When is Long too Long a Time? On Van Dyke Brown and the Art of Drying

It never dries. Or at least it can seem that way, if you ever worked with genuine Van Dyke Brown, a bituminous earth designated as Natural Brown 8 by the Color Index. Week after week can go by, and even the lightest touch of a finger on the thinnest of films can come away with a wet smudge of a deep dark blackish brown. It’s enough to push many a painter’s patience to the brink, and is a quality that has been bound to this pigment for as long as it has found a place on the artists’ palette, stretching back to the 17th century.

When confronted with this problem, a paintmaker only has a few options at their disposal. Certainly you can leave the paint as it is, although in many ways you are simply pushing the problem downstream and forcing artists to wrestle with the disparity of a paint that might take months to dry in a thicker application. Another possibility would be to abandon the pigment all together; to convert it to a mix of synthetic or natural earths blended with black. But to do so is to turn one’s back on a unique material that has threaded itself through so much of art history, and appeared in such a wide range of paintings forming the backdrop of our craft. Or you might try ramping up the addition of metallic driers in the hopes of coaxing the color into line. However, you soon find there is a limit to the improvements you can achieve before equally increasing the risk of cracking and surface defects. Not an option we would entertain.

In the end we went in another direction altogether, using a solution that has a long history of its own going back to at least Rembrandt’s day: namely, to leverage the powerful drying action that certain pigments are known to have – in particular the umbers. Start with a pure Van Dyke Brown and add 10% Raw Umber, and the initial film that never dried for weeks will now be locked down in a couple of days. Along the way, however, the masstone and tint are clearly impacted and its not clear if the gains are worth it. Slowly reduce that blend to a mere 2%, and the film will dry in a fairly reasonable 6-10 days with barely a perceptible change in color or handling. Reduce it even further to 1%, and the drying time starts to lengthen out again and even a paper-thin film can easily take a couple of weeks or more to set-up. Which gets you right back on that edge of a judgement call – when is long too long a time?

So it’s a balancing act, and a good lesson along the way in just how reactive and powerful a catalyst some pigments can be. If you look at the dry time chart at the end of our recent article Weighing in on the Drying of Oils (http://www.justpaint.org/jp25/jp25article3.php) you can see that a thin film of our Van Dyke Brown should dry in 5-14 days depending on conditions – approximately the same rate as our Cadmium Reds. We feel that makes sense and is in keeping with the traditional way painters dealt with this problem in the past. But if you ever have a desire or need for a Van Dyke Brown that takes longer to dry, or contains no Raw Umber whatsoever, just let us know! We regularly make custom paints for those in search of unique colors or formulations.

For more information about this or anything else, give us a call (800-293-9399 / 607-847-8843) or drop us an email techsupport@WilliamsburgOils.com

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8 thoughts on “When is Long too Long a Time? On Van Dyke Brown and the Art of Drying

  1. Sarah, thanks for the info. While I don’t personally use Van Dyke Brown, I am intrigued by the drying issue. Also its good to know I can request custom paints. Maybe I’ll create my own line!

    • We have regularly made various paints with different oils, unique pigments, customized blends, variations on mediums…..you name it, we can do it. Costs can be pretty reasonable. If ever interested, just let us know!

  2. I would be interested in a type of red earth called tierra de esquivalia used in Velasquez work. Any idea of what a modern correspondant would be?

    • Hi Carlos –

      I am away for the week at a conference but will have us take a look and see if we can line it up to one of our natural Italian Earths, or some other natural earths that we have access to.

  3. Pingback: French Cassel Earth: Bringing it up to Speed | Williamsburg Handmade Oils

  4. I’ve been mixing VDBrown with Paynes and grey and it’s still taking forever to dry. I’m ready to give up on it.

    • Hi Gloria –

      Just saw your note today. My apologies for not getting back to you sooner. Did your VanDyke Brown areas eventually dry? Both are listed as Medium driers and depending on film thickness and what it is painted over, it could easily take a week to dry in a thin film. It also might be that you have a tube of the Van Dyke Brown from earlier before we added in the Raw Umber. Regardless we would be happy to replace your tube with a fresh one, just let us know.

  5. I’m so glad for this post. I’ve been away from painting for 20 years, and am just starting up again, currently a commission to copy a 19th-century painting…with lots of dark color. I got my paints out and discovered I didn’t have black, but there was a tube of Williamsburg van Dyck Brown that my wife had used. So I grabbed that and laid in the very thinnest wash of Van Dyke Brown with mineral spirits and left it for a week to dry.
    This morning I went into my studio prepared to oil the canvas and absent mindedly ran my fingers over the painting. To my astonishment, the wash wasn’t even tacky. I couldn’t believe it, it hadn’t set up at all! Naturally I started wondering if the paint could have broken down in some way (even though I knew it hadn’t) and decided I had to Google Williamsburg VanDyke Brown. Now I know. Thank you.

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