Moira Dryer’s Unusual Choice of Casein

Associate Conservator Patti Favero explains Moira Dryer’s unique choice of paint medium.

The works on display in Moira Dryer: Back in Business are remarkable for the artist’s distinctly individual style which includes unique structures, vibrant colors, and evocative paint layers.

Moira Dryer, The Debutante, 1987, Casein, lacquer on rubber, wood, 48 in. diam., Collection of Marguerite Steed Hoffman © Estate of Moira Dryer

As we installed the show in early February, I learned that Dryer’s unique approach extends also to her materials. Many of the works in the exhibition are painted on thin plywood panels, not more than 1/8-inch thick, that are shaped or mounted to come forward off the wall and into the space. One panel is even bent into a free-standing form, while another is combined with found objects in a sculptural assemblage. But it was Dryer’s unusual choice of casein as a paint medium that really interested me.

What is Casein?

Samples of casein paints and mediums. Left to right: Richeson “Shiva” casein tube paints, pure casein powder from Rublev Colours (“For Making Paint and Adhesives”), Richeson “Shiva” casein emulsion medium, and Pelikan Plaka “All-purpose paint.”

Casein paints are based on caseinate, a protein found in milk. To make casein, the protein is separated from the whey and butterfat, then an alkaline material is added to break it down and allow it to mix with water. Casein has been used in a variety of forms for centuries. One medieval manuscript describes washing milk curds until the water runs clear, then mixing with quicklime into “cheese glue” for joining panels for altars and doors. [1] Another recipe for “milk paint” mixes casein powder, soaked in water, with Borax (sodium tetraborate) to make a water-thinned paint medium. [2]

Homemade casein will spoil after a few days, and it can be difficult to get consistent mixtures. Fortunately, artists have been able to buy stable, commercially-made casein paints for decades. This is probably the most reliable option and most likely what Dryer did.

Why Casein?

Casein is commonly associated with commercial artists and decorative painting—it is not a paint typically used by fine artists (with notable exceptions [3]). So why did Moira Dryer paint with casein?

In interviews, Dryer discussed how her early work building theater sets and props influenced her art: “I was always very transfixed by the play before the actors came on or after they left the stage. That was my job and that was what I focused on. The lighting would be there, the tension and the audience would be there, but not the actors. Those props had an incredibly provocative effect.”[4]

Dryer saved this color card for Gothic Scenic and Theatrical Paints in one of her notebooks. Gothic Color Company, Inc., made paints especially for theater and other scenic artists. They sold pure pigments and a variety of binders, along with a line of “Casein Fresco Colors” specifically developed for television studios.

While she doesn’t mention casein specifically, Dryer’s use of this medium also seems to come out of the scenic artist’s tradition. Scenic artists had particular criteria for their paints, including ease of use, vibrant color, and a flat, non-glossy surface that would evenly reflect stage lighting.[5] Casein paints have many of the properties valued by scenic artists. They can be thinned with water, which makes them practical and relatively safe to use, and they dry quickly. A high pigment load gives vivid color even when the paint is diluted, and the paint dries to a matte, even surface.

Painting with Casein

Casein dries quickly, but unlike acrylic the dry paint can still be manipulated somewhat. Dryer used these qualities to explore a number of visual effects in her striking compositions, such as the diaphanous washes of Suburbia or the opaque layers and dry-brush effects in Group Portrait.

(LEFT) Moira Dryer, Suburbia, 1989, Casein on wood, 66 x 84 in., Collection of Michael Straus (RIGHT) Moira Dryer, Group Portrait, 1985, Casein on wood, 24 x 26 1/2 in., Collection of Nancy Morawetz © Estate of Moira Dryer

To learn more about what it’s like to work with casein, I made small mock-Moira Dryer paintings. I experimented with both casein and also Flashe acrylics, which Dryer used near the end of her short career. I explored techniques seen in some of her paintings, such as sanding or layering over dry paint, and creating layered washes to approximate her surfaces.

