReport_UniversityCambridge.pdf

Best Wishes

Michael

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March 04, 2017 at 12:51 am, Terrence said:

Can’t wait to try this paint. Well done Michael for the research and now this new product.!!

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May 10, 2017 at 7:41 pm, Ril Ler said:

Would there be an option to make the processed white mixable with acrylics?

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January 18, 2018 at 6:02 pm, Michael said:

No not if it’s oil based. But there are those silly water mixable oils if you wanted to try.

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October 12, 2017 at 10:40 am, My Stack Lead White has no Extenders – Scientific Investigation | Michael Harding said:

[…] Many scholars have noticed there is something different in the nature of Rembrandt’s oil paints, particularly his whites that cannot be simulated with any white today. There are many writings about this and I do not intend to claim to be the first to notice this or to regail you with the same observations. The realities are that the method by which whites, and in this case lead whites, were made has changed. Until the industrial revolution lead whites were made roughly in the same way, suspending lead over vinegar in a container and then burying under horse dung, yes that’s right its not a typo! The chemistry that takes place is well understood and quite simple in broad terms. For more click here […]

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November 23, 2017 at 11:03 am, Glenn Williams said:

oh its just so frustrating to be in the uk with all the stupid EU rules stopping us from using this interesting paint. wonderful article, very interesting. and what a tease! 🙂

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November 25, 2017 at 11:39 pm, Brian Kirk said:

Do you sell stack lead white in larger tubes 225ml? Thanks Brian

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December 07, 2017 at 1:09 pm, Joelle Harding said:

Hi Brian,

You can get the Stack Lead White in 250 Cartridge.

All the best!

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January 15, 2018 at 10:30 pm, Jacob said:

I am French polisher who is trying to make old fashioned varnishes.Adding some lead white supposed to speed up the drying of the oil vanish.

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January 16, 2018 at 10:14 am, Michael said:

Dear Jacob,

It is my opinion that very slight amounts might speed the drying, any larger amount will impart opacity, I suggest placing lead strips in your varnish and slowly cooking for several hours. This must be done outside away from building and avoid naked flame. Extreme caution for fire danger!!!!!!! The risk is yours.

Best Wishes

Michael

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May 09, 2018 at 7:02 pm, Jose María Castelao Cámara said:

Hello Michael,
congratulations for your paintings, and for successfully developing flake white process. Yes, like many of you, many years ago I longed for having that kind of lead white. I just purchased the sheet of lead. One question: the straw that is added to the horse manure, in what proportion–roughly to the horse manure? In other site I saw adding cedar bark mulch–I guess the same purpose of airing. Anyway, I want to do every step properly–being the first time! (I have read sometimes the corrosion happens with stains…after all the end product is poisonous, so one has to use it 100%…)
Thanks for your reply!
Jose

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May 25, 2018 at 12:52 pm, Michael said:

Dear Jose,

Congratulations on building your own stack! Very impressive. I do not have the ratio of straw for you to use as it is environmentally pertinent and my environment in the UK will differ from yours. Use enough straw to cover the pots – you want to keep the stacks warm.

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