Posts Tagged ‘medieval art’

Iris green, continued

July 11, 2010

Continued from the previous post.



For this amount of iris petals – a heaping dinner plate full – I used about a tablespoon of alum. (As it turns out, that was a bit too much. I’m still learning.) Put it into a small saucepan and cover it with distilled water, about a quarter inch deep. The alum should dissolve within a few minutes. If it doesn’t, then you may need to add a bit more water – but when used in an ink, it’s generally better to start with too little water rather than too much, to avoid diluting the color too much. You can always thin the cocktail later if the color demands it (this often happens with buckthorn yellow, which is really strong). If you’re making a lake pigment it doesn’t matter.

Iris green dye

Iris green dye

Once you’ve got your alum dissolved, go ahead and add just a bit of it to the iris dye. Swirl the jar around, and If you’ve put in enough of the alum, you should see the color change from purple to a cool blue (if it doesn’t do this, try adding a bit more of the alum). The picture on the right shows the difference – compare this with the violet color of the liquid in the previous post. Transparent colors can often shift hues in more concentrated amounts like this, and this is a very transparent color. It will be green when you brush it onto watercolor paper.

I like to use wine as a binder for inks if I mean them to keep, as recommended by Theophilus in his Essay Upon Divers Arts; the sugars in the wine bind the ink to the paper, while the alcohol gives a bit of preservative function. (If I’m going to use the ink right away, then glair makes for a wonderful binder instead.) The wine I have used so far is an ordinary cooking wine that contains a salt and some kind of preservative in addition to the wine. You can cook the iris petals directly in wine instead of the distilled water if you want to; this may affect the resulting hue.

If your green turns out too delicate, you can steep it on the stove some more to evaporate off some of the water, or simply leave it in an open container for a while. This was done with sap green and iris green, and is called inspissation (thickening by heating or evaporation – and there’s your new geek word for the day). Here’s where my adding too much alum became apparent: as I inspissated the liquid, the oversaturated alum began crystallizing out. Well, I learned what an alum crystal looks like!

Iris green ink sketch

Iris green ink sketch

Iris green will also make a lake pigment, but I’m not convinced it’s completely insoluble. The iris juice – especially without the wine – will spoil eventually. It’s not a bad idea to keep whatever you don’t use right away in the refrigerator.

So, if you’ve got some irises in the garden, you can make a nice bright green ink easily with a little alum and/or cooking wine. To the right is a little sketch done in this color, once again from a Steve McCurry photo; not a very good likeness, but you can see what the color looks like. Post any questions if you’ve got ’em!


Green from blue

June 29, 2010
Iris petals

Iris petals

There is a remarkable medieval green ink that is pretty easy to prepare – as long as you’ve got some blue iris flowers handy – and that is iris green. This color is one that has been associated with sap green, the classic watercolor made from buckthorn berries, but iris green may actually have preceded sap green in use. At some time iris green was even called sap green. It’s been written that it is essentially impossible to distinguish one from the other in old manuscripts; but the bright, delicate greens I’ve been able to get from iris flowers I prefer to the olive greens I’ve gotten from buckthorn.

As I’ve posted here, I am growing some heirloom iris plants in my garden plot, and after a year and a half of care they began to bloom this spring. My irises are more on the violet side of blue, but this doesn’t seem to make much difference. In fact, my irises have a lot more dye in them than the irises I bought at the nursery last year for my first test. There’s something to be said for growing heirlooms. Here’s the procedure:

Cooking iris petals

Cooking iris petals

We’re making ink, so you want to make sure the dye is pretty concentrated in color. After chopping the iris petals into medium-sized pieces (Yes, you have to destroy the pretty flowers – I wish I could simply use the flowers after they have dried, but it just doesn’t work as well), split them into roughly equal parts. No need to be exact. Put one half into a small saucepan and cover them with distilled water. Steep or simmer them until most of the blue or violet color is gone from the petals, then strain them from the liquid, which will now be a pretty rose color. This should take a half an hour or so. Once you’ve strained the first batch of petals out, then add the other half of the petals to the bath and repeat the process. Splitting them up and adding them sequentially to the same small amount of water allows for a more concentrated color right off the bat.

