Archive for the ‘Pigments’ Category

Death of a Pigment

August 16, 2016

As I have posted before, we artists are at the mercy of much larger industries in terms of what art materials we have at out disposal. The art materials industry is minuscule compared to textiles, architecture, automotive, etc. It does not have enough clout to leverage economies of scale.

Without these larger industries to manufacture our pigments and other materials for us, these things would be much more expensive for us than they are. Without them, artists might have to actually make and mull their own pigments again – as artists and their apprentices from past centuries have done, as I and others have at times done.

A few pigments are still made by the art materials industry, for instance Winsor & Newton’s Rose Madder Genuine, and those tend to be the more expensive colors. But the vast majority of them are not made for artists at all. We just buy the leftovers from the bigger boys, and that’s how we get our pigments on the cheap.

To some extent, this has always been true. Even in the Middle Ages, the copper blue pigment (blue verditer) that was used by artists was manufactured as a by-product of silver production. But it is truer at this point in history than it ever has been before.

One of the results of this situation is that when a pigment is no longer deemed useful for the larger industries, its manufacture will cease. Cerulean blue (PB35), for example, may wind up on the chopping block at some point. If it does, it will not matter that many artists love this color: it will go away, for all except those who have managed to stockpile some for themselves.

This has happened to a pigment I happen to love: ultramarine green, PG24. PG24 is not considered useful any longer to the large industries, and as far as I can learn it has stopped being made. It is an extinct pigment.

It used to be available as a tube color in oil from Rembrandt. But the tube they call “Ultramarine Green” is no longer PG24, but a convenience mix of PB29 and PY129. It used to be available as a powder pigment from Kremer. No more. (They still have some of their PG24 watercolor pans left, I believe.)

In the next post, I will post some pictures to show what this wonderful pigment looks like, and why I love it so much and was so sorry to see it go – and what might be done to bring its production back online.

In the meantime, here is a closeup of a painting I did a couple of years ago, in which PG24 was used extensively, especially for that aqua foam on the water. To be continued!


Ancient Paint Box

February 2, 2016

I came across this ancient palette of colors through a post on Tumblr by Ancient Peoples. It’s a palette of pigments from the second century b.c.e, in New Kingdom Egypt.


This from the Cleveland Museum of Art. I guess from a quick perusal of their website that this is in their permanent collection. That would make at least two things from Cleveland I really like, along with the Cleveland String Quartet (loved their recordings of the late Beethoven quartets!)

Here’s a description of the pigments:

This paint box still preserves its original cakes of pigment: one cake each of red (red ocher), blue (Egyptian blue), green (a mixture of Egyptian blue, yellow ocher, and orpiment) and two of black (carbon black, from charcoal). It belonged to Amenemope, who was vizier, or prime minister, under Amenhotep II. Amenemope probably used his paint box for recreation.

As I posted on my new tumblr microblog, I question the description of the green in the image as “Egyptian blue, yellow ocher, and orpiment” (not really – I’m sure the folks at the museum know what they’re about). It sure looks like plain old malachite to me.

Anyway, I really like this palette. As some of you know, I’m a fan of earth colors, and a great blue to add to yellow and red ochre is Egyptian blue, which is copper bound up in silica. With the addition of black and white, it would make for a great subdued portrait palette, though the blue would have to be used a bit judiciously due to its cost. And in place of that green I could add in my own copper green.

As a reminder, here’s what Egyptian blue looks like in oil:

Mulling Egyptian Blue

Mulling Egyptian Blue

Nice glazer, that. I think I’ll try out that palette soon.

And: If I ever visit Cleveland, I’ll have to try out that museum!

How to Make Madder Lake, part 2

January 9, 2015

Previous post: How to Make Madder Lake, part 1.

The second secret.

There’s actually another little ‘secret’ to making madder lake, this one a bit more of an open secret, but something very important to keep in mind. It is this: you can’t just boil madder up the way you can with carmine lake or most other dyestuffs. The alizarin color in madder is destroyed by high heat, so you can’t turn the temperature up over 170ºF or thereabouts. However, the dye will not emerge from the roots unless it’s heated, so your job is to get the temperature up to between 120ºF and 140ºF, and keep it there.

