Posts Tagged ‘rose madder’

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!

wyoming_waterfall-2d2_800

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

Watching the Grandchildren – layering process

July 24, 2011

I’ve just finished the most recent oil painting – It’s called Watching the Grandchildren. I had a lot of ideas in mind while I was painting it, and a lot of struggles as well. One thing that went pretty well, better than I had a right to expect probably, was a complex layering process on the blouse and wrap of the subject. The blouse has a complex pattern on it, and tassles as well – underneath which is a strong red color. I knew I wanted to use a rose madder glaze (can’t get enough of that madder these days), and as I’ve posted before I wanted to use the madder in a flat glaze layer so that any eventual fading will not break the picture. So, I would model forms in an underpainting and then glaze over that, as expected – but in this case some elements would have to go over the glaze layer as well. So how to layer everything? I made a plan and followed it, and here’s how it went:

Leo Carillo layer 1

Leo Carillo layer 1

The underpainting is Da Vinci Arizona Brown Ochre and Rublev Lead White #2 (lead white in walnut oil). I use paints from both of these companies regularly; I’ll do reviews here at some point I’m sure. I chose brown ochre because the transparent rose color of madder makes a nice middle red color over brown, as I’ve discovered in other experiments. As I found out later, I could have made this brunaille underpainting a bit darker. Common wisdom states that the glaze layer will darken whatever’s underneath; but I’ve found that’s only true up to a point. I wound up having to darken the shadows further at the end.

Leo Carillo layer 2

Leo Carillo layer 2

Then I laid down the pattern on the shirt. I wanted to get the pattern down first and then glaze right over it, because the pattern would still show through the glaze somewhat, so that I’d be able to use it as a template for repainting it on top of the glaze layers later. I figured if I tried to just tackle the pattern on top of the glaze for the first time, I’d wind up messing it up – erasing and lifting and correcting and scrubbing – and run the risk of ruining the crystal clarity of the madder glaze that I wanted. I think I was right about that; a pattern like this is not something I find so easy to do. My wife mentioned that I might stop painting at this point, and that was a compliment; but it wouldn’t have worked to leave it here. Besides, how could I resist the next step? It’s got madder in it!

Leo Carillo layer 3

Leo Carillo layer 3

This is what the first glaze of madder looked like. For some reason this particular color seems nearly impossible to photograph accurately. From this point on, heavy Photoshopping was necessary for each photograph, and so you may see some variation from pic to pic. I liked the color of the madder here, of course, but the blouse wasn’t really dark enough to make the composition work. It had to really stand out from all that white wall – especially since it would have all that distracting pattern in there. In a composition, focal point is everything. So more layers were necessary. Madder, of course, takes a long time to dry in oil; this stage of the painting took a while.

Leo Carillo layer 4

Leo Carillo layer 4

After three glaze layers of madder it was pretty much as you see here, dark and rich. But if I’d made the underpainting any lighter than it was, it wouldn’t have worked. I would have had to keep darkening with another layer of rose madder, and that might have made the element too saturated in color. It’s right on the borderline already (although, of course, this nice thick layer of madder gives some wiggle room for fading later on). Sometime before I try doing this again, I’m going to have to do a bunch of glazing studies over drapery, to really become familiar with just how these very transparent paints interact optically with differently-colored underpaintings. I’ll try various madder lakes, of course, but also ultramarine, Prussian blue, weld, carmine, verdigris, and perhaps lac. When I do these studies, I will most certainly post them here.

Leo Carillo layer 5

Leo Carillo layer 5

At last I was able to restate the pattern on the shirt, using the previously-painted pattern as a template. After it was down I had to knock parts of it back a little, and emphasized other parts, for the sake of the composition. After doing that, I put the tassles above everything, and did a bit of last-hour modeling on the whole thing. Below is the final look. I planned it out as carefully as I could; still, I think I was somewhat lucky. Much could have gone wrong, and I knew it could right from the beginning. It was a bit of a tightrope walk in the dark.

Isn’t that madder pretty, though? If you’d like to see the whole painting, you can see it (and a couple of life drawings) on my artwork blog here.

