Making Colors (3): Repetition and Boredom in Historical Remaking

*This blog post is part of the series Making Colors. The historical remaking research of my project is supported by the generous grant from the Oak Spring Garden Foundation.

 

As part of my research and a goal of my project, I have been building a watercolor reference set that consists of color studies using the paints I made (Fig. 1). This will allow me to have some tangible references to compare the material qualities between the homemade paints and the ones found in historical flower books. It will also be useful for teaching workshops and classes in the future. To compile the set, I went through a selection of early modern treatises and listed the colors mentioned in these books. I then cross-referenced with the most authoritative secondary literature and got around fifty colors from seven color groups—black, brown, blue, green, yellow, red, and white—that were most commonly used in early modern watercolor. For each color, I did several tests with freshly made colors, and repeated the same tests with reactivated colors after they have dried.

Fig. 1. Color study of yellow ochre to learn about the material properties of the paint through several tests.  

 

Historically, artist supplies, including pigments and brushes, could have been purchased through suppliers like apothecaries, but artists would have to make their own paints. To do so, one usually takes a pigment and mix it with a binder. For example, to make yellow ochre for oil painting, the practitioner would take the pigment and mix it with linseed oil.[1] To make yellow ochre watercolor, one would take the same pigment, but bind it with gum water, which is a combination of water and gum Arabic (and often also with a little bit of sugar or honey). The mixture is mulled with a muller on a slab for some time to ensure the pigment is evenly bound with the gum water. The historical application of this yellow ochre watercolor, however, is more similar to our modern understanding of gouache because it was often used as a thick and opaque paint, rather than giving the light aquarelle effect that most people would picture when hearing the word watercolor.[2]

The word wash would be closer to the modern day aquarelle. For instance, the English treatise A Book of Drawing, Limning, Washing, printed by M. Simmons for Thomas Jenner in London in 1652 made this distinction.[3] The treatise refers to painting with translucent and watery colors as washing and opaque and thick colors as limning. Modern day transparent watercolor achieves washing through watered-down paints, but the washes still contain finely-ground pigments. Some historical washes, however, are more similar to dye, and they need to be used within a comparatively short amount of time because they cannot be dried and reactivated. In many cases, practitioners would have used both opaque paints and translucent washes in a watercolor. As a result, some of the color studies on my list are washes that require different methods of making.

For the paints with pigments, I produced several pigments from scratch by grinding stones and making lakes (lake pigments will be the topic of another post in this series), and procured  the rest from suppliers that sell quasi-historically-made pigments.[4] Normally, to get a good quality paint, a practitioner needs to find the right ratio for gum water and the selected pigment. Some colors require more gum water, whereas others need less. I decided to standardize the pigment and gum water ratio for all of my color studies, as well as the mulling time, which means that some colors would be bad in quality.

Intentionally setting myself to fail achieves two things. First, it saves time because it will otherwise take multiple tries to find a good ratio for every color, which would have drastically added to the research hours with more than fifty colors at hand. Second, failed and bad quality colors are more useful for me as a researcher (although the practitioner inside me often screams in dismay during this process), as they show a wider spectrum of material properties and effects that the historical master works in museums and libraries do not. The paint-making process is rather straightforward. For each color, I mixed 1 portion of pigment and about 1.5 portion of gum water, and mulled for fifteen minutes (Fig. 2/Vid. 1). I did the tests with the fresh paints right off the slap and cleaned up the tools before moving onto the next color. This set of motion took, on average, forty-five minutes, and was repeated close to fifty times.

Mulling Paint in Home Lab, 23 February 2020

Fig. 2/Vid. 1. Mulling paint in home lab, showing only two minutes of the process (click here to see the video on Flickr).

 

Repeating this standardized process many times transformed my understanding of the pigments from abstract text that I read about in books to personal descriptions generated by my own experience. After a while, it became intuitive skills that my body could perform without too much thinking required. I started to pick up patterns and identify the potential issues of working with earth, mineral, metal-based, and lake pigments. Despite the subtle nuances, pigments made of similar materials—such as earth pigments that include ochres and umbers—behave more or less the same. Recognizing my own accumulation of material knowledge through repetition was exciting, but the process was less so. For some, mulling paints is relaxing and therapeutic; for me, it was unfortunately boring.

This boredom in the making process, however, is perhaps a more important feature to consider than excitement. Engaging in historical remaking as a research method is fun, but artistic practices are also hard work and come with a less glamorous side of things. On some days, it was difficult to even drag myself through the mulling motions. Other days, however, the boredom became productive. My muscle memory guided me through mulling paints, so my mind was free to be lost in my thoughts to raise more questions to be further researched. For example, I asked myself how apprentices dealt with boredom related to similar repetitive tasks in early modern workshops.

Moreover, I wondered how many artistic or technical innovations were results of people being bored with their old or current approaches of doing. Recalling my experience from art school, oftentimes when people master a technique, they do not simply repeate the same thing because it becomes taxing and boring. Instead, many people would explore a new material or technique. Finding new and different ways of making not only livens the process, but also offers a possibility to take one’s artistic creation to the next level. Boredom is, in this sense, a prime motivator for innovation in artistic practices.

Returning to mulling the yellow ochre between my glass muller and stone slab for the reference set, this collection will never be complete if I want to be exhaustive, as I cannot test every pigment that there is in the world. Nonetheless, after hours and hours of mulling paints, I am close to the finishing line of compiling the materials references that are essential for this project. With two binder-full of color study sheets, I am curious to revisit some early modern flower books, hopefully in the near future, and find out what more I will notice with my newly accumulated and growing material knowledge of early modern watercolor.

 


[1] The University of Delaware produced a brief and useful video to introduce this process, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yu70lO1oqXw.

[2] For more information on historical water-based medium, see Marjorie B. Cohn, Wash and Gouache: A Study of the Development of the Materials of Watercolor (Cambridge, MA: The Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, Fogg Art Museum and The Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation, 1977).

[3] Thomas Jenner, A Book of Drawing, Limning, Washing or Colouring of Maps and Prints (London: M. Simmons, 1652).

[4] All of my readily-made pigments come from either Kremer Pigmente or Verfmolen De Kat.

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