Posts Tagged ‘natural pigments’

The Oldest Art Studio

October 17, 2011
Ochre pic - from Gizmodo

Ochre pic - from Gizmodo

Here’s some news that blew me away: The oldest art studio ever discovered (National Geographic). In Africa, a cave was unearthed that included all the basics required for making pigments: natural colorants, tools for grinding them (stones), and bowls for holding the pigments (abalone shells) – as well as some evidence of some fairly complex chemistry in their making, and even color mixing. Which is all extremely cool. But here’s the really cool thing: These art materials are 100,000 years old. Yep, a tenth of a million years is how long (at least) we humans have been making art materials – which means, of course, that we’ve been making art for at least that long as well. I’ve always had a younger date in mind, and have often shared that with my students: say, 30,000 to 40,000 years. But clearly, it’s been much longer than that.

I’m excited by the news of this discovery for a few reasons. One, this means that we homo sapiens have probably been making art ever since we’ve been homo sapiens. One related article at CNN mentioned that fragments of pigment have been found from even longer ago than those in this find, though without the related tools found there. Longer than a hundred thousand years is how long we’ve been painting. In a very real way, I think, making art is a part of what it means to be human – as much as tracking, or storytelling, funeral rites, or any other part of our deepest shared culture.

Second has to do with the pigments themselves. The pigments discovered were ochres and other minerals, charcoal, and bone. None of these is unexpected – but what has an impact on me is the feeling that when I paint with a natural earth pigment, I am a part of a hundred-thousand-year-old tradition. That makes me feel differently about what I’m doing when I use these pigments, in a wide but not-quite-definable way. It makes me feel – human. Really a part of our culture, not our modern veneer and glitz, but the real deal. It feels good.

Third, of course, is the fact that I’m a handcrafter of pigments myself. When I read the article, I immediately felt a strong connection, a kinship even, between myself and those color-makers from long ago. I felt part of a string. I thought about myself, and about some artist grinding earth pigments 100,000 years from now, and about those ancient color-makers from so long ago. I wished they could have known about me somehow, grinding earth pigments so long after they did. And I wondered if they felt the same excitement in the gathering and making of the colors, the same satisfaction with the finished pigments, and the same joy in using them for their art.

I bet they did.

Candle Black

September 12, 2011
Candle Black Ink Drawing

Candle Black Ink Drawing

There was a power outage last week here in the American Southwest. You might have seen it in the news – or even been affected yourself – it was quite a large blackout, about 5 million people without power. It was interesting to go for the evening walk with the dog, seeing house after house darkened, and the unusual sight of neighbors actually talking with each other on the street. Amazing, the things that happen when the TV and computer are out. As always, it brought home to me how lucky we are to have such things as electricity at our constant disposal. With a changing world on my mind, it was a thoughtful but enjoyable walk.

When we got back home from our walk, we lit the place up with candles. Romantic and comfortable as it always is to do so, I found myself by habit still reaching for light switches in every room I entered, even though I was carrying a candle with me. The whole thing brought to mind an experiment I’d carried out some time before to make a different kind of carbon black pigment. The kind of carbon black pigment with which many will be familiar is vine black – created by calcining grapevines in the absence of oxygen – but there’s another kind described in various treatises from the Middle Ages that is made from candles. This is a black pigment with extremely fine particles, which mixes very easily into linseed oil, and makes a beautiful black ink. It’s also a snap to make. Here’s how you do it:

Making Candle Black

Making Candle Black

First, the equipment. You’ll need, not surprisingly, a candle. But not just any candle: this needs to be a natural beeswax candle, not the paraffin or carnauba wax variety. Preferably, it will be a beeswax candle with no perfumes or dyes. You’ll need some kind of metal bowl capable of holding water, and some way to hang it suspended above the candle while the candle is lit. It doesn’t have to be fancy; you can see the system I’ve jury-rigged here. In fact you can tell a lot about me and the kind of stuff laying around my household from taking a look at the different objects I’ve used here: two fantastic books from the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco about impressionism and post-impressionism; an old paintbrush holding up the bowl; a sketchbook to adjust the height of the candle (notice how the cover is bound upside down–I saw it that way on the shelf and of course had to grab it); and the table underneath protected by a newspaper clipping about the power outage, which I just had to put under the candle.

