All About Water

Ingrid Williams uses paint derived from milk to create blue-heavy images

Artist Ingrid Williams regularly does rain dances in her studio.

She pours her casein paints onto Masonite boards, and then holds the boards aloft and tilts them this way and that for a half-hour.

"When I'm holding the board," she says, "I roll back and forth in a dance."

Thinned with generous amounts of water, the brilliant casein colors billow across the boards like waves breaking upon a shore, or monsoon clouds rolling over the mountains. Which is exactly the point, because Williams' paintings are all about water.

A "Water Wall" of her blue work is up through July 27 at Jane Hamilton Fine Art. The ultramarines and teals and turquoises and cobalts of her water abstractions are meant to trigger the monsoons, Williams says, only half-joking. The early rains began the day after the show went up in June, she claims, and now that the monsoons are lagging, she's hoping that the final weeks of the exhibition will jump-start the recalcitrant storms.

"I'm very water-conscious," she says. "I came to Tucson from the North, and I suffer from the dryness. In my house, I have paintings of Puget Sound and the ocean."

The dramatically pigmented works at the gallery evoke not only the shades of the sea and the rains, but their textures. The paint spatters like raindrops across the Masonite boards, or coalesces into bubbles like seawater.

"Water Abstract," 4 feet long by 2 1/2 feet high, has a curve of sea-green spray cascading across a textured field of deep blue. "Sargasso," a smaller piece at just 20 inches long and 14 inches high, is like a close-up of salt water, with deep-blue speckles scattered across a paler blue-green background. When you look at it, you feel like an ocean swimmer heading up toward the glittering surface of the wide Sargasso Sea, lit from above by the sun.

It's the casein paint (pronounced CAY-seen) that gives Williams' works their distinct texture. A mixture of milk protein and pigment, casein paints preceded oil paints by centuries, Williams says. The ancient Egyptians painted with it, and so did earlier cave peoples in Asia. Before acrylics--another water-based medium--came along, theater designers used casein to paint backdrops for the stage, Williams says. She came across the paint as a furniture craftswoman decades ago in the Pacific Northwest, and she found it ideal for painting designs on wood.

"You can thin it, and it keeps its brilliance," she says.

It wasn't until about seven years ago that she discovered its distinctive bubbling qualities. One day back in 1999, she set out to make a conventional landscape painting of sky and water. She poured a helping of cobalt-blue casein onto a white Masonite board, turned her back for a minute and then found that her blue sky had "fallen apart into ripples and waves."

The blue pigment, "grabbing onto the milk protein," had dissolved into textures and become more sea than sky. So she acceded to the painting's will and added a threatening green for a sky, producing "Cobalt and Celadon," a small seascape that appears in the gallery show.

In the years since her initial discovery, Williams has perfected her casein technique. She first whitens the Masonite board with several layers of white-pigmented shellac, sanding each one down after it dries. The shellac coating gives the Masonite a slick, nonporous coating that allows the paint to pool brilliantly on top. Sometimes patches of white leak through and serendipitously become part of the composition.

Williams mixes the tube paints with water, and has learned though trial and error which colors are most likely to flow freely--permasol blue is a favorite, whereas cerulean blue and titanium white are out. The latter, she says, "is inert. It stops all movement."

Once the painting is done, she sends it down to Andy Ryan, an artisan at Alamo Woodworks who applies two layers of an impervious oil-base varnish that in theory will preserve the painting for centuries.

With its horizon line, ocean and sky, the early work "Cobalt and Celadon" comes relatively close to realism, but most of the pictures on view are near-abstractions. "Valhalla" has a series of vertical elements--suggesting stalagmites--in a chalky blue-jeans blue, underneath a spray of blue-white dots. Wave-like ripples in turquoise and light blue form an overall pattern in "Dupioni Island"; the horizonless painting is like a close-up of the tossing surface of the sea.

"Monsoon Cool," a bit more realistic, comes closer to the landscape of Arizona, where Williams has now lived more than two decades. It suggests a stormy sky above, a blue roll of mountains in the middle and an ocher desert lying below. The painting evokes that delicious moment when the clouds are about to burst, providing exactly the rain burst this parched pueblo needs. But "Monsoon Cool" slyly conflates the desert with the ocean the artist loves: The mountains could also be waves bursting upon golden sand.

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