Phthalo Blue is a lovely color. The pigment is produced from copper phthalocyanine, and in painting it is valued for its light fastness, strong tinting strength, and covering power.
The pigment was first developed in the 1930’s when a chemist in London was troubled by a powdery blue contamination of the product he was working on. He discovered that the problem occurred when phthalimide reacted with trace amounts of iron. By using sulfuric acid as a solvent, he was able to take the blue powder and create a pigment from it.
By 1938 the pigment was being marketed under the name Monastral Blue. Scientifically, it is a “bright, crystalline, synthetic blue pigment from the group of phthalocyanine dyes,” but never mind the technical specifications. I’m just happy I know how to spell it.
I’m happy, too, that I like phthalo blue because I’m finding it all over the house, all over my clothes, and all over me. It seems that all I have to do is get close to a tube of phthalo blue paint, and within minutes I look a lot like a smurf.
My first disastrous run-in with the pigment came last summer when I was shopping for watercolors. I accidentally bought oil paints instead of watercolor, and oh, what a glorious bright-blue mess I made that day. I wrote about the experience, and if you missed that post, you can read it here. I ended up with so much phthalo blue on my hands, I thought they’d never come clean again.
Fortunately, I’m learning now to be a bit more careful in handling oil paints, and I wash my hands a lot while I’m painting. I still look as if I’m wearing an interesting shade of phthalo blue nail polish though.
Remember those words about its “covering power”…? Yes, it covers everything and is all but impossible to get rid of.
That’s where my latest tale of woe begins.
I was working on a large oil painting 18 x 24. There’s nothing special about the scene. It’s just another mountain scene. I’m happy with the skies I paint, and I’m learning to create mountains I like, so now I’m working on trees and water. I’m painting the same “fictional” landscape over and over, making slight variations with each attempt.
This particular scene was going to have a river running through it. As you know, I’m not good at rivers. And just as happened with my earlier attempt, a river doesn’t run through this painting either.
I was taking a lot of time on this particular painting. I truly wanted to harness all my oil painting abilities — few though they may be — and put my skills to good use. I spent considerable time on the skies, painting in lots of fluffy clouds, stepping back, assessing, returning to the easel, and finally admiring my handiwork. I liked my phthalo blue skies.
I went on to use a bit of the color in the shadowed sides of the mountain peaks. I stepped back. I assessed. Again, I admired my handiwork. So far, so good. The painting was going as planned.
The trees weren’t great, but what I lacked in artistry, I made up for with effort. Yes, they could be better, but certainly they could be worse, as well.
It was then that I realized my problem. I’d drawn in the river with charcoal — it extended from the center of the trees outward to the bottom edge, widening as it went. But I hadn’t underpainted the foreground as I’d intended to do. I had nothing more than white canvas with charcoal lines, and no idea how to paint in the river and grassy slopes. I took a deep breath and hoped for the best.
Determined to “make it work” — I’d recently watched several episodes of Project Runway — I grabbed my phthalo blue and attempted to paint the river. You know, of course, that I haven’t yet figured out how to stay within the lines when painting. The results were not good.
I tried adding grassy slopes going down to the edges of my river. Nope. Those results weren’t good either. Maybe I could turn it into a snowy scene, I thought. So I grabbed lots of titanium white, which might have worked had it not been for those green trees in the painting.
I tried this; I tried that. Green. Brown. White. I tried them all and had a real mess going on in the foreground. What next?
Well, there’s always phthalo blue.
How about turning my river into a lake? It sounded like a good idea, so I went for it. I was, you see, determined to salvage this painting. I did come very close to just saying “Forget it!” and walking away, but I decided to fight my way through and figure out how to fix my mistakes.
And so it is that I have a misshapen greenish, brownish, but mostly phthalo blue lake of sorts. Getting it onto the canvas wasn’t easy though. I wiped it away several times and I have the phthalo covered rags to prove it. By the time I finished, I was covered with phthalo blue, too.
But it was done.
The painting is not at all how I’d envisioned it, nothing like what I’d planned, but it was a good learning experience for me. I’ve come to think of it as my “Nightmare in Phthalo Blue”, even though I don’t truly think the painting itself is a nightmare. Creating it, however, certainly was.
I don’t think I’ll be working on any more rivers any time soon. I’m going to stick with trees for a while. I’m also dabbling around a bit at painting flowers. Trees. Flowers, Bushes. Anything but rivers.