To curd or not to curd? That is indeed a question. This week I’m going to talk about both kinds of milk paint because that’s what I did last weekend. Made tons of gesso.
Here at The Hive, where our motto is cheap and so is the rest of us, milk paint is a big part of the gesso repertoire. Milk, hydrated lime and gypsum—how do you spell inexpensive? I’ve championed the original recipe, sometimes called the 1870 Formula, which I found on the Pioneer Thinking web site.
The basic recipe is this:
1 quart milk (fresh or powdered and reconstituted)
1 ounce hydrated lime (not quick lime)
1-2 tablespoons of dry pigment
1-2 pounds of chalk or gypsum
If you are using an art-grade hydrated lime or lime putty, add a small amount of milk to the lime to make a creamy paste. Here’s a link to Earth Pigments where they sell a variety of natural painting supplies.
But if you are a cheapskate, you may be using using garden lime (available in the garden department). You will notice that hydrated lime has a gritty consistency and is composed of little bits of rock of varying sizes. Try to sieve out the bigger pieces first. Place lime in a small jar and add an equal amount of milk. Seal the jar with a tight lid and shake. Allow the lime and milk to sit half an hour, shaking occasionally. You can’t actually dissolve the lime in milk, but you can make sure that the smallest particles of lime are suspended in the milk. After half an hour, pour the mixture through a layer of cheesecloth, reserving the milk and lime mixture and disposing of any little rocks caught in the cheesecloth.
Add the rest of the milk and pigment and blend well. Sift chalk into the milk mixture, stirring frequently. I’ve chosen to use gypsum for filler, which is a soft calcium mineral used in plaster and wallboard. Another name for it is alabaster, and it does have a translucent quality worthy of the name. You can get a 40 pound bag of gypsum for about $8 in your local garden center. I’ve spent a lot of time sieving and sifting gypsum, even the cheap stuff, and I have never encountered anything except fine, soft powder. It is luscious.
Your paint is finished when it looks like thick, pourable pancake batter. Paint it onto your boards with a gesso brush, using consistent left to right brush strokes. You can stop at one coat or wait until dry to add more coats. Each time you paint another coat, turn the board 90 degrees clockwise so that your left to right brush strokes go in a different direction.
This is a thin paint so please be sure to paint both sides of the board to counter some of the warping that will occur, or use cradled or braced panels. By adding more filler (chalk or gypsum), you can build a paste-like paint which you can slather onto your board with a putty knife. This is nice if you want to build up a little more texture under your painting. Thick or thin, milk paint dries leaving a residue of chalk on the surface of the panel which can be sanded smooth.
Artistes talk about chalk filler in gesso, but guess what? You can use (maybe) almost anything. I saw a homemade gesso recipe that used baby powder as filler. This was so cool I decided to try it and aside from being remarkably blue in color, it worked great. When I bought two jars of baby powder, the grocery clerk gave me a weird look, like Lady, you’re too old to have a baby, you aren’t fooling anyone. I know you’re a drug queen. Ah, my other, profitable career!
Here’s a photo The Theory took of my milk paint and gypsum gesso: