Candle Black

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!


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6 Responses to “Candle Black”

  1. Chrissy Says:

    I love it! This is one that I’ve wanted to try for some time, and just haven’t taken the time to experiment with yet. Your suggestions for setup will hopefully help motivate me to get to work on it! (I loved reading about your props, btw!) – also love seeing the examples of what this pigment looks like, particularly in oil, as that is how I would most likely use it. I suspect I’ll see some of those premature cracks when I finally get down to working with it, as I tend to prefer painting thick. Guess I’ll just have to plan to paint something that cracking would compliment!

    • llawrence Says:

      Thanks Chrissy! I’m starting to like thick paint as well. What I’m doing is using that Magnetite Genuine from the Da Vinci line for skin tones, and a darker black (I’ll probably start using the candle black now) just for accents or glazing. The magnetite is an earth with nice big pigment particles (it’s the only one of the Da Vinci line with some nice grit to it). I haven’t tried the candle black with skin tones before, but I will give it a try.

      I like your idea of painting something that would work well with cracking. I’ve planned one or two of my paintings that way, with some parts that will crack more quickly and others that won’t. It’s fun to think that way and plan a painting that way.

  2. Ruben Says:

    I collect beeswax candles every once in a while from garage and estate sales. Otherwise, they seem hard to find, and expensive when you do find them. Would it work just as well to make your own candle from beeswax and wick you find at the hobby store? Thanks for the post!

    • llawrence Says:

      Hi Ruben, thanks for the reply. It’s true that natural beeswax candles are a bit pricey these days – I can’t remember what I paid for this one, but I’m sure I wasn’t thrilled with the bill. I find it unfortunate that so much of our heritage of traditional crafts has been relegated to the small realm of boutique shops and curiosities. Beeswax candles should be everywhere – but paraffin candles are cheaper to make, so that’s what we’ve got.

      I’ve made tallow candles, but never beeswax candles. I’m sure that if you made a candle from beeswax and wick from the hobby store that it would work just as well. Good suggestion – I’ve got some beeswax pellets sitting around the garage, perhaps I’ll try that next!

  3. Pepito Says:

    Très belle palette de gris, quant à la tête d’indien elle vie.

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