(To see my paintings: My Gallery)

Some Useful Chemicals

Methyl Hydrate

Methyl Hydrate is available in your local hardware store. It is used as antifreeze, as a fuel for camp stoves, and as a solvent for shellac. It is what keeps shellac in the bottle from hardening, and it will also dissolve shellac instantly. It is of Methyl Hydrate as a shellac solvent that I write. For one job, I wanted to spray on shellac over a painting. I could buy shellac in an aerosol can, but that is much more expensive, and then I have to think of disposing of the can. I used the plastic sprayer from an old bottle of Windex. The shellac, as expected, gummed up the sprayer very quickly, but I dipped the sprayer in methyl hydrate and squirted it through twice, and it was as good as ever.

Of more interest to the calligrapher is its use with inks. I discovered that India Ink, most types if not all, use shellac as a binder. It is shellac that makes the ink waterproof when dry. I discovered this by accident. I once applied shellac to a work done in India Ink and it dissolved the ink. Further research revealed that ink contains shellac. We know that India Ink can get stale. It still looks black and liquid, but it clogs our pens. We blame our pens, change the nibs, but the problem remains. I guessed that the shellac was forming particles, too small to see, but still enough to clog a pen. A little bit of methyl hydrate added to the ink revitalized it, and it would flow. In fact, I found that I could even put India Ink in a regular fountain pen if I thinned the ink with methyl hydrate. Also, methyl hydrate can be used to clean nibs old and new. New nibs often have a protective coating of shellac that must be removed, and now I treat new nibs with methyl hydrate before using.

Methyl hydrate has applications with acrylic paints and inks. It will loosen dried acrylic paint, though it does not dissolve it back into a workable medium. I have used it to clean old brushes that have had dried paint on them for decades. I have found that when my bottles of acrylic ink become unworkable, then methyl hydrate will make them flow again. I am not sure of all the chemistry involved, so the reader will mix methyl hydrate into acrylic ink at his own risk.

(March 15, 2007) I recently discovered that most of the traffic to my website is to this page, in search of information about Methyl Hydrate. So, for those of you who desire deeper scientific knowledge about Methyl Hydrate (also known as Methanol, Methyl Alcohol, Wood Alcohol, and Wood Spirits), visit this page at Wikepedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methyl_hydrate. You will learn, among other things, that Methanol has been discovered in space.

Glycerine and Glycols

Glycerine is available in your local drug store. It has the consistency of oil, somewhere between water and honey in viscosity. It is water soluble and takes a long time to dry. I use it primarily to mix with acrylic paints to slow down the drying time. In one case, the paint was still tacky months later. While acrylic paints usually dry within ten minutes, a drop (say, one part glycerine to four parts of acrylic matte medium and two parts paint), will slow down the drying time to about an hour, depending on the thickness of your paint. You can work with acrylics as you would with oils, depending on the amount of glycerine added. Some expressed concern that glycerine would affect the permanence of the finished painting. I discovered that "glyceroids" are an ingredient listed on tubes and bottles of acrylic paints and mediums, and so I feel fairly confident in using it as a medium and slowing agent. Often there is a clear liquid at the top of acrylic paint in the tube or bottle, and I suspect that this is glycerine. Below, I will explain its application in a calligraphic technique of pushing and scraping paint.

I have yet to experiment with glycols. There are several varieties, and glycols are the major component of anti-freeze and brake fluid for horseless carriages. They have a low freezing point and a high melting point, and like glycerine they evaporate very slowly (but eventually they do evaporate). I mixed some pigments with them (a very small amount of glycol) and it seems to keep the pigments pasty for a long time. I must emphasize, that my use of glycols or glycerine is NOT AS A BINDER. A small amount can serve to keep pigments wet, but the binder will be something else (egg yolk, acrylic, oil, gum-arabic). I received the following message from a reader:

Hi, I like yr stuff & mean no offense. I worried when I saw glycerine mentioned as a binder or precipitate in some of yr emulsion work. I saw the article on Tom Keating that mentioned his use of glycerine as a "time bomb" for conservators of museums that he had fooled. The idea was that upon cleaning or removal of varnish layers the glycerine would dissolve and the painting would be ruined... This may not be applicable to your use of glycerine, but thought I should send a note for consideration. The article is at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Keating.

