Adventures in Pigmentation – AKA Never leave documentation til the last minute!!

This project was so much fun.  My eldest son came across me so many evenings cackling to myself half singing “this is soooo much fun” that I’m half surprised he didn’t raise the possibility the fumes were getting to me.

fraochanIt started when I was in the mountains picking  froacháns (bilberries) and, as usual, staining my fingers a deep but rather pleasant shade of purple. I wondered, not for the first time,  if I could make a pigment out of it.  Turns out I can, and did.  First I found an article called Illuminating the ‘elusive’: reconstructing mediaeval recipes for anthocyanin pigments by Sylvie Neven which talked about how certain pigments are not documented well, probably due to their wide availability in nature and hence their relative valuelessness.    Her article dealt particularly with anthocyanins obtained from, for example bilberries and cornflowers.    I decided to give the bilberry pigment a try.  I was told

The basic operation is relatively simple and similar from one recipe to another. The petals or the berries are ground and crushed in a mortar in order to produce a foam. The juice is then extracted by filtering the foam through a clean (linen) cloth.”

I can tell you I could have crushed those berries ‘til the world ended and no foam was going to appear, obviously I was missing something. This led me in turn to Strasbourg Manuscript, an artist’s recipe book, whose content has been dated to the beginning of the early fifteenth century, and is believed to be the oldest German-language source for the study of Northern European painting techniques.   I concentrated on just the organic sources for colours in an attempt to track down this mysterious “foam” and learned about “lakes” in the process.  These kinds of pigments are not particularly light fast and are considered suitable only “for use in a book”.   A “lake” pigment is a pigment made by precipitating a dye with an inert binder or mordant.  This range of organic colours seem to have been particularly used as translucent glazes, shading, flesh tints and so on. .  This is the point at which I got hooked.   I had dye stuffs, I had alum.. I could experiment! 

First I tried the Bilberry pigment.  My clue was “clothlet” which I had discovered in the context of a pigment recipe before.

The color is made from these lilies as follows. Take these fresh flowers in the springtime when they are blooming, and pound them in a marble or bronze mortar and squeeze the juice with a cloth into a glazed porringer. And in this juice soak other linen cloths, clean and soaked once or twice in a solution of rock alum and dried. And when the cloths are thoroughly saturated with the juice of the lilies in this way, let them dry in the shade; and keep them between the leaves of books; for a very lovely green, splendid for use on parchment, is made out of this juice preserved in this way by combining it with giallorino. And note that after the cloths are dry, if they are again soaked in this juice and dried, they will be better. And you do the same thing with those buckthorn berries which are gathered in the vintage season, namely, in this fashion. Take the aforesaid seeds or berries, put them into a glazed porringer, and break or crush them well with your fingers. Then dissolve in clear lye; not too strong, as much rock alum as it will dissolve on the fire. And pour enough of this lye and alum over the berries in the porringer to cover these berries, crushed as directed. And let them stand so, out of the way, for three days; and then wring them out with your hands in a linen cloth, and strain the juice into another glazed porringer. And if you want, you can keep it in linen cloths; do throughout as directed above for the juice of the lilies. But otherwise put it into a glass bottle, and keep it by sealing the bottle.

An Anonymous 14th Century Treatise De Arte Illuminandi, The Technique of Manuscript Illumination translated from the Latin of Naples MS XII.E.27 by Daniel Varney Thompson, Jr, and George Heard Hamilton, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1933, p. 6.

IMG_0887So now I knew I needed alum, lye and dye stuff.  Excellent!  I crushed the berries with some water, added an equal quantity of alum and allowed it to stew for a while.  Thanks to the inestimable Lady Gytha I had a stash of PH strips so I made sure everything was nicely acidic and then added some washing soda crystal solution.  Yep, that was a foam!   

This was where the breakout of evil cackling occured.  I had to experiment some more.  I would have liked to use homemade lye but time was short and there was a bag of Washing Soda Crystals just there…  I decided to go for a few different reds: madder, brazil and cochineal. 

Madder (Rubia tinctorum), as discussed befire, is a root that has been used since very ancient times as a dyestuff.  It yields an orangey red colour, depending on whether you use hard or soft water, temperature and so on.  It does not like to be over heated which makes the red turn into a sort of muddy brown.  It is not especially forgiving and brazilwood was more frequently used as a cheaper, more reliable source of colour for pigments, and Cochineal from the New World in late period is FAR easier to work with.  I did a lot of reading up on how best to work with the madder as I had knew it could be temperamental colour wise from previous dyeing experiments.  I learned that it is best to soak the madder for anything up to a week, frequently pouring off the sort of brassy orange coloured water and adding fresh clean water to get a truer rose colour at the end.  I only had a couple of days to spare for soaking but it definitely improved the final colour.  

