Making Colors (1): Experimental Series on Historical Remaking

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


Fig. 1. Left: collecting verdigris. Middle: crushing azurite. Right: crushing red ochre. 


At the beginning of my project, I reflected on the fast pace of going through a large number of botanical watercolors during my research trips. With every page, I only had a few minutes to study the image(s) and took as many notes as I could in order to grasp the collections within the allotted time. As I embark on historical remaking to investigate the materiality of seventeenth-century watercolor this academic year, I find myself working on a much slower pace, which can be uncomfortable at times. Since last October, I have been spending a lot of hours in our Kunstlab (Art Lab) at the university to experiment with making pigments from natural materials (Fig. 1), such as minerals and plants. Now, I have just mentioned that I consulted many early modern flower books and watercolors. The goal of studying these images in person and up-close is to ask questions and hopefully get answers to the materiality of historical watercolors. If I already have such sources, what, then, is a historian (in contrast to a conservator) doing in a lab to make pigments?

The basic concept of watercolor, or water-based media in the broader sense, is fairly similar to what it was in the early modern period. However, pigments are much more finely-ground with modern machinery, and manufactured watercolor tubes and cakes today have different formulas and pigment sources. For example, the toxic lead white, corrosive verdigris, and expensive authentic ultramarine are no longer used as ingredients, even though the same colors with synthetic pigments can still be purchased. Additionally, painters would have made their own paints (and sometimes pigments as well) instead of buying readily-made ones. This requires a high level of skill and allows customization of one’s painting supplies. It is thus necessary to produce some pigments from scratch to better understand the material properties and qualities of historical colors.

As I experiment with making colors in the lab, I see a good opportunity to also experiment with my writing to communicate the making process. To some, the making process is the ultimate joy and more valuable than the product; to others, it can be boring and unnecessary to appreciate a piece of work. Writing about the making process can be both as well. Therefore, in the next few months, I will be working on a series of short pieces that discuss several issues I have leaned or observed in the lab. Each will be accompanied with the process of (one of) my experiments. In these pieces, I do not attempt to answer any question, for that is what the dissertation will. Rather, they will resemble fieldnotes, but in a more organized manner. The main goal of the series is not to argue, educate, or even inform, but to play with different elements—such as formats and visuals—to make writing and reading the making process a more engaging experience.

Since my project concerns with the application of watercolor in seventeenth-century botanical illustrations on a macro level, rather than the practice of specific painter(s), I address my research method as “historical remaking.” What one should call a performative method for empirical research is a heavily-debated and ongoing issue. Historical reconstruction might be a more familiar term for most.[1] I chose historical remaking instead to emphasize on the procedure and the generality of early modern watercolor practices, as well as the inevitable ahistorical challenges. The term is helpful to keep my questions (semi-)focused and my decision-makings clear, but is not definitive.

Similarly, my approach to historical recipes is, comparatively, more material-oriented than text-based. I do not always “reconstruct” pigments by following one recipe book, but consult different sources for different colors or purchase readily-made natural pigments. Oftentimes, I would test a material without reading a lot of the existing literature. The natural materials are my primary sources during my remaking experiments, and working with them usually raises many questions. I then delve further into literature to learn if people in the early modern period had similar questions and if they have found answers or solutions. Or why if they did not encounter my problems or challenges when dealing with the materials. For these aforementioned reasons, this series does not represent the full spectrum of applying historical reconstruction/remaking as a research method. It shows the processes that are specific to my project, but with a potential to join larger debates in the future.


[1] There is a wealth of literature on historical reconstruction as a method. Two pieces of writing that inspired me to apply this methodology to my research are good ones to start. See Klaus Staubermann, ed., Reconstructions: Recreating Science and Technology of the Past (Edinburgh: National Museums Scotland, 2011); Hjalmar Fors, Lawrence M. Principe, H. Otto Sibum, “From the Library to the Laboratory and Back Again: Experiment as a Tool for Historians of Science,” Ambix 63, no. 2 (2016): 85–97, DOI: 10.1080/00026980.2016.1213009.

Leave a Reply