(Note: the vulnerability of madder to high heat is something I’ve read from numerous sources. However, more than once I’ve accidentally allowed the temperature of the dyebath to briefly stray up toward 200 degrees, and it hasn’t seemed to hurt the resulting color much. There are many different experiments I have in mind for madder lake production in the future; one of those experiments is to give the dyebath a really good boil, to see if it really does kill the color or not. But for the time being, I’m following the recommendations about temperature control as well as I can.)

Here’s the procedure:

After the last soak and straining, put the wet roots into a cooking pot big enough to hold them, and cover the roots with water – this will be henceforth referred to as the ‘dye bath’. Water: the first time I did this, I used distilled water for everything. It wound up being a lot of distilled water! Nowadays I just use tap water, and it seems to be fine. If you want to be a bit more careful, use distilled water for the initial dye bath, and then regular old tap water for everything else.

Then make a double boiler by putting this pot into a larger pot that also contains water. This way you’ll be able to control the temperature more easily. Also: the bigger the pots in question – and more specifically, the more water is in them – the easier it is to control temperature and keep it steady. Here I have this contraption cooking low on a gas stove:

Madder Double Cooker

Madder Double Cooker

A thermometer goes into the dye bath. Here I’m using a big thermometer I bought at a beer brewing supply shop – another activity that requires good temperature control! (I have acquired a slow cooker with temperature control, at some point I will try making madder lake in this, rather than the makeshift double boiler.)

Yet another little ‘secret’ to making madder: it takes a while! Cooking up carmine or weld lake takes an hour, maybe two; madder takes a couple of days at its lower temperature. At night, or when I’m out of the house, I cover the pot and turn the stove off, and turn it back on first thing when I wake up or return home. You may need to add extra water periodically to one pot or the other.

I cook the roots for about a day, then add alum to the dye bath. Alum: in my previous posts, I wrote that we were beginning with 10g of alum, but that was an error – I was confusing two different recipes in my head. I’m actually using 30g of alum here. I’ve corrected the other posts.

Take the 30g of alum and pour it into the dye bath. I like to dissolve the alum in its own warm water before adding it in, but this isn’t necessary. Then cook the dye for another day or so.

When you dip a piece of paper or paper towel into the dye bath after a few days, it should now come out a juicy, rich red. In the pic below, you can see how red the bath looks after a couple of days. This is the red you want, the alizarin! Time for the next step.

Madder Dye Bath

Madder Dye Bath

How to Make Madder Lake, part 1

December 26, 2014

Previous post: Preparation for Making Madder Lake.

In the last post, I wrote that we’re beginning with about 100g of madder root and about 30g of potash alum. I also wrote that there was a big secret coming in this one. Well, read on!

Most madder recipes I’ve seen online – including this one from Rubio Violins, which is the one I think most home chemists follow – have us putting the madder roots into water and cooking them up directly. These recipes leave out a crucial step, which is to wash the roots beforehand. One or two sources actually mention this washing, but do not mention the purpose of it, which is to remove extraneous dyes and other colors that the roots contain, and which will contaminate our lovely rose color if we leave them in there. So ‘washing’, in this case, means giving them a good soak, and then throwing out the bath water (without the baby, which is the rose dye that will not emerge until the roots are heated). Here I’ve got my roots soaking in water out of doors.

Madder Roots Soaking

Madder Roots Soaking

I soak these roots for several days. It’s best to do this when it is relatively cool outdoors, as I’m doing here. As the madder roots rest, they ferment, so you’re likely to see some bubbles or foam on the surface at some point. If it’s too warm out, a lot of mold will be generated as well. I don’t think this mold actually interferes with the making of the pigment, but it does make it a little difficult to see what’s going on in there. (Also, if it’s really hot, it might actually start cooking some of the alizarin dye out of the roots, and you definitely don’t want that yet.) So if it’s really warm out when you’re making your lake, consider moving the roots out of the sun – maybe even put them in the garage or something.