This is interesting. Certainly if a layer of pure glycerine were trapped under a hardened layer of oil, not mixed with the oil, it would remain liquid. However, if a small amount of glycerine is added to create a colorant (not yet paint), it seems to integrate somehow with the oil so as not to pose a danger. I write below about colorants. The same colorants are used in a hardware store for exterior paints and interior paints, acrylic or oil-based. In the right proportion, they do not seem to compromise the durability of the paint. That of course is not too helpful. The right proportion can only be gained by experience. Have a conversation with the people who work with paint in hardware stores or paint stores.

If I my restate my aim, why I am interested in this. On a large project, one that lasts a long time, it is good to have the same colors available throughout. If you mix paints, the paints will eventually harden before you can use them. However, if you can mix batches of colors that can be made into paint by adding the medium or binder, you can control your colors much better. Of course, if you are using acrylic and egg tempera, simple distilled water is probably enough (plus alcohol if you are dispersing organic pigments). But making colorant allows you to use the same color also if you are going to be using oils. A typical situation, is that you might want to mix up ten shades of grey, with tints added on the side. You don’t want to to remix your colors everyday because the last batch has become unusable.


I discovered that Beeswax has been a favoured artists medium for centuries, nay for millenia. Some Roman painting done in wax are still vibrant after 2000 years. Beeswax can be dissolved in turpentine for use as a painting medium, for use with oil colours. You don't have to buy beeswax itself, just a beeswax candle. I used a 1 to 1 mix of wax from a candle and turpentine. In order to speed up the dissolving, I put both in a bottle, then put the bottle in a pan of hot water. If you paint with oils, you can experiment by mixing the resulting beeswax medium with other oil mediums. Beeswax is the best substance for the calligraphic technique of pushing and scraping paint

WATER SOLUBLE WAX. It is also possible to make water-soluble beeswax. I am still experimenting with this, but the best result seems to be this - melt beeswax in cleaning ammonia - about 1 part wax to 2 parts ammonia. The wax will dissolve completely, and more quickly if the jar containing wax and ammonia is placed in very hot water. After the wax melts, shake thoroughly. The resulting creamy mixture will not separate, and has the consistency of cold cream. The mixture can be mixed with waterbased paints. The process by which wax plus ammonia becomes water-soluble wax is called saponification. If I understand, wax (a fatty oily substance) becomes soap. I am not sure, once the ammonia evaporates, if the wax becomes ordinary wax again.


I have been making preliminary investigations to make my own colorant. Colorant is what they call the mixture of pigment and liquid that is added to paint base in stores. It is a thick liquid with concentrated pigment and is added both to water-based (acrylic-latex) and oil-based (alkyd) paint. I have been using colorant from the hardware store for a long time, and was told that the liquid in it is glycerine. However, I have some little tubes of colorant that work even better, because the liquid in them seems to evaporate more rapidly, and they can also be mixed with any type of paint. The ingredients state “Contains ethylene or diethylene glycols”. I know where to get glycerine, but what about glycol?

Glycol is found in anti-freeze. This is information from the website: http://autorepair.about.com/cs/productreviews/l/aa052601a.htm. Antifreeze contains ethylene glycol, which is extremely toxic, and diethylene glycol, which is much less toxic. Other websites mention that anti-freeze also has much water, which is a problem for my use, although only experiments will tell.

A more pure source of glycols may be found in brake fluid. The following information is at http://www.rpmnet.com/techart/fluid.shtml. There are two kinds of brake fluid. (1) Silicon-based brake fluid, called DOT 5, and are used in race cars and military vehicles. (2) Poly Glycol Ether based brake fluids, called DOT 3, DOT 4, and DOT 5.1. From other sources, a third type of glycol is propylene, which some say is added to foods such as ice-cream. Some information on propylene and glycerine can be found at www.chemistrystore.com.

I will post more when I have the proper experience.

Using Beeswax to make Scratchboard.

Rub a thick paste of beeswax dissolved in turpentine into a piece of paper using a paper towel or rag. Rub it just enough so that it is smoothly applied. Wait until it is dry and opaque and repeat the process. Then when this is dry and solid, apply India Ink generously with a brush. At first, the India Ink will bead up on top of the wax, but continue to brush the beads as the ink becomes thicker and it will cover the wax. Wait for the ink to dry completely and apply another coat. I suggest waiting at least an hour between each step, so do several sheets at the same time in order not to waste time. Below is one of my first attempts on such scratchboard.

Pushing and Scraping Paint

One problem a painter faces is to add sharp and legible calligraphy in works done in oil and acrylic. I have been experimenting with a technique whereby I remove or push the paint with various objects. One inspiration to my experiments was reading about the artist Tintoretta, who used to execute entire murals in the time his competitors could only complete a sketch. It is said that he violently pushed the paint around. He used a technique like the finger painting we did in primary school, probably using paint thinned with some medium. I experimented with this technique using acrylics and oils. With acrylics I used lots of matte medium with my paint - more medium than paint - and a small bit of glycerine to slow down the process.