Leo Carillo layer 6

Leo Carillo layer 6

This is the kind of layering technique that is sometimes required when using a limited palette of traditional colors. Some colors, like rose madder, are best used transparently – and sometimes not as the final layer. Most of the time I simply paint directly, but in situations like this one, that just won’t do. I don’t think of the color palette that I use as being particularly limiting; but sometimes it is necessary to plan ahead. Though some other aspects of this painting could have gone a bit better, I’m very pleased that the blouse turned out so well, and even more pleased to have this process under my belt for next time.

Lightfastness Anxiety Disorder

May 1, 2011

I think it is very beneficial to learn as much as possible about art materials, and how to construct a sound oil painting, and which commercial materials are to be preferred or avoided for this purpose. The last thing you or your buyer wants is a painting that crumbles to the floor when someone slams the front door too hard. But I also sometimes feel that artists of today are rather more concerned about “permanence” than they need to be. That’s putting it a bit mildly; at times it seems that many artists’ concern over lightfastness in particular has reached a fever pitch. And yet, the fact is that real permanence in an oil painting is impossible! No matter what colors you use, your oil painting will not last forever. If you’re painting on stretched canvas, your painting will probably not last more than a few centuries at most. If you’re adding many adjunct ingredients as mediums, then quite possibly considerably less than that. If future generations decide that your painting doesn’t merit conservation efforts, then almost certainly less than that. Many oil paintings created this year will likely crumble and be thrown out before the permanence of any color commercially sold today becomes a real issue. And yet, so many artists today are worried about lightfastness. I sometimes, with affectionate exasperation, refer to this obsession as Lightfastness Anxiety Disorder (LAD).

Artists of the past don’t seem to have suffered from this disorder. It was common for artists of the past to use colors that today are widely considered to be impermanent, fugitive, and even “unfit for artistic use.” This doesn’t mean that artists of the past didn’t know what they were doing, and it certainly doesn’t mean that they didn’t care about their art. Quite the opposite. I personally think that they were focused on the right things, and didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about trying to make an oil painting last forever.

At Ivy Ranch

At Ivy Ranch

Just as importantly, many artists of past eras simply knew how to use less permanent colors in the safest possible ways. Take the natural lake pigments: madder, carmine, weld, etc. In oil paintings the natural lake pigments were most commonly used as glazes, over underpaintings that had been completely modeled using more permanent colors. This way, if or when they faded, their doing so would not break the painting in any fundamental way. Take a look at the painting on the right, At Ivy Ranch, which I recently completed. The forms of the couch were glazed with two coats of rose madder genuine by Winsor & Newton. If the lake color ever fades, the drapery will still be there, because it was painted in very permanent earth colors, bone black and lead white. Then, if a conservator (or any reasonably competent professional artist, hired by some future owner of this painting) wishes to retouch or even completely reapply the glaze, it will be an easy matter to do so: no modeling required, just slap another glaze layer on there. (In the case of the conservator, this reapplied glaze would be done with a removable resin paint, rather than an oil paint.)

At Ivy Ranch - no madder

At Ivy Ranch - no madder

A benefit to working like this is that I can see exactly what the painting will look like if the glaze happens to fade entirely at any time in the future. I wouldn’t be able to do that if I used the lake as a regular mixing color. At right is a photo taken from quite early on in the painting process – just some basic value and temperature separations slapped in, the only parts that had been worked up at all were the skirt and the couch. The couch wound up going a bit farther than this before the glazes were applied, particularly in that the area behind the girl became a much darker shadow accent. But aside from that, this is somewhat like what the painting would look like if the madder glaze were to fade completely from the picture. Unlikely to ever happen, of course; rose madder, for all its notoriety lately among those afflicted with LAD, is actually a fairly durable pigment. (Surprise!) More likely is that the madder, over the course of decades and centuries, will fade to some extent; and so much later on you might instead see something like this:

At Ivy Ranch - simulated fading

At Ivy Ranch - simulated fading

Not my first preference – but not the end of the world either. And again, that madder glaze could be rather easily reapplied at any point in the future, and even more than once if need be.

Certainly the safest natural lake pigment to use is madder, and the safest way to apply it is in a full-strength glaze, as I’ve done in this painting. Many artists of the past were quite content to regularly use colors far less permanent than madder; but even for artists of today, with higher standards of lightfastness, there really should be no problem in my opinion with using madder as I’ve used it here. This is a very safe use of a pigment that is actually reasonably lightfast (ASTM II, suitable for artistic work).