When the roots have been sitting for several days, the water should look reddish gold. At this point, dump out the water. Yes, you read that right – dump it out! Do it! I know it looks like there’s a lot of color in there that you want to be saving and using. Trust me: it’s no good. It’s just contamination. It is exactly this stuff you’re looking at that makes the finished madder lake brown instead of rose. So dump it.

This is the big secret.

Keep going at this point: refill the pot with water and strain a few times, until it comes out fairly colorless. Then soak overnight again. Then empty and strain, then soak overnight. Keep doing this until there’s not much color coming out of the water. (The purple gunk doesn’t matter – that’s from the root bark.) This entire process may take a week, or even longer. Be patient: a good madder lake is worth the wait. At some point the emptied water will start to look clearer and more pink. Once that happens, we’re ready to make our madder lake.

To be continued!

Preparation for Making Madder Lake

December 1, 2014

(The good stuff!)

It’s time to make these posts at last, after many delays: How to Make Madder Lake.

I’ve posted before about how to make a lake pigment – check this post here – and will make more posts about it in the future: about the different varieties of carmine lake, and how to make a proper yellow lake from weld, and so on. But madder lake is, well, different. It’s more involved to make a quality red lake from this dyestuff. Many have tried making madder lakes, only to be disappointed in the reddish-brown color that results, and have wondered how to make that exciting rose color we all love. As it turns out, there is one little secret that makes all the difference.

Some history: madder lake is one of the older lake pigments, found to have been used on some rather ancient objects. But for most of the Middle Ages, some of the other red lakes – lac, brazilwood, etc. – were often preferred over madder. As Daniel Thompson puts it: “To make as good a lake from madder as any beginner can make from brazil wood calls for a good deal of expert chemical knowldege and careful manipulation; and there is no evidence to suggest that medieval colour-makers possessed the knowledge necessary to making good madder lakes.” (The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting, Daniel V. Thompson.) Madder lake, as an artist’s material, really came into its own in the Renaissance, being used as a glazing color for drapery and so on. Its popularity continued through the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras; one of its popular functions was as a glaze over vermilion in drapery, creating an intense and fairly stable red.

In the Nineteenth Century, a process was discovered to make a very rich and powerful rose color from madder, using sulfuric acid. (There are some sources that report that this is when madder lake was invented; this is not true. It was this more powerful madder lake that was created at this time, a color named rose madder. It is this recipe, given by George Fields, that Winsor & Newton claim to still be using today.) We won’t be using sulfuric acid in this recipe, but we will still be able to make a nice rose-red madder lake by taking our time and following a procedure.

Making madder lake may be more involved and time-consuming than some of the other lake pigments, but the results can be well worth the investment. Not only is it one of the most beautiful lakes, and an absolute joy for skin tones, but it is also, by all accounts, far more lightfast than any other natural lake pigment. It is the only natural lake, as far as I am aware, that is still in general use by artists, because it is the only one that is considered permanent enough for artistic use (at least as an oil paint). The stuff may not last forever, but it will last, as the man said, a goodish while. And, unlike the synthetic alizarin crimson, when it does fade it appears to fade slowly and gracefully over time, rather than disappearing all at once.

The ingredients are simple and few: some madder root; potash alum; sodium carbonate (washing soda) or potassium carbonate (potash); and water. We’ll also need a slow cooker – or a little double-boiler setup that I’ll show later on – a thermometer, a large jar or two, some coffee filters and a funnel. The coffee filters: get some of the big flat-bottomed basket filters, not the cone-shaped ones – those have a tendency to spring leaks.

We will begin with about 100g of roots, and about 30g of alum. This will make a small amount of lake pigment. Stay tuned – the big secret comes in the next post!

Madder roots

Madder roots

Hand-mulling Paint, Part II

November 2, 2012

Continued from Hand-mulling Paint, Part I.

