View Full Version : Casein: History and Resources

08-22-2006, 04:56 PM
The following is a collection of information I've gathered on casein as a paint and medium over the past few years. I don't claim to be a scholar on the subject, but have used it extensively in some of my professional works for exhibit and commercial clients. If any information here sounds unclear or doesn't make sense to you, please chime in.

The word ďcaseinĒ refers to the protein or curd precipitated from milk or soy. You can often find it listed on food labels as the milk ingredient. The gluten serves as a rather strong binder that mixes with water, and is water-resistant when dry, but not exactly waterproof; although, it may be varnished with a formaldehyde solution for better permanency. It gets harder as it ages, much like egg tempera. Because the binder comes from milk, it is a very ancient medium for painting. Itís still often used for painting wood furniture, and was commonly used on theatre sets before the introduction of acrylics. The fact that it can have a limited shelf life caused it to fall somewhat out of favor. Itís a very popular medium for illustrators since it doesnít reflect light and therefore photographs very well.

In addition to being an excellent water based paint in it's own right, it can also be used as a size or primer, although not as strong and more absorbent than hide glue. It also behaves as an oil and water emulsion, but reportedly causes the oil to yellow over time. It adheres very well to porous material like paper and wood, but dries somewhat brittle so itís not recommended on a flexible surface like stretched canvas. It also works well on stone, and is often used for murals.

Shiva is perhaps the best known artistís brand of casein, but Pelican also sells it (Plaka.) The interesting feature in these commercial brands is that they never spoil. I have tubes of Shivas that are years old, and it's still very usable. Shiva also sells a clear casein emulsion and shellac based varnish. Their color selection is limited, but you can make your own using pigments mixed with the emulsion. I like their paint overall, but sometimes it can be rather watery.

There is a brand called Iddings, now owned by Rosco, that is made for theatre painting, and it comes in large cans (quart & pints,) or 1 ounce sample jars. These jars are a good deal, @ $1 each compared to @$6 price of Shiva, but they mixture will spoil after a few months. There are a few online stores that carry it, or check theatre supply companies.

Other places sell casein powder where you just add water and/or pigment to make only what you need. Without too much trouble you can even make your own directly from milk. Casein can mix with gouache or watercolors to extend your color choices, but be aware that some of those colors are not lightfast or permanent. Gouache is fairly easy to make too.

If youíve ever used gouache, youíll find casein handles much the same way, especially in how fast it dries. Commercial brands of gouache usually have chalk added as an extender that causes it to dry to a paler shade, which also happens to casein paint when it dries due to its milk base. The ďstrokeĒ of the opaque paint is rather short due to the way the binder pulls and drying rate, but it can be watered as a wash and still holds very well. The body of the paint is such that fine details are easy to paint. It also dries to a matte finish. There are differences to gouache, however, outside of the obvious binder component. Mainly, gouache can always be re-activated easily with water, but casein is more water-resistant when dry and makes a tougher film. It can also make thicker brushstrokes (impasto.) Like egg tempera, casein is a good choice for underpainting oils.

Tips and notes:
When painting over a dried paint layer of casein, itís a good idea to use as little water as possible or else the bottom layer will mix in. You can glaze this way or paint over a toned underpainting. Although thereís really no ďfat over leanĒ rule here as with oils since it dries so quickly, if the paint is applied too thick it tends to cake up, which makes it unmanageable, and will crack over time, and paint layers underneath can absorb some of the binder on top. As such, itís better if top layers have more binder in them. The best result comes from not layering it too thick. If making corrections, instead of painting over an area you donít like, I recommend just wiping it off with a damp cloth.

To blend a media like this that dries quickly, I find itís best to mix your values on your palette first, and then blend them together on the surface. I like it when the brushstrokes show, so I prefer to do as little blending as possible. The overall surface size I use is not that large, about 18 inches maximum but usually around 1 foot. To paint large strokes of opaque paint youíd have to mix up a lot, which would dry too quickly. The brushes I use are rather small, except for washes. You can re-wet your paint dabs somewhat on your palette with a drop of water, but after a while it becomes unmanageable. I typically only squeeze out small dabs of 2-4 colors for an isolated area, which is a method Iíve also adopted for oils, and works well for me.

When the paint dries the color value shifts a notch brighter, especially for diluted mixes. This makes repainting over a dried area difficult if youíre trying to match the previous value. You need to either guess at it with a darker shade, or repaint that whole section with the new value. It takes some practice to get that right, and can affect your typical painting method if youíre expecting to rework areas later.

Another compatible emulsion is methylcellulose, which is made from wood pulp. The main advantage it has is it never spoils. Itís also a good oil and water emulsion. Sinopia sells 1 pound bags of this called Tylose. A little bit goes a very long way. 1 tablespoon made 4 ounces thatís lasted me over a year through several paintings.

Always use distilled water when painting since the bacteria in tap water can accelerate the spoilage of casein.

The recipes that include ammonia (instead of lime or borax) need to be used in a properly ventilated area. Shiva paints have a strong odor to them that I suspect is ammonia; although, thereís no warning about that on the label. The odor takes a while to dissipate as the paint dries so use with caution. After drying for a few hours the odor is gone. Iíve used borax, which is easier to find than ammonia carbonate, and it works quite well.