Professional artists have a certain financial responsibility to use quality materials and sound painting practices; but this emphasis on “permanence,” I feel, has gone a bit far. And it almost always seems to revolve around lightfastness, and so seldom around other factors of durability in art materials. It has often amazed me that so many artists eschew the use of madder for “archival” reasons, but then turn around and mix large amounts of natural resins or balsams into their paint layers! … or buy and use the cheapest acrylic-primed canvases they can find, ones which will certainly not hold onto an oil paint layer for very long. I encourage my fellow artists to learn more about the structural aspects of longevity in a painting, and to lighten up – just a little – about lightfastness, and learn some of the ways in which less lightfast colors may be used in relative safety. Rose madder is certainly one of the most gorgeous colors ever to grace the medium of oil painting; and it is, unlike the quinacridones and pyrroles, a sustainable artist’s color. The madder lakes have been used by many, perhaps even most, of the greatest and most celebrated oil painters in history. So go ahead and use a rich glaze of madder on that drapery – why not! You’ll be in very good company.

Take the plunge. You won’t regret it.

Portfolio and traditional palettes

April 3, 2011

I always have so much going on in my life, both professionally and otherwise. There’s the gardening, the paintmaking, the painting, the writing, my family, exercise, research, drawing and painting classes, etc. etc. – and this is all aside from my day job. But it is time for one to take precedence over all the others (except my family and my job). It is time for me to get my portfolio together.

For about three or four years running, I’ve promised myself: “This is the year.” This time it really is. This time I’m forcing myself into the professional world: I’ve taken an illustration gig, a book cover job. Very low-paying, but with a not-insignificant promotional aspect. And there’s a deadline. If I don’t have a website up and running by the time the book comes out, it will all be for nothing. So… in a few months I need to have not only the illustration completed, but a professional body of work completed and online as well.

Cowboy Santa illustration

Cowboy Santa illustration

The illustration isn’t really down my alley – it’s a Western Christmas story book – but it’s fun, and it’s a good opportunity to try out some traditional paint colors. I’m doing a Western Santa Claus on horseback, and my working title is – of course – Cowboy Santa. I’ve just gotten to the point of covering the canvas – the second of the four milestones in completing a painting (one, finishing the sketches and comps; two, getting the canvas covered; three, getting everything to work; and four, the endgame). I’m doing this with something of a nineteenth-century palette: natural earths, bone black, red lead (that’s the bright orange color that will be glazed with madder to get a Christmas red), chromium oxide green, ultramarine, Prussian blue, rose madder, Naples yellow and lead white. It has occurred to me to keep an illustration avenue open in addition to the fine art and portraiture, since in illustration I’ll be able to make use of some lovely colors that would be problematic in professional fine art, such as carmine, weld and indigo. But none of those are called for in this image, so it will actually be pretty archival.

At Ivey Ranch

At Ivey Ranch - unfinished

My fine art portfolio will initially consist of Southwestern portraits, for a number of reasons I’ll go into later, when I’ve gotten everything prepared. Here’s an image of a partially-completed painting (in the middle of stage three), one of the four or five I’m working on now (not counting the Cowboy Santa). The palette on this one is very traditional: natural earths, bone black, lead white, lead-tin yellow and orange, rose madder, and um… yeah, that’s it. Oh: and a new one, pink pipestone, made from the same soft red rock as the Native American Calumet pipes. This color is magical, and very useful. See the pinks in the shirt and skin tones? Yeah. More on that one later, for sure.

The end of an era

Today I had to give up my old community garden plot that I’ve been working for three years. We moved to a different town last year; that plus watering restrictions means it no longer made sense to keep it. We hadn’t been there for months. Made me sad to close it down today; lots of good memories of gardening with my wife (then my fiancée) there. But I have another garden plot, one closer to home, and we have some containers in the back yard for tomatoes and eggplant. So it’s for the best. In honor of the garden plot we had to give up, the painting above will be titled At Ivey Ranch.

The next few months will be a little sketchy as I indicated; but I will check in when I can. I will also be putting a lot more effort into the attached blog, llawrencebispo.wordpress.com. Wish me luck!

