Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Elephant No. 310: Pigment Stick

I've been ogling pigment sticks in the art store for a while, and this week they were finally on sale, so I thought I'd try one for today's elephant.

Essentially, pigment sticks—also known as oil sticks or oil bars—are a form of oil medium, consisting of pure pigments mixed with oil and wax. Because of their composition, they can be blended like oils—and with oils—and can actually be combined with linseed oil and the like to make them more oily and spreadable. The video below gives you a good idea of how they work.

Most artists appear to combine pigment sticks with other media such as oil paint, oil pastels, and even acrylic paint. Artists who use pigment sticks alone, however, tend to create abstract works characterized by bold strokes and highly saturated colour.

Pink Lady #4 by Deanna Leamon, 2010.
Oil stick on insulation board.
Source: http://deannaleamon.blogspot.ca/2008/08/works-of-art-deanna-leamon.html

There were two brands of pigment sticks at the art store. Because they involve pure pigments, the sticks are quite expensive, each costing anywhere from about ten dollars to twenty-five dollars or more. I felt I could only really afford to buy one today, so it took me a few minutes to choose a colour I liked. I almost bought Payne Grey as a good elephant colour, then thought about Cerulean Blue. Then I saw a nice rich Ultramarine Purple for a really good price, so I bought that instead.

I could tell even without taking the stick out of its packaging that it was going to be very messy. Those of you who have been following this blog for a while may have noticed that I have yet to paint an elephant with oils. There's a reason for that, mostly to do with the mess I make every time I try it—which is not very often at all.

I had a package of 35.5 x 45.75 cm (14 x 18 inches) canvases given to me as a gift, so I decided to use one of them. While you can use pigment sticks on paper, they're so oily that priming the paper with gesso is strongly recommended. Ick. Not today.

That isn't to say that you have to prime the paper. I still have an oil painting made back in school on really cheap paper at the instigation of a slightly crazed professor, and the oily bleeds all around the edge are actually rather interesting. Completely unlikely to last in any sort of archival sense, of course, but still interesting.

My first idea was just to make bold sweeping lines representing an elephant. Then I decided that I would be better off at least trying to make something vaguely realistic, so I worked from the photograph below, which I've used before. I chose this photograph because I thought it was relatively bold and graphic, which would probably work well for pigment sticks.

Source: http://www.productiveflourishing.com/what-elephants-

The first thing you need to do is remove the weird "rind" on the outside of the pigment stick. The rind is like a thick plastic, and allows virtually no pigment onto the surface. At first I thought I could just sort of wipe the rind away. Sadly, no. Preparing the pigment stick for drawing amounts to peeling off a good thickness of pigment stick before you come to anything gooey enough to draw with. And it is gooey.

The other thing is that, because it's like oil paint, a skin will eventually form again. This means that, if you go for a few days without using a pigment stick, you'll likely have to peel off the rind again.

I started by lightly sketching in the main outlines of the elephant. Because this wasn't a total disaster, I felt confident enough to add some shading to the elephant's ear. I liked the way the pigment stick looked when run lightly across the canvas, but I was even more happy with the places where I'd slathered it on.

Make no mistake: this is an incredibly messy activity. It's not quite as messy as oil paint on a palette, but the pigment stick is only moderately less greasy. It's liquid enough, in fact, that you can spread it with your finger, and even score lines in it with a fingernail. If I had to suggest its consistency, it's a bit like drawing with a stick of cold butter.

I didn't really want to fill in the whole elephant, so I just kept shading and smudging and scratching things with my fingernail. The fingernail sgraffiti was mostly to suggest wrinkles.

At a certain point, I could see that I was either going to have to fill in the whole thing, go buy another colour, or just leave well enough alone. So I decided to leave well enough alone.

As much as I dislike paint all over me, and as much as I don't love the smell of oil paint, I actually really enjoyed working with this medium. If you use a sketching technique and just fingers and fingernails, you can avoid having to clean up all kinds of tools. The sticks blend nicely, draw reasonably well, and allow for a surprising number of effects. The downside is oil stick everywhere—particularly under my fingernails, which is of course my own fault.

Apparently it takes as much time to dry pigment sticks as it does to dry similar thicknesses of oil paint. In this case, it will be three or four days before it's dry enough not to smear. Which means I can either play with it some more, or be happy with this. I vote for "be happy with this."

Elephant Lore of the Day
Many people know that elephants mourn their dead, and that they will often pay homage to bones they encounter on their migrations. Even more interesting is what elephants do following a recent death.

Initially, whether the fallen elephant is an adult or calf, an elephant herd will guard the body from scavengers such as hyenas, lions and vultures. As the body finally decays to bone, the elephants will caress the bones, and pass the tusks from trunk to trunk in what some have compared to a funeral ritual.

Nor do they limit themselves to tusks lying on the ground. When South African documentary filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert came across an elephant carcass in the early 1990s, they gathered the tusks to turn in to a game warden, in order to prevent their collection by poachers. When they left, however, the grieving elephants followed them.

The Jouberts had travelled a long way from the carcass when they finally stopped to sleep in their car. Before long, they found themselves surrounded by elephants. All night the elephants pushed at the car, trying to touch the ivory with their trunks.

Eventually, the Jouberts threw the ivory out to the elephants, just to get some sleep. The elephants immediately picked up the tusks and passed them around, spending the whole night investigating the ivory before moving on.

Elephant guarding an elephant carcass from a spotted hyena.
Source: http://i.imgur.com/GORE8.jpg

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)


  1. Hi,

    This is a very good site to know about. Pigment Sticks are oil paint in a stick form. It is high quality oil paints while enjoying the freedom to draw directly on your surface, without the distancing factor of the brush. Pigment Sticks are comparable in quality to the finest tube oil paints. The content of your site is very informative. Thanks...

    Ultramarine Blue Pigment

    1. Thanks for your kind comments. I have developed a fascination with pigments in recent months, so I really liked the beautiful photos of ultramarine blue on your own site, as well as the interesting information on its chemical tolerances.