San Francisco and Sinopia Pigments

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.


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