If you’re mulling a particular pigment for the first time, you won’t know just how much oil you should add. You can do some research online, something like “raw umber oil absorbtion” – but you don’t really need this information to begin. At first, use less oil than you think you will need. Many pigments (not all) will loosen and become more and more oily as you mull. I try to add just enough oil to pigment so that when I start mixing with a spatula, I’m pretty sure it won’t be enough oil. Then I start mulling. Often it winds up being enough after all. Once you’ve done this, you can keep notes on how much oil to add to each pigment.

You’ll go in a big circular motion with the muller, and pretty soon you’ll have to stop, grab the paint spatula, and scrape the paint together into a pile again. You’ll have to scrape paint off the sides of the muller as well. Make it into a pile and start mulling again. It helps to switch hands every so often. It can take a tiring amount of time with some pigments, and patience is sometimes required. After a while, you’ll know if you need to add more oil (or, sometimes, more pigment).

Below, I’m mulling and then scraping together a homemade copper green pigment into linseed oil:

Mulling Copper Green

Mulling Copper Green

Mulling Copper Green 2

Mulling Copper Green 2

Just how necessary is it to mull pigment? Why can’t you just mix the stuff up on the palette with a spatula and go? Well, sometimes this might work – the homemade candle black I made into an oil paint recently barely required mulling at all, and probably could have been used right after mixing it with oil – but other times, mulling is absolutely required. See the difference between mulling or not mulling Egyptian blue, below:

Mulling Egyptian Blue

Mulling Egyptian Blue

The first swatch is unmulled. It was quite difficult to even brush it out: I had to add extra oil and use one of my stiffer bristle brushes to manage it. The second swatch is after perhaps only two minutes of mulling. Big difference, isn’t it? The third swatch is the mulled Egyptian blue mixed with some zinc white. Nice color, huh?

Some earth pigments are said to display their best colors when only lightly mulled, and that this is one problem with the uniform grind of modern, industrially-produced pigments. I thought that I was seeing this phenomenon when I was grinding up a nice raw sienna from Sinopia Pigments. The more I mulled, the duller the color seemed to get. See the pic below, the difference between those two piles of paint? I thought I was seeing over-grinding in action. However, I was wrong: it was just that the finer clumps of pigment were soaking up more of the oil. When I added more oil back into the paint, its color sprang to life again. So if that happens to you, try the same.

Mulling Raw Sienna

Mulling Raw Sienna

I’ll post one more installment of the Hand-mulling Paint series, and discuss tubing your own mulled paint.

Lead White: The Real Story.

June 6, 2012

(With apologies to Stephen R. Donaldson.)

Lately there has been some hand-wringing over the shortage and high price of lead white artist’s oil paint on the market. Some artists believe that lead white is now illegal or on the verge of being so, and that it will be only a black-market item in the future – or that the artist’s materials companies are being strong-armed behind closed doors to not produce the stuff any more. Others, that the art companies themselves are jacking up the price or discontinuing the pigment voluntarily because of some kind of market disapproval of toxic materials.

That, of course, is not the real story.

Artist’s pigments, with very few exceptions (for instance Winsor and Newton’s Rose Madder Genuine or Rublev’s Stack-process Lead White), are not actually artist’s pigments. They are pigments that are manufactured for much larger industries than our little artist’s corner – for instance the massive auto, plastics, and textiles industries. The art materials industry is too miniscule to manage the economies of scale that make materials inexpensive in the modern world. So we buy pigments that are left over from the big boys and get our tubes of paint on the cheap.

In the United States, lead white was banned from commercial paints all the way back in the 1970s. There were some good reasons for it. Artist’s paints were kindly excluded from this injunction. There has been no banning of lead white in artist’s paints in the United States; nor, as far as I know, any real political discussion of such. Lead ammo, yes. Lead fishing tackle, yes. Artist’s oil paints, no. I believe we are probably safe from Washington in this regard. We’re under the radar. (Europe is, unfortunately, a different story.)