Soft brushes, including synthetics, work best for glazing, but even stiff hogs-hair can be used for textures or scumbling.

Shiva ďSigna-seinĒ, http://www.richesonart.com
Real Milk paint, http://www.realmilkpaint.com/
Iddings Deep Color, http://www.rosco.com/us/scenic/iddings_deep.asp
Kama Pigment (check the demo section,) http://www.kamapigments.com/
Sinopia, http://www.sinopia.com/casein.html
Methylcellulose, http://www.sinopia.com/index.asp?PageAction=VIEWPROD&ProdID=1108
Info, http://www.noteaccess.com/MATERIALS/Casein.htm
More info, http://www.angelfire.com/yt/modot/painting.html

Hopefully you found this informative and helpful. Feel free to contribute your own experiences or questions.

08-23-2006, 04:27 PM
Thanks I was wondering what this media was I had not heard of it till today

08-23-2006, 07:02 PM
Thanks for all this helpful info on caseins and gouache. I have Shiva caseins but have only experimented on a 5" x 7". I hope to work more with them soon.


08-23-2006, 07:23 PM
I was wanting to try this myself, I have used egg temperas but I read up on this before and like the effect it gives.
thanks for all the resources, soon as I get some free time I'm jumping in and trying it out :)

08-30-2006, 01:15 PM
Another thread that we need to hang onto I think as a sticky, so we can always come back for this information.

Thank you for putting it all together like this! I hope more folks will add to it.

I have not opened my tubes of casein yet...but sure hope to do so in the next few months.


08-30-2006, 02:33 PM
Thanks Meisie. I also hope others add good info to the thread. This is a medium that's hard to find good information about.

By the way, I was re-reading this article about a great illustrator, Harry Anderson, (http://www.americanartarchives.com/anderson,harry.htm) and there's some interesting info here on his technique. The detail about the rennin enzyme is interesting. It mentions his palette, and his development of the split brush technique. Worthwhile reading.

08-31-2006, 09:37 AM
David, you are a wonderful font of invaluable information plus links. Thanks for all your efforts! They are much appreciated.

08-31-2006, 06:03 PM
Thank you David! I'm going to read all I can find before I get started on casein, and practical tips are exactly what I'm interested in!


09-01-2006, 12:36 PM
Thank You David, I so enjoyed the read on Harry Anderson....

Can you tell me how Casein is made now?? Or is it the same?
Don't think I liked the part of the rennin enzyme comming from the gastric juices calves!! Azure

09-01-2006, 02:21 PM
...Can you tell me how Casein is made now?? Or is it the same? Don't think I liked the part of the rennin enzyme comming from the gastric juices calves!! Azure

If you're asking about Shiva's product, I'm not sure what they use exactly. It's now run by a different company, Richeson, but it seems the same. As I mentioned above, it smells like ammonia content and some of them are rather wet which makes me suspect they add glycerin. I'll send off an email to them and see what they say.

The rennin shouldn't be too shocking. If you've ever had cow's milk, or seen where it came from and how it was processed, you may find it hard to down another glass ;). Apparantly goat milk has less casein than cows milk.

09-01-2006, 06:26 PM
Being part country girl... I have gotten milk from the source more than a few times :) Its not the milk, protein, but the coagulating enzyme rennin I was thinking of. Gastric juices come from the gall bladder, and how did they get it from the calves? Azure

09-01-2006, 08:57 PM
Well, it comes from the fat of the stomach, and let's just say it isn't taken voluntarily :(

That's the form used to make cheeze. Casein can also just be made from curdled milk. I've seen recipes that mention using cottage cheeze or sour cream. The mixtures I've made myself have come from powder, and I'm not sure how they were processed.

Richard Saylor
09-02-2006, 06:51 PM
After a painting session, wash brushes thoroughly with soap and warm water. It is not enough just to rinse them in plain water (as one may be tempted to do with gouache and watercolor). Casein is like acrylic in that it can build up insidiously near the ferrule and can be difficult or impossible to remove later without permanent damage to the brush. This effectively shortens the length of your bristles, since it is inflexible. Also I seem to recall that casein can actually make certain natural bristles (such as hog bristle) fatter, somewhat like a protein hair conditioner.


01-30-2007, 11:38 AM
When I first decided to try casein painting, I googled a search for books about casein. I found one, I forget which used-book dealer had it, called Casein Painting, Methods and Demonstrations, by Henry Gasser. It was published in 1950. He thought that casein was on the brink of becoming a very popular medium for artists but we now know that acrylics took that spot. A lot of home decoration had been done with caseins but not so much "art".
I read the book through a few years ago but now that I have some experience I plan to go back and see what he said from a different perspective. He has chapters on using casein as watercolor, guache, oil and in various settings. Almost all the pictures are in black and white, typical of books of that period. I would recommend a search for this to anyone wanting to use casein seriously since there is so little else available.