To the left is a detail of a painting that I did using the Tinoretto technique. I prepared a dark grey surface with acrylic paint and acrylic Matte Medium. When that was thoroughly dry, I sprayed the surface lightly with water. I used a mixture of white acrylic paint, glycerine (just a bit), acrylic medium, and water. I used anything I had to shove the paint around, swirling swishing scraping sopping it up. The picture is of the Roman soldiers at the foot of the cross. One holds the seamless robe. The other is throwing dice. Later I will add details and colour.

One thing that I learned is that you have to have the right surface. If working with acrylics, I had to prepare my surface with matte medium so that it was shiny and non-absorbent. With oils, I painted my panel beforehand with oil and let it dry thoroughly. In both cases I would wet the surface very slightly all over before working. With oils I would use a thin layer of oil, and with acrylics I would use a light spray of water. When doing a painting, a more liquid medium would tend to smooth out and fall back to blurry lines and massed while I was working with it, which was fine for painting, because I wanted to delineate large areas after the manner of Tintoretto. As the paint became thicker I could work in more detail.

The problem of the paint falling back from where it had been pushed made crisp calligraphy difficult. In both cases it was a matter of the consistency of the paint. With acrylics, less medium and more paint will yield a more crisp line to your tools. With oils, if I used my wax/turpentine in my painting medium, any line I scraped into the paint would stay where I put it. In both cases, if you want to alter your work, then while it is still wet smooth the paint again with a brush and scrape again. Below is a small example of some work done quickly in acrylics using this method, with a stick whittled to a point. I have had better results with oil/wax, but the work is still wet and I would not lay it on my scanner, so I cannot show you the results.

One advantage of this technique is that you can use any colour with any colour, especially with acrylics, where you can prepare a ground in less than ten minutes, and then apply the paint that you will scrape on top of it.

GLYCEROL - GLYCERINE (something containing at least 90 per cent glycerol) a clear, colourless, viscous, sweet-tasting liquid belonging to the alcohol family of organic compounds; molecular formula HOCH2CHOHCH2OH. Until 1948 all glycerol was obtained as a by-product in making soaps from animal and vegetable fats and oils, but industrial syntheses based on propylene or sugar has accounted for an increasingly large percentage of U.S. production since that time. The term glycerin is ordinarily applied to commercial materials containing more than 95 percent glycerol.


CALCIUM CARBONATE CaCO3 limestone, coral, marble

CALCIUM OXIDE - CaO, quicklime, obtaining by roasting calcium carbonate to drive off calcium carbonate.

CALCIUM HYDROXIDE, also called slaked lime Ca(OH)2, obtained by the action of water on calcium oxide. When mixed with water, a small proportion of it dissolves, forming a solution known as limewater, the rest remaining as a suspension called milk of lime. Calcium hydroxide is used primarily as an industrial alkali and as a constituent of mortars, plasters, and cement.

Slaked lime, or calcium hydroxide, can be kept for decades, becoming more workable with each passing day. Those lucky enough to have worked with decades-old lime plaster know the ease of application and the spectacular end result. Unfortunately, lime-based plasters are expensive, and few companies import them.


CALCIUM SULFATE, CaSO4 - naturally occuring salt of calcium.

GYPSUM, CaSO4-2H2O - dihydrate form of gypsum.

PLASTER OF PARIS, CaSO4-1/2H2O - obtained when gypsum is heated to lose 3/4 of its water. When combined with water, it reverts to its dihydrate state.

Info on plaster and gesso from another site

“Slaking plaster in period was a time consuming job. Gypsum or alabaster was roasted to make Gesso grosso (what we modernly call Plaster of Paris.) Gesso grosso was soaked in a bucket for a period of 1 month. During the tedious process, old water was drawn off, new water added and the mixture was stirred well and often. The plaster was considered slaked when the water remained clear. This process not only cleans impurities from the plaster, but adds an extra water molecule, or slakes it, so that it does not want to bind to itself. After reading and retranslating Cennini’s original text Jerry Tresser made this process a bit easier for modern scribes. He did many tests and found that you can slake plaster in 30 minutes rather than 30 days (Larger amounts of plaster require more time, but 4-5 cups of slaked plaster can be slaked in a couple of hours. That amount of slaked plaster will last most scribes several years.). Part of the time saved by using the modern process of slaking plaster has to do with starting out with a product that is more pure than its period counterpart. The rest has to do with realizing that unslaked plaster is acidic, slaked plaster is pH neutral.