Making Candle Black

Making Candle Black

Fill the bowl with cold water, suspend it, then light the candle and put it under the bowl. The candle flame will deposit its black soot on the underside of the bowl. This is your pigment. You can see in the pic how close the candle should be to the bowl. This will heat the bowl up quite a bit, more than one might think, and that’s why it’s necessary to fill the bowl up with cold water before beginning.

Making Candle Black

Making Candle Black

One of the great things about making candle black is that it’s not labor-intensive at all. You can walk away and do something else while you’re making your pigment. Just wander back once in a while and put a finger into the water to make sure it’s not getting too hot. Once it starts to feel a bit on the warm side, blow out the candle, pour the water from the bowl into a garden plant, and simply scrape your black pigment from the bottom of the bowl. You can keep doing this as long as you wish, of course; you can also periodically move the lit candle around to deposit pigment over a larger area.

Candle Black in Oil

Candle Black in Oil

In this image you can see what this candle black pigment looks like in oil. I made a little set of swatches using homemade candle black and lead white from Rublev. Straight candle black in oil is a really rich, inky black, slightly darker even than my bone black from Rublev. Mixed with lead white, it makes fairly neutral grays. If you’re working in oils with candle black, keep in mind the very small particle size of this pigment, likely much smaller even than lake pigment particles. This means that it might lead to premature cracking of your darks if used too thickly on its own.

Candle Black in Oil

Candle Black in Oil

But where this pigment really shines is as an ink or watercolor. With oil, the candle black pigment dispersed very easily with no mulling at all, just a little mixing together with the palette knife right on the palette. In water and gum Arabic, however, the pigment resisted dispersion mightily. I had to resort to mixing in a couple of drops of glycerin, which helped. Nevertheless, once finally dispersed, it made a beautiful ink. In the large image at the top of the post, you can see the drawing I made with this ink. I’ve been trying to figure out a way, in my ink drawings, to mix quill work with brushwork. This represents another attempt to do so. I don’t think I’m there yet; but this one is better than some of the ones I’ve done recently, and I’m happy that my more successful attempt happened with the homemade ink.

Candle black is a beautiful color, historic, sustainable, and easy to make. Grab a beeswax candle and give it a try!

Da Vinci “Natural Pigment” line of oil paints

August 7, 2011
Da Vinci Natural Pigment oil paints

Da Vinci Natural Pigment oil paints

I thought I’d show some of the Da Vinci “Natural Pigment” line of oil paints, since I’ve got several of them, and they came up in Mariposa’s “Snob Paints” thread (in the Oil Painting forum at WetCanvas). As I mentioned there, I think Da Vinci paints are underrated paints in general. They are all nicely long and brush out well, and are willing to separate in the tube after a while (in my opinion, this indicates an appropriately small amount of stabilizer in the paint). Da Vinci are my favorite non-premium oil paints, though I admit a few of their pigment choices and color names are questionable to me. But I think their line of Natural Pigment paints is really noteworthy. To the right is a pic of the ones I’ve got on the palette.

Each is shown from the tube, then mixed with an approximately equal amount of Winsor & Newton zinc white.

In the group of four on the top right are (from right to left): Natural Gold Ochre; Brown Ochre Geothite; Arizona Red; and Hematite Violet.

Da Vinci Natural Pigment

Da Vinci Natural Pigment

These are the four that are most impressive right out of the gate. The Natural Gold Ochre is one of the two most intense yellow ochres I’ve used (the other being Rublev’s Lemon Ochre). I’m fairly certain it is a Blue Ridge blend of yellow ochres. The Brown Ochre Geothite should really be called Orange Ochre in my opinion, it’s great for warm darks in skin tones, or for glowing highlights in hair – it’s like a warmer version of raw sienna. The Arizona Red is my best dark scarlet earth, and I love that the pigment is regional here. And the Hematite Violet – well, just look at it. It’s a glorious, intense dark red that steers hard toward magenta in tints. Love it – love it!

Next group of two, again right to left: Arizona Brown Ochre; and Red Iron Stone.

Da Vinci Natural Pigment

Da Vinci Natural Pigment

These are two that I was relatively unimpressed with at first, but which have proven themselves extremely useful. The Arizona Brown Ochre has been very good for underpaintings, as well as being a helpful starting point for mixing various nondescript midtones that can be tricky to get to precisely. It dries very quickly (must be an umber of some sort, though it’s opaque), which keeps it off my palette much of the time unless I have a specific use for it; and it has low tinting strength. The Red Iron Stone turns out to be a nearly perfect starting point for flesh halftones, and in contrast to the previous paint has a pretty high tinting strength (the tint here actually contains somewhat more white than red).

The last group of three: Olive Oxide; Lapis Lazuli Genuine; and Magnetite Genuine.

Da Vinci Natural Pigment

Da Vinci Natural Pigment

These last three are paints that I find pretty and interesting, but which I just haven’t had much use for yet. I plan to try the Olive Oxide for underpaintings. The Lapis makes a great glazing blue, being less intense than ordinary ultramarine; I just haven’t happened to need a glazing blue in any of my recent paintings. The color of the tint in this pic has been somewhat blasted out by the light source; nevertheless it is not strong in tints. The Magnetite is somewhat like a Mars black (in fact it is a natural iron oxide), but with a very low tinting strength, practically disappearing in some mixes. I’m sure this will make it useful for things like neutralizing skin tones, once I get more used to using it.

At a price range of $11 to $20 for earth colors, these might be considered slightly “snobby” paints. To me they’re worth having, and I recommend trying some of them – I have found it interesting and fun (and easier!) to paint flesh with many different earth colors, rather than just a couple of cadmiums. The most expensive among those I have are the Lapis (unsurprisingly), the Gold Ochre, and the Red Iron Stone. There are a few of the line I still need to try.

The “must-have” of the bunch: Hematite Violet. Definitely.

Da Vinci Hematite Violet

Da Vinci Hematite Violet

Crossposted to a couple of forums at WetCanvas.

Sap green

July 10, 2011

I’ve been neglecting the blog, because I’ve been insanely busy with getting my portfolio together, building my site, etc. But I’ve been experimenting with this and that as I’ve had time. Some of my recent adventures: an anthocyanin blue from geranium blossoms; an iron weld lake; shopping for a dragon’s blood tree; studying carmine in the wild; the first really successful madder lake from my garden plants (and figuring out how to make a dark and a light madder lake from the same batch); and the finding and purchasing of a natural-lake oil paint, from a very mainstream company, that has been out of circulation for most of a decade. I’ll share all that stuff with you, but for today I’ve prepared an article about sap green:

Sap green is a traditional color that enjoyed popularity from medieval illumination all the way through the Romantic era of watercolor painting. It is a warm, yellowish green, transparent, tending toward olive in masstone and a brighter, livelier green in tints. As an artist’s color it has been quite useful to many artists, filling in a difficult mixing area of the color wheel, supplying beautiful and interesting transparent green shadows, and lovely mixtures for foliage. It is fugitive, of course, like most natural organic colors, which is why it fell from vogue in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when modern synthetic greens that were more lightfast became widely available.

The color sap green is derived from the berries of the buckthorn plant. The usual plant used was rhamnus cathartica, or common buckthorn, which is found in the British Isles. The cathartica part of the species name refers to the fact that the buckthorn berries can be used as an emetic, and the plant is often mentioned in older medicinal treatises.

Sap Green - © MFA Boston

Sap Green - © MFA Boston

The dyestuff in Northern Europe is common and economical, and yields a beautiful color – small wonder it was popular for so long. The plant has been naturalized in parts of North America, and has become quite a problem in those areas, because common buckthorn can be very invasive. It spreads rapidly and aggressively, has no natural enemies on this continent, and quickly takes over an area of woodland, squeezing out the natural flora, and in the process some of the natural fauna as well, as they lose their traditional food sources to the invader. My original excitement to try growing this plant was dampened considerably upon learning of the problems associated with it.

I’m quite a fanatic about natural colors, of course; so, while I am an adamantly against risking introducing an invasive species into the ecolocality in which I live, I nevertheless spent some time in negotiations with myself. The common buckthorn is invasive in much cooler and wetter areas than southern Californa; there is little way the plant could be as successful here. In any case, the plant reproduces sexually and needs both a male and a female plant to spread; I’ll just get one plant, I reasoned, and so I’ll be safe. But in the end, I decided sadly that it just wasn’t worth the risks. I want to grow plants that can have a future in my garden and others – common buckthorn clearly doesn’t fit the mold, at least not on this continent. (The closest thing I have to an invasive species is madder, which is spreads agressively through root runners. But madder I feel confident I can control by killing it off if necessary, mainly because the birds and other animals of the area are not interested in its berries or seeds, so the chances of it spreading without my knowledge are greatly reduced. Common buckthorn does not have that element of safety; its berries are enjoyed and spread by many varieties of bird.)

If you happen to live in an area that has been invaded by common buckthorn, you have every opportunity to make some real sap green; for goodness sake go out and pick some berries. Every berry you use is one that cannot spread the species further.

There is another, non-invasive species of buckthorn that is actually much better suited for the hot and dry weather of California, being from the Mediterranean area of the Old World: rhamnus infectoria (or rhamnus saxatilis), the same buckthorn that is used to make stil de grain yellow lake. While a green can be made from the berries of this plant (depending on how ripe they are), it is much better used as a source of the lovely yellow stil-de-grain. You can get the berries from dye shops. I’ve been thinking of getting some seeds and growing a shrub in my garden plot; unfortunately, they seem a bit difficult to come by.

This is one of several posts I’ll make concerning the importance of localism in thinking about the sustainability of artist’s colors. If I lived in Northern Europe, sap green would be a primary color on my watercolor palette. Here in the American Southwest, it can’t be.

What is a sustainable color?

January 30, 2011

Or: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Despite more than a bit of misuse in popular culture, what the word “sustainable” actually means is simple – though the implications are quite profound for us all – and it’s this (from merriam-webster.com):

  1. : capable of being sustained
  2. a : of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged
    b : of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods

So here’s my interpretation for the purposes of this discussion (and my own philosophy):

An activity is sustainable if it in no way impedes the ability of future generations to live their lives or to engage in the same activity or other activities – for all intents and purposes forever.

If an activity does not meet that test, then it is unsustainable. Can’t keep it up forever. Can’t sustain the activity indefinitely. If you try to keep up that activity forever, then eventually you crash. It’s a fail.

Sustainability is not a nicety. It’s a requirement and a hard fact. If an activity is unsustainable, then that means we will stop doing it – eventually. The only question is whether we cease the activity voluntarily, or are forced out of it through diminishing options – or whether we ourselves will meet our end before it becomes an issue. (As one cynic put it: We will keep doing what we do until we can’t any more, and then we won’t.)

So that’s my strict definition. But “forever” is a little hard for the human brain (at least my human brain) to comprehend and plan for. When I think about this stuff, I tend to think in more discrete chunks of time, because it’s easier for me, and it clarifies my thinking: five thousand years from now, ten thousand. Will our heavy industry still be consuming at its present rate in ten thousand years? Will the Three Gorges Dam still be standing? Will we still be mining for cobalt?

This, of course, is a blog about art materials, and more than anything else it’s about colors. So which colors are sustainable? Which are not? Which are finite, but nevertheless are abundant enough to probably last the long millenia?

The good

These are the materials that really could last pretty much until the end of the world. Non-destructive, renewable, natural organic colors (definition here) that can be raised or wildcrafted in one’s own bioregion (geographic backyard), and can replenish themselves, through careful horticulture or natural propagation, and can be prepared over a simple fire using abundant, locally available ingredients – these are probably the only colors that can be considered truly sustainable by our strict definition above. One can conceivably at least keep up that activity pretty much forever, so it does pass that test, assuming it’s done with care. (However, it should definitely be noted here that not all natural organic sources pass the test. More on that in the next post.)

Also, I think we can go a little easy on ourselves here and throw the natural earths into this category. Although technically they are finite (especially the nice brightly-colored ones), well, there’s just a heck of a lot of the stuff out there. It’s a little hard to imagine artists ever managing to use up all the red earth in Arizona – or Brazil.

The bad

The pigments that are most clearly unsustainable, for various reasons that should be fairly obvious, are the ones that are manufactured from petroleum or other hydrocarbons. These synthetic organics (definition here) are going to go away sooner or later – more likely sooner. For me this is the most easily identifiable group. Flatly not sustainable, because petroleum isn’t. End of story. I’ll actually be rather surprised if they manage to still be around for much longer than another decade or two.

Perhaps slightly less obvious are the pigments that merely require a hydrocarbon-driven industrial process for their manufacture. They may not have petroleum as their basic feedstock, but they are just as dependent upon it for their existence. I don’t see how this group can make it out of the cellar either. I’ll be going through a few examples in later articles.

The ugly

Any material which is finite is therefore, strictly speaking, unsustainable. However, common sense and a little research indicate that there are certain natural inorganic materials that are so plentiful (and in some cases highly recyclable as well) that we probably don’t really need to worry about them, at least not for a very, very long time. Iron and alum in particular, which can be used to make Mars pigments and lake pigments, will almost certainly not deplete completely from the major regions of the earth in any time scale meaningful to this discussion. Also, the minerals calcium, sodium, potassium and sulfur – also used in the creation of lake pigments and some other pigments – are in abundant supply as well. There are a few other materials that I also count as reasonable candidates for this group, depending on other factors.

So, luckily, I doubt we will ever be restricted to using natural inks and earths only, even though they’re the only materials that actually made it into our “good” category. (As much as I love natural inks, I do like to make an oil painting once in a while.) We’ll be collecting earths, and making lake pigments and a few synthetic inorganic pigments (definition here), for a long, long time to come.

Forever? Can’t answer that. Ten thousand years from now? Almost certainly.

Details to follow…

How to make a lake pigment

January 10, 2011

A basic lake pigment is pretty easy to make. Some lake pigments are more complex – there’s a reason madder lake took a while to catch on, historically – but most of them are easy as pie. It was noted recently in a comment that there is a dearth of comprehensible recipes online, and it’s true. It took me a bit of searching to figure out what things like “base,” “thrown down,” “precipitated onto,” and so on actually mean. But here is the basic process in all its simplicity. Let’s go:

Alum, washing soda

Alum, washing soda

First, what you’ll need. You’ll need alum, for starters – that’s potassium aluminum sulfate. This is the basic material that’s going to grab onto the dye color, just as it does when used as a mordant in fabric dyeing. You used to be able to get the stuff in the spice aisles of grocery stores, and apparently in some parts of the country you still can (it’s used in pickling cucumbers). I purchased mine from a dye shop. Also, you’ll need some kind of alkali to precipitate the alum (turn it into an insoluble powder). Some possibilities are potash (potassium carbonate), washing soda (sodium carbonate) or chalk (calcium carbonate). I use washing soda most often. You can get it from dye shops as well; but for a better deal grab a big container at Home Depot or Lowe’s in the pool section. On the right are these two items.

You’ll need the dyestuff itself. It’s worth noting here that not all dyes will grab onto alum to form a lake pigment; but if you’ve done a little research, you’ll have some idea at least of some of the ones used in the past. Here I’ll use some ripe buckthorn berries. These were most often inspissated to make the watercolor sap green; but the dye from them will make a lake pigment.

Cooking buckthorn berries

Cooking buckthorn berries

Equipment you’ll need: a pot and something to heat it with. On the right you see me heating up the berries in water on the stove. Some dyes, such as carmine, need to be boiled; for others, such as madder, boiling can ruin the color. Research and/or experiment. Other stuff: a funnel, some coffee filters and two jars of some sort (preserving jars work the best, because you don’t have to worry about pouring hot water into them). I usually have various jars around, so I can pour back and forth as needed. You’ll also need some distilled water – this is what should be used whenever the recipe calls for water. A mortar and pestle. And: a turkey baster. No, really.

Filtering the dye

Filtering the dye

Once your dye is extracted from the dyestuff, filter it, using the funnel and a coffee filter, over one of your jars. You need to get all the gunk out of there. Now that you’ve got some extracted and filtered dye, the magic can begin. Dissolve some alum in water on the stove (a pic of this can be seen here), then pour the warm alum solution into the dye jar. With some dyes, such as weld, this will immediately bring out the color; with others, you won’t see any difference.

Lake pigment precipitating

Lake pigment precipitating

Now, do the same thing with the alkali (be a little careful with potash or washing soda – these are alkaline enough to cause a burn, make sure to keep the stuff out of your eyes): dissolve some in water on the stove, then pour some of the solution into the dye. Right away you should get a fizzing reaction as the alum encounters the alkali: as the alkali precipitates the alum, it releases carbon dioxide (or something like that). How much of each, alum and alkali, should be used? Well, it’ll be different for each dye and each recipe. As a general thing it’s better to add too little than to add too much, as more can always be added later.

Precipitate settling

Precipitate settling

Let the jar sit – sometimes for a few hours, sometimes overnight – and the precipitate will eventually settle to the bottom. Now it should be washed a few times. Take your turkey baster (told ya) and siphon off the clear water on top, as much of it as you can without losing too much pigment. Then fill the jar back up with water and allow it to settle again. Do this as many times as it takes for the clear water to be colorless (or as near to that as your patience and water supply can handle!).

