Archive for December, 2009

San Francisco and Sinopia Pigments

December 28, 2009
Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge

I was going to continue and finish with my descriptions of the four pigment categories with this post, but I’m going to hold off on that for now. My fiancée and I took a trip up to San Francisco this last week to spend the holidays with my stepmother Suzy. While we were there, we got an opportunity to visit two unusual art stores. (Well, I got the opportunity to visit them – Joy went along with characteristic patience and cheerfulness.) The first one was Flax, on Market Street. This place is an emporium, a huge art store that carries just about everything you can imagine – or rather, everything that most people could imagine. I, of course, have some rather unusual hobbies, and I asked for a few things they didn’t have. Pigments in particular. They did have some pigments – some inexpensive Gamblin powders and some outrageously expensive Old Holland colors – but nothing for me to get really excited about. I picked up some Gamblin Prussian blue pigment to see if I can make a gouache with it.

Steel mortar & pestle

Steel mortar & pestle

Another item I looked for was gum tragacanth, the stuff I mentioned in a previous post that I’m interested in trying with my watercolors. This stuff is hard to find – I’m going to have to break down and order it online from Daniel Smith. I did pick up, among a few other odds and ends such as ink bottles and natural turpentine, this great little steel mortar and pestle. I’ve got ceramic and stone mortars, but I’ve been hoping to get something nice and strong with which to grind up the harder stones. This little guy should be perfect.

Sinopia earth pigments set

Sinopia earth pigments set

While I was asking about refillable paint tubes at Flax, one of the nice folks there mentioned that I might give Sinopia a try. Of course, I thought, practically slapping my forehead – Sinopia is here in San Francisco! I’ve bought pigments online from these folks before (here is their site:, they have an absolutely beautiful earth pigments set, shown at right. Hardly believing I’d forgotten the place, I thanked the man at Flax, grabbed my two patient companions and headed off into the sunset to find the great pigment store.

The Sinopia shop was down on 11th Street, a little hard to get to because of a very odd intersection. A blue doorway led us into the shop, which my fiancée called “the candy shop” after seeing my reaction. There were two walls lined with bags and jars of various pigments – everything from earths, to chalks and marble powder, to synthetic organics (I’ll explain that in my next post), to a few natural organics from Kremer Pigments. The man who worked there was friendly and offered to remeasure any pigment to any weight I wanted.

I was in heaven. The only downside was the size – Sinopia is a very small place, and has a smaller selection than I had imagined. There were even fewer earth pigments on the shelves than what is available from them online. It looked like there were some more pigments in back, and I could have asked to see them, but I didn’t – we were in a hurry. Here’s what I bought:

Sinopia pigments

Sinopia pigments

Two earth pigments: sinopia and Indian red (natural hematite). The sinopia is a lovely red-orange ochre which I’ll be wanting to test for covering power. The Indian red I have in mind for some experiments following traditional Tuscan red recipes. Also a greenish ultramarine (synthetic), and a fine-looking bone black that I’ll want to measure against my own efforts and use for quality control – I’ll be wanting to get as close to black as possible, and this powder will be a good measurement.

These pigments were quite reasonable, in the ten dollar range. I also could not help buying a slightly more expensive powder, genuine dragon’s blood from Kremer. Dragon’s blood is a natural organic color, and it was a big deal in early medieval illumination. This is something I don’t have a real long-term use for, since I’ll never be able to grow the Asian tree from whence the resin comes here in California – but it was sitting right there on the shelf, and I just couldn’t resist. It is a warm, pretty bright red, and according to Thompson will be transparent. I am really looking forward to trying it out!

There was also a stil de grain pigment from Kremer that I didn’t buy but probably should have – it looks noticeably better and brighter than my own, and it would have come in handy for quality control in improving my own recipe. I’ll probably buy it online from them at some point.

If you’re in the San Francisco area, and if you’re interested in this stuff, definitely give Sinopia a visit and pick up a few bags of pigment. It’s a cool place – there should be more like it.

Pigment categories – Part I

December 21, 2009

Virtually all of the various artist’s pigments can be grouped into one of four categories, although there are a few that are not quite so easy to nail down. I’ll go through the different kinds, with a word or two about the history of each; I’ll mention a few of the borderline pigments in a later post. The four pigment categories are: natural inorganics; natural organics; synthetic inorganics (sounds almost like a double negative, doesn’t it?); and synthetic organics.

First are the natural inorganic pigments. These were some of the first in earliest human use, dating back many thousands of years and found in the cave paintings and hieroglyphs around the world. They are natural pigments that do not come from any organic source, neither plants nor animals. They are the earths, rocks, minerals, and crystals.