Mock-up panel, 8 1/4 x 7 x 1/8 in., primed with Liquitex acrylic gesso and painted with Richeson “Shiva” Casein paints, in blue at right and dark green at lower left, and Flashe acrylic color in blue and light green at upper left

The casein was a lot of fun to work with. I tried using it straight from the tube and thinned, with water, to different strengths. Because of the heavy pigment load, the paint doesn’t lose its brilliance when diluted, and a little goes a long way. The dry casein was readily soluble again in water. This allowed me to easily create a series of wash and drip effects. When I tried to re-create Dryer’s even, dark veil of black over blue in Suburbia, however, I found it was difficult to avoid disturbing the thin blue layers beneath the black.

Making mock-ups is usually an exercise in appreciating the artist’s mastery of their materials, and this experiment was no exception.

(LEFT) Detail of Suburbia, bottom center (RIGHT) Detail of Mock-up panel, upper right corner

Notes on Preservation

Although casein has a reputation for being durable, casein paint surfaces are in fact quite fragile. They are susceptible to fingerprints, scuffs, and burnishing if not handled carefully. Ideally (and contrary to the artist’s instructions) they would be stored and transported with nothing touching the surface. The dried paint also remains sensitive to water to some degree, despite what is written. A water droplet left on the surface will leave a tideline, and even a carefully rolled conservator’s swab can pick up color.

Moira Dryer’s handwritten notes on installation and handling, which are found on the backs of many of her paintings



[1] Theophilus, On Divers Arts, John G. Hawthorne and Cyril Stanley Smith, trans. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1979.

[2] Kremer Pigments Catalog: “Raw Materials for Fine Arts, Conservation, Woodfinishing, Design,” New York: Kremer Pigments, 2002. P58.

[3] See Elizabeth Steele “The Materials and Techniques of Jacob Lawrence” in P. Nesbett and M. DuBois, eds., Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence. Seattle: University of Washington Press, in association with Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, 2001. 247-265.

[4] Moira Dryer in conversation with Klaus Ottmann, Journal of Contemporary Art, Spring/Summer 1989

[5] Gothic Color Company, Inc., Scenic Artist’s Handbook, ca. 1965.

Conserving Pierre Bourdelle’s “Bird” (Part II)

This two-part blog post is by Jen Munch, former intern in The Phillips Collection’s Conservation department and current Graduate Fellow in Art Conservation at SUNY Buffalo State. Read Part I here.

Later renovations and expansions required the sculpture’s deinstallation and relocation. During one deinstallation in 1987, the heavy stone sculpture was damaged at two locations along the slab’s bottom edge, where small sections of the stone were chipped away. In 1989, conservators repaired the sculpture by filling the two losses with chips of stone from the back of the artwork, plus an epoxy material that matched the colors of the grey and pink slab. Over time, the epoxy’s colors faded to beige, due to the strong sunlight that this artwork is exposed to. In 2004-5, the faded fills were replaced with new epoxy fills, with the goal of better matching the color of the surrounding stone. By the summer of 2017, the “new” fills again had faded to beige [fig.7, 8].

Figure 7, Before treatment, 2017. The discolored fills are circled.

Figure 7: Before treatment, 2017. The discolored fills are circled.

Figure 8: Before treatment, 2017. The discolored fills are circled.

The aging effects of sunlight are well known and documented. Just as the sun can damage your skin or the fabric of a sofa placed near a window, the sun’s rays can degrade many pigments. Ultraviolet rays are the most damaging, but visible light will also cause some degree of damage.

In 2017, the epoxy fills were still structurally stable but their beige color no longer matched the surrounding stone. The fills were visible and distracting. On one warm August day in 2017 [fig. 9], I spent the afternoon “in-painting” the beige epoxy to make it match the surrounding area. I applied small amounts of special conservation-grade paints atop the epoxy. The paints I used have good aging properties, but they, too, will eventually fade and need to be replaced. The work I did, and the materials I used, are documented with both written reports and photography, taken before and after treatment [fig. 10]. This information will be valuable to the next conservator who has to treat this artwork, just as the reports from the 1989 and 2004-5 treatments were helpful to me.