The filtrate

The filtrate

Once the water is colorless to your satisfaction, siphon it off one last time, and then you’ll filter the precipitate through the funnel and another coffee filter, into your other jar. The pigment will usually clog the filter, so you’ll need some patience for this: fill up the funnel, then go do something else for a while as it slowly drains, then come back and fill it up again, etc. If you’re making a larger batch of lake you may need more than one filter. Remove the filter containing lake and lay it flat on a surface – I use plates with paper towels, but bricks are supposed to work nicely – and give it a couple of days to dry (but don’t put it in the sun – these are fugitive colors here!). It will probably shrink in volume quite a bit as it loses moisture. Once the lake is completely dry, you can grind it up, thoroughly, using a mortar and pestle.

lake pigment

The lake pigment!

Now you have your pigment – mull it into linseed oil or gum arabic and give it a go! There’s very little more satisfying than creating a painting with your own pigments and paints. Don’t forget to keep good notes on your process – and feel free to post any questions or comments below.

Pigment categories – the blurry lines

December 26, 2010

It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve let my blog go for five whole weeks. I never thought I’d be one of those authors who had to post “Sorry it’s been so long since my last post” – and yet, here I am. Sorry, folks. It’s been a tough month. I’m abandoning for this post, and maybe the next post or two, the discussion of classical underpainting techniques; but I am continuing to research and experiment, faithful reader, and I’ll return to the topic soon.

Back to art materials philosophy. Some time back I listed some basic definitions for the four categories of artist’s pigments: natural inorganic, natural organic, synthetic inorganic, and synthetic organic. (See the posts here, here and here.) The categories seem straightforward enough once you become familiar with them. However, things can get a bit weird if you start trying to nail down certain pigments.

Take Prussian blue, which is considered a synthetic inorganic pigment, in fact the first modern synthetic pigment. This is a pigment discovered accidentally in the early eighteenth century while attempting to create a carmine lake pigment with what turned out to be some tainted substances. What happened was that some potash contaminated with animal blood was used to precipitate the iron-based lake pigment, accidentally forming iron ferrocyanine, which makes a powerful blue. (Lucky accident!) So, but here’s the question: how is it that when a natural organic lake pigment received an additional natural organic element, it turned into something that is considered a synthetic inorganic? Weird – why is this pigment not considered a natural organic, like the carmine lake? I suppose it’s because in Prussian blue there is no actual dye involved – but still, it seems arbitrary.

A lake pigment is generally thought of as a dye precipitated onto a base of alum; but as indicated above, not all lake pigments are based on alum. They can be based on iron or copper instead, or even other metal salts such as chrome or zinc. Sometimes, even when a natural dye is used, these lakes based on other metals are viewed as synthetic, or semi-synthetic, rather than natural. Why? Why is a natural dye laked onto alum considered a natural pigment, but the same natural dye laked onto copper may not be? Alum is potassium aluminum sulfate, the copper mordant is copper sulfate pentahydrate. Both are metal sulfates, pretty similar stuff. A dyer would consider any dye obtained from natural sources to be a natural dye, regardless of what mordant were used to bind it to fabric, be it alum, iron, copper, tin, chrome or other, and I would agree – and I don’t really think of natural dyes laked onto different metal substrates as being categorically different from one another.

Precipitating copper blue

Precipitating copper blue

But I can easily get myself into more trouble. Green and blue pigments can be made from copper without the addition of a natural dye, and yellow and red pigments can be made from iron – and these are also considered to be synthetic pigments. But why? If laking a natural dye onto alum, iron or copper results in a natural pigment, then why does it become synthetic if I follow exactly the same procedure, but only leave out the organic ingredient?

It’s at this point that the whole question starts to break down. One person to whom I mentioned my interest in natural pigments immediately quipped, “Well, what’s natural”? At the time I confess I was a little irritated by such a flippant-sounding dismissal of what has been a passion for me – but now I see the wisdom in it, regardless of how it may have been intended. What is natural, anyway? Don’t get me wrong: the words “natural” and “artificial” are opposites with real definitions; but as soon as we start trying to identify categories, we have to start drawing lines, and that’s where things get messy. At some point you have to chalk it up to useless semantics and move on to another aspect of the discussion.

This is all a little illustration of why, though my original direction (years ago, now) was almost entirely about natural pigments, and though I still write about my love for colors from natural sources, I now pay little attention to such distinctions when considering my philosophy of materials, just as I now pay little attention to toxicity (other than as a necessary practical concern). Natural, synthetic, doesn’t really matter. What does matter, to me, is whether a particular art material is sustainable – meaning that I think we artists will pretty much never be forced to stop using it. That means no industrial processes required in that material’s production, no hydrocarbon feedstocks are used, no destruction of landbases necessary – and we aren’t dependent for our materials upon the needs of the giant automobile, plastics and textiles industries. In a perfect world, that would mean art materials that could be made locally, from regionally common materials, and without harming the ecolocality in any drastic way. The only pigments that are categorically excluded from my list are the synthetic organics; they are derived from hydrocarbons, and really can’t be considered sustainable no matter how they’re sliced. Also excluded would be any other pigments that absolutely require an industrial process for production. The ones that would not be excluded are the natural earths; the natural organic colors; and artificial pigments easily synthesized from common metals and minerals.

