Dragon’s blood watercolor

Dragon's blood powder

Dragon's blood powder

I just couldn’t wait to try out the dragon’s blood. I really am like a kid in a candy shop with this stuff.

Insoluble in water

Dragon's blood - insoluble in water

Now, I don’t have any previous experience with this particular material. I have read a few things about the stuff: it’s a resin from one of the Dracaena shrubs which grow in the Far East; it is a warm, transparent red that was favored in the early Middle Ages; and it is badly fugitive, which is why it hasn’t been popular since then. (Even Cennino Cennini, in his Craftman’s Handbook of the fifteenth century, warns against its use. I wouldn’t trust it for professional fine art work, but in my opinion just about any pigment is okay to use in sketches or even some illustrations.) But since I don’t have any first-hand experience, I don’t know what form the color will take. Will it be a gouache, a watercolor or an ink?

Dragon's blood watercolor swatch

Dragon's blood swatch

First I test the resin powder in water to see if it is soluble. If it is, then I may be able to use it directly as a dye-based ink, or I may be able to make a lake pigment from it. After soaking the stuff in water for a couple of hours, as you can see above, the powder remains visibly in suspension. This makes me think I might be able to grind it directly into a watercolor (watercolor over gouache, because of the reported transparency).

So I give it a shot, and it certainly does have a nice red color – as someone at WetCanvas mentioned, it looks like liquid sanguine (not too surprising, since the root meaning of “sanguine” is “blood”) – and it appears brushable. I decided to make some sketches with it.

Dragon's blood watercolor sketch

Dragon's blood watercolor sketch

These are taken from photo reference by Steve McCurry, the photographer whose portraits became famous through National Geographic magazine. The dragon’s blood is definitely transparent; however, I found myself painting quite thick in some areas, as if I were using gouache. I suppose it could be considered either one, as long as we aren’t being too sticky about whether gouache needs to always be opaque.

Dragon's blood watercolor sketch

Dragon's blood watercolor sketch

One thing I like about natural organic colors (aside from their beauty) is that they tend to be both transparent and nonstaining, which is a combination you don’t find much among the synthetic pigments. Transparent or nonstaining, to be sure; but seldom both. The transparent part means one can easily paint a complete monochrome sketch in a single watercolor; the nonstaining part means the color is very workable, even after it has dried. It’s a nice combination. “Transparent, nonstaining colors” is practically a tenet of watercolorists; however, it’s not really a reality any more, at least not in the colors I’ve tried from the art store.

I’m not done experimenting with the dragon’s blood yet; I still have to try other means of dissolving it. It’s insoluble in water, but I recall reading somewhere that it is soluble in alcohol. If it is, then I may still be able to make a dragon’s blood ink – or a lake pigment from the dissolved dye, a pigment that may have very different properties from the directly ground resin powder. We shall see.

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4 Responses to “Dragon’s blood watercolor”

  1. A.Rookis Says:

    Concerning Dragonsblood….Some first hand experience. Unfortunately I suffer from LAD(Lightfastness Anxiety Disorder); and out of curiosity I wanted to test the light-fastness of a 50 year old stash of dragons blood powder I had. I mixed it as well as I could with Everclear which is over a 190 proof natural grain alcohol product and got the same color results that you show. Quite….distinctive… and real nice pinks. I put it out in direct sun-light here in southern Ohio early in July…….. Results: All the colors (including saturated swatches) dissapeared in about 3 days in direct sunlight. I think it would be useful for making parts of an underdrawing you would want to later disappear.
    Sincerely, A. Rookis

    • llawrence Says:

      Hello A,

      Sorry it took so long to approve your comment – I’m just a very busy chap these days.

      I like your idea of using dragon’s blood for a disappearing underdrawing. It was used quite a bit for manuscript illuminations, which also seems like a fine idea: books are mostly kept closed, and in the case of a monastic Bible, would have been opened under comparatively dim lighting environments. I think dragon’s blood would be appropriate for book arts or illustration, and probably not much else.

      Three days! I can see why Cennini disapproved of its use. Thanks for sharing your results!

  2. Joules Says:

    wow! your sketches are quite nice!!! I happened upon your site looking to make ink out of the Dracaena resin. As you mentioned above – it’s not soluble in water (but is in alcohol). However, the water-based inks I’ve made before use gum arabic as a thickening agent so it sticks to a dip pen. Gum arabic is not soluble in alcohol 😛 Any ideas on an alcohol-compatible thickener to make this resin an ink? Thanks! Joules

    • llawrence Says:

      Thanks for the comment and kind words, Joules, and sorry for the delay in replying. I’m not really sure about your question, except that it might have to be a proper resin rather than a gum. I don’t know if that’s ever done for inks or not – haven’t heard of it if so.

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