Filtering the dye

Filtering the dye

Once you’re done with this, you should have a liquid that is a nice deep purple, deep enough so that you can’t see through it. You’ll want to filter it at this point to remove any petal debris, bugs, pollen etc. The setup I use is a really simple one: just a funnel (you can get these at Wal-Mart or any auto shop) and an ordinary basket coffee filter. I wet the coffee filter a bit before using it: already being wet, it doesn’t soak up as much of the dye. To collect the liquid I use a Mason jar, which will handle hot liquids pretty well – the last think you want is for your precious dye to crack the jar and spill all over the kitchen! – but even so, if I’m patient enough, I try to allow the liquid to cool a bit before pouring it in, cool enough to dip the tip of my finger into it.

Even with what is almost entirely liquid, the filter can get clogged and go slowly. Once it’s finished, you have your filtered dye. If all you want is a purple ink, then you can stop here; but the magic of iris flowers is their ability to make the medieval green. Purple can be had from many different natural sources.

Iris dye

Iris dye

To the right is the color of the dye as it is at this point. The next stage will be to add alum to it – the alum is what gives it its green color. Alum, or potash alum, is aluminum potassium sulfate, a crucial ingredient in dyeing and lake pigment production. It’s been used in dyeing and pigment making for – well, for quite a long time now. It’s also used to make pickles and maraschino cherries. Apparently you used to be able to get the stuff just about anywhere: the spice aisle, the pharmacy, etc. Perhaps if you live in a more rural part of the country you still can. I buy mine from an online dye supply shop. I’ll go over this stage in the next post.

Colors “straight from the tube”

March 21, 2010

Attitudes have certainly changed over the centuries regarding how we treat our colors when painting a picture, and much of the changing approaches are directly related to the questions of what pigments are available, and how expensive and difficult to procure they are. Much of what one reads and hears currently concerning color theory and ways of approaching a painting, other than color relationships, is concerned with mixtures of paint colors: Which colors will mix to produce a warm shadow, what mixture of colors will most accurately represent what I’m seeing here, and can I really get a good skin tone by mixing all these colors on my palette? This approach seems obvious to us – after all, one cannot accurately describe most real-world objects or scenes using paints straight from the tube, they are simply too bright and saturated. Most of the real world that we as artists are trying to depict falls into a much less saturated range. Concentrating on mixtures of colors generally seems to be the only reasonable approach, and so obvious it barely merits attention.

However, this approach was not always quite so obvious or accepted as it is to us today. There was a time when pigments were used much more often in pure, unmixed form in paintings – and this had much to do with a regard for pigments that was born of their scarcity and percieved inherent value. During the Middle Ages, when bright and purely intense colors delighted the eye to an extent not seen again until the twentieth century, mixtures of colors were used when necessary but were not considered ideal. Writes Daniel V. Thompson concerning mixed greens in medieval painting:

We are justified in believing that mixed greens were common in medieval painting; but we could easily allow ourselves to overstress their importance. In general, medieval painters did not much like to sink the individuality of their hard-gotten colours in complicated mixtures. Mixtures of more than two or three pigments were not popular, and there was a decided preference for achieving effects with single pigments, displaying their characters to the best advantage. (The materials and techniques of medieval painting, Daniel V. Thompson)

Mixing a color was sometimes even referred to as its “deflowering.” Some of this approach had to do, certainly, with a lesser necessity for complex mixtures, since medieval painting (to probably grossly oversimplify) had less to do with achieving realism than did painting in later periods. Complex mixtures are required in order to accurately describe natural light falling over the more or less desaturated forms of nature – but not to create an icon whose purpose is to inspire feelings of worship.

Much of this approach by medieval artists, however, had to do not only with the comparative de-emphasis of realism in their art, but also with the high regard in which pure, bright pigments were held in their time. Bright, permanent colors were scarce and generally expensive. If an artist has spent all day making a lake pigment himself, or purchased costly materials from over the sea, finally to attain a precious lovely color brighter than any to be found in readily available local materials, would it then make sense for that artist to be eager to quickly dull that color down in mixtures? As someone who has labored to manufacture a few lake pigments myself, I wouldn’t think so.

For various reasons, including the growing scarcity of basic materials, I expect many of our modern colors to become more expensive in the future – perhaps much more expensive. If this happens, I will be very curious to see if we artists of the twenty-first century develop more of a medieval attitude to the inherent value of pigments (among other things, perhaps to the dismay of modern relativist economists); and, in painting practice, the preservation of the purity of colors.

Dragon’s blood watercolor

January 5, 2010
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.

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