To slake plaster in 30 minutes you will need:
Test the distilled water with the litmus paper to make sure it is pH neutral. Place the Plaster of Paris in the bowl and cover with 3-4 cups of water. Stir well for 5 minutes then let the plaster settle to the bottom of the bowl. (Do not let the plaster sit in the bottom of the bowl without stirring for long periods of time. If the plaster is not completely slaked it will harden.) As soon as the plaster has settled, drain off the water, add fresh, stir well and let settle again. Repeat this 2-3 times then test the water. If the litmus paper reads neutral, you are done ... if not, repeat the process until the litmus paper gives the expected response. Once the water/plaster becomes pH neutral it is slaked. No matter how many times the mixture is stirred, the water is changed or how long the plaster soaks, it never gets any more slaked. Drain off as much water as possible, let the plaster dry in the bowl. You can store the dried plaster as a cake or grind it up and put it in a jar to store.”

Notes on the above

Unless our local water is extremely alkali or hard, I think that plaster of paris must be naturally alkali and not acidic.

Using Red Cabbage instead of Litmus

I tried to find Litmus paper everywhere around here. Finally I tried a swimming-pool supply store, and they had it, although they did not know what Litmus paper was—it was a pool testing kit, and cost way too much. I consulted a chemist, who told me that Litmus paper uses the dye in red cabbage. Red Cabbage is actually purple. Put vinegar on it (acidic) and it will turn bright red. Put ammonia on it (alkali) and it will turn bright blue. Red cabbage is a lot cheaper than a pool testing kit.

. Retarding agents are added to slow down the rate at which plaster sets, and thus inhibit hardening. They have traditionally included ammonia, glue, gelatin, starch, molasses, or vegetable oil. If the plasterer has used too much retardant, however, a gypsum plaster will not set within a normal 20 to 30 minute time period.

Below,the author uses a mix that he squeezes through a cake decorating bag for relief work.
*Use any type of plaster.


Take dry-wall compound, heap it on a board. Scoop a hole in the middle and pour water in. Add plaster of paris and mix it all together (dry wall compound, plaster, water). It is very workable and sets quickly for sculptural effects.

For sculptural stucco work outside mix hydrated lime with concrete. For inside work mix hydrated lime with plaster of paris.

Finely ground marble dust as an additive for stucco or other purposes is available cheaply and is called “SENERGY CONCENTRATED STUCCO MIX”.

Lime plaster will stick to brick walls, but not glazed bricks. To apply to other surfaces use a metal wire mesh nailed to the wall. Traditionally wooden lathing was used, but wood expands and contracts differently from plaster, so there can be problems with cracking.

A recent discovery. The plaster sculptures and statuary for gardens is supposedly made out of “Hydrostone”. That is a brandname of sorts, and it seems that it is hard to find. However, I read that its ingredients are listed as 90 percent plaster of Paris, and 10 percent cement. Plaster of Paris will fall apart and crumble if exposed to the weather, but it seems that the addition of cement prevents this. I will be experimenting with this for sculptures.


This information is gleaned from a great number of websites.

http://www.stratsplace.com/how_label.html is concerned with removing labels to save the labels themselves, and the writer says to fill the bottle with very hot water, and place it in a jug of warm water with Ivory Detergent (pure soap detergents work the best). Let it soak, and often the label comes floating off in half an hour. A correspondent on this website says there is a difference between “Old World” labels, which come off when soaked in hot or boiling water. For “New World Labels”, put the jar or bottle in the oven at 100 to 150 degrees (Fahrenheit or Centigrade?) for 10-15 minutes, and the glue will soften. Another writer recommends water and ice, or putting the bottle in the freezer.Another writer recommends ammonia.
http://www.care2.com/channels/solutions/home/222 recommends applying a thick layer of cooking oil to label, letting it soak in for 24 hours. If the label does not come off rub in more oil and wait. When the label does come off, there may be some glue clinging to the container. Rub more oil, let soak over night, and the glue will come off as well.
http://www.ratebeer.com/Story.asp?StoryID=289 recommends soaking in hot water with ammonia

http://www.newmex.com/ebear/labels.html recommends putting lighter fluid on the label, letting it dry, and then peeling it off. This is used on floppy diskettes.
http://www.dvdrhelp.com/forum/viewtopic.php?p=844745 for removing labels on DVDs - use an orange based adhesive remover called "goo-gone". Let it soak overnight.