Posts Tagged ‘natural organic’

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

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!

What is a sustainable color?

January 30, 2011

Or: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Despite more than a bit of misuse in popular culture, what the word “sustainable” actually means is simple – though the implications are quite profound for us all – and it’s this (from

  1. : capable of being sustained
  2. a : of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged
    b : of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods

So here’s my interpretation for the purposes of this discussion (and my own philosophy):

An activity is sustainable if it in no way impedes the ability of future generations to live their lives or to engage in the same activity or other activities – for all intents and purposes forever.

If an activity does not meet that test, then it is unsustainable. Can’t keep it up forever. Can’t sustain the activity indefinitely. If you try to keep up that activity forever, then eventually you crash. It’s a fail.

Sustainability is not a nicety. It’s a requirement and a hard fact. If an activity is unsustainable, then that means we will stop doing it – eventually. The only question is whether we cease the activity voluntarily, or are forced out of it through diminishing options – or whether we ourselves will meet our end before it becomes an issue. (As one cynic put it: We will keep doing what we do until we can’t any more, and then we won’t.)

So that’s my strict definition. But “forever” is a little hard for the human brain (at least my human brain) to comprehend and plan for. When I think about this stuff, I tend to think in more discrete chunks of time, because it’s easier for me, and it clarifies my thinking: five thousand years from now, ten thousand. Will our heavy industry still be consuming at its present rate in ten thousand years? Will the Three Gorges Dam still be standing? Will we still be mining for cobalt?

This, of course, is a blog about art materials, and more than anything else it’s about colors. So which colors are sustainable? Which are not? Which are finite, but nevertheless are abundant enough to probably last the long millenia?

The good

These are the materials that really could last pretty much until the end of the world. Non-destructive, renewable, natural organic colors (definition here) that can be raised or wildcrafted in one’s own bioregion (geographic backyard), and can replenish themselves, through careful horticulture or natural propagation, and can be prepared over a simple fire using abundant, locally available ingredients – these are probably the only colors that can be considered truly sustainable by our strict definition above. One can conceivably at least keep up that activity pretty much forever, so it does pass that test, assuming it’s done with care. (However, it should definitely be noted here that not all natural organic sources pass the test. More on that in the next post.)

Also, I think we can go a little easy on ourselves here and throw the natural earths into this category. Although technically they are finite (especially the nice brightly-colored ones), well, there’s just a heck of a lot of the stuff out there. It’s a little hard to imagine artists ever managing to use up all the red earth in Arizona – or Brazil.

The bad

The pigments that are most clearly unsustainable, for various reasons that should be fairly obvious, are the ones that are manufactured from petroleum or other hydrocarbons. These synthetic organics (definition here) are going to go away sooner or later – more likely sooner. For me this is the most easily identifiable group. Flatly not sustainable, because petroleum isn’t. End of story. I’ll actually be rather surprised if they manage to still be around for much longer than another decade or two.

Perhaps slightly less obvious are the pigments that merely require a hydrocarbon-driven industrial process for their manufacture. They may not have petroleum as their basic feedstock, but they are just as dependent upon it for their existence. I don’t see how this group can make it out of the cellar either. I’ll be going through a few examples in later articles.

The ugly

Any material which is finite is therefore, strictly speaking, unsustainable. However, common sense and a little research indicate that there are certain natural inorganic materials that are so plentiful (and in some cases highly recyclable as well) that we probably don’t really need to worry about them, at least not for a very, very long time. Iron and alum in particular, which can be used to make Mars pigments and lake pigments, will almost certainly not deplete completely from the major regions of the earth in any time scale meaningful to this discussion. Also, the minerals calcium, sodium, potassium and sulfur – also used in the creation of lake pigments and some other pigments – are in abundant supply as well. There are a few other materials that I also count as reasonable candidates for this group, depending on other factors.

So, luckily, I doubt we will ever be restricted to using natural inks and earths only, even though they’re the only materials that actually made it into our “good” category. (As much as I love natural inks, I do like to make an oil painting once in a while.) We’ll be collecting earths, and making lake pigments and a few synthetic inorganic pigments (definition here), for a long, long time to come.