Madder harvest – continued

March 29, 2010
Madder roots

Digging for madder roots

For the past week or two, as I’ve had time, I’ve been cleaning out my garden plot – or trying to. Mostly this has consisted of digging for madder roots. I know I did this a couple of months ago, as described in my post My first madder harvest. But… the stuff grows back. With a vengeance. Every little root scrap and fragment I left in the ground seemed like it was springing back to life again, so I needed to get back in there and dig up the dregs before it could get away from me again.

The truth wound up being a bit different. It wasn’t just dregs in the ground; I had actually missed quite a bit of the bulky roots by simply not digging deep enough the first time around. The roots went very deep, and I mean the big ones along with the speedy orange runners. Which was good along with the bad: I got some more high-quality roots that certainly have some good dye in them. But it’s been some solid labor to unearth them all, and I’m not finished yet. In the pic above, I’m just getting started with the hole; and you can see the growing pile of madder roots in the lower left corner. This is after cleaning out another, similar area to the left of the pic.

Madder - January & March

Madder - January & March

Remember how the madder plants had died back in the winter? In case not, here is the pic I posted back in January of one of the plants in its little raised bed – compared with one of the madder beds two and half months later, at the end of March.

They are going quite crazy without any help from me. Let me reiterate from my previous post, perhaps more strongly: these plants are aggressive, and quite difficult to contain. If you plan on growing madder yourself, do put it into containers (or very raised beds), or it will get out of control. In a way, beginning with too many madder plants has defined my entire garden experience ever since – and will continue to do so until most of these are harvested and completely cleaned out of the ground. After this continuing fiasco, I’m certain I will never grow another madder plant that is not in a container. If it weren’t for the happy fact that birds are completely uninterested in the berries, making it extremely unlikely that the plants will spread without my knowledge, I would rip them all out now and be done. I won’t be responsible for an invasive species getting loose in my area. But for now they’re okay – just taking up a lot of my time. The pic below: Overrun by madder plants (horror monster music here)!

Madder - rubia tinctoria

Aggressive madder plants

On a positive note, I collected a large number of seed pods from last year’s indigo plants. (And we got a nice fava bean harvest from the other plot!) I’ll be starting some indigo seedlings soon – a little late, but then that’s how I do many things. Especially this year. Wedding is in three weeks!

Welcome, Good Sirs!

February 21, 2010
Welcome Good Sirs illustration

Welcome Good Sirs illustration

This is a practice illustration piece I just completed, working with mixed media techniques. I’m still working out a number of things, not least of which is what the heck I want to do when I grow up. Illustration and so-called “fine art” (boy, do we ever have to come up with a different term for that one) both appeal to me in different ways, and I admire many artists from both of those fields. For now, I’m pursuing both, in oil colors, in pastels, and in these mixed media experiments for some of the illustration work.

In this case, and following the ideas I’ve been building on for several pieces now, the media being mixed are: ink, watercolor, gouache and oil paints. Why all these different media? Well, the idea is kind of to capitalize on the different strengths of each one. Ink is great for making a drawing and getting in details; watercolor is great for quick-drying initial washes; gouache is great for building up quick-drying highlights; and oils are great for adding color depth and vibrancy, and modeling deep shadows.

An earlier stage

An earlier stage

So, for “Welcome, good sirs!” I made an intial ink drawing, then laid in flat watercolors, then built up the modeling of the skin tones and clothing with gouache; then, after laying down an isolating layer of thinned gum arabic and allowing that to dry, I brought up the piece using oil paints. (Using gum arabic for the isolating layer is working so far, but it’s problematic in various ways; I’m planning to try some other natural possibilities, including casein varnish and shellac varnish.) So that’s how the illustration was built up. I think there are numerous problems with the colors – but this is an experiment, and in any case the mixed-media techniques themselves are working all right. I just need more practice.

One of the aspects of illustration that attracts me is this: when archivability is not a concern (as is often the case with illustrations intended for reproduction), then I can use whatever pigments I want, without worrying a stitch about lightfastness. Most of the colors used in this illustration are natural colors, but not quite all of them. The ink is an ordinary Calli brand India ink, probably with an acrylic binder. The watercolors are various earth colors from Winsor & Newton and Da Vinci, plus W&N’s rose madder genuine, and natural indigo. The indigo is a watercolor I made. In the gouache layer I used all the same colors mixed with titanium white gouache (I’m all out of eggshell white at the moment, have to make some more), plus dragon’s blood, indigo lake and weld made by me – the weld is from my own garden (yay!). The final oil paints were burnt umber (Winton), rose madder genuine (Winsor & Newton), and weld.

