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What is Casein?

All of the paintings on this site are painted with casein paint.  So what exactly is casein? 

Just like the term "oils" can describe either paintings made with a combination of linseed oil and ground pigment, paint made with that mixture, or the section in the grocery store that sells cooking oils - "casein" has many meanings.  Nutritionally, casein is the main protein in milk.  It is considered a complete protein - containing all of the necessary amino acids to sustain life.  Chemically, it is C47-H48-N3-O7-S2-Na.  Practically, a few of its uses are as an adhesive, a protein supplement, to make plastics, in the development of green nanomedicine and to make cheese.

Artistically, casein is short for casein paint.  It is classified as a water media along with watercolor, gouache, acrylic, egg tempera and water soluble ink.  The binder - or the glue that attaches the pigment particles to the painting surface (as well as to each other) - is the milk protein casein.  In comparison, the binders in watercolor and gouache, acrylic, egg tempera and oils are, respectfully, Gum Arabic,  acrylic polymers, egg yolks and linseed oil.  Throughout art history, many well known artists have painted in casein.  Oscar Howe, Romare Bearden, Andy Warhol, Edvard Munch, Richard Schmid and James Gurney are just a few.  Our very first artistic ancestors may have used casein paint as is evidenced by discoveries in Sibudu Cave, South Africa dating back 49,000 years ago.   

Esoterically, casein is a magical medium to paint with.  It dries to a gorgeous matte finish and its ability to lift previous layers of color is both a blessing and a challenge.  Out of the tube (I use Richeson Shiva tubed casein paint) it evokes early childhood memories of finger painting - sheer bliss!  For others, however, the aroma leaves something to be desired.  Tubed casein colors rival oils.  However, I limit my palette to 6 favorites - avoiding heavy metals and selecting only the most archival ones.  By using environmentally friendly colors, I rest easy knowing that my working methods are safe both for myself and the earth we all share.

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