 This is where I *should* have started the documentation process.  I took photos but I didn’t keep proper notes as I was going along and I ended typing furiously on the last day I had access to a printer before CoLD.  Seriously not ideal.  

madderrootAnyway, Step one – stew up your dyestuff.  In this case Madder does not like too much heat so you’ve to try to balance everything just right.  I had serious time constraints so I didn’t stew it quite as long as I might have liked, double boiler over at least 24 hours would be best, at a nice even temperature.  I instead went for a couple of hours and then left it to cool overnight.  Next day I added added an equal amount of alum (equal to the dry weight of the madder root I used) and warmed the mixture  for another hour gently.

IMG_0883So at this point I have an acidic reddish mush, confirmed with a PH Universal strip.    I strained the mixture and prepared a medium warm solution of washing soda crystals.  The famous foam (fizzing in this case) kicked off and then it was just a matter of letting it sit.

Next up was Brazilwood, a dyestuff from chips and shavings from the Caesalpinia tree.  In this case I had a recipe that stipulated I soak the chips in lye but I made a mistake and added the alum.  Aparently the difference is that steeped in a solution of lye it colors the liquid deep, purplish red, and hot solutions of alum extract the color from the wood in the form of an orange-red liquor.  It doesn’t actually matter in terms of getting a pigment,  I’ve seen recipes for both methods, but I would have liked to try it other way around.  With this one I experimented and seperated it into two different jars, one where I left more acid in it, one which I completely neutralied.  The neutralised is a much pinker version.  I also experimented with using vinegar and have been advised that I can make the colour more opaque by adding ground cuttlefish bone, (which would also neutralise any remaining acidity)   It was on this experiment I noticed how big a difference adding alum to the initial dyes bath makes.

moreacid neutralised

IMG_0913Cochineal comes from scale insects that feed on a particular cactus in the New World. This one is definitely late period. Lakes would also have been made from Kermes (also scale insects) that are early period.  I made the preliminary dye mixture with far too much cochineal so it’s a rather impressive looking purple!!  

Once you mix and things fizz and the salts start to form and fall you just leave them be, safe from any cats, children etc for as long as you can.  When you come back you should notice very clear layer of pigment and a much clearer, sometimes completely clear layer of liquid on top.  I was short on time so I didn’t do any additional washes.   You can start to remove the clear liquid with a turkey baster, then when everything is settled you can filter and leave the residue to dry.

filteringAgain, HUGE thanks to Lady Gytha for the filter paper, made this job very straightforward.  By the time CoLD came around I hadn’t managed to get them dry enough, I had to display them as pastes, which was less than ideal. I couldn’t stick them in sunlight or the oven on low heat as sunlight and heat notoriusly affect these colours.
These are the plates of colours a little further on:


This is the what ideally I would have left the sample above get to in the filter paper too:
IMG_1169 IMG_1170 IMG_1171
The idea is to let them dry like this and then pulverise them with a morter and pestle. But I’ll continue to dry these and post the results when I get them to a powde

Some Sources for this project

Neven, S., ‘The Strasbourg Family Texts: Originality and Survival. A Survey of Illuminating techniques in Medieval South Germany’, in Revista de Historia da Arte, n° especial, 2011, pp. 65-77; Neven, S., ‘Describing the “elusive”: a new perception of the practices and the resources of illuminators in the North of Europe from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century’, in Renaissance Workshop, London, 2013, pp. 188-190.

Borradaile V. and R., The Strasbourg Manuscript. A Medieval Painter’s Handbook translated from the old german, Londres, 1966.

Medieval and Renaissance Treatises on the Arts of Painting: Original Texts with English Translation, Mary P. Merrifield, 1967

A Spectroscopic Study of Brazilwood Paints in Medieval Books of Hours, Maria Joao Melo, Vanessa Otero, Tatiana Vitorino, Rita Araujo, Vania S.F. Muralha, Ana Lemos, Marcello Picollo

Medieval to Early Modern Ink and Pigment Recipes, Some Ink and Pigment Recipes.
PDF booklet of ink and pigment recipes was compiled by the Special Collections Conservation Unit of the Preservation Department of Yale University Library.

The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting, Daniel Varney Thompson 1956

Exprimenta de Coloribus in the Manuscripts of Jehan Le Bègue which is found in Original treatises, dating from the XIIth to XVIIIth centuries on the arts of painting, in oil, miniature, mosaic, and on glass; of gilding, dyeing, and the preparation of colours and artificial gems; preceded by a general introduction; with translations,prefaces, and notes. By Mrs. Merrifield. v.1, Merrifield, Mary P. (Mary Phila- delphia), London, J. Murray, 1849

The ‘Book on How to Make Colours’ (‘O livro de como se fazem as cores’) and the ‘Schedula diversarum artium’ Debora Matos Luis U.Afonso, Lisbon

Artists’ Pigments in Illuminated Medieval Manuscripts: Tracing Artiditic Influences and Connections – A Review –Mary Virginial Orna

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