Cennino d’Andrea Cennini’s Ultramarine Blue – Part I

“Il Libro dell’Arte” or “The Craftsman’s Handbook” (Translation by D. V. Thompson,. Pages 36-37). 15th Century handbook for artists.

Ultramarine blue is a color illustrious, beautiful, and most perfect beyond all other colors; one could not say anything about it, or do anything with it, that its quality would not still surpass. And, because of its excellence, I want to discuss it at length, and to show you in detail how it is made. And pay close attention to this, for you will gain great honor and service from it. And let some of that color, combined with gold, which adorns all the works of our profession, whether on wall or on panel, shine forth in every object.

To begin with, get some lapis lazuli. And if you want to recognize the good stone, chose that which you see is the richest in blue color, because it is all mixed like ashes. That which contains the least of this ash is the best. But see that it is not azurite stone, which looks lovely to the eye, and resembles an enamel. Pound it into a bronze mortar, covered up, so that it may not go off in dust; then put it on your porphyry slab, and work it up without water. Then take a covered sieve such as druggists use for sifting drugs; and sift it and sift it, and pound it again as you find necessary. And bear in mind that the more finely you work it up, the finer the blue will come out, but not so beautifully violet in color (Non si bello violante. The translation as “violet”, or better, “inclining toward violet”). To be continued tomorrow…

On a personal note, I love this color!  It is a breathtaking color with an incredible amount of depth.  Ultramarine is one of those colors that beckons to be touched.

A friend recently shared a photo from an art supply store in Bonn, Germany. He noted that the shop’s most expense pigment was a ground blue, costing 100 Euros per gram.

Below are examples of lapis lazuli and the grey ash veins that run through many stones.



An example of ground lapis lazuli, creating Ultramarine Blue pigment


The use of Ultramarine Blue in a Hell Scene for the Scottish Rite in Pasadena, California.


The use of Ultramarine Blue in a Constellation Drop (Faith, Hope, and Charity) for the Scottish Rite in Danville, Virginia.


Cennino d’Andrea Cennini’s Size

Below is an excerpt from “The Craftsman’s Handbook” – D. V. Thompson’s English translation of “Il Libro dell’Arte,” an intriguing guide to methods of painting written in the 15th century Florence. Page 68.

“A size which is good for tempering blues and other colors.  Chapter CXI.

And there is a size which is made from the scrapings of goat or sheep parchment.  Boil them with clear (or light-colored) water until it is reduced to a third.  Know that it is a very clear size, which looks like crystal.  It is good for tempering dark blues.  And apply a coat of this size in any place were you have happened to lay in colors which were not tempered sufficiently, and it will re-temper the colors, and reinforce them, so that you may varnish them at will, if they are on panel; and blues on a wall the same way.  And it would be good for tempering gessos too; but it is lean in character, and it ought to be rather fat for any gesso which has to take gilding.”

What I find interesting with this is addressing the idea of colors dusting, or not being stable enough for a top coat to varnish.  In other words, the unstable colors would smear onto the rest of a composition.  This is similar to my process during scenery restoration.  The dusting pigment needs to be “re-tempered.” Cennini writes, “apply a coat of this size in any place were you have happened to lay in colors which were not tempered sufficiently.”  I spray a solution of size to stabilize the colors on the backdrop. The glue attaches loose pigment back to the surface of the fabric.  It is crucial that you get the perfect strength, however, or it can make the surface shine and brittle.


Here is an example of pigment dusting…I apologize about the photo quality.

And to end with the following chapter in “The Craftsman’s Handbook” that made me grin….titled: “To make a glue out of lime and cheese.  Chapter CXII”

“There is a glue used by workers in wood; this is made of cheese.   After putting it to soak in water, work it over with a little quicklime using a ittle board with both hands.  Put it between the boards; it joins them and fastens them together well.  And let this suffice you for the making of various kinds of glue.”

Scenic Art Training

“No words can tell the artist exactly what colours he shold use, for everything depends on the mixture of colours.  The best plan for learning this part of the work is to get an old piece of scenery and try to copy it.  At the same time the learner should make a note of the colours that have been used to produce such and effect.  The artist must remember the effect he has to produce must not be that which he sees himself, bt that which the scenery will present when hung up and shown by artificial lights.”

Excerpt from Van Dyke Browne’s “Secrets of Scene Painting and Stage Effects” (1900, page 17)

I was trained how to painted by copying both small-scale renderings (scenic designs), fine art pieces, and extant scenery.  This was the method taught by Prof. Emeritus Lance Brockman at the University of Minnesota.  Unfortunately, this is no longer a priority or critical aspect of the program. For me, it was crucial as a scenic artist to understand both rendering techniques (small-scale) and scenic art techniques (large-scale).  The last drop that I painted for the University of Minnesota just a few years back was to replicate a historical rendering in the scenery collection database. Here is a link for this site https://umedia.lib.umn.edu/scenicsearch

Examples below are the original sketch and my interpretation on a 12′ x 18′ scale.  I used premix, not dry pigment.