Forever? Can’t answer that. Ten thousand years from now? Almost certainly.

Details to follow…

Pigment categories – the blurry lines

December 26, 2010

It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve let my blog go for five whole weeks. I never thought I’d be one of those authors who had to post “Sorry it’s been so long since my last post” – and yet, here I am. Sorry, folks. It’s been a tough month. I’m abandoning for this post, and maybe the next post or two, the discussion of classical underpainting techniques; but I am continuing to research and experiment, faithful reader, and I’ll return to the topic soon.

Back to art materials philosophy. Some time back I listed some basic definitions for the four categories of artist’s pigments: natural inorganic, natural organic, synthetic inorganic, and synthetic organic. (See the posts here, here and here.) The categories seem straightforward enough once you become familiar with them. However, things can get a bit weird if you start trying to nail down certain pigments.

Take Prussian blue, which is considered a synthetic inorganic pigment, in fact the first modern synthetic pigment. This is a pigment discovered accidentally in the early eighteenth century while attempting to create a carmine lake pigment with what turned out to be some tainted substances. What happened was that some potash contaminated with animal blood was used to precipitate the iron-based lake pigment, accidentally forming iron ferrocyanine, which makes a powerful blue. (Lucky accident!) So, but here’s the question: how is it that when a natural organic lake pigment received an additional natural organic element, it turned into something that is considered a synthetic inorganic? Weird – why is this pigment not considered a natural organic, like the carmine lake? I suppose it’s because in Prussian blue there is no actual dye involved – but still, it seems arbitrary.

A lake pigment is generally thought of as a dye precipitated onto a base of alum; but as indicated above, not all lake pigments are based on alum. They can be based on iron or copper instead, or even other metal salts such as chrome or zinc. Sometimes, even when a natural dye is used, these lakes based on other metals are viewed as synthetic, or semi-synthetic, rather than natural. Why? Why is a natural dye laked onto alum considered a natural pigment, but the same natural dye laked onto copper may not be? Alum is potassium aluminum sulfate, the copper mordant is copper sulfate pentahydrate. Both are metal sulfates, pretty similar stuff. A dyer would consider any dye obtained from natural sources to be a natural dye, regardless of what mordant were used to bind it to fabric, be it alum, iron, copper, tin, chrome or other, and I would agree – and I don’t really think of natural dyes laked onto different metal substrates as being categorically different from one another.

Precipitating copper blue

Precipitating copper blue

But I can easily get myself into more trouble. Green and blue pigments can be made from copper without the addition of a natural dye, and yellow and red pigments can be made from iron – and these are also considered to be synthetic pigments. But why? If laking a natural dye onto alum, iron or copper results in a natural pigment, then why does it become synthetic if I follow exactly the same procedure, but only leave out the organic ingredient?

It’s at this point that the whole question starts to break down. One person to whom I mentioned my interest in natural pigments immediately quipped, “Well, what’s natural”? At the time I confess I was a little irritated by such a flippant-sounding dismissal of what has been a passion for me – but now I see the wisdom in it, regardless of how it may have been intended. What is natural, anyway? Don’t get me wrong: the words “natural” and “artificial” are opposites with real definitions; but as soon as we start trying to identify categories, we have to start drawing lines, and that’s where things get messy. At some point you have to chalk it up to useless semantics and move on to another aspect of the discussion.

This is all a little illustration of why, though my original direction (years ago, now) was almost entirely about natural pigments, and though I still write about my love for colors from natural sources, I now pay little attention to such distinctions when considering my philosophy of materials, just as I now pay little attention to toxicity (other than as a necessary practical concern). Natural, synthetic, doesn’t really matter. What does matter, to me, is whether a particular art material is sustainable – meaning that I think we artists will pretty much never be forced to stop using it. That means no industrial processes required in that material’s production, no hydrocarbon feedstocks are used, no destruction of landbases necessary – and we aren’t dependent for our materials upon the needs of the giant automobile, plastics and textiles industries. In a perfect world, that would mean art materials that could be made locally, from regionally common materials, and without harming the ecolocality in any drastic way. The only pigments that are categorically excluded from my list are the synthetic organics; they are derived from hydrocarbons, and really can’t be considered sustainable no matter how they’re sliced. Also excluded would be any other pigments that absolutely require an industrial process for production. The ones that would not be excluded are the natural earths; the natural organic colors; and artificial pigments easily synthesized from common metals and minerals.