The author performing a conservation treatment on Bird by Pierre Bourdelle. Photo: Kim Sandara

Figure 9: The author performing a conservation treatment on Bird by Pierre Bourdelle. Photo: Kim Sandara

I enjoyed working on this sculpture and getting to learn about its history. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that this beautiful bird was custom-made for the Phillips and is a work of art, not just a logo. I hope you have enjoyed reading about this artwork, and will look for the bird the next time you visit The Phillips Collection.

Figure 9, After treatment, 2017. The epoxy fills have been in-painted to match the stone.

Figure 10: After treatment, 2017. The epoxy fills have been in-painted to match the stone.

Conserving Pierre Bourdelle’s “Bird” (Part I)

This two-part blog post is by Jen Munch, former intern in The Phillips Collection’s Conservation department and current Graduate Fellow in Art Conservation at SUNY Buffalo State.

 Figure 1, "Bird,” granite, Pierre Bourdelle, 1960

Figure 1: Pierre Bourdelle, Bird, 1960, Granite

In the summer of 2017, I had the pleasure of working as a graduate intern in the conservation department at The Phillips Collection. During my 10 weeks at the Phillips, I spent most of my time indoors in the museum’s serene and air-conditioned conservation studio, working on conservation treatments for modern paintings in the museum’s collection.

Figure 3, "Bird" by Pierre Bourdelle, to the right of the museum's Goh Annex entrance.

Figure 2: Bird by Pierre Bourdelle, to the right of the museum’s Goh Annex entrance.

In addition to paintings, I had the opportunity to work on the granite outdoor sculpture Bird by Pierre Bourdelle, which serves as a symbol of The Phillips Collection. When you visit the Phillips, you’ll see this sculpture to the right of the museum’s main entrance. You can also see representations of this bird on some branding for the Phillips, including the favicon (icon on the tab) for this website and as an ornament for sale in the museum’s gift shop [fig. 3].

Figure 4, Bird ornament in the Phillips Collection gift shop.

Figure 3: Bird ornament in the Phillips gift shop.

This low relief sculpture of a dark granite bird on a speckled granite slab was commissioned in 1960 by Duncan Phillips and is based on a 1956 lithograph of a bird by Georges Braque [fig. 4] that Phillips saw reproduced in the magazine Cahier d’Art (1956-57). Phillips contacted Braque in 1959 with the goal of commissioning a sculpture of the same subject.

Figure 4, "Bird," Lithograph, Georges Braque, 1956

Figure 4: Georges Braque, Bird, 1956, Lithograph

He wrote, “I saw the reproduction of a very fine graveur of a bird by you. It struck me as so beautiful with such a great universal feeling and design that I could not forget it. Therefore I have summoned the courage to ask if it would be possible for you to repeat this on a larger scale as an overdoor panel for our new building.”

Braque declined the commission but agreed to allow Phillips to commission another artist to produce a marble sculpture based on his lithograph. Pierre Bourdelle, the son of sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, was recommended to Phillips by Cesar de Hauke, who acted as Duncan Phillips’s agent in communicating with Braque and organizing this commission. The sculpture was carved at “Pierre Bourdelle Experimental Studios,” in the town of Oyster Bay on New York’s Long Island [fig. 5]

Figure 5, "Bird” sculpture during fabrication in Pierre Bourdelle’s workshop.

Figure 5: “Bird” sculpture during fabrication in Pierre Bourdelle’s workshop.

When Phillips commissioned the sculpture, he planned for it to be installed over the original entrance to the museum. The bird was initially installed in this location and was, for a long time, the first artwork any museum visitor would see. The bird sculpture was especially resonant with the first gallery visitors saw, which was hung with, “a choice group of Braques, ranging from 1914 to 1956,” according to a 1967 note by Phillips Collection registrar John Gernand, found in the sculpture’s curatorial file. Among the Braque paintings acquired by Duncan Phillips is a 1956 oil on canvas by Braque of the same subject [fig. 6].

Figure 6,“Bird,” oil on canvas, Georges Braque, 1956

Figure 6: Georges Braque, Bird, 1956, Oil on canvas, The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1966

Stay tuned for Part II later this week.