Color Rendering from Scenery Collection at the University of Minnesota








Highlights and Shadows: Shadow Lines

“Shadows are those painted lines imitating the shadow that would be cast if the painted projection were real.  In a stage setting, as in an actual room, light comes from various sources, but for the purposes of painting we must decide how and where our light comes to strike the walls of the setting.  A good general rule is that light comes always from the left.  Comes from the left, let us say, and changes at the six foot or eye level.  That is, from six feet high light will be painted as traveling up.  Below six feet, light comes down.  And light is always painted coming down from the top of any exterior setting – for sunlight does the same.”

Excerpt from “Painting Scenery, a ‘handy book’ for amateur producers” (Leslie Allan Jones, 1935, page 81)

Everyone always has their own special mixture for a shadow wash and often scenery can be dated by the coloration of shadows.  I have noticed over the years that a few combinations worked best for me during contemporary paint applications and historical replicas.  For premixed scene paints used on contemporary backdrops, the master combination was Van Dyke Brown, Burnt Sienna, and Ultramarine Blue (with the small dab of Purple added for depth). It provided the necessary coolness with a touch of warmth for additional depth.  Additionally, it would read under various lighting conditions.

Dry Pigment painting for the pre-1914 stage painting era often necessitated the mixing French Mineral Orange, Ultramarine Blue, and Van Dyke Brown (with a small dab of Burnt Sienna added to the mix – dependent upon atmosphere).  This gave a rich shadow wash that worked with all painted compositions and backgrounds.  After 1915 and well into the 1920s, there seems to be a predominance of blue coloration for the shadows washes.  These blue shadows later become straight Ultramarine blue and pick up a more graphic quality.  By the mid-twentieth-century, there is more of a dead shadow wash.  Color washes without any sense of depth hat I primarily attribute to wither specific design direction or an unfamiliarity with the technical skills of the scenic art world; specifically designers that do not come from a painting tradition.

Thinned out Van Dyke or (GOD FORBID) black – made the shadow areas flat and lifeless.  These two solo colors sucked all of the life from the composition and contributed nothing to the atmosphere.  Same with straight purple, dark green, or navy blue.  I am NOT kidding about seeing people use green washes for shadow in ordinary compositions!  It seldom works well.

Below are three painting details created in the Toomey & Volland Studio (St. Louis, MO) created for the 1914 Scottish Rite theatre in Quincy, Illinois.


5th degree Hiram Tomb


4th Degree Interior


15th degree Treasure Chamber

Highlights and Shadows: An Explanation

“Speaking of highlights and shadows, it is first necessary to have  clearly in mind what these two terms mean. Placing a lamp on a table against a wall which has baseboard and cornice moulding will show us in a minute. Stepping back from the lighted lamp, notice the tope edge of the baseboard.  See how the raised or jutting edge of the board catches the light pouring down from the lamp? From the cornice lighted in the up glow we can also see the flash of light catching the raised edges.

Highlights are the attempt to catch these lights on scenery, and thus trick the eye into believing that these painted lines are actually raised edges.

Shadows are those painted lines imitating the shadow that would be cast if the painted projection were real.”

Excerpt from “Painting Scenery, a ‘handy book’ for amateur producers” (Leslie Ann Jones, 1935, page 80-81)

The images below are from the Scottish Rite Cathedral scene in Pasadena, California (1900)




Painting for the 1893 World’s Fair

The following excerpt is from the typed manuscript of Thomas Gibbs Moses and describes some of his projects for the World’s Fair.  Attached is his painting for the Javanese Theatre and a postcard depicting the White City.


The big Fair progressing nicely and a world of work for us in sight.

Ella and I got house fever again. We went to Oak Park. We found a number of good houses – one in particular that had only been built a year. Very fine wood-work, a large stable, driveway and a 60 x 178 foot. We bought it for $8,575.00 …  We got settled May 1st. We were simply swamped with work and the prices were big. We had a great many exhibits to do at the Fair and many outside shows, as the Trocodevs, Empire Theatre and Isabella Theatre. Shows like “The Outsider,” “Columbus” for Mr. Leavitt. “Fabio Romana,” “The Black Crook,” “A Day in the Swiss Alps,” “South Sea Islanders,” “Kansas State Exhibit,” “The Laplanders,” “Streets of Cairo,” Javanese Theatre, Chinese Theatre, a dozen big floats, “Lady of Venice” for Buffalo Bill, W.F. Cody and many others.”