Yes, this is the kind of thing I spend my time thinking about. I think it’s important.

– L. Lawrence

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.

Pigment categories – part III

June 6, 2010

I’m going to finally get around to tackling that last category of pigments, the synthetic organics. There’s probably a reason for my tardiness: this is my least favorite group, and one that interests me very little these days. Recall that the three we’ve done before were: natural inorganic (these were the earths and natural minerals); natural organic (lake pigments, other pigments that come directly from plants and animals); and synthetic inorganic (the great chemistry accomplishments of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, ultramarine blue, cadmium red, etc.). The story of the last category begins in the nineteenth century, but is mostly a twentieth century phenomenon.

Synthetic organic pigments - watercolor

Synthetic organic pigments

To the right are a few quick watercolor swatches using synthetic organic colors. Along the top row, left to right, are: Winsor & Newton manganese blue hue (it’s phthalo blue PB15); Sennelier lemon yellow (hansa yellow PY3); and Da Vinci alizarin crimson (it isn’t: it’s quinacridone violet PV19. Aren’t these marketing names great?). On the bottom row are a couple of mixtures from the three, a bright green from the phthalo and hansa, and a warm red from the hansa and quinacridone. I didn’t include a violet, since this particular red and blue don’t make a very saturated one; but to get a nice bright purple one need look no further than another synthetic organic, dioxazine violet. (The photograph was taken when the paints were still partly wet, and it captured the colors only tolerably well; the hansa yellow in particular is a bit warmer and more transparent than it looks here. Photography is definitely a skill I need to catch up on.)

There are so few real natural organic pigments in use any longer – mostly just the various carbon blacks – that the word “synthetic” is generally dropped from the term “synthetic organic,” having no other category to make it necessary; and these colors are simply called “organic,” since they by and large are the only organic colors out there. The name is a bit misleading at first. Most of us tend to feel a bit fuzzy when we hear the word “organic” – after all, usually it means healthy; it means natural; it probably means eco-friendly, cage-free, free-range, no hormones or pesticides, etc. However, in this case “organic” simply means that the substance in question contains a carbon molecule, and the feedstock from whence it was created probably existed, once upon a time, in the form of actual organisms. I’m talking, of course, about hydrocarbons: petroleum, natural gas, coal, etc. These substances are industrially heated, pressured and combined in various ways, sometimes with industrial acids or other chemicals (my knowledge is very weak on details here), to create the synthetic organic substances. Hmm… my fuzzy feeling has suddenly gone away.

From the Encyclopedia Brittanica: “Synthetic organic pigments are derived from coal tars and other petrochemicals.” By “coal tar” they mean the residue byproduct from burning hydrocarbons such as coal or natural gas. Some coal-tar colors began in the nineteenth century as dyes: mauve, alizarin crimson, the aniline colors – and some of these were laked to create the first synthetic organic pigments. (Some are insoluble to begin with, and don’t require laking.) The twentieth century embraced and expanded upon this line, notably with the azos, the phthalocyanines, the quinacridones, the perylenes, the anthraquinones, the pyrroles.

These are consumer colors – bright and saturated, capable of being produced on a tremendous scale, and cheap. They are truly modern colors, not only in the history of their production, but also in their flash and chromatic glory. Without these colors, the commercial world around us would be much less colorful than it is.

The benefits of these colors for artists are often cited. There is the very full range of color they make available to the artist, the ability to mix almost any color that could ever be needed by the average painter. They have provided excellent, durable replacements for older, less lightfast natural organic colors that have been weak spots in artists’ color wheels for centuries. They are inexpensive compared to some of the synthetic inorganic pigments, such as the cadmiums and cobalts. Finally, they are a less toxic alternative to those cadmiums and cobalts, and are increasingly turned to as the more toxic metals are falling under legislative ire.

So: what’s not to like? Follow me on later posts, faithful reader…

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.