02-02-2007, 05:11 PM
I love painting with casein but I stopped because the varnishing is very unsatisfactory. They only varnish in spots, not evenly. I like a gloss varnish on my paintings and I have never been able to find any information on how to make them varnish evenly. I am aware of the buffing solution but that is not really the end result I am fond of. If anyone can give me varnishing advice that actually works, please do. I painted with them for about a year before I finally gave up on them for that reason.

02-02-2007, 09:09 PM
Personally, I think "glossy" and casein are not meant to go together. I never varnish my casein paintings. The varnish that I've seen sold for casein is basically shellac based, if I'm not mistaken. I sometimes use shellac as an isolation layer while painting, but it's definetly not glossy; although, it can be. There's acrylic medium, but it tends to be cloudy to my experience. Possibly MSA varnishes might work, but I'd test it out first.

How are you applying the varnish - spray or brush?

11-27-2011, 11:30 PM
This is the first thread I've read and it made me really glad I joined the forum. The information and experiences you have shared are greatly appreciated. I saw an exhibition last month here where the artist used casein and I was keen to understand how those beautiful effects were achieved. Thank you

11-28-2011, 11:05 AM
Glad you're finding the information here useful.

To update my last comment regarding varnish, I have tested spirit varnishes, such as Golden's MSA, and have found them to be satisfactory. The process of varnishing a casein painting requires the paint surface to have completely cured (hardened) first. That takes at least 3 to 4 months. The painting can then be coated with an acrylic isolation medium, such as Liquitex Gloss Medium & Varnish or Golden's Soft Gel. Once that has dried I can safely varnish the painting as if it were acrylic, glossy or matte. This varnish could be safely removed later on if necessary due to the isolation layer protection.

02-14-2012, 12:42 PM
Shiva casein's odor strikes me as being very perfumy, perhaps to mask ammonia. It is not unpleasant. D.B.Clemons comments are accurate.

02-25-2012, 05:20 PM
I have aquestion about Casein. I usually work in Acrylics but am frustrated with the transparency of the paint. I am experimenting with combining acrylic and casien 50/50 in each color, mixed together on the pallette. This seems to have two advantages- (1) the acrylic is beefed up, becoming more opaque and (2) the casein is plasticized so it drys quickly AND is waterproof immediatly. I paint on gessoed masonite.
My question - is this chemically sound to do?:confused: I will appreciate any input that anyone can offer.

02-26-2012, 10:55 AM
Acrylic paints or mediums mix just fine with casein. The combination is often recommended for the reasons you describe, adding the benefits of both mediums. One particular shortcoming of casein is that you shouldn't apply a layer too thickly. However, if you've mixed in 50% acrylic polymer, that's not a problem.

Personally, I see the fast and permanent drying characteristic of acrylics as more of a problem than a benefit. Well, "problem" probably isn't the right word. It's just something you're forced to handle.

One thing I'd recommend is to be sure your mixture is well combined before you use it. Don't just dip your brush in both and start painting. Also, pay attention to what is in your mixture. If you dilute it with water in some passages, I'd suggest adding some acrylic medium also to improve adhesion. In fact, you might be able to get the effect you're after without using acrylic paint and just add medium to the casein.

09-30-2013, 06:49 PM
hey David thank you for the info if you don't mind me asking about casein paint how can I isolate it**so i can work with oils over painting on top thank you so much

12-25-2015, 08:13 AM
Casein sounds like an interesting medium that I would like to try.

In practical terms, how do you use it? i.e. how fast does it dry on the palette? Can it be misted like acrylics to keep it moist? Or used with a Masterson Sta-Wet palette? Or do you have to just put tiny dabs out on the palette from the tube?

I've heard that you have to be really careful with your brushes when using casein, but what does that mean in practical terms?

I usually paint with acrylics and rinse the brush with clear water when changing colors or switching to a different brush and lay the brush in a horizontal low plastic container that has about 1/2 inch of water in it to keep the brush moist. After I finish painting for the day, I wash the brushes in soap and water.

Would the same process work for brushes when using casein?


12-25-2015, 07:55 PM
Casein shares many similarities with gouache paint. It will dry quickly, but it can be made wet again with just a drop of water or wet brush. You do not have to mist it to keep it workable, as you do with acrylics. A special sponge palette is also not required.

There's no need to be concerned about your brush. Wash it out when you're done for the day and it will be fine. Casein is a glue, but it takes several weeks for it to become insoluble with water.

After a casein painting has dried for about 3 to 4 months, it can be varnished like an acrylic painting. Unlike gouache, at that point it is not longer affected by water.

If you visit my website you can find several articles I've written about casein that you may find helpful.


12-26-2015, 03:50 AM
Thank you, David. That's a big help.

In something that I had read elsewhere, it sounded like casein would hardened really fast on brushes... even faster than acrylics. I'm happy to hear that that is not true.

I tried gouache a couple of times several years ago and got very frustrated with bottom layers lifting when I tried to apply a second color on top of the first. I did not stick with gouache long enough to figure it out.

That's why casein sounds appealing to me. It appears that the first layer would not lift when applying a second layer of color. So that I would get the beauty of casein without the frustration of gouache.

I'll give it a try. Thanks again !!