However, since that ban on lead white in commercial applications occurred in the 1970s, the big manufacturers have almost entirely shut down production of the material. Why shouldn’t they? Artists still wanted it, but the larger industries couldn’t use it any more – and again, we’re just way too small of a sector to make it worthwhile for them to keep producing the stuff just for little old us. No economy of scale, in other words.

Without the economy of scale provided by larger industry consumption, materials are going to be more expensive. No way around that. So artist’s paint companies have a choice: Keep selling lead white paint, but at a higher price – or drop the pigment from their lineup. Only a few have chosen the former.

Those interested in reading more should check out this recent article by George O’Hanlon over at Rublev. In it, he describes how basic lead carbonate is still obtainable from Asia, though with some difficulty. His article is what inspired this post.

So, two things: one, lead white will probably still be around for awhile; and two, yes, it’s going be more expensive. And that’s the real story.

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!

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.

Madder lake from the garden

March 6, 2011

I spent the morning in the garden today – some of you are waiting for fresh iris rhizomes, and the weather finally cleared up enough for me to go dig some up. However, as has happened on so many other occasions, the best of intentions were thwarted – by the madder plants. I wanted to replant some of the rhizomes that have been sitting around here for too long, but to do that I needed to make sure the madder roots would leave the poor little girls alone. Turned into a pitched battle, as usual. But! I cleared a space for the irises, got some of them into the ground, and I will dig up some fresh bulbs on Thursday morning, to be sent Friday or Saturday.

Speaking of madder: I’ve enjoyed a bit of a milestone this spring, as for the first time I’ve made a madder lake from the roots I’ve grown in my own garden. All looked well, and for a while I was pretty excited. But when I mulled a bit of my new lake pigment up into an oil paint today after I returned from the garden, I found that the color is not as good as I had hoped. It’s darker and less saturated – almost maroon – and not nearly as bright as the madder lake I’d made from store-bought madder roots. Only when I apply the paint as a very thick glaze does it approach a decent red color.

Madder roots

Insistent madder roots

This is not at all good enough to justify all this trouble. Trouble! If you’ve never grown madder, then you can’t really understand what a royal pain the stuff has been. For evidence, just take a look at the board I happened to pull up today while digging for the roots. Yes, those are fresh madder roots pushing their way right through the board that I had put down there to stop them.

Also, even after you’ve fought the plants for years, and dug deep to get the roots out, it’s still a painstaking process after that to get a decent lake pigment from them. (At some point I’ll share my madder lake recipe, but not yet. There are still too many variations to try out before I’m sure of myself; and I’m still not sure if the recipe belongs here on this blog, or in a book. Or whether or not I’ll write a book at all.) So, if I can’t manage a better color than this, I’ll just go through the garden over a weekend and just rip them all out. Give the irises some more room.

madder lake swatches

madder lake swatches

To the right you can see two swatches of the madder lake from my garden, the two swatches at bottom. For comparison, I brushed out my previous madder lake, made from commercially-bought madder roots, above them. It’s not a really accurate pic, but you can see the difference. The lake from the garden isn’t horrible or anything – just not worth all the trouble.

I can think of three reasons why this color was not as good as the other I made. One, I made it a bit differently. (I don’t think that’s the reason.) Two, the earth in which the madder is growing may not be alkaline enough. (I doubt this is the reason either; the soil around here is pretty alkaline. But it’s possible.) Third, the roots from which I made this lake were too immature. This was a mixed batch of roots that were dug up at one and a half years and two years. I’m guessing – hoping – that’s the reason.

Madder roots

Madder roots from the garden

Today I dug up some roots that are clearly mature. They’ve been in the ground for about three years now. And just take a look at the size of some of those honking madder roots! I’ll be trying these out to see if there’s a substantial difference from the last batch, using exactly the recipe I used with the commercially-bought roots. Hopefully these will make something a lot closer to that one. If not, I’ll try amending the garden soil with lime or something. And if that doesn’t work, I may rip the things out and grow something easier instead. It would be disappointing – but kind of a relief too. I’ll report as I learn.