Wildcrafted natural earth pigment

Wildcrafted red ochre

Of these, the earths are particularly attractive to me. These are the yellow and red ochres, the siennas, the umbers and green earths. They are plentiful and varied, subtly beautiful and workhorse-ready. They seem to be an offering from the earth itself: look; take these and make your own works of wonder. For me, no other pigments give a closer connection with the natural world than the earths do. Other, brighter minerals are lapis lazuli, azurite, malachite, cinnabar, orpiment, turquoise. Some of these, such as cinnabar and orpiment, are quite toxic.

Natural organic pigments

Handcrafted natural organic pigments

Next are the natural organic pigments. These are pigments derived from plants and animals. This is the category that holds the most fascination for me, the one with which I spend the most time. The largest group of natural organic pigments are the lake pigments, which are natural dyes combined with a neutral metallic salt base to form insoluble pigments. These are rose madder, stil de grain, weld lake, carmine, etc. Other natural organic pigments are indigo, gamboge, carthamine red, vine black and eggshell white. The three powdered pigments in the picture to the right are, left to right: natural indigo mixed with calcite; brazilwood lake; and weld lake.

The natural organic pigments have given us some of the most beautiful and fascinating artist’s colors ever made. Most of them are also unfortunately impermanent to light – many of them drastically so, earning them the description “fugitive.” Even rose madder, which is far and away the most permanent natural organic lake pigment I know of, is today considered by many to be unacceptably impermanent for fine art work – though it was considered permanent by many in the past.

The natural organic and inorganic pigments are the categories I’ll be focusing on the most throughout this record, so it’s not necessary to write more about them just now – there will be plenty later. I’ll continue with the third and fourth categories in my next post. Happy holidays everyone!

L. Lawrence

Paints and inks

December 13, 2009

I’ve made both paints and inks, and I’ve been about equally successful at both – that is, somewhat so, with many successes, some partial successes, and many failures too. It’s something that takes practice, and knowledge of how binders react differently with different pigments, and there are often unexpected results and unforeseen problems. Overall it’s been incredibly fun, though it can certainly be exasperating at times too.

A paint is a non-soluble, colored pigment powder dispersed in a binding medium, which forms the film that makes the pigment adhere to the ground (painting surface). Non-soluble, or insoluble, means that the pigment will not dissolve in the medium you’re using, but will remain in suspension, forming a paste. And a color can’t really be called a pigment unless it’s insoluble. Dispersing the pigment into the binder requires grinding.

An ink, on the other hand, can either use an insoluble pigment as paints do – this is called a pigmented ink – or it can be an actual solution of color, which is basically a dye of some sort, heavily concentrated. So far I’ve been most interested in the latter sort, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes some binder is added to the ink to thicken and bind it to the paper; other times the dye will stain the paper and adhere on its own. No grinding is necessary with a dye-based ink, because there’s no pigment paste involved.

There are several different paint media that can be easily made from home if you’ve got the right ingredients: watercolor, gouache, egg tempera, glair, oils, casein. Which kind of paint you make depends on which binder is used. Oil paints require the pigment to be dispersed into a drying oil, that is, an oil that will oxidize and harden slowly in contact with the air. Not all oils are drying oils. Safflower oil, walnut oil, poppyseed oil and linseed oil are all examples of drying oils, and these are all popular in commercial artist’s paints. Egg tempera uses egg yolk as the main binder (this can also be mixed with more or less drying oil to make an emulsion, which is called tempera grassa, or fat tempera) and glair, one of the main binders used in period illuminations, uses the white of the egg instead. Casein is a medium of milk curds (I haven’t tried this one yet, nor have I painted with it). Watercolor and gouache use gum arabic as the binder. These last two media are the ones with which I have the most experience, along with the inks.

Peach gum from my garden

Gum arabic is a gum harvested from the acacia senegal tree, grown in semi-desertous regions of Sub-Saharan Africa. Other sorts of gum are out there as possible alternatives – gum from cherry or almond trees, gum tragacanth, and so on. Daniel V. Thompson, in his Techniques of Medieval Painting, notes that many kinds of gum were used under the name “gum arabic” in the Middle Ages; and Theophilus’s treatise On Divers Arts specifically recommends gum from the cherry or plum tree. I managed to collect a small amount of gum from a peach tree we had in our garden plot last year (the gums from cherry, peach, plum and almond trees are all supposed to be quite similar), and when I get a chance I’ll break it up and compare it with the commercial gum arabic I use. I also want to try adding gum tragacanth, which has properties I’ve read of that sound interesting, and which might help with some of the problems I’ve been having with watercolors.