Yes, this is the kind of thing I spend my time thinking about. I think it’s important.

- L. Lawrence

Christmas card sketch, walnut ink

October 3, 2010
Pine cone sketch

Pine cone sketch

Here is a new little drawing made with the homemade walnut ink. It’s intended to be the design for a Christmas card, of which I plan to put a couple up on my Redbubble and Imagekind pages. This one came out a little stiff – probably because I drew it a bit on the small side, and also because I just tightened up, knowing that I intended it to be a professional piece (sort of). I’m also not thrilled with the distribution of values, though that part at least is fixable. There’s a chance I’ll attempt a redo, larger and looser.

Isn’t it just a pretty color for an ink, though? I’m not the only one out there making and using ink from black walnut hulls. Here is an old WetCanvas post by a member named Bluegill (Mark Tabler), an outstanding ink artist, who uses homemade walnut ink as well. In this post, he has made available the results of some lightfastness tests he conducted upon his walnut ink. I was quite interested to see this, of course, since I still haven’t gotten around to setting up the Great Lightfastness Test of 2010 (we’ll have to see if that doesn’t turn into the Great Lightfastness Test of 2011), although I have at least obtained my blue wool samples and have them ready to go. In the meantime, Tabler’s tests seem to indicate that walnut ink is fairly lightfast, though not perfectly so. Good enough for me; and when I do my own tests, hopefully I’ll get confirmation on that.

Here is Mark’s House Portraits page, exhibiting drawings done in walnut ink, and here is his Homemade Black Walnut Ink page, sharing his recipe and procedure for making the ink. Good stuff. I also want to share one of the best walnut ink wash drawings I’ve seen, posted on this page at Science-Art. Go ahead and click on the drawing for a larger view. Beautiful. I’ll get there someday if I can help it.

If you’re interested in using real walnut ink, I’d really recommend making your own. If you don’t live in an area with black walnut trees, as in my case, then you can purchase walnut hulls from a natural dyes shop and simply follow the process described in my post here. Or you can do a hunt for walnut ink to purchase online – just beware, not all of them are actually made from walnuts, and the ones that are not won’t necessarily tell you that on the order page.

Looking at the design above, I think I will redo it. It’s gotten to an okay place, but it’s not finished yet. I’ve made many sketches of pine cones, from life, which I had collected over the past few weeks with this little project in mind. It’s so important to work from life, whenever circumstances allow. I could have taken a photo and traced it; but in sketching from life, I really learned about pine cones: their structure, their rhythms, their mathematical patterns. At this point, I feel like I could probably draw a pine cone from memory if I were asked to. I may not have the time to redo this – but if I do, hopefully that familiarity will serve me well.

Iris green, continued

July 11, 2010

Continued from the previous post.

alum

alum

For this amount of iris petals – a heaping dinner plate full – I used about a tablespoon of alum. (As it turns out, that was a bit too much. I’m still learning.) Put it into a small saucepan and cover it with distilled water, about a quarter inch deep. The alum should dissolve within a few minutes. If it doesn’t, then you may need to add a bit more water – but when used in an ink, it’s generally better to start with too little water rather than too much, to avoid diluting the color too much. You can always thin the cocktail later if the color demands it (this often happens with buckthorn yellow, which is really strong). If you’re making a lake pigment it doesn’t matter.

Iris green dye

Iris green dye

Once you’ve got your alum dissolved, go ahead and add just a bit of it to the iris dye. Swirl the jar around, and If you’ve put in enough of the alum, you should see the color change from purple to a cool blue (if it doesn’t do this, try adding a bit more of the alum). The picture on the right shows the difference – compare this with the violet color of the liquid in the previous post. Transparent colors can often shift hues in more concentrated amounts like this, and this is a very transparent color. It will be green when you brush it onto watercolor paper.

I like to use wine as a binder for inks if I mean them to keep, as recommended by Theophilus in his Essay Upon Divers Arts; the sugars in the wine bind the ink to the paper, while the alcohol gives a bit of preservative function. (If I’m going to use the ink right away, then glair makes for a wonderful binder instead.) The wine I have used so far is an ordinary cooking wine that contains a salt and some kind of preservative in addition to the wine. You can cook the iris petals directly in wine instead of the distilled water if you want to; this may affect the resulting hue.

If your green turns out too delicate, you can steep it on the stove some more to evaporate off some of the water, or simply leave it in an open container for a while. This was done with sap green and iris green, and is called inspissation (thickening by heating or evaporation – and there’s your new geek word for the day). Here’s where my adding too much alum became apparent: as I inspissated the liquid, the oversaturated alum began crystallizing out. Well, I learned what an alum crystal looks like!

Iris green ink sketch

Iris green ink sketch

Iris green will also make a lake pigment, but I’m not convinced it’s completely insoluble. The iris juice – especially without the wine – will spoil eventually. It’s not a bad idea to keep whatever you don’t use right away in the refrigerator.

So, if you’ve got some irises in the garden, you can make a nice bright green ink easily with a little alum and/or cooking wine. To the right is a little sketch done in this color, once again from a Steve McCurry photo; not a very good likeness, but you can see what the color looks like. Post any questions if you’ve got ‘em!

Green from blue

June 29, 2010
Iris petals

Iris petals

There is a remarkable medieval green ink that is pretty easy to prepare – as long as you’ve got some blue iris flowers handy – and that is iris green. This color is one that has been associated with sap green, the classic watercolor made from buckthorn berries, but iris green may actually have preceded sap green in use. At some time iris green was even called sap green. It’s been written that it is essentially impossible to distinguish one from the other in old manuscripts; but the bright, delicate greens I’ve been able to get from iris flowers I prefer to the olive greens I’ve gotten from buckthorn.

As I’ve posted here, I am growing some heirloom iris plants in my garden plot, and after a year and a half of care they began to bloom this spring. My irises are more on the violet side of blue, but this doesn’t seem to make much difference. In fact, my irises have a lot more dye in them than the irises I bought at the nursery last year for my first test. There’s something to be said for growing heirlooms. Here’s the procedure:

Cooking iris petals

Cooking iris petals

We’re making ink, so you want to make sure the dye is pretty concentrated in color. After chopping the iris petals into medium-sized pieces (Yes, you have to destroy the pretty flowers – I wish I could simply use the flowers after they have dried, but it just doesn’t work as well), split them into roughly equal parts. No need to be exact. Put one half into a small saucepan and cover them with distilled water. Steep or simmer them until most of the blue or violet color is gone from the petals, then strain them from the liquid, which will now be a pretty rose color. This should take a half an hour or so. Once you’ve strained the first batch of petals out, then add the other half of the petals to the bath and repeat the process. Splitting them up and adding them sequentially to the same small amount of water allows for a more concentrated color right off the bat.

Filtering the dye

Filtering the dye

Once you’re done with this, you should have a liquid that is a nice deep purple, deep enough so that you can’t see through it. You’ll want to filter it at this point to remove any petal debris, bugs, pollen etc. The setup I use is a really simple one: just a funnel (you can get these at Wal-Mart or any auto shop) and an ordinary basket coffee filter. I wet the coffee filter a bit before using it: already being wet, it doesn’t soak up as much of the dye. To collect the liquid I use a Mason jar, which will handle hot liquids pretty well – the last think you want is for your precious dye to crack the jar and spill all over the kitchen! – but even so, if I’m patient enough, I try to allow the liquid to cool a bit before pouring it in, cool enough to dip the tip of my finger into it.

Even with what is almost entirely liquid, the filter can get clogged and go slowly. Once it’s finished, you have your filtered dye. If all you want is a purple ink, then you can stop here; but the magic of iris flowers is their ability to make the medieval green. Purple can be had from many different natural sources.

Iris dye

Iris dye

To the right is the color of the dye as it is at this point. The next stage will be to add alum to it – the alum is what gives it its green color. Alum, or potash alum, is aluminum potassium sulfate, a crucial ingredient in dyeing and lake pigment production. It’s been used in dyeing and pigment making for – well, for quite a long time now. It’s also used to make pickles and maraschino cherries. Apparently you used to be able to get the stuff just about anywhere: the spice aisle, the pharmacy, etc. Perhaps if you live in a more rural part of the country you still can. I buy mine from an online dye supply shop. I’ll go over this stage in the next post.


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