James Gurney's Quick Draw painting

James Gurney’s Quick Draw painting

by Bob Bahr

There was about 90 minutes before lunch yesterday after James Gurney finished his Quick Draw painting of an antelope head. Plenty of time for him to rustle up a projector and extension cord, arrange some tables in an upstairs room, and give a presentation on the various media he uses. Plenty of time, if you are James Gurney and Jeanette Gurney.

The duo showed all week at the 2016 SKB Dubois workshop that they were willing, able, and eager to offer more information and ideas to the participants. And even when hosting a presentation put together at the last minute, even when tucked away in an upstairs classroom, Gurney attracted so many artists that they were sitting on the floor and craning their necks from the back, standing room only.

So for about 45 minutes, Gurney narrated a slide show, discussing his materials and approach. He gave a sense of his disparate subject matter, from a furniture store guard in Fez, Morocco to a muddy puddle in his mechanic’s parking lot in New York State. He talked about DIY shade umbrellas, ultra minimal “easels,” and the joy and pain of spectators. But mostly, he talked about painting media.

Some artists feel most comfortable staying in the strict confines of their medium. Gurney freely mixes media, from gouache to watercolor to colored pencil, perhaps with accents provided by graphite pencils and laid down with a straight edge. Although fully versed in the technical aspects of art-making, the New York painter isn’t the least bit reluctant to challenge conventional wisdom. Like a drummer who plays what is needed to serve the song, Gurney uses any material necessary to get the painting. Conventional, unconventional—all is secondary. What is useful? But sometimes the pragmatic must make room for a bit of whimsy, for an offbeat choice, for a neglected approach.

As with casein.

Gurney talked about the technical and aesthetic aspects of gouache, and he acknowledged the role of watercolor in his on-location studies. But the painter clearly has a special place in his heart for casein, a medium that uses components of milk to serve as the binder. It’s an interesting medium, similar to gouache in its matte look and opacity, but unlike gouache, you can’t lift it once it dries. So why the special affection for it?

“I really like lost causes,” says Gurney. “Casein goes back 50,000 years. That’s before humans had domesticated dogs or goats. The milk must be from cows. Or maybe it was human milk in the beginning. But it’s the oldest paint.”

Gurney had read about casein, but he hadn’t experimented with it until he attended a Plein Air Convention and saw the product at the Jack Richeson booth. ” They sent me a set to try,” recalls Gurney, “and I fell in love. It feels like oil painting on the spot, but it dries much faster.”

Although it dries enough so that rather quickly you can’t lift if back off, it stays slightly wet for a few weeks. One must apply it thinly or it can crack. It can dry in the tube. It WILL dry in the tube, unless you store all your tubes of casein paint in an airtight jar. Gurney says casein is “a small niche market, possibly declining,” but he loves it anyway.

Considering what it can do in his hands, why wouldn’t he? Ω

Gurney painting at the EA Ranch

Gurney painting at the EA Ranch