Madder glaze

Madder glaze

The fiery red of the background is achieved by glazing the rose madder oil paint over an ordinary earth color watercolor, Da Vinci burnt sienna I think. It’s amazing the colors you can get this way, and I definitely want to try it out in a straight oil painting – glazing rose madder over earth colors – and see just how bright of a middle red I can get without using any cadmiums or pyrroles.

(p.s. I have no idea at this point where I got the photo reference for this exercise, I’ve had it sitting around for years. If the original photographer or model contacts me and wishes me to remove the illustration from this blog, I’ll be happy to do so. But it’s just a practice image, and not for sale or anything.)

My first madder harvest

January 10, 2010
Madder plant in winter

Madder plant in winter

Last week I harvested my first madder plants, which have died back, as they do, for the winter. The fact that these plants die back in colder weather has been quite a relief for me, since I’ve spent quite a lot of time fighting them this year.

I love the fact that I’m growing madder plants for use, and that I’ve just harvested my first bunch of them. It’s exciting. But grower beware: madder does spread aggressively. I planted sixteen madder plants in raised/lowered beds in the spring of last year, taking up about half the garden plot. Yeah, maybe I overdid it a little – but that was right at the beginning of everything, and I was so anxious to get things started, and I didn’t have any other dye plants handy at the time. I also had read that madder needs at least two or three years in the ground before harvesting, and again that made me want to start big.

Madder shoots

Madder shoots

Since then, my main task in that garden plot – at times my overwhelming task – has been to keep that madder under control. They didn’t do much the first year, just kind of lay around in their beds, but the second year they just went crazy. There were two plants in particular, planted in higher, softer earth, which have caused some major issues, aggressively sending runners and shoots into my poor neighbor Frank’s garden plot. He has been good-natured enough about it, but it must have been a bit (or more than a bit) annoying at times to have unwanted madder plants among the broccoli. (The pic to the right shows some fresh madder shoots, sent by runner roots, invading my poor neighbor’s garden plot. This is after at least two throrough eradications already this year.) So those were the two plants I chose to dig up first. It’s only been a year and a half, but in this case a year and a half does at least mean two full growing seasons – and I just don’t want to leave those two particular plants in the ground any longer. In any case, I have an opportunity to test the literature on the subject of growing time: since I’ve got so many madder plants in the garden plot (there are still fourteen left), what I’ll do is dig up a new plant or two every six months or so and compare the results. There may be a “sweet spot” in terms of time in the ground versus the amount/quality of dye produced, and if there is I’ll find out.

Freshly-dug madder roots

Freshly-dug madder roots

Here is one corner of the decimated bed – that place was absolutely filled with roots. I know I left some roots in there, there’s no way I got them all – but after a while the back wins out over the heart, and there must be an end. I was out there for hours, and still didn’t finish the whole job in a day. Next to the bed, and nestled between some weld plants (right) and blue irises (top) are some of the madder roots after digging. I tried to pass over those much smaller than a pencil, as I know the roots will contract in size as they dry, and the smaller roots probably don’t have a whole lot of dye in them in any case. There were a couple of nice big blocks of root there, even from plants so young.

Madder-dyed wood

Madder-dyed wood

I’ve read in a couple of sources that there is no indication in the appearance of the roots of the color that lies within. I say nonsense. They are bright orange if you break them open. As someone who is obsessed with getting color out of plants, and with trying out new natural dye sources, I can say that trying these roots out for dye content was probably pretty obvious in early times – there’s a reason madder is one of the earliest dyes recorded. On the right are some pulled roots that have stained the neighboring wood of the raised bed violet with their alizarin!

Fresh madder roots

Fresh madder roots

Here are the roots after an initial rinse with the hose, drying out in the sun. Watch out, bees seem to enjoy the smell of these fresh roots; I was forced to defend my harvest! Now the roots are dessicating on the back porch. When they are completely dry I will discard the roots that have shrunk to a very small size, and then test the remainder for dye content.

Bonus: I caught a lizard! Second time this year, I guess I’m not as slowed-down as I thought. Or maybe all this gardening is just good for me. Isn’t he cute?

Dye garden denizen

Dye garden denizen