It’s about time to buy seeds for the garden for next year. I’m currently debating whether to try growing an acacia bush for my own gum arabic next year, in a large container. The climate here in southern California should be all right for it, but I don’t really have enough space – my seed list is growing long, but my garden plot is small! I’ll decide within the next couple of weeks.

– L. Lawrence

What is “Sunsikell”?

December 7, 2009

It’s an unfamiliar word: Sunsikell. Vaguely reminiscent of old books – kells – and new environmentalism – the sun. This is exactly the mix I was going for with this name: traditional skills and crafts, combined with a new (for civilization) regard for the health of our surroundings. Sunsikell.

Sunsikell clothlet color

Turnsole clothlet color

It’s not a made-up word, however; it’s actually an old name for one of the colors I make, a color that was popular in the Middle Ages. There is a plant, with three-lobed seed pods, which was used in those times to create three different clothlet colors for manuscript illumination. (A clothlet color is simply a dye that was soaked into a cloth and dried, which could then be used as an ink or wash color at any time, simply by rewetting a piece of the cloth with medium.) The name of the plant is turnsole.

The meaning of the name “turnsole” is self-evident when you look at it closely: it means “turn with the sun.” Turn-sol. That is what the leaves of the plant do, especially when it is a seedling. They follow the sun through the sky; and the plant must have a lot of sun, or it will not grow. There is a Latin version of this word, which means the same thing: solsequium. And it is from this word that the word sunsikell is derived; it is an old English variation on the Latin. (A slightly more common name is folium, which has its own “history of words” that is far from clear.)

I’ve been fascinated by this color from the beginning, as soon as I first read of it. Imagine: a color much used in the Middle Ages, and barely at all since then; you can get three distinct hues from the same plant; and it’s almost impossible to obtain. In fact, in the beginning it seemed as if it would be completely impossible – at the time Kremer Pigments had not yet begun to sell their folium clothlets, and as much as I tried I couldn’t find seeds for the turnsole plant anywhere, even though research indicates that turnsole is still used for food coloring. (In fact, I did find a site that sells turnsole seeds quite early on, but wasn’t aware of the fact. Due to what I might call challenging information hierarchy, my source appeared to be nothing more than an informational page; there was no hint of purchasing seeds until one reached the very end of a long page of content. So the first couple of times I visited that page, I skipped right past it, not realizing what I had found.)

Though I did obtain the seeds and grow some plants eventually, this turnsole has mostly been a thorn in my side, providing me with much more difficulty than color so far. However, my continuing fascination with it (and perhaps in part the difficulty itself) has led it to become, for me, representative of my quest for natural colors. Once I decided to begin a blog journal of my studies and experiments – and perhaps eventually to provide some of my colors commercially – the unusual name “Sunsikell” seemed perfect for my unusual adventure. So there’s the name of the blog.

– L. Lawrence

Hello from Sunsikell

December 2, 2009

This is my new Sunsikell blog page. I’m Louis (silent ‘s’) Bispo, or L. Lawrence as I sign my artwork these days. I’m a maker of artist’s colors: mostly natural inks, and natural pigments which I grind into gouache and watercolor paints. The sources for these colors are natural dyes, earths and minerals. Most of this journal will be a record of my research, and of some of the recipes I try, the uses for the colors I create, thoughts on their historic nature, and what I feel will be the resurgence of these colors in the future. There will be other things I’ll try along the way: I’m definitely interested in attempting to make some of the Medieval and Renaissance synthetic pigments (or any others that I can make in the kitchen with commonly available materials); and at some point I’ll be experimenting with other media as well, making oil colors, egg tempera, casein, and so on.

I’m also an aspiring illustrator, currently working on techniques that will express the moods I want them to; and I work regularly at fine art techniques as well, especially portraits. I’m a student at two ateliers here on the coast of North County San Diego. I’m also something of a graphic designer and Web designer, and a teacher of same; though this blog will not be specifically about these aspects of my professional life, there may be a post here and there with some of my thoughts about current trends in these areas. I will post more often about my illustration and fine art work.

The art world, and the wider world, is slowly returning to the use of natural materials. This shift is due to “consumer preference,” as more of us become environmentally aware; but at some point it may well become a matter of necessity. This is an adventure I am on, and so far I’m in love with it. If you’re interested, then please join in and welcome. I’ll post about what I’m up to as often as I’m able.