The Javanese Theatre Backdrop for the World Fair in Chicago


The White City, Chicago 1893

An American Scenic Artist in 1880 – Insight into the life Thomas Gibbs Moses

1880 Excerpt from the diary of Thomas Gibbs Moses (1856-1934) when he was hired at Sosman & Landis Studio.

“My career as a scenic artist starts from here. I was full of ambition and hustle. If I had been endowed with a like amount of ability I would have set the world on fire. It was all hard work. My little knowledge of scene painting was a wonderful help. I studied and watched the scenery at the theatres, and was catching on very fast…Sosman and I had to travel a good deal as Mr. Landis was on the road all the time securing orders for advertising curtains, and I didn’t see him until I had been there nearly six months. As the business increased, we put on a paint boy. Then the artists began to drop around. They all wanted $35.00 or $45.00 per week and told me I could get that much in the theatres.  I began to think I was worth more as I had proven that I was a hustler. My work might not have been as artistic as some I saw in the theatres, but it pleased the people who paid for it.”


Thomas G. Moses portrait


Sosman & Landis Studio in 1912 with Moses painting a landscape on the bridge.


Detail of Moses’ landscape painting at the age of 68yrs. old for the Valley of Fort Scott.

Lights and Shadows: Lining

“High lights and shadows are those painted lines in scenery hat give the effect of thickness and perspective.  Well done, they do just that, but ill done, they merely confuse and make the setting messy.  Unless you have an eye for color and have learned to line, better by far to forget the high lights and shadows on your set.

For lining, practice makes perfect.  You need some lining brushes – a special scenic brush with long bristles and handles – and a straight edge.  Hold the straight edge in your left hand in such a manner that the top edge of the stick is unobstructed by your fingers, to allow for free passage of the brush.  Lining is a movement of the whole arm, from shoulder to wrist.  The brush is held lightly between thumb and forefinger on the right hand.  The bristles rest on the top of the straight edge which must be held at a slight angle from the scenery, so that the brush doesn’t not blot the color from the edge of the stick.  The brush is held at right angles to the work, and the trick is to keep that angle at the finish of the “run” or the stroke.  Draw the brush smoothly from left to right, and if your lining is properly thinned, a smooth even line will result.  It is hard to keep from pressing the brush, thus making the line uneven, but with a little practice, and even line will be drawn.”

Excerpt from “Painting Scenery, a ‘handy book’ for amateur producers” (Leslie Allan Jones, 1935, page 80)

Attached are painting details from the Pasadena Scottish Rite and Winona Scottish Rite that depict lining.  Both collections were produced by Sosman & Landis Studios.






Stage Stars

“To imitate the stars, use spangles of various sizes.  The largest are the most effective; but they must be bent a little in order not to show too much of a flat surface.  They must be fixed to the cloth in the following manner: – Take some dark blue cotton and pass it through the hole in the spangle.  Tie the spangle round and leave about 1 1/2 inch at both ends of the cotton; glue over about half of each end and then press them against the cloth with a flat piece of wood till they stick on firmly.  The spangle will, of course, hang loose, and being in consequence always on the twitter, it will keep on sparkling.”


Excerpt from F. Lloyds “Scene Painting and Distemper Painting” (1875, page 72)

Attached are pictures from the Scottish Rite scenery collection in Winona, Minnesota – currently in temporary storage.  These stage spangles created the starlit sky where translucent stars revealed the Faith, Hope, and Charity constellations.  The photos show historic scenery owner by the City of Winona – in temorary storage and awaiting restoration.  Similar drops for this 18th degree (Faith, Hope, and Charity) are found in collections across the country, including Santa Fe, NM and St. Paul, MN. When the aged spangles are polished the effect is magical!wsrt-2014-day-5-constellation-back-detail-1






Abbey Ruins


F. Lloyds “Practical Guide to Scene Painting and Painting in Distemper” in  1875 prominently depicts a painted scene with abbey ruins as the scene.  This composition was picked up by a variety of stage venues, especially the Scottish Rite.  In the majority of Southern Jurisdiction Scottish Rite venues, the setting depicts the ruins of an abbey for a secret meeting during dark times in Europe for the 21st degree.

At the Austin Scottish Rite, their abbey ruins are also intended for the 30th degree – complete with the translucent section on a tombstone that reveals the words “He who shall overcome the dread of death shall ascend above the terrestrial sphere and be entitled to the greater mysteries.”  This is an alternative staging to the catacombs where the magical illusion of “Pepper’s Ghost” transform’s a man into a skeleton with the assistance of plate glass and lights.

All compositions are similar to various illustrations of Holyrood Abbey as noted below.


Backdrop in Austin, Texas